Alan Tudyk is awesome, plain and simple. He has tons of talent (that’s a given), but in addition, he has an abundance of coolness and kindness. When we spoke, he offered great stories from recent projects, such as: 42, Arrested Development, and Frozen. Alan is a true example of how you don’t have to lose your authenticity on the way to the top.
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
AT: [Alan laughs] When did I catch the acting bug? I always found a way to be the center of attention when I was a little kid. My mother saw that and entered me into a community theater production in Plano, Texas, where I grew up. The play was called The Fabulous Fable Factory. I got a role, playing the Hare—it was all of these fables, and the Tortoise and the Hare was the one that I was in. So, I played the Hare, but I think they called him the “Jive Hopping Hare” because he thought he was really cool and it was a modern, updated version of that fable. [Alan laughs] I had a great time with it.
Then, when I went to my 6th grade school, I started looking for a theater elective. Once I started doing [acting] it was always my focus and what I enjoyed doing, when I could.
Did anyone/anything in particular inspire you to pursue a life as an actor?
My high school teacher, her name was Charlotte English… I was going to be a hotel manager (that was my idea of a job). I was working at a restaurant called Taco Bueno in Texas. I loved it! [Alan laughs] I thought I was really, really good at it and I wanted to be the manager. I found out that there was a major in college that was restaurant/hotel management. So, I was like, That’s what I’m going to do, manage restaurants and hotels. Forget acting because I think it’s too hard to make it. It’s fun and all, but [no]… My speech teacher, Charlotte English, found out that I was going to go into hotel management and she said, “Don’t do that. Let’s take a walk.” We went on a walk around the building after school was over and she just said, “You’ll make it.” Which is crazy to me, that an adult would just say, “No, no, you’re going to make it.” [Alan laughs] There are just sooo many things that would require that to be true: the amount of lucky breaks, hard work, and commitment that goes into actually having success in acting (or any performing arts). She was just very matter-a-fact and just said, “No, you’re special.” After that, I was like, Alright, I’ll do it.
You studied drama at Lon Morris College and Juilliard. What training did the schools provide you with to help set you up for (as your teacher predicted) a very successful career?
Lon Morris College was a small two-year college. It was very conservative; it had a Methodist charter. But, their drama department was independent to the rest of the school, in a way. It was nuts. Their program taught us from the very beginning how to put a production together. You worked all day building the sets, you learned how to build and use tools, painting sets, hanging lights, I became in charge of props. (Whenever there was a play I was in charge of making all the props, which I loved. I still love props today.) We figured out how to put together a show that looked really good. What they taught us acting wise wasn’t so great.
When I was done there, I went back to Dallas and started acting. I realized that I really didn’t know much about acting; I didn’t have a process to approach a role. If I didn’t immediately connect with a role, I didn’t know how to get into it. I knew I needed better training as an actor. I always wanted to live in New York and thought of Broadway (even though I had never been at that point, it was just the idea of it [Alan laughs]) and somebody told me Juilliard was a good school. That’s all I knew; that’s all I went on.
Oh my gosh!
…I wrote to them or I called them and they sent me a packet to apply. I had to fill it out and then I had to write two or three pages of why I wanted to be an actor. I sent it in with some monetary amount that I cannot remember and then went to New York and auditioned. Luckily I got in and moved to New York.
Juilliard was the opposite of my first college. In your first two years, you didn’t have any set, costumes, or production level support with your plays. It was about stripping it bear and just looking at acting. You would have boxes as tables. It was the simplest version of the scenes from the plays that we would do. They really gave me a process—how to approach any and all roles. It’s comprehensive there; voice and speech was a huge part of it. They had to get rid of my Texas accent. They taught me how to understand sounds in a way that I hadn’t before… They strip you down and then build you back up. I learned a lot.
You have been able to play a huge array of characters in your career! How did you go about not getting pigeon holed when you were first starting out?
The first thing that I did that got any notice was a play Off-Broadway called Bunny Bunny. I played twenty something roles in the play. It was a three-person play, two people in the play played the same role throughout the play and then I play everybody else in the play. The roles would sometimes just be two lines in the play. For example, I would be a French waiter and say [in a French accent], “Yes, yes sit here” then insult the guy and walk off, quickly get dressed, and come in as another character. They were: women, men, big fat suits, and all sorts of accents. It was fun and funny.
That’s how I got my stereotypes: “The guy who does all the different roles.”
One of your first jobs was playing Hoban ‘Wash’ Washburne on the cult show Firefly. The show had one season, but the amount of love there is for the show is incredible. So, what do you think of having a short-lived series and so much fan enthusiasm after says about the entertainment industry?
I think it’s hard to get good television on TV and then if it does make it on TV, it’s hard to keep it on TV. I think that so many thing go into making a television show, just like so many things go into making a movie, that there are a lot of opportunities for it to get screwed up. I think it’s a case-by-case basis why they don’t work. I think that Firefly was just a little too early, honestly. The Internet was up and going, but it wasn’t like it is now and studios didn’t know how to use the Internet; they didn’t value it the way they do now.
When you’re doing a television show you get your ratings: the classic Nielsen ratings (how many people watched it when it was on), then there is an adjustment to the ratings about two or three days later of how many people either watched it on their DVRs and how many times it was watched online. They do take that into consideration when they are judging the show because some shows don’t do well on their scheduled times at night. But then, for example, Community (that show on NBC, so funny) it has a huge viewership online. It’s a great show and people who may not classically sit down in front of the TV every night, people who have busier lives, they don’t catch it and won’t miss it.
You were just in the revival of another cult classic, Arrested Development! Would you mind talking a bit about how you handled shooting scenes all from different episodes in one day and how you avoided confusion?
[Alan sighs] I don’t now if I avoided it, I stayed pretty confused. With Arrested Development, there was an announcement that it was going to come back for a Netflix run, so people were aware of it. A lot of times productions won’t release a script, even if you are in it. I didn’t get to read the script. I didn’t know. I just got two pages here, three pages here; I didn’t know how it all linked together. I just showed up, worked for a few hours, and go, I hope that was good. It was spread out over a long period of time because they were dealing with a lot of people’s schedules. I can’t even imagine how they did it. The production side of it, those people deserve an award— the Assistant Directors department, to manage all those people and all of those storylines is just mind-boggling. I loved getting to go back there and do it.
Before, I didn’t get to work that much with Will Arnett and I think he is so funny. It was awesome to get to be in one of his magic tricks with that ridiculous song playing [The Final Countdown by Europe] and trying to do his magic trick while he’s handcuffed. It’s hysterical. That was a moment where I was going, I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING! I felt so lucky.
Do you have a favorite Arrested Development joke or an on-going gag?
I like when Gob tries to do the flame and it just squirts lighter fluid… Also, “her” is really great. When Gob goes, “I don’t get it. Is she funny?” That is so very funny to me. [Alan laughs]
Did the working environment feel different working on a show for an streaming site (Netflix) as opposed to a major network like FOX or ABC?
It did. It was much more relaxed. Also, they didn’t have to worry about ratings or anything; they had already proven themselves with the show. Netflix bought it knowing what they were getting. They weren’t trying to change them; they just wanted to support the artist vision.
When you’re doing a network show, where it’s an ongoing thing, I think there are a lot of people making decisions about what’s going to be on the air. The writers will write something, but there will be a lot of opinions that have already weighed in before anything has been written about: what the storyline is going to be, where the [show] is going. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Whereas with Netflix they were pretty much saying, “You guys do what you want. Do the thing that you guys do so well.”
Another recent project of yours was 42. I’m sure you’ve talked about this a ton, but HOW did you do it? How did you play that character?
It wasn’t fun. I think that was the first time I’d ever played a historical figure, where you can actually find out information about the person. Since he was in the spotlight, there was a lot that you can find. The defining moment of his career, unfortunately for him, was when he came out and said all of those things to Jackie. There were reporters in the stands writing down everything that he said, so they would put it in the paper. Not only was there a record of what he said (which was really helpful to me), but they also went to him and said, “Hey, don’t you think what you said was, maybe, a little over the line?” So, I got to hear his public explanation of why he did it and what his feelings were. I got to use all of that as justification.
The actual acting, when I was first rehearsing it, I noticed that—this is telling to who I am as a person— I would cry. [Alan laughs] Saying those hateful words is really upsetting; they’re really charged words. Just to even say them, I’d have to cry a little bit to get past it before I could get into it.
One way I could get into that headspace was I would search for fistfights online and watch. I don’t like violence so much and I would watch these videos of people fighting. The ones that were most upsetting were the ones where one person didn’t want to fight and the other one was like, To bad, you’re getting your ass kicked right now. After about five of those, five videos of watching people get hurt, I would build up all of this anger. It’s a weird thing. It would just put me in the worst mood. I don’t know what the whole thought process was there, but it helped me.
When you had to play such a nasty guy, how did you carry on after work as if nothing happened?
It wasn’t easy; I didn’t do a great job of it. The way it was edited it looked like it all took place in one day, but it was actually a series of two different games, so there was a whole other games worth of me doing that crap. After the longest day of shooting, I went out to eat afterwards. My parents were in town, which was really exciting. “Hey come down to the set and see what I’m working on!” [Alan laughs]
“Aren’t you proud?”
Yeah, “Aren’t you proud? Look at what I’ve grown up to be!”
We went out to dinner that night—I probably should have just gone back to my room, but I had company. I was in the worst mood. I sent the food back. [The waiter] asked, “Would you like me to box it up?” and I said, “No, why would I want it? I told you it’s terrible.” I was a dick…
It wasn’t fun. But, then the next day, after a good rest, workout at the gym, get it out of your system, you recover fairly quickly. A day later you might be yourself again.
I’ve always enjoyed playing in comedies and being a buffoon. Moronic buffoons are my wheelhouse, that’s how I live my life, like a moronic buffoon. So, if I’m playing one, I’ve got a lot of material, I’ve got it right there.
You have an animated movie coming out in November, Frozen, which looks really cool. How did you come up with the Duke of Weselton’s voice?
He’s old, English, and snide…You look at the illustration they give you and for some reason that will help. He’s a little bitty guy who has henchman with him. Anything he needs done he has them do it. He snotty, and he kind of has a pinched nose, like he is literally snotty.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors?
I believe now more than ever, you need to create your own thing. The business is changing a lot right now and everybody is talking about it…It’s a way to skip to the front of the line. Eric Idle, who I met doing Spamalot, said during the writers strike, “The one group of people who could strike and it wouldn’t matter is producers. If all of the producers went on strike, everybody would just keep creating because we are the ones who make it. We’re the ones that come in with the ideas and the producers are the ones who give you money to facilitate it.”
Things are getting cheaper; the Internet is there for anybody to put stuff up on… Guaranteed, if you have something that is successful, that people like and are watching, then the producers are going to go, “Can you come do what you are doing for us?” They’ll invest in what works. So, if I were starting out, that’s what I would be doing. Find the best way to get my vision across. ♦
Photo Credit: ImagoZone, Legion of Leia, TV Guide, EW, Nerdist