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Tony Hale on 'American Ultra' and how he can't watch awkward comedy

"American Ultra" actor Tony Hale talks about playing the fun of playing awkward characters and what is "in" is for becoming "Arrested Development"'s Buster Bluth.
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    Tony Hale plays a CIA agent in over his head in the stoner action-comedy "American|Lionsgate

No, Tony Hale is nothing like his most famous characters — not Buster Bluth on “Arrested Development,” not boyish “body man” Gary Walsh on “Veep,” and not Petey Douglas, a CIA agent hanging in the action-comedy “American Ultra,” opening August 21. He’s as friendly and chatty as he’s awkward as he can be onscreen. He has a small but key role in “American Ultra,” hanging back at the Pentagon and unwittingly put in command of a drone operation that may harm hero Jesse Eisenberg — a sleeper agent-turned-stoner who only realizes he has Jason Bourne moves when he’s “awoken.”

“American Ultra” is another case where you’re playing someone oblivious to how socially awkward he is.

I like nothing more than to play off awkward energy. Playing awkward is the funnest thing ever — awkward tension, awkward silences. I’m crazy about that stuff. My wife laughs at me, though, because I can’t watch it. If there’s something awkward on television, I have to leave the room. It makes me so uncomfortable. I just stop breathing. But playing it, I love it. I love to play it and I love to live in that world. But I can’t watch it, or if I’m at a restaurant and I can tell something’s really awkward, if people are having an uncomfortable conversation, I just want to jump in and save them. [Laughs]

I imagine people are shocked to discover you’re a normal, friendly, talkative guy.

That’s debatable. Poor Buster, he was pretty mentally checked out. He had the mind of a seven year old, at best. He’s in a constant state of paralysis. Getting to the pharmacy was a big day for him. Just the fact that I can carry a conversation, if people only know me through Buster they’re pretty shocked. When people say, “You don’t seem anything like Buster” — well, thank god.

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You’re also a serious actor who’s done drama, though nowadays you tend to play mostly comedic roles. How did you first fall into it?

I always loved it. I did a lot of it in high school. I didn’t study [acting] in college; I studied journalism. After college I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was kind of maybe going into advertising. Then I decided to move to New York and do theater. Then I started doing commercials. And the commercials I did were comedic stuff, which was nice because it was interesting instead of me standing in front of a car.

You’ve said you have an easy “in” for Gary on “Veep”: you stoop over as you’re talking to people shorter than you. Do you have one for other characters?

When I first started [“Arrested Development”] I remember asking Mitchell Hurwitz what Buster wanted in life — a very kind of actor question to ask. He said all Buster ever wanted was safety. I always used that. If there was any lack of safety he would spiral. But if he was around his mother that was the most safe place. He would get silly and crazy. He said he liked being away from his mother, that he wanted freedom. But especially in the fourth season he would spiral into a psychotic phase.

Your “American Ultra” character does that too, but he has a perhaps more understandable reason for it: he’s suddenly been tasked with committing drone strikes.

He’s in over his head. For me that’s what it would be like to all of a sudden be placed at the center of the Pentagon. He’s just a guy who works in a cubicle. He’s totally overwhelmed. Maybe there’s an “overwhelmed” throughline in my work. I don’t know what that says about me. I remember when Buster in the fourth season of “Arrested,” he was playing these video games, then he found out he was dropping real bombs and all this awful stuff. He thought he was just playing a video game. When talking to you I just realized that similarity.

Thanks to “Veep,” do you feel you know D.C. well at this point?

I’m getting better at it. Gary doesn’t know a lot about politics. He just knows a lot of random factoids about people, like if someone worked a job five years ago. I don’t see him concerned with politics.

Do you stay connected with politics?

My wife gets a thing called The Daily Skim, where you get a Cliffs Notes version of what happened the day before. Some people can watch CNN all day long or read articles. I get overwhelmed by that stuff. I like summaries.

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It’s always fun to see D.C., and politics in general, portrayed as a typical cutthroat working environment, only one tasked with creating a public persona.

With the election coming up all we’re hearing are these perfect soundbytes and speeches. You don’t really see the behind-the-scenes of when they’re freaking out. We got to meet some people who are in our positions in D.C. I got to meet a body man in his 20s who works 24/7 for a politician. He had no social life, he never saw his family. And then he moved on to other stuff. My character, unfortunately, stayed in this position into his 40s, because he had no identity outside of work. It’s all he knows. He worships the ground [Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selena Kyle] walks on. He doesn’t hear any of the abuse she sets down. He has not moved on. He has stayed on — and, by the way, he’s completely happy. He doesn’t want to go anywhere else except by her side. If she works at a Target after D.C., he’ll be carrying her purse.

You used to live in New York, but you’ve lived in Los Angeles for 12 years now. It seems the comedy scene is really a community there.

It’s not as accessible as New York, though, because if someone’s on the west side and you’re on the east side, it’s an hour and a half drive in traffic. I do miss that about New York. It was easier to travel to people, to work on stuff or do a show. New York is such a theater town, whereas here it’s a whole day if your friend lives on the other side of town.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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