Tony Hale grovels well.
The actor, previously best-known for his role as childlike Buster on “Arrested Development,” has come to new prominence in “Veep,” the HBO series returning for its third season on April 6. (The second season is available on DVD today.) Hale plays Gary, the astonishingly devoted body man to Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) — he totes with him a giant bag full of everything from Meyer’s secret cigarettes to her herbal tea. Over the show’s first two seasons, Gary has slowly gone from a background player, perpetually haunting doorways without saying much, to one of the most compelling figures on the show. As Meyer’s Vice Presidency has fallen apart and reconstituted itself many times over — and as Meyer herself has proven effectively unfit for command — the person most unquestioningly devoted to her has come to seem more interesting than we’d ever guessed.
Hale spoke to Salon about the degree to which “Veep” has made him cynical — not at all, he claims! — and the Gary-Selina relationship, which has decompensated, with the help of substances and of Selina’s paranoia, into something worthy of “Bates Motel.” Gary is “a little close to a serial killer,” said Hale. But we can’t stop watching.
You won the best supporting actor Emmy this past fall, over formidable competition, like three stars of “Modern Family.” I presume you weren’t expecting this?
I can honestly say it was a complete and utter shock. With those sort of things you have to manage your expectations. I’m fans of all those guys, it was one of those things — to be on that list was overwhelming enough. When I got the call I was on that list, my mind exploded. I was super overwhelmed and happy about that. And when I won, I looked to my wife — I really didn’t understand that it was me. But when i saw her reaction I was like “Oh, crap.” I left my body — I’m lucky I could put two words together.
Has your character changed over run? What have you found in Gary that you didn’t know about at first?
He started out as kind of a whipping post for her and he still is. And he’s still a nervous assistant. The more it goes on, the more you see that he is genuinely obsessed with her. She is everything to him — without her he has no identity. He should have left in his 20s, but he stayed until his 40s.
One of my favorite episodes is when she runs through a glass door — and for him, it’s like Jesus died. She has a drug interaction, gets drugged up and says all these things in her drug-induced state — she says she wants to hang out with him! For 20 years he’s dreamed of her saying that. You really see that was a moment in time, where every dream has manifested itself. It’s a little close to a serial killer.
To what degree did you investigate real D.C. types, or real body men, in preparing for the role?
Before we started the pilot, I spoke to a guy who was a body man in his 20s. For two years, he went everywhere with this person, he rarely saw his family. This man was his world for maybe two years. It was so interesting — the level of commitment. It’s the same for Gary, except that two years has extended to 20. I dont think he knows himself without her! He’s in such a state of denial. It’s like his recovery process is slipping into denial and he slips back into denial. His recovery time is phenomenal.
The bag you carry with you — the “Leviathan,” as your character calls it — is that filled with actual things the V.P. would need, so you can get into character?
Gary would be very, very ashamed by what Tony Hale carries in that bag. It’s my script for the day, empty water-bottles and gum. Because in his world, it’s 50 different hand sewn pockets that are texture-coded. He has no control over her, he has no power. That bag is his only control — in season 2, when she gave him a new bag, he lost his whole foundation. She was taking away Linus’s blanket.
Have people in the government talked to you about their relating to the show?
A couple people have said they want a Gary in their life. I remember thinking “Oh no you don’t — you deserve someone more qualified.” I kind of also appreciate the fact that there are people in D.C. that do like it. Even though we’re a satire and take it way to the extreme — there’s value to the fact that it does show the humanity to the political system. People in intense environments have to have freak-outs, they have to get emotional. We’re a satire — but you know that it happens in real life. It’s comforting to see that they’re human.
After your character abandoned her to we be seeing any more of your girlfriend Dana (Jessica St. Clair), the cheese saleswoman with a tendency to create drama?
I don’t think she did — I’m not sure! It ended on a very unpleasant note. Gary was faced with a major choice. And sadly, because of his decision, he’s going back towards Mama.
You have plenty of TV experience, with years of “Arrested Development” under your belt. Is it easier to improvise on “Veep”? The scripts seem so loose.
I don’t know if easier is the right word, it’s nice to step into an environment where you can play. There are some environments where that’s respected. This is an environment where you can play and see where the material takes you. There’s a real freedom you step into. In television you rarely have rehearsal time. We do. The writers work very hard on the scripts but they also give us time to see if the scripts are working.
Does working on “Veep,” with its striving, grasping characters, make you cynical about politics?
It doesn’t make me cynical at all. I have massive respect for whoever wants to step into that position. The decisions you’re making have huge consequences. My hope is that the motivation is to make change, is to bring about positive things. A lot of people want power — anyone that actually wants to make a difference, my hat goes off to her.