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Hey, Brother

Tony Hale and Donald Miller talk about faith, fame, politics—and the epicness of being Buster Bluth

Did you know best-selling author Donald Miller is friends with Tony Hale—as in Buster Bluth, Arrested Development Tony Hale?

Well, he is.

So, we got to thinking: What if Don and Tony sat in a room together—with a tape recorder between them—and had a conversation? They could talk Arrested Development (14 brand-new episodes will appear like magic on Netflix in May), faith (yes, Tony is a believer), staying grounded in Hollywood (turns out, it can be done)—and really, any old thing the two of them, as friends, wanted to chat about.

What would it be like to listen in on their conversation? Well, it’d be like this.

DM: I remember the first time I met you. I was such an Arrested Development fan that when season three came out, I threw an overnight slumber party and put a big screen on my front lawn in Portland.

I had a red shirt on that had “SLUT” written in black letters across it—it’s a character in the show who wears this absurd outfit. We even tried to find a stand or cart. We served chocolate-covered bananas. I think I had 30 people, and we just had airbeds all over the front lawn, and we just watched season three of Arrested Development all night long.

I literally woke up on the lawn as the sun was coming up. I was such a huge fan. So when I met you, everything in me was fighting the “Hey, brother” line. Did you get that, and are you still getting it?

TH: I do get that a lot. What’s nice about now, when I get recognized for Arrested—I’m such a fan of the show, such a huge fan—and I haven’t really seen the episodes much since they stopped airing. So when people talk about it, I like to talk about it.

I just forget stuff, so anytime they bring stuff up, it’s nice to remember, “Oh my gosh, that’s right—I did give massages, or I did make out with Liza Minelli.” It’s a fun kind of remembrance. I hadn’t watched the episodes in a long time, so there’s a lot of bits that I forgot.

DM: Is there going to be an Arrested Development movie?

TH: That’s what they’ve talked about. They’ve talked about doing the movie after the episodes. That would be great.

DM: But you have not shot a movie.

TH: At this point, they’ve shot 14 new episodes. And this time around, each episode is based on a character, and then there’s bits of us in each other’s episodes. So it’s kind of this really cool thing that Mitch Hurwitz is doing.

DM: Jason Bateman has kind of gone crazy, Portia [de Rossi] has gone crazy, your career is going crazy—that show really launched a lot of you guys into bigger careers. How in the world did they get so many big stars to come back to do this?

TH: I think that’s one of the reasons—I mean, I’m not saying I’m a huge star—but I think that’s one of the reasons [Hurwitz] did it the way he did. It was tough to pull everybody together at once. So, that’s why he did each episode based on one character. It was a little easier to manage that way. That made it possible.

DM: So, the time commitment for each actor was less than it was in the original series?

TH: Yeah. Jason Bateman probably had the biggest commitment, because he’s going to be in every single episode. So he really set apart a lot of time. And then each of us are just in one. Some of us are in two.

DM: I was actually in a movie and had a little hand in writing it, called Blue Like Jazz. Tony, have you seen my movie, Blue Like Jazz?

TH: I have not seen your movie, Blue Like Jazz. I regretfully say that, Donald. It’s on my list.

DM: Well, I think my mother and my aunt are the only ones who have seen it so far. I’ll send you a case of DVDs—do you mind passing it around on set so everyone can watch it together?

TH: Have you seen my 2006 gem, Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector?

DM: No, I have not seen that one.

TH: Great. Then we’re even.

DM: Tony, you also just released a new series [Veep], in which you play Gary Walsh, who is the bodyman of Vice President Selina Meyer [played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus]. What’s that been like?

TH: I love how you say, “You just released,” like I just released an album. You’re so used to saying that, probably. I don’t “release” anything, Donald.

DM: What is it in intelligent-speak, then?

TH: In intelligent-speak, it’s, “So, you have a new show coming out?” I’m releasing a new album called Veep, where I play bodyman Walsh, and I’ve got about 13 tracks on it ...

DM: I’ve actually seen clips of it, and it’s a really great concept. You kind of watch it and you go, “Why wasn’t this done 25 years ago?”

TH: So, by “clips,” do you mean you’ve never seen a full episode? Is that what I’m hearing, Donald?

DM: By “clips,” I mean I didn’t even know the show existed.

TH: Oh, great. Great.

DM: Well, I knew it was coming out, I was excited about it, but I didn’t know episodes had already aired. But here’s the deal. I’ve been living in a van for the past couple months.

TH: Have you? Why have you been living in a van?

DM: That’s a different story. So, let me just ask you this. You play the bodyman for the vice president. What in the world is a bodyman? And did you meet the bodymen for any of the presidents?

"I have a difficult time understanding how anyone in this business doesn't have a spiritual center."

TH: I did. I met them for one specifically—I can’t say who—but I met them right when we were starting out.

Pretty much, he said, your job is, you’re with the president or the vice president 24/7. You carry around this very large bag—whatever they need, you have it. You pretty much don’t have a life.

Typically, most bodymen are in their 20s.

So then you transfer to my character, Gary—I should have left this job in my 20s, but my identity is so defined by Selina Meyer that the thought of not being her bodyman or not being in her presence is just death to me. So, I have clung onto this job into my 40s. I absolutely worship her. I mean, if I could, I would dress and feed her, if she’d let me. I love her that much.

DM: I have to confess, I met the bodyman for Bush II.

TH: Oh, did you?

DM: I did. Oddly enough, I met him standing right outside the Oval Office, at night. It’s a long story. But this guy just runs by me into Dick Cheney’s office—I was getting a little tour from someone in the administration—and I said, “Who’s that guy? What’s he doing?” And you’re absolutely right. These guys, they don’t have girlfriends. They don’t have social lives. Because their constant job is to be ready—to have a comb if the president needs a comb, or some bubblegum or whatever. It’s unbelievable work. So, the concept of your character doing that for 20-whatever years is hilarious.

TH: He genuinely has no life. People leave because they don’t have a life, but I’ve been very comfortable for 20 years with the fact that my life is centered around her. That’s my identity.

DM: Is your character running from something—not facing reality?

TH: [Scoffs.] There’s so many issues right there that he’s terrified to touch upon. I mean, the iceberg beneath is ridiculous.

DM: So, is that written in the script? When they chose you for the part, did you have to go make up this character? Or do interviews to figure out what his back issues are? Or did they give you an FBI file on this person?

TH: No. He’s just a guy who’s been with Selina ever since she was a senator. He’s been with her since his 20s. He’s pretty much just her manservant. She totally emasculates him. And there’s just a lot of comic opportunity there. It’s a lot of fun.

DM: Most people probably know you from Arrested Development, in which you play Buster. That is such a strong character that gets into your mind. How great is it to be adding something to the public consciousness of Tony Hale that is not Buster? I mean, I just want to be honest with you—how good does that feel? Buster is the ultimate mama’s boy.

TH: That’s a nice way of putting it.

DM: He’s completely emasculated. How did playing a character that is that unlike you affect you, and your marriage, and your life? I don’t know how you turn on Buster and then turn him off and go to a football game or something. How does that work?

TH: Well, my wife just has to be comfortable with the fact that she sleeps with Buster Bluth.

It’s funny because when I was doing the episodes, you spend your whole day shooting in a very nervous, insecure, emasculated state. As much as I do not consider myself a method actor, where I become the character and for- get who I am and then slip out of it, you can’t ignore the fact that when you’re in that character all day long, it’s going to rub off on you when you go home.

I remember my wife—I would come home, and I would say something, and she’d be like, “OK, you’re a little hyper-sensitive. Let’s just step back and get grounded. Have some dinner. Let’s bring Tony back, just for tonight.”

DM: Well, as long as you don’t call your wife “Mother.”

TH: You know what, Donald? I do. And she’s completely comfortable with that.

DM: You know what? None of my business.

TH: I dress her. I feed her. She’s fine.

DM: So, this begs an obvious question. I don’t think of you as an emasculated man in any way—

TH: Well, thank you, Donald.

DM: But this is a part that you’ve had a couple times, now. What similarities do you share with—

TH: With Gary Walsh? Well, let’s see. I do dress and feed my wife every day. So, there’s that similarity.

The thing about Gary is that he doesn’t really know a lot about politics. And he doesn’t really care to know a lot about politics, because all he cares about is her.

And I can relate to that, because I can get so overwhelmed by politics and information and CNN that I just kind of shut down. I actually subscribe to this magazine called The Week, because it kind of gives you the CliffsNotes versions of what’s going on in politics.

So, I can relate to his not being really that interested in the political world. He kind of knows what he needs to know, and then he lives his messed-up life.

That was a really sad, sad answer. That’s all I play, Donald, is sad characters.

DM: When we think about shows about politics, I think people would think of The West Wing. I can’t think of a comedy.

TH: Well, here’s the thing about Veep that I love, and this is why I think there’s so much comedy in it. The thing about politics is, it’s kind of like Facebook, where everybody always puts their best foot forward. They always put their best pictures out there, but you really don’t see behind the scenes.

What I love about Veep is it shows you behind the scenes. It shows you how completely messed up these people are, how insecure they are, how everybody is freaked out they’re going to be losing their job. Everybody is posturing to get ahead. There are just so many catfights.

The thing is, these people carry so much responsibility and have so much pressure that if they don’t fall apart behind the scenes, something is terribly wrong. So this shows them falling apart behind the scenes.

DM: I remember the first time I saw government offices at a high level. They were messy. They were cheap. The walls were thin. The buildings were worn down. The furniture was garbage. I really couldn’t believe it. Instead of The West Wing, you guys actually capture the reality.

TH: Yeah, that is another thing about Washington. You have these gorgeous buildings—beautiful buildings—and inside, the furniture is crap. It is crap. I promise you, the only beautifully designed room in the White House is the Oval Office.

DM: You know, I’ve been in the West Wing, and you’re right. I remember there was this abandoned trailer across the street from my house growing up, and a buddy and I broke into it. I’m going to get into so much trouble for saying this—that is what the West Wing felt like to me. The Oval Office is really beautiful, but I remember thinking [about the rest of the West Wing], “I haven’t seen wood paneling like this since I was in that trailer. And the floor didn’t creak like this since I was in that trailer.”

TH: I think people don’t care as long as they can say they work at the White House or the Eisenhower Building or something like that. As long as they can say that, they could care less about the house.

DM: To prepare for the part, did you guys get West Wing tours?

TH: Yeah, we did. Right before we shot the pilot, they gave us a tour of the West Wing and the Eisenhower Building. We met some really, really fantastic people. Everybody who plays a role in the show, they were able to meet who their character was based on. So it was really fun to ask them questions and hear about their lives.

There was one girl—I won’t say who she worked for—she was really sweet, but she said she worked for this particular sena- tor and she always had her phone on her. Always. She said she sleeps with her phone beside her bed—like, on her pillow—in case the senator were to call. She said, “Every guy I date needs to know that they’re not only dating me, but they’re also dating the senator.” Like, her world is sur- rounded by her job. It really is just exhausting. I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine.

DM: Being involved in this show about American politics, has it made you more or less of a cynic about our political system?

TH: Honestly, I don’t know about more or less of a cynic, because I think it’s pretty easy to be a cynic about a lot of things. But I think it’s definitely given me an admiration for people who make the choice to work in that environment because it’s something that I don’t ever want to do.

I think I can appreciate what they do. That’s a lot coming at them on a daily basis. That’s a lot of decisions. That’s a lot of meetings.

I really do admire somebody who makes the choice to want to do that. Those people who want to make a difference, and truly want to throw their lives into something that’s going to impact society, I have a lot of admiration for that.

DM: Could you work for Joe Biden? If he called and he said, “I saw the show. I think you’d be a great bodyman ... ”

TH: Here’s the thing. If he saw Veep and, based on Veep, asked me to be the bodyman, that’s not a good vice president. If I got the call, I would say, “Guess who’s not going to vote for you again.”

DM: This is a huge sort of break for your career—one of many breaks, going all the way back to a Volkswagen commercial, in which you played, like, a Mr. Roboto. How long ago was that?

TH: That was in ... I did that in 2000.

DM: Twelve years ago. I think that was everybody’s favorite commercial that year.

But let’s talk about something a little more personal. How do you keep a moral, spiritual center in the line of work that you’re in?

TH: I wouldn’t even say it’s by choice. It’s something that I personally have to do.

I’m in a career that is so job-to-job. Thankfully, I’m on a job that’s going to last until March, but I have no clue what my next job is, and I’ve been doing that for 18 years.

So, to know that God has my back, and to know that there’s more to life than this—I mean, I’ll do the best I can, but I think a lot of the time you’ll hear that you’ve got to be at the right place at the right time. That’s a lot of pressure! How do I know what’s the right place at the right time? I’m going to do my best, but I don’t know!

I just have to trust that God has my back. In that chaotic of a career that I’ve chosen, I have to know that God is with me. I have a difficult time understanding how anyone in this business doesn’t have a spiritual center. It’s a very, very challenging career. And there’s also a crapload of rejection. You’re just constantly rejected. I would just be destroyed if I didn’t know that God loves me and I have friends who love me. I would be blown around like a feather in the wind with the rejection everywhere.

DM: So, it sounds like you have this faith—

TH: A desperate faith?

DM: —that helps you not to go so low. Does it have the other effect, where it helps you not to go so high when you get so big?

"You're only going to find true satisfaction if you're known in an eternal, spiritual sense by somebody greater than yourself."

TH: It does. It absolutely does. That’s a great way of putting it. Because you see things in perspective.

Not that it belittles the highs. Here’s the thing I think about the highs: People put a lot of expectation on the highs. People say, “If I were to get this job, if I were to get married, if I were to get the sitcom or whatever.” But a lot of people who have gotten those things have realized that they didn’t satisfy.

It can be a terrifying place when you’ve gotten your thing and it didn’t satisfy. I’ve said this before, but if you don’t practice contentment where you’re at, you’re not going to be content when you get what you want. The highs make sense in knowing that, “Yes, I can really enjoy it, but the high isn’t about getting this. This just happens to be. I was given this, and now I can enjoy it.”

DM: Why do you think people are obsessed with fame? What do you think that says about us as a culture?

TH: I do think that, honestly, it’s grounded in the fact that everybody desperately wants to be known, and they think that fame is kind of the ultimate of being known—“If that many people know me, if that many people know who I am, then it’s going to satisfy that.”

The thing is, when you get to that place, you’re only going to find true satisfaction if you’re known in an eternal, spiritual sense by Somebody greater than yourself. I think a lot of people have gotten to that place where they have been known by a lot of people, and it still doesn’t satisfy.

Pretty much, this is how to summarize it: If you don’t find something greater than yourself who knows you—knows truly who you are—and you feel known by them, then you’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to be known by a ton of other people.

Fame is what people may see as the ultimate. And it’s not. Because even though a lot of people might know your name, it’s never enough. It’s never enough, and you’re desperately trying to stay on top, you’re desperately trying to get a thousand more Twitter followers, you’re desperately trying to get whatever. And granted, we’re all victims to that.

It’s really trying to become aware of the fact that I’m already known. I’m already known to the absolute utmost I can be known.

DM: I remember reading Steve Martin’s biography, Born Standing Up, which was just an incredible book. I actually cried when I got to the end of it. And he said, “I really believe I’ve found the right amount of fame. Not too much. Not too little. I’m really enjoying where it’s at.” I remember thinking, “I don’t know that he’s found the right amount of fame. I think he changed.” I think something in him changed, and he was finally just satisfied.

TH: I would agree with that. I would agree that probably—and I can’t speak for him—but you get to a space where you are known by a lot of people and you realize it doesn’t satisfy, and you also realize, “I’m going to keep trying to get more people to know me, and it’s not going to satisfy.”

You get to that place and you have to make an internal choice of, “OK, I’ve got to accept the fact that it’s not going to get any better by a lot more people knowing me, and I’ve got to get grounded and realize that I’m known, whether it’s something greater than myself that knows me”—or whatever you consider being known spiritually—that you have that already.

1 Comment



andrew commented…

The anticipation for Arrested Development is killing me...

Also great article :)

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