Before Tony Hale landed the role of Buster Bluth on Arrested Development in 2003, he was a largely unknown actor best remembered for dancing to Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” in a 1999 Volkswagen commercial. He more than held his own in the show’s large ensemble of veteran actors, though, and since the show went off the air in 2006, he has worked on such shows as Chuck and Numb3rs. Over the past two years, he’s played the vice president’s personal aide Gary Walsh on HBO’s Veep, and he took time last year to revisit Buster in the forthcoming new season of Arrested Development.
Rolling Stone spoke to Hale about bringing Buster Bluth back to life and why the kid is still terrified of everything. (Come back tomorrow for a Q&A with the only member of the Arrested Development team whose sitcom experience goes back to 1960.)
Start by telling me how Arrested Development changed your life.
I was mainly doing commercials and theater in New York when the show started in 2003. I was living in New York and about to get married. I auditioned on tape and it was sent off to New York. You kind of realize that even getting called back is a long shot, so when I got called back to L.A., I was just flipping out. It was incredibly surreal. I remember going out there to shoot the pilot. I didn’t have any underwear, so I had to go to Old Navy and buy some. At the time I didn’t realize I was going there to shoot the pilot, which was crazy fun.
Then, days before I got married, the show got picked up. My wife was working as a makeup artist on Saturday Night Live. She’d been there for eight years and she had to sacrifice her job so we could move to Los Angeles. It was fantastic and surreal. We were newly married and it was just a wild time
The show struggled from the very beginning to reach a wide audience. Why do you think that was?
I think there was just an adjustment period because it was such a new style. Nowadays that’s more common, but it was very new then. Also, after the show ended, people told me they first saw it on DVD. People were circulating those DVDs and they adjusted to the style and they saw the depth of all the inside jokes and the callbacks to previous episodes. People could binge-watch and that helped them really appreciate it.
Cartoons like Family Guy and Futurama have come back from the dead, but it’s quite rare for a live-action show.
You’re right. It’s rare. Also, you’re dealing with nine cast members that have done so many different things. But it’s a testament to the writing, because every single person on the cast, when they heard it was happening, were like, “Yes.” We all have tremendous respect for [creator] Mitch Hurwitz. We know it’s gonna be full of surprises, and that’s an absolute dream. They totally think outside the box. You know it’s gonna be a roller-coaster ride.
Was the scheduling tough for you because of Veep?
It was a little challenging, but I had finished most of my stuff on Arrested before we started Veep. But there was a couple of weekends I had to fly back, but it was pretty minimal. I was very grateful it all worked out so well.
Tell me about walking back on the set again and seeing everything rebuilt just like it was 10 years ago.
It was nuts. As Portia [de Rossi] said, it really felt like a time warp. You’re in the same costume. All of a sudden, I’m putting on Buster’s argyle socks and his saddle shoes, and all his pastels and the glasses and the hook. You never think you’ll slip back into that again. There’s a little mourning process when you leave a show. You know it was a fantastic time, but you say goodbye to the character. To be able to reunite with the character was nuts.
I will say, and I’ve said this before, I was a little intimidated because there had been this wave of expectation. People are really excited and have gotten really into the show. You think, “Oh crap, can I match that?” But there was something about Jessica Walters’ voice. She plays my mother. She’s a comic genius and her timing. . . but hearing her voice and the way she talks to Buster, it just all clicked in. It’s this codependent, ridiculously unhealthy relationship, her demeaning, abusive tone. . . It was, like, Pavlovian. I was like, “I’m in.” And then it all came back and it was like riding a bike again.
How many total weeks did you work on the show?
It was off and on, but I’d see maybe two and a half total.
And you filmed out of sequence, too.
Yeah. That’s another thing. You come in and you’re reading a script and you’re like, “I don’t…” Each episode is based on one character. You’re kind of like, “I don’t know anything that’s happening.” But we trust Mitch. It’s like, “I just know he’s gonna work this out and it’s gonna be a fantastic matrix of comedy.” I’d be doing stuff and have no idea how it works in the broader picture, but I trust the whole science experiment that’s happening in Mitch’s head. I’m excited to see how it works out.
What’s happened to Buster since we’ve last seen him?
I can honestly say that the unhealthy relationship with his mother lives on. The thought of him leaving his mother’s side is just emotional suicide. It’s hard to even narrow it down. Buster is just one of those characters, almost like Forrest Gump, just way weirder. He places himself in these situations and he doesn’t know what’s happening. He doesn’t even know how he got there, and all of a sudden, things are happening around him and he just goes with the flow.
People have obviously asked me what’s going to happen in the series, but I almost don’t want to share anything because I want people to have that surprise. I remember when I was watching Lost, which I loved. I didn’t know what was going on, but I still loved it. I remember reading one word in the press: “flash-forward.” I had not seen the future episodes and I was like, “Crap!” I wish I hadn’t seen that.
I want people to ride that wave of surprise, because the way Mitch is doing it is like a big game of Clue. Maybe that’s not the best example, but it’s kind of a big puzzle. . . I’m probability the worst person to ask because I don’t have any idea what’s going on.
I saw the first episode, and it’s clear Buster didn’t mature much in the past seven years.
Oh, God no. Honestly, I think there’s no maturity. There’s regression. They’ve fallen off. Some people watch this show because it makes any family in the world look amazing. People watch the Kardashians and go, “Yeah, we’re not them.” They watch the Bluths and they go, “Oh, thank God we aren’t them.”
It has to be some of the worst parenting on TV.
Oh, there is no parenting. [laughs] There’s just, like, “Fend for yourself.” Everybody is so self-involved. If they were in a room together, it would probably take them five minutes to realize that other people were in the room. They’re just constantly thinking about themselves. Buster lives in a state of complete fear, so all he’s thinking about is anxiety and fear. Everybody is in their own little world, and they just happen to put all these incredibly self-involved, isolated people together and they just stare at each other and pick each other apart.
I love all your scenes with Liza Minnelli. She has such great comedic timing.
She’s the best. I just love being with her and hearing her stories. She took my wife and I out to lunch once when we were shooting the first series. . . When she came on set, I would just sit there and listen to her stories. They don’t come at all from a place of ego or “listen to my life.” She was raised on the MGM lot and she told one story after another. In this one story, she was in London with her mother and Vivian Leigh and you’re just like, “What?” She’s had such a colorful life. I never wanted her to stop talking. I could listen to her all day long.
What was it like during the brief period when the entire cast was on set together last year?
I think it was back in August when we were all in the penthouse together. It was surreal. You look around and Michael Cera is older. Alia [Shawkat] is older. We’ve all had babies. . . They recreated the penthouse to look exactly how it was and I’m looking over at Jessica’s room. . . It was just very surreal and awesome at the same time.