In Clifford the Big Red Dog, a Paramount Home Entertainment release available from Redbox to rent at the Kiosk or stream On Demand, Tony Hale, best known for playing the awkward and put-upon Buster and Gary in Arrested Development and Veep, gets to play the bad guy, and he seems to be enjoying himself immensely. Darby Camp stars as Emily, an outsider at her school who is verbally bullied by her mean girl classmates. Through a kindly, but mysterious purveyor of rescue animals (the legendary John Cleese), she adopts Clifford, a red puppy, who magically grows overnight to ten-times his normal size. The gigantic red dog catches the attention of Hale’s Tiernan, the CEO of LyfeGrow, a financially struggling biotechnology company. In Clifford, Tiernan sees the ultimate meal ticket, and he’ll stop at nothing to purloin the pooch. In a Zoom conversation, Hale spoke with Redbox about the dogs in his life, the fun of playing the villain, and, for Veep fans, what he thinks may have happened on that fateful Labor Day.
Redbox: Did you read the Clifford books when you were growing up?
Tony Hale: I remember they were around, and I also read them to my daughter. I always loved the message that permeated throughout: there’s this massive red dog and nobody thought that was weird. Nobody said, ‘Check out the big red dog.’
RB: Are you a dog person? I notice two drawings of dogs on the wall behind you.
TH: Those are my dogs; they’re hypoallergenic. When I was growing up, my parents always got dog that were not hypo. I loved them, but when they would pass, I thought, ‘Oh, I can breathe again,’ and they’d say, ‘We’re getting another dog.’ I’m like, ‘Okay I don’t know what you have against me’. I’m crazy about these two, because I can breathe with them.
RB: As someone who read the Clifford books growing up, it must have been fun to be a part of a Clifford movie.
TH: Obviously, it’s a classic (character), but it is the film’s message particularly that I love. You see the origin of what makes Clifford grow, which is Emily’s love. I just feel like today we bring each other down; criticizing is not going to make things grow.
RB: Actors talk about how much fun it is to play a villain. But as the person who portrays him, do you even think of him as a villain?
TH: Good question. I do, but I have to find something that resonates with me about him. Tieran’s got this big company and he’s seeing it fall apart. I can find anxiety in that. You have to find that way in (to the character) or you’ll be playing a cut-out.
RB: On Veep, you played a character who was the butt of everyone’s insults. How did it feel to be the guy who’s dishing them out?
TH: Yeaaaaah! A lot of fun. It’s nice to play a character who has a little bit of a spine. He definitely goes a little too far, this character, but Gary was never even allowed to speak. He was called the bitchy mime, who just stands back and gave facial expressions. So, it was nice to be able to have a voice.
RB: A moving scene in the film is when Emily is holding Clifford’s face and telling him she loves him. How about that Darby Camp? Were you that poised an actor at her age?
TH: No! I think at that age, I was playing the Mayor of Oz in a high school production of The Wizard of Oz. I was just trying to get a laugh. She is so great. The thing I really appreciate about Darby is not only is she really talented, but she’s very grounded, kind and funny. That grounding is what I think you need to have at that age.
RB: Since the release of Clifford, have you been recognized by children who see you as the bad guy who wanted to hurt Clifford?
TH: That’s what’s been good about wearing a mask (because of the pandemic); you don’t freak kids out. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m waiting for that day, when a child says, ‘There’s the guy who wanted to kill the Big Red Dog.’
RB: Between Buster and Gary, for which one do you get recognized the most?
TH: Buster tends to prevail; Gary is a close second.
RB: I do have one Gary question: For the fourth season episode, “East Wing,” did you and Julia Louis Dreyfus confer with each other or the writers about the unspoken incident that happened on Labor Day? It’s one of the lasting unanswered questions of the show, and I was very glad the writers never revealed that, because what the audience could imagine is probably more twisted than anything they could come up with.
TH: Neither of us know. But what I do know is that I have heard what has come freely out of Selena’s mouth, and if she can’t even say what happened on Labor Day, I ‘m thinking it had to have been murder.
RB: Clifford will bring some much-needed joy this holiday season. What is your favorite Christmas movie?
TH: Elf is such a classic, and I know it’s said a lot, but It’s a Wonderful Life is always a go-to. I think people underestimate the power of that beautiful message (about how every person’s life has meaning).
RB: What was most fun for you about being in Clifford?
TH: I’m really honored to be a part of something that has a very simple and powerful message. We, as adults, need to be pay more attention.
RB: It’s a good time for a movie about accepting our differences and embracing outsiders.
TH: Yeah, 100 percent.