Perhaps best known for his comedic work on “Veep” and “Arrested Development,” Tony Hale has also been prolific in programs for younger eyeballs over the years, from “Toy Story 4″ and “Forky Asks a Question” to the adaptation of his 2014 book, “Archibald’s Next Big Thing.” Although he continues to work in adult fare (“Eat Wheaties!” and the upcoming “Being the Ricardos”), his recent slate is populated with family-friendly fare: “I Heart Arlo,” the “Rugrats” revival, the “Clifford the Big Red Dog” movie and “The Mysterious Benedict Society” — based on the books by Trenton Lee Stewart — which sees him play identical twins Mr. Benedict and Mr. Curtain.
Ahead of “The Mysterious Benedict Society’s” Disney Plus premiere, here’s Variety’s recent chat with Hale about filming during a pandemic, narcoleptic pratfalls, and the “simple truths” of youth programming.
How did you become involved with the “The Mysterious Benedict Society”? What was the appeal of the series and were you a fan of the books?
I did not read the books until they offered me the job, and then I read the first one. I was doing a play in San Francisco right before COVID happened, and I got a call from my agency, and they put me in contact with the creators, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who told me a little bit about the story before I read the books. In the books, there’s this thing called The Emergency which is causing widespread panic, and Mr. Benedict sends these gifted kids out [to help].
I think, honestly, what attracted me the most is: these kids didn’t have magical powers — didn’t have these crazy superpowers — but they they use their intellect, their creativity and their empathy. And I just feel like, yeah, those are superpowers; that’s exactly what the world needs. So, I just loved the story and also the opportunity to play twins is very exciting for any actor.
Tell me about playing twins. How did you decide to craft Mr. Benedict and Mr. Curtain and differentiate them in physicality and all of that?
Reading the books and [seeing] just how affable Mr. Benedict is — he comes from a place of compassion and love. And then Curtain, you hear more of their backstory as the show goes, but he’s got a tremendous amount of pain and trauma — he’s also very misunderstood.
It was fun working with Benedict’s posture, which is really bad. On the outside, he’s a little erratic and befuddled, but he’s got such a heart. And then Curtain comes off very put together and very calculated, but there’s so much pain there. And it was just fun. His posture is very straight, and he’s obviously very on top of fashion and appearance. So, it was fun to work with wardrobe designers and obviously with Phil and Matt on the scripts. They were very cool to allow me to have input.
The whole process was just an absolute joy. We shot it in Vancouver. This was [during] some pretty heightened months of COVID — August through January. The Vancouver crew was so on top of it, and so fantastic. And because of COVID I wasn’t able to come home for five months. I used to kind of poo-poo technology, but man, after that, I’m so grateful for FaceTime and just to stay connected with my family and my wife and my daughter. It could have been a really hard experience but the crew made it so enjoyable. The cast — Kristen Schaal and Ryan Hurst and MaameYaa [Boafo] — we got really close, and the kids are fantastic. It was a real challenge but just a fantastic challenge.
With Mr. Benedict, you seemed to have some fun with the narcoleptic pratfalls.
[Laughs] With Benedict, his narcolepsy typically comes from a place of joy, or from a place of surprise. So it just hits him at that these odd times. And that is so fun to play with, and just the surprise of it, and just the randomness of it. I love just doing it, and the kids are kind of like, “What the heck is this?” Just those different colors that Trenton Stewart added to the series. Working with a writer like that, and just how many twists and turns he puts in the series, that is just candy for an actor. It’s just so fun to work with.
I imagine working with kids on a Disney Plus series must have been quite different from, say, “Veep.” Less swearing on set, I imagine.
It’s funny because when I was doing “Veep” for seven years, my daughter was 4-years-old when I started the show. And the poor thing just was never able, to this day, [to] watch “Veep,” and so it was nice to do something that’s a little more digestible for family. But working with Emmy [DeOliveira] and Marta [Kessler] and Seth [Carr] and Mystic [Inscho], just really great kids. And keep in mind, this was during COVID. So everybody was wearing masks; even in rehearsals, you had to wear these masks. And typically, with acting, you have that connection, and it wasn’t until we the cameras started rolling that we took off the masks. But even as kids, they had to be very careful about who they hung out with and they couldn’t go to certain places. And that’s so challenging for them. They really put up with a lot and they were away from their families at the time. Their parents were with them, but [they were away from] their communities. So it was really, really tricky, but they were just such troopers.
At the end of the show, when we finished shooting, the crew gave me a book that had a picture of them with masks and pictures of them without the mask throughout this book. And I worked with this crew for five months and never saw their faces. If I had seen these people without their masks in the grocery store, I would not recognize them because I never saw their faces, but I’d been working with them for five months. It’s just so bizarre.
It’s such a stressful situation, especially for the kids, to be working for so many months away from your family. But the the end result still is so full of whimsy and joy.
So full of joy and so full of hope. I think this [is] especially because the show really centers around just the tremendous amount of noise that’s out there. It talks a lot about this emergency just causing a lot of noise and confusion and panic and anxiety — and coming after this year, man, even just the tremendous amount of noise that’s around us and what, many times, the media can give us and the different messaging and the fear and anxiety that we’re all walking through. When you meet people that are bringing hope, that are seeing you — I mean, my God, we’re all missing connection, just connection to each other. It feels like we’re beginning to see some light at the end of this crazy COVID tunnel we’ve been in. The message of the show is [about how] empathy and creativity can pierce through all that noise. And I just love that.
You’re obviously known for “Veep” and “Arrested Development.” which are very grown-up comedies. But you’ve also been working in the kid space for some time now. Was this happenstance or have you been purposefully gravitating towards projects for younger audiences lately?
I don’t know if it was. The children’s book was very purposeful, because that came from a very personal experience of mine. And doing this series of Archibald, this little chicken who sees the best in everyone and the best in every situation. This chicken has become my role model for the past five years. So I love that.
I don’t know if I gravitated to it, but I’m incredibly thankful because one thing that kids programming, whether it be “Benedict,” or whether it be “Clifford” or “Archibald,” it’s very simple truths. It’s very simple truths of how you treat people — kindness, being present. I think many times as adults, we live in very big ideas of, where I want to go and what I want to accomplish and to try to climb the ladder. And when you’re a kid, it’s just like, “All right, what am I going to do today? That person’s not being nice? So let me try to be nice.” It’s all day-to-day stuff that I need to remember. So I love working in that space. I love it.
I’m very grateful, obviously, to have had “Veep” and “Arrested Development,” working with that kind of writing and that standard. That bar was so high. Dave Mandel and Armando Iannucci, what they did on “Veep,” and Mitch Hurwitz, what he did on “Arrested” — to be able to do that writing is crazy. I remember “Arrested Development,” many times I had no idea what was going on. I just remember the writing was so dense. And I wouldn’t discover the inside joke until years later. I’m like, “I have no clue what you’re talking about.” It was so layered. And “Veep” was so layered. In children’s programming, I love the simplicity of it. So, it’s two opposite ends of the spectrum that I love.
Many of these animated kids shows, it’s all voice work. Is there a different mode that you transition into when you’re voicing characters versus doing on-screen acting?
I used to be pretty intimidated by voice acting, just because being a comic actor, it’s all about physicality. Even on “Veep,” Selena didn’t even let Gary speak. He was actually called the “bitchy mime” — he just stood behind her and gave weird facial expressions. So going into the voiceover realm, it was a little intimidating at first because all I’d used was the nonverbal. But then when I learned to perform the same I would in front of the camera as in front of the mic. And then you just trust that when you do the same performance, it translates through the microphone. [With] “Forky Asks a Question,” these are questions like, “What is love? What’s a friend?” These are questions that adults need to be remembering. “Oh, yeah. Love is a very simple truth. You need to care for people.” That’s the base of simple truth is what Forky was asking. Love that.
Now that your daughter is 15, has she gotten to watch “Veep” and “Arrested Development” yet?
She’s watched a couple of episodes of “Arrested.” “Veep” she hasn’t watched. [Laughs] We’re getting there. But “Arrested,” I’m sure she watched it, like, “Wow, my dad. That’s a side I haven’t seen.” She’s watched a couple of episodes, but she just got through watching “High School Musical,” so she’s enjoying that a little more. I mean, she enjoys “Arrested,” but she’s got other stuff on her list that she’s enjoying.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
“The Mysterious Benedict Society” premieres June 25 on Disney Plus.