In July 2009, Mockingbird got the opportunity to sit down with actor Tony Hale, otherwise known as Buster Bluth from Arrested Development [AKA the greatest American sitcom since Seinfeld]. Tony was in town filming a movie and promoting his new online NBC comedy series CTRL. CTRL is made up of 10 five-minute episodes, with Tony starring as Stuart, a typical office worker who spills iced tea on his computer keyboard only to discover that it has given him the supernatural ability to “control” the reality around him. Sort a cross between The Office and the movie Click but minus the melodrama – the illustrative implications are clearly enormous. Major hat-tip to Dusty Brown.
So tell us how CTRL came about.
Two years ago, the director Rob did a little short (CTRL Z) around the same idea and asked me and Zachary Levi (Chuck on Chuck) to be a part of it. And I really liked the concept. I love that it’s an everyday situation in an office, and the supernatural comes into that. Unlike say LOST or BSG, both shows that I love but where everything’s kind of out there already. This is more of an everyday situation where something really wacky happens. And Rob wanted it like that too. Not a lot of bells and whistles. Just that this keyboard that could literally take everything back and alter reality (Bold key, copy/paste, etc). So much power in this one little device. The short ended up winning a competition at Sundance, and then NBC approached us to make it into an online series. They asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said yes, and when Zachary couldn’t do it, Steve Howey stepped in. And he’s hilarious.
Very cool. You said that what drew you to the material was the supernatural coming into the everyday. Did that appeal to you for purely for comedic reasons?
Kind of. I like the comedic possibilities but I mainly like the surprise of it. Just this really mundane experience and than BAM!, this keyboard has magic. And also for someone who’s living a life where maybe he wishes he’d made some different choices… All of a sudden he has this power to redo everything.
They call that magical realism, right? Where there’s one device that’s supernatural but everything else is normal – Woody Allen does it a lot, like in Purple Rose of Cairo. I’ve heard him talk about it existentially, that since the sum of human knowledge has not been able to change us or save us in any way, if we’re to be helped, it’s got to be by magic. It’s a great access point for Christianity of course, and it works really well dramatically too.
Yeah, exactly. Also the series is very simple. It’s shot very simple, the music is very simple, the whole thing is very clean. No big special effects. I’m a simple-minded man after all…
Is it tough doing five-minute segments? With less time to develop the character?
Not really, I did commercials for a long time in New York. I was always impressed that they can do a beginning, middle and end in a 30-second spot (Mr Roboto). They have the ability to do that creatively. This is the same thing: a high concept in 4-minutes.
The premise of the series is such an appealing idea, such a common daydream I’d think: An undo on my computer equals an undo in life. I’m sure a lot of people have had that fantasy. I’m almost surprised that it hasn’t been done before.
People have been comparing it to Groundhog’s Day. But whereas Bill Murray had no control, Stuart has the control…
And it still doesn’t solve all his problems! That’s what I thought was most interesting. His power actually compounds his problems. I just watched the third episode where he has the first kiss with the Elizabeth character, where he gives a long spiel about how much he likes her, about how incredible she is. And they kiss, but once it’s over he presses “ctrl z” and immediately perverts the situation to make it about himself (“Bi-racial babies are beautiful!”). The moment of love is spontaneous, but when he tries to engineer and repeat it, it doesn’t work. Or at least, it’s ridiculously funny.
But it is interesting that it’s a fantasy that everyone has. And we think such a power would solve all our problems but it doesn’t. You wonder, when we do fabricate these things in our head, if we could just control this or that, then everything would be okay. If we just got this job… But universally life never works that way. It typically has to be something organic, something that you never would have thought.
It’s a brilliant illustration. Because control is our human addiction, right? Our besetting sin, if you will. But if we were actually to play God with our lives or with ourselves, (insert MJ thoughts here), it doesn’t work. It actually looks like insanity. But back to the series – you mentioned at the beginning about the supernatural coming into the everyday. Stranger than Fiction has that element in it, so does Chuck. Do you search out material like that intentionally?
Haha, not really. I’m not yet at a point where I can do stuff like that. Something small like this I can, but when it comes to big jobs, I’m not at a place where I can be that choosy. But I have done a lot of stuff that has that magical realism.
So are you connecting with the material on a Christian level?
I don’t really go there initially. I kind of go for the entertainment and I like the material, and then maybe think about the spiritual ramifications more afterward. When people ask me about my faith, when they ask how can you be a Christian in Hollywood? I honestly don’t see how people don’t have a spiritual foundation in Hollywood. Because there’s just so much uncertainty in Hollywood. And to know that someone is in control of my life, that I have a Father taking care of me, gives me so much peace when things are so chaotic. If it’s all dependent on me, I’d be completely crazy. Cause then you’d just be basing everything on chance. And the business is so random already. I’d go crazy.
It’s somewhat known that you’re a Christian. Do people put pressure on you to be more vocal about your faith?
I don’t necessarily feel pressure. Maybe if I was doing Left Behinds or something. But after the material I’ve done, I’ve lost a lot of the Christian audience. They don’t even think I’m going the right path. Which I kind of prefer. If they want to make that call, that’s their prerogative, but it doesn’t bother me. If anything, I enjoy having the discussions. If somebody wants to talk about it, I love talking about it. But I can’t be in control of what people’s thoughts are about my being in the business and my material. Cause it’s so unique for each person. There’s a market for people that want to do the Christian films, and I think that’s great. I think that’s great for them. I really do, because it’s all so individual.
Speaking personally, I’ve always felt that the distinction between Christian and non-Christian material can be pretty arbitrary anyhow. I’d say that with this material (CTRL), you’re exposing such a guarded part of all of us – the need to control, the addiction to it – things that are fairly compatible with the biblical depiction of human nature.
This is one thing that does frustrate me about Christians in the arts. They tend to put the art in a box of what it should be. If something has to have something stamped on it, like a Cross, to be seen as Christian art, that’s bogus.
Arrested Development does such an incredibly funny job of bringing out everyone’s mixed motivations. A web of dysfunction that also has a huge element of love in it. The characters in AD are really defined by their weaknesses rather than their strengths. I don’t want to make too much of it, because mainly it’s just an incredibly funny show, but I’ve always felt that AD told the truth about human nature.
Yeah, exactly, I think the funny stuff is based in truth. We’re all laughing at ourselves and how ridiculous we are. And one of the reasons the show was so great is that it did so across the board – they made fun of everyone, Christians included but not singled-out.
What upcoming stuff are you excited about?
I’m in the new Soderbergh movie, The Informant, which I’m really excited about. I’m in The Answer Man with Jeff Daniels which is coming out next week, I think. But I’m really excited about CTRL. I just love the idea.
I have to ask. What’s up with the Arrested Movie?
We all want to do it, but at this point, it’s a matter of lining up schedules. Supposedly Mitch is working on the script, as we speak.
I will say one thing, and it’s a pretty basic statement. I’ve told a lot of people in Hollywood about Mockingbird. And I’ve done so because it’s so based on grace. There’s such a false stereotype about Christianity and Christ in LA: the obvious things that it’s all about law and legalistic and you-can’t-do-this-you-can’t-do-that. Mockingbird has such a Grace focus and I think that’s really important. [ed. note: we did not put him up to that!]
Wow, thanks. That means a lot. Finally, what do you think of Michael Jackson? What’s your take?
I think obviously it’s a time to appreciate everything that he contributed to music. But you can’t help but look at him and think it’s sad that there’s was so much damage there. You just wish that he hadn’t have had so many yes-men around him, that he might’ve found some authentic people. I mean, we’re all damaged. It just reached a level with him where it was so apparent.
NBC has apparently taken the videos down. But the original short is still available. Enjoy: