Tony Hale, America’s First Bag-Man on HBO’s comedy Veep, chatted with Rotten Tomatoes this week while taking a break from shooting Alvin & the Chipmunks: Chip Road. In the fourth installment of the Chipmunks franchise, Hale plays the villain — a far cry from Gary Walsh, the oft-abused right hand of POTUS; or Buster Bluth, the awkward mama’s boy who lost his left hand to a loose seal.
See why Gary is ultimately okay with Selina Meyer’s abuse, what it was like being Liza Minnelli’s boyfriend, and how he got to meet one of his comedic heroes.
Sarah Ricard for Rotten Tomatoes: It seems like what we’ve been building towards with Gary and Selina really came to a head in episode two this season, in the last scene of “East Wing.”
Tony Hale: Oh, yeah. It’s one of those things where he’s obviously been emasculated. I think his life story has been one big emasculating experience but for the three seasons, he’s been beaten down. You know what it was? When she said to Gary, “You’re just a middle-aged man who sanitizes my tweezers.” I think that was the last straw. In his world, he’s everything to her. She is his queen. I think in his perfect world, they’d get married and she desperately needs him. She can’t do right without him. For her to say those words, it’s like, ‘I’m sorry what?’ That’s when it snaps. That’s when the universe came crumbling down.
You know what’s so fun though? What’s great about this show is they give you the time to work the material and they kind of place it in front of you. Then we have two or three weeks of rehearsal before we shoot where we’ve had time to see what gels. When I saw that scene that they had written, they gave us a good few hours just to find the rhythm and to find those bits that made it escalate and what made Gary break and what made her wake up. Like when he said, “Can you find somebody else to do what I did?” And she goes, “On Labor Day?” Something horrific happened on Labor Day and to find that rhythm is such a gift because many times you don’t get that. Staff just come in and you really don’t have a lot of time.
RT: Right. I can imagine that, compared to Arrested Development — especially with that last season shot all piecemeal — you probably didn’t have the kind of runway that you would on this show where you get the scripts a couple of weeks early and get to really dig into it.
Hale: Yeah, sure. Exactly. And on Arrested, Mitch was such a genius. He would be like, “So, by the way, this is what’s happening.” He would kind of give us the story and you just trusted that he knew where the pieces of the puzzle fit. It was a real trust exercise with that because I remember when Buster’s hand got eaten off. There was foreshadowing of that way, way back that I didn’t even recognize. He had this whole plan in his head.
RT: Right! He’s a real architect.
Hale: That’s a great way of putting it. He’s just a total architect. A mental architect.
RT: Have you seen Liza Minnelli since you guys did that show?
Hale: No. I miss her. She’s a really special person. I loved being around her. I loved hearing her stories. Look at her life. She just has the best stories. When she told the stories, they never came from a place of ego. They just came from a place of like, ‘Listen to my life and what I’ve experienced.’ I could just sit there all day long.
RT: I was just watching Billy Crystal with Bill Maher as he was telling some story about being in the box at Yankees stadium with George W Bush and a bunch of other famous people. Anyone else would be name-dropping, but he’s not name-dropping because he’s Billy Crystal and that’s his life.
Hale: Exactly. That’s his reality.
RT: And how cool for you that your life keeps intersecting with all these icons.
Hale: I don’t know how the hell that happened. I’m looking around like, ‘What? Where am I? Liza Manelli is my girlfriend? What?'”
RT: Have you ever met anyone where you were kind of blown away?
Hale: I would say that when I met Tim Conway. I was just at some event and he was being honored. I grew up on The Carol Burnett Show. He was a guy that could do the smallest thing and it just moved the audience. It was so funny. He obviously made every other cast member break. [The cast was] given these crazy routines, but he never pushed the comedy. He just trusted the chaos around him. All he had to do was just stare straight ahead or do some eye movement or something and it just threw you. It was so funny because you knew the situation he was in.
RT: As you say that, I’m reminded of some of the things that Gary did in this week’s episode, “Storms and Pancakes.” Selina says some things that are kind of dirty and they cut to you. She says something about paying for her ‘tits’ and they cut to you cringing to what she’s saying. It’s so subtle but you’re so obviously bothered whenever she talks like that.
Hale: Because, think about it. Words like that should not leave [her mouth]. She’s Jesus in Gary’s world. When Jesus throws those kind of words, it’s like, ‘I’m sorry. What did you just throw out there? Of course, you can’t be like what are you saying!’ He just has to be politely like, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh,’ but his entire internal state is exploding.
RT: When you were talking about what happened on Labor Day in episode two, did you have a backstory in mind?
Hale: We talked about it actually because we were just wanting to give weight to it. There was something about it. If I was too detailed with it, then I would get in my head about it. I want to know but I don’t. I gave it a lot of weight because it’s almost like you think, ‘If I murdered somebody, it takes it to a different place.’ I’ve already broken up with her boyfriends for her and searched through her trash for what probably were sex toys or something. You kind of go, ‘What is the absolute worst thing? Did I kill somebody? Can Gary kill?’ Then you think, “For her? Sure.” It had to have the weight though to shut her up. Obviously, she had no problem with giving me the awful responsibility of breaking up with her boyfriend or doing horrendous things.
RT: True. The fact that she was the Vice President. It really could be anything with like huge consequences.
Hale: I love that. Now she’s obviously the President, and when she was Vice President I had a lot more access to her. I was next to her. When she’s President, especially in the first episode, I didn’t have the access. That is emotional suicide. To be distant from her, he doesn’t know what to do with his body. He loses all function in everything. That was the worst. He would rather her cuss and scream obscenities. At least if she’s hitting him, she’s touching him. He would take that over distance. Distance is the worst.
RT: I loved the scene after the fight when all is restored and you feed her the sponge cake. He feels so empowered again, like everything’s been restored in their dynamic.
Hale: Also, it doesn’t phase him is that he says for the second time, “It’s a light sponge,” and she goes, “Yeah, you said that.” Such verbal abuse.
RT: That was so funny. I know that on the set it can get a little mean with the name-calling.
Hale: Poor Timothy Simons.
RT: I know. He seems to get the worst of it. When you guys are playing off each other, have you ever gone too far?
Hale: That’s a great question. We’ve gone so far in names to each other that I can’t imagine any farther. It’s verbal abuse but it’s like happening to somebody’s physical person hood. It gets so hateful. Timothy gets the worst of it. He was called human scaffolding. He was called the largest single celled organism. Absolutely awful. I mean, I’ve been called cow eyes, but again, I’d rather have those names called to me than be alone.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Veep airs Sundays on HBO at 10:30 p.m. Read reviews for season four here.