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.
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.