Tony Hale On Working With JJ Watt, Anxiety, And How Reality Is Stranger Than ‘Veep’

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Tony Hale admittedly isn’t a sports fan. But that didn’t stop him from recording a spot with Houston’s JJ Watt.

“I hate sports but I love your work,” Hale says to Watt in the third of a series of shorts he filmed for NRG.

Hale, who has seen his star rise with characters that take bits and pieces of his personal neuroses, grew up in Tallahassee, a huge college sports town. He wasn’t keen on sports (even after going to college in Alabama at Samford, and has no rooting interest during the Iron Bowl) and opted instead to go into acting at a young age. His characters, including Buster Bluth from Arrested Development and Gary Walsh from Veep, aren’t exactly All-American athletes.

That said, he was the perfect pick to try and explain what the heck NRG does for a series of commercials leading up to the Super Bowl, including the one with Watt. NRG obviously wants to bring more attention to the brand with the game being held in NRG Stadium in Houston, and they know how absurd it sounds to try and explain who you are to a national audience when you have billions of dollars in revenue.

Hale plays his role, as he often does, perfectly. And in speaking to him, it’s clear a lot of himself goes into his acting, even if it’s tiny fragments through a funhouse mirror at a time. Hale spoke to UPROXX about working with Watt, his favorite scenes, how Veep is navigating its new season in Trump’s America, and the anxiety that’s inside all of us.

Martin Rickman: So much of yourself has to come out in acting, but it’s always in bits and pieces. I listened to an interview you did with NPR awhile back about how you embrace roles with anxiety, and some of these personal spaces you exist in outside of your roles. Is that something as you’ve gone through your career that’s helped you face those issues and kind of wear them publicly?

Tony Hale: Oh yeah. It’s something that has been a part of my story, but the great thing is creatively, you can just use it and make it work for you. It’s not easy to walk through, but I kind of look back and as hard as it was I wouldn’t change it. I’m sure you can appreciate this, but it give you a lot more empathy for those situations and it makes you who you are, and you can use it in your work. Just look at my characters. It tends to be a through line.

If you take a passing look at some of the characters you’ve played in the past, the joke is on them from a cursory look. But you see a lot of growth, even in comedic situations, out of the character as they continue to develop and live in this space and this universe. Especially in the last season of Veep as we head into the new season, you’re seeing Gary take more ownership of his life. It’s almost as if it’s life playing out on the page.

Thanks for saying that because when I do have those opportunities … personally, through a lot of trials and therapy, I grow, but it’s fun to see that growth in my characters when I have those moments like in last season, standing up for myself. It’s a real release, it’s like, “Yes!” For Gary to have a voice, and speak out, and say what he wants to say. That’s a gift from a writer.

The new season itself, does it seem like it’s harder than ever to pull a storyline out now that the current political climate is somewhow stranger than fiction?

Sometimes I’m watching CNN, and it’s like, huh, this is its own political comedy. That’s fun. With some of the things that’ve happened, in the campaign and currently, if the Veep writers wrote that previously, people wouldn’t believe it because it’d be too broad. It’s kind of fascinating when you see it on the news, you’re like “Wow!” But if a writer came up with it, they’d be like, “Come on, that’s way too out there.” But it’s happening, and it’s wild, and it’s a challenge to the writers to sometimes match that.

Gary frequently mentions his time in Alabama, and that’s a place you’re familiar with in your time at Samford. How often do you get back? From a sports aspect, do you go Alabama, or Auburn, or are you just happy to stay away from it?

I love, love, love, love, love going back. I think it’s because I don’t really remember much, and going back helps me. Hearing stories from friends, and walking the college campus at reunions and stuff like that, I love that. It stirs the memory. In terms of football, when I grew up it was its own animal. They’re so passionate about their football down south, and I was more of an art kid. I kind of rebelled and didn’t want to know anything about it, so I never got into it. I just went for the free food and the tailgate. That’s the only reason I went.

Your time in Tallahassee seemed like that was definitely the case. FSU is everything there, but you moved into the acting space and ended up in a theater. Did the disinterest wain as you got older?

Uhhhhhhh … [Laughs.] I can say I like the social aspect of it. I like going over to people’s houses and watching the game and eating as much fried food as you can consume. The game itself, it’s fun to watch with a group of people, but I don’t know that I’d ever be by myself watching a game. I love hanging out with buddies, though. I think I do look at the game, and I’m like, God that’s got to hurt. When we were doing these spots, I was able to meet JJ Watt, and he did a cameo. I have such an admiration for what they put themselves through, and he was a super nice guy. I think the older I get, I develop a respect and admiration for it. But I still need a Cliffs Notes version of what happens in the game.

If I ever wanted to be involved in sports, it’d be as a mascot. It’d be fun to put on a suit and act like a nutjob on the field. That’d be the closest to athletics I would get.

Some actors want to be athletes, but almost every athlete wants to be an actor. Did JJ Watt show any of those cues? Did he have any natural talent for it?

He was great. He was super comfortable in front of the camera. I haven’t met a lot of professional athletes, but he was just really cool and kind. He’s a young dude, and that’s a lot to carry, the level of career at that age. I have respect for him for walking through that.

It had to be kind of surreal going back to the ad and commercial space for you because you were locked into those ads earlier in your career before you were able to own these noticeable franchise-type characters. Was it awkward coming back? Did it feel like a hat tip to all the hard work you’ve done in the past?

I love that question. I was in New York doing commercials, and I always loved doing them because I could play stupid, fun characters, and I was amazed that in a 60-second spot you can do a beginning, middle, and end of a story. You have to get it all in that condensed story. I love making it as powerful as you can. So like when NRG approached me to help with this campaign, we were able to do three spots. It was really fun and challenging to kind and see how we can get people in the story without throwing a lot of facts and data at them. If I hear that stuff, I shut down. That’s where we came up with the idea to have me play an idiot, and I can use my assistant as a scapegoat to ask questions about energy.

It’s always good to find a creative way to make it fun and watch me play stupid. I always enjoy that, and I’ll never stop.

Do you have an all-time favorite scene from Veep or Arrested Development that still makes you laugh?

There are soooooo many. I always loved when Buster went off on his mother, and he would go on these cussing tirades to Michael. Any time Buster let loose I loved it. There was a lot going on in that body. I also loved when he dressed like a stripper in the Army. It was such a ridiculous outfit. And with Veep, when Gary took the sneeze bullet for Selena. He thought he was a part of the Secret Service because he blocked a sneeze. I will say there was a scene where she told me she was going to be president, and Gary’s nose started bleeding because he was so excited. We were hysterically laughing, and the roles switched. She became Gary, and I was sitting on a toilet, and she was handing me tissues. It was this chaotic scene of joy and sadness and hysteria. That was really fun to do. In all honesty, I don’t watch the show much again, but what I do watch all the time is the gag reels. I’m the guy who can never keep it together. I always lose it. And I love those moments. That’s what I remember. Just making mistakes and the fun of that. I’ll always watch those over and over.

Whenever those pop up, it gives me the sense that you all have a rapport that goes beyond “cut.” The writers must be amazing to write these boxes for you all to stay in with all the improv talent in the cast.

The writers work so incredibly hard on these scripts. We’ll have a rehearsal day to feel it and kind of see where it gels and stuff like that, and the blocking. We’re able to play a little on set, but they work so hard on the storylines. It’s pretty admirable what they put themselves through.

You wrote a children’s book a couple years ago. Is that something you’d want to do again? Do you have anything else you’re itching to do?

The children’s book was incredibly fun, and extremely personal about how we’re always looking for the next thing and missing where we are. It was really great to put that out there in the Archibald character. In all honesty, I’m just so thankful to have a gig. I’ve been an actor for over 20 years, and it’s always job to job. Yeah, there’s directors I’d love to work with and stuff, but if I can just keep working and keep being a part of telling stories. I love being on set, and I love the community and cast. The characters are nutty, the comedy is awesome, and I love being able to do some drama in between. I’m so grateful to be working, so if that continues, that’s the icing on the cake. That’s everything.