By Sarah Kuhn
LOS ANGELES (Backstage) - Tony Hale is probably best known for his nimble work as "Arrested Development's" Buster Bluth, an over-coddled man-child with a penchant for giving horribly awkward shoulder massages.
He displays a different side of his talent in "happythankyoumoreplease," an indie crowd-pleaser about a group of 20-something New Yorkers in various states of existential crisis. Hale plays "Sam #2," an irrepressible romantic who woos his outspoken co-worker (Malin Ackerman), a young woman suffering from alopecia.
"Buster was definitely a mental case. He was so fun to play," says the 40-year-old actor. "But Sam #2 was just a sweet guy, and I loved the fact that he treasured Malin beyond what she saw herself as."
Hale nabbed the role after participating in a reading of writer/director Josh Radnor's script; a few months after the reading, Radnor asked him to play the role in the film version. "It was a fun group of people and I had lived in New York for eight years and it was shooting in New York, so it was a good excuse to hang out in the city," Hale says. "I liked the character, so it was a win-win."
NOT THE TYPE
Getting cast has not always been so straightforward for him, however. When he was a fresh-faced actor just starting out in New York, Hale struggled to make the transition to film and TV from commercial gigs -- where one of his most memorable spots was the 1999 Volkswagen ad in which he does an energetic in-the-car dance to the Styx classic "Mr. Roboto."
It took him about six or seven years to find a film and TV agent, and he earned small gigs in New York institutions "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City," but he was still "very, very green" when the "Arrested Development" audition came his way.
"After doing commercials for so long, I was so excited to get the audition, 'cause I hadn't had that many opportunities for pilots," he says. "It was such a great script, but you learn to not get your hopes up and you learn to do your best work and then try to let it go. Buster was very much a 7-year-old trapped in an adult's body. He was so childlike and vulnerable, so I just played him very innocent."
Once Hale landed the role, he tried to take it in stride, but he remembers "freaking out" over the enormity of it all. "I had never been on a studio lot, I had never done any press," he says. "I didn't understand any of it. It was fun, but so overwhelming. I look back and I think I took it way too seriously, because I was in this freak-out place."
That said, Hale is deeply grateful for the role and everything it has brought his way. He has had recurring roles on such shows as "Chuck" and "Numb3rs" and appeared in high-profile films like "Stranger Than Fiction." He recently guested on such shows as "Justified" and "Community" and will be featured in the upcoming MTV cartoon "Good Vibes."
He has even found a silver lining in the fact that "Arrested Development," though critically beloved, always struggled in the ratings. Though he would've loved for the show to continue past its three seasons, that struggle helped him develop a thick skin -- a must in this mercurial business.
"I don't know what it's like to be on a hit show," he says, laughing a little. "When you get six more episodes picked up, you're not expecting it, so you don't get comfortable: 'We got more episodes? That's fantastic!' You learn to really appreciate what you have.