Let’s start by dispelling the obvious, understandable assumption: Tony Hale is not an awkward guy. He’s thoughtful, funny, honest, disarming and chatty. He loves his wife of 14 years and their daughter, Loy, who he calls his “everything.” He’s humble—endlessly, deliberately so—but he’s not self-deprecating. He says he’s cheap. He’s even brave, opening up about issues public figures likely wouldn’t be as forthright about.
But Hale, contrary to the famed, Emmy-winning, remarkable performances that have made him one of his generation’s most iconic comedic talents, is not awkward.
“I think it’s important to find the humanity in any performance,” Hale says. “I don’t think any written character should come across as completely solid because that’s not real. … You have to find the vulnerability and honesty in those depths beyond those cracks and that’s what makes it relatable.”
He’s coming off the sixth season of Veep, HBO’s astonishingly funny comedy that started out as a look at the vice-presidential career of Selina Meyer (as played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) but has morphed into something more complex and, ultimately, more satisfying. Hale plays Gary, Selina’s hopelessly devoted bagman and personal assistant who sticks by her closer than a leech. His neurotic, emotionally destitute characterization is mesmerizing and stands out in a show full of standouts. Hale’s impression of Gary is a dark one, as will probably come as little surprise to fans.
“Gary, he’s had no identity outside Selina Meyer,” Hale says. “He gravitates to very powerful people to find his own identity, co-dependently attaching himself to things just to find love and attention.”
This is one of Hale’s gifts—taking hopelessly broad, effectively helpless characters and finding their identifiably human core. And if Hale seems unusually good at it, it’s only because it’s taken him some work to find out who he is as well.
Hale grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, the son of a teacher and a former political staffer. He always enjoyed acting but, like many, didn’t see much of a future in it. It was just a place to find a little bit of belonging in a part of the country famously obsessed with sports.
“I was not an athletic kid,” Hale says with a tone that suggests he was very much not an athletic kid. “My parents didn’t really know where to channel my energy, but we found this small theater company called Young Actors Theater and it was just a gift. It was a place where I just felt like I could be myself. I felt like I wasn’t judged for my quirkiness and it was a really freeing atmosphere.”
He wasn’t a popular kid, he says, though he ended up finding a little social currency around the end of high school. “But it was purely out of neediness,” he says. “I was trying to adapt to every clique I could to get attention.”
Hale is extraordinarily open about the insecurities of his younger days and the uphill battle to address them in a healthy way.
Hale speaks openly about his struggles with stress and anxiety, the ways he’s overcome them and the ways they continue to factor into his life.
“I’ve had pain in my past in regards to anxiety,” he says. “So it’s cool to see how it can be used purposefully. It can be used in my work in a funny and positive way, which is cool to see. I’ve learned a lot through it. I still have a lot of stress and anxiety but through the mistakes, you learn more truth as you grow older and older.”
It was that stress that drove him to counseling in the first place, though there was some initial shame originally associated with it. “I think the shame comes from a place of our society always putting on the face that ‘I can do this,’” he says. “Like a Facebook-perfection world where we all put our best foot forward and no one sees behind the scenes. No one really has it all under control. We’re all trying to work it out.”
On screen, Hale is famous for playing isolated characters whose comedy clearly comes from a place of profound loneliness. So paradoxically, Hale seems to have a deeply felt appreciation for genuine community.
“I think the word ‘independent’ has been so overglorified,” he explains. “No one sees the value in healthy dependence. What’s wrong with needing healthy relationships and community, and knowing we need each other and to speak into each other’s lives? It’s scary to open yourself up to people. It’s easier to put up a false armor than saying, ‘No, I actually need people around me and the strength that people can provide.’”
That conviction is part of what led him to found Haven, a New York-based organization for actors in the entertainment industry who also want a faith community. Hale’s faith is a matter of deep importance to him and he and Haven co-founder Kathy Karbowski realized that they couldn’t be the only artists who were passionate about both faith and the arts. Haven was their attempt to feel a little less lonely.
“We would also do service projects, because we all knew this business was selling ourselves and without doing things to get your eyes off yourself, it’s going to destroy you.”
Hale is really into “getting his eyes off himself.” It comes up a lot in conversations about his notoriety. He’s not exactly Brad Pitt or Will Smith, but there’s no denying that Hale is a distinctive person, and has carved a unique and fascinating niche for himself in pop culture. And although he’s effusively grateful for the success, he’s open about the downsides.
“I think the base of fame is that everyone wants to be known,” he says. “And they look at fame as the ultimate of being known. … But if you look at massive celebrities, they are isolated from the world, the opposite of being known.
“You have to have people around you who see you for who you are, and speak truth into your life and can walk beside you during the highs and lows. That’s the stuff that matters and will give you longevity.”
Hale lives in Pasadena, California, so his current haven is his daughter and his wife, makeup artist Martel Thompson.
“My favorite thing is having dinner with them or taking my daughter to school or the mall,” Hale says. “It’s keeping those simple routines. That’s what love is. In this business, you’re only as good as your last job. But it’s like, your value as a person is the same before and after success. It doesn’t change.”
Hale and his wife met in New York City, when Hale was a struggling actor doing “every job under the sun of temp work” until he started landing a few commercial gigs, including the famous Volkswagen ad where he danced to “Mr. Roboto.” The commercials kept coming until Hale finally got his big break playing Buster on Arrested Development. He was a new face around seasoned pros, but delivered one of the show’s most enduring performances. Although, Arrested Development’s behind-the-scenes struggle to survive has now become almost as famous as the litany of running gags it spawned.
“We were always wondering whether we were going to be around or not,” he says of the early Arrested Development days. “The anxiety is less now, but at the same time, I’m still a freelancer. Every actor’s job is a job.”
It’s not something you think about very often: well-known actors fretting about where the next paycheck is going to come from. Hale says it’s a real concern but it’s helped him to learn to embrace the unknown.
“I’ve had to accept the uncertainty of it, which has been one of the hardest things to accept. … I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and I still never know where the path is going to go or what will be the next thing.”
The natural question is whether the next thing includes a return to the show that made him a star in the first place. The first three seasons of Arrested Development are in the comedy canon. The fourth season was more divisive, but finally won over its detractors as its ambitions revealed themselves. Would a fifth season be in the cards?
“I love that question,” he says. “I don’t really know much. I think it’s going to happen, I just don’t know when. And if everyone is on board …” he breaks off for a second, either unsure of what to say or what he can say, before finally just letting it rest with: “I want it to happen.”
Exactly three days after this conversation, Jason Bateman makes it official: There will be a fifth season in 2018, Hale and all. True to Hale’s experience, the next step keeps revealing itself.
“I think it’s pretty complex,” Hale says, musing about the difference between co-dependent relationships—like what Gary has with Selina, or Buster has with Lucille—and healthy relationships, like what he strives for in his own life.
“I think with co-dependence, it’s a situation like ‘I need you to fix me or I need to fix them’ and taking on the responsibility of the other person. Healthy dependence is sharing and being there for each other and knowing you’re not responsible for the other person. Give them respect to stand on their two feet. It’s not yours to take.”
It’s doubtful that Hale would be able to portray his characters with such an easy finesse if he had not come through the hardship already. He can view characters like Buster and Gary with empathy and respect because even if he hasn’t been in their exact shoes, he’s felt their anxiety, their need for love, their fear. He’s survived it, and he can interpret it with compassion.
So maybe Hale is an awkward person. He’s as awkward as the rest of us. The difference is, unlike most people, he’s learned to embrace the awkwardness and the insecurities, and he’s come out more confident for it.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.