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I Love Playing That Equation That Never Works Out: Tony Hale on Clifford the Big Red Dog

Tony Hale plays a tech CEO who is trying to capture the title character in “Clifford the Big Red Dog.” It's a lot of fun to see the actor, often cast to play shy and awkward characters, play an alpha bad guy bullying his underlings and plotting against the movie’s young heroine and her beloved pet. In an interview, Hale talked about what was fun for him in playing a villain, the advice he would give to other actors cast in those roles, and the other actor he felt he had to apologize to for the scripted insults.

Was it very freeing to play the bad guy?

Yes! I love playing the bad guy because I love playing that equation that never works out. He started very confident and he obviously doesn't think he's doing anything wrong. He's trying to help his company and he's exploiting this dog. To him, he's just trying to keep his company alive. But it’s just selfish ambition and then you see him spiral out. And there's nothing finer than that. I love showing that spiral.

Your character is very insulting to those around him. Is that fun?

Yes. Yes, yes. Because let's be honest, there's a lot of stuff we want to say that we filter. But when you play these characters, they're not filtering. They just go right ahead and say it. So there's something freeing about that.

I’ve always wondered whether actors apologize afterward for being so mean to each other.

[laughs] I will say on “Veep” there were a lot of apologies to Timothy Simons, who played Jonah, because he got the brunt of so many insults. There was one episode where somebody just said, “You just have a weird shape.” And I was just like, “Ah.” We would always just be like, “Tim, I'm sorry, this is not about you.” And he's like, “How is this not about me? They were talking about my body!”

When did you know that you were going to become an actor? When was the first time that you saw something that said, that's for me?

I don't know if I knew I was going to become one. But I knew when I loved it when I watched Tim Conway on “The Carol Burnett Show.” Tim Conway played very, very broad characters but he had this simplicity to them and this effortlessness with him. I'm sure you remember the dentist scene with Harvey Korman where he starts to numb himself accidentally, and his body goes limp. And it was so fluid, it was so effortless. And I just remember thinking, “He's not winking at the audience. He's not portraying it. He's genuinely living out this quirk.” And it was the funniest thing. When he would walk across the stage as the old man, he would take his time. Or when Bob Newhart and "The Bob Newhart Show" would just stand there in his anxiety, and it was funny. He didn't have to do anything. He just stood there in anxiety, and it was funny. Funny enough, John Cleese, who’s in “Clifford,” watching him in Monty Python, their subtleties and the way they turn jokes. 

When director Walt Becker first talked with you about the character, what did you discuss about Tiernan’s hopes and dreams and what he wanted?

We talked a lot about how his priority was profit. He was a tech guy. That's why he copied the Steve Jobs look, black shirt and jeans. He is just very detached, manipulative. And what I loved about that was it contrasted with this message that I believe the movie has, really a very powerful message. There's this scene that I think exemplifies it where Darby who plays Emily in the movie, is holding Clifford as a little puppy and it's her love that makes Clifford big. I feel like in this world today where there's so much breaking people down, criticism, and judgment, and nobody's crossing the aisles to listen, or celebrating differences, celebrating uniqueness, and embracing your love and how that is where growth happens. And so it's a children's movie but with a very adult message and an adult message, too, playing the contrast of that so highlighting, hopefully, the goodness of that.

It is not new. Everything has been said. But what's beautiful about stories is when it's said in a different way. And something like “Clifford,” it's a message we've all heard, and we all know but to see it activated in the life of this big red dog and the acceptance—I think that's really powerful.

You were already a fan of the Clifford books, I hear. 

Clifford started in 1963. I was born in 1970. And so, I remember them from my childhood, and then when my daughter was little, I read them to her. I was thinking a lot about this and there was something about the abnormal place in the middle of the normal, and how there was always a complete acceptance of that abnormal. And to the point where it wasn't abnormal anymore. It was normal. And that always stood out because it is a large, red dog in the middle of what we deem as normal and every day, and just how everybody fully accepted it.

What advice would you give to somebody who's playing the villain for the first time? What is important for you to know about the character before you play him?

I love that question. I would say you're not playing an idea of a character. You're not playing an idea of the bad guy. You have to resonate with something in that character. I remember years ago, I was playing this character who was very manipulative and kind of a jerk. And I was like, “Oh, I just hate people like this. I don't like people like this.” And I went to this coach, Diana Castle in LA. And she says, “Tony, you have to realize that that's inside of you.” And she's right. I'm not proud of it. But I've been manipulative, I've been a jerk. Because the moment you separate yourself from it then you're just going to play an idea. But if you find that common ground, then you're going to bring out the authenticity of that person. And honestly, I think it's a way to look at life. I can think of, off the top of my head, people that I can't stand. But traits about them, I have had those traits in my life. And when you do that you find common ground. You might go to more of a level of compassion rather than judgment. That’s a strong entrance into an evil character.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at

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