Actor Tony Hale on the beauty of Toy Story 4 and his “trashy” character, Forky

by Andrew Parker

Award winning actor Tony Hale has played some outlandish, comedically neurotic characters in his varied career, but perhaps none that the actor would admit is as close to his own personality as Forky, the “trashy” character he voices in Pixar’s Toy Story 4 (in theatres everywhere this Thursday), even if his first impressions of the character were somewhat confounding.

“They showed me a picture of Forky when I first came, and I did remember thinking, ‘Huh. That’s not what I was expecting,’” Hale says with a laugh during a recent promotional stop in Toronto to talk about his latest effort. “But then they explained to me his tremendous simplicity, and it immediately made sense to me.”

Forky joins cowboy Woody (once again voiced by Tom Hanks), space ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and all their toy friends as an arts and crafts project that comes to life whenever humans aren’t looking. Created by Woody and Buzz’s new owner Bonnie during her kindergarten orientation, Forky is nothing more than a spork, googly-eyes, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks literally rescued from the trash and slapped together as a figurine. The joy that Forky brings to Bonnie is immeasurable, with the gangly, largely immobile creation becoming her new best toy friend. Forky, who thinks he’s still trash and can’t understand why he’s even alive, doesn’t see any value in himself, but Woody tries to convince the new addition to the Toy Story family that he’s valuable and loved.

For Hale, who’s perhaps best known for his roles on Arrested Development and Veep (where he won two Emmys for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series and had three other nominations in the category), Forky was both a newborn blank slate and infinitely relatable.

“I immediately connected to Forky, and I still connect to Forky,” Hale says when asked how much of himself he put into Forky. “He asks ‘Why am I here?’ And I feel like I’m constantly questioning, ‘How did I get here?’  He’s overwhelmed, and I’m always very overwhelmed by this process. I also [related to this feeling] of the imposter theory. I was always worried that someone was going to come in at any time and realize that they made a huge mistake by hiring me. He just has a very childlike wonder to him. Everything is new to him. He doesn’t understand the rules of this universe. Nothing makes sense to him. He’s just one big sponge-slash-spork standing on a couple of popsicle sticks. They brought me up to Pixar – which was a crazy experience because it’s just this creative wonderland to visit – and then they just started describing the character to me. They told me he had this neurotic energy, and I was, like, ‘check.’ The coolest thing about Pixar other than how they create this creative family environment was that they broke him down to me in such a great way.”

“I thought about my daughter when she was about four or five and all the questions she had back then; just one after another,” Hale says about tapping into Forky’s uniquely inquisitive nature. “She would constantly absorb everything around her, and that was how I saw Forky once they described him to me.”

Hale has fun talking about how Forky can find wonder or fear in just about any given situation, but one word the actor wouldn’t use to describe the character is “simplistic.” One of Forky’s most endearing traits – and something Hale hopes viewers young and old can take from Toy Story 4 – is the character’s yearning for a place to belong.

“He looks simple, and he sees the world in simple ways, but he’s not all that simple of a character. He goes from thinking he’s trash that people throw out after they’re done having chili to learning through Woody that he has a greater purpose and value than that. What a beautiful thing to put out into the world. Lots of people might think they’ve been put here just to do one specific thing and that they’re aren’t good for much else. However you’re feeling, or however you see yourself, you’re more than just a moment where you feel like trash. We all have times where we feel down on ourself. There are so many external factors that can make you feel a certain way about yourself, but the truth within you is that you have unbelievable value. Everybody has tremendous purpose, and I love being a part of that.”

“I think one of the reasons that Toy Story has lasted over time is that you see this cast of characters that are all incredibly different, but they’re all there for each other,” he continues. “They root for each other, and they all have each other’s backs. I feel like we’re not meant to go through life on our own. We need each other, and you see that in this gang of misfits. They’re not even misfits, really. They’re just people who need each other.”

For Hale, becoming involved with the Toy Story franchise felt in some ways like his career was coming full circle, transporting him back to the time when he nervously left behind his hometown of Tallahassee, Florida to head north and pursue his dreams.

“I heard that they were interested in me for the part, which was crazy to me,” Hale enthuses about his excitement to join the Pixar family of notable characters. “The first Toy Story came out in 1995, which was the year I moved to New York to become an actor. I remember seeing it and thinking that the animation was on an entirely different level. I never would’ve thought I would become a part of this process back then.”

Toy Story 4 isn’t Hale’s only foray into family filmmaking or animation, but he is glad that he has something else he can share with his now thirteen year-old daughter that isn’t as “colourful,” “edgy,” or filled with “crass language” as some of his other works. In 2014, Hale published a children’s book, Archibald’s Next Big Thing, which has just been animated and adapted into a series by Netflix and Dreamworks, with a release scheduled for later in the year. For Hale, working in the field of animation opens up a world where anything is visually possible, but also a host of new challenges for an actor.

“The stories you can create in animation don’t come with boundaries. You don’t have to search for locations or specific looks. You can go anywhere. With Toy Story, you can see that in this really simple craft project coming to life. As you’re watching him and these toys, you step back and  think about how much emotional energy you’ve invested into following the likes of a talking dinosaur. Animation can create worlds that suck you in and make you feel for things you never expected to feel things for.”

“You get very used to playing off the energy of others as an actor,” Hale continues, when talking about how voice acting is different from any of the other work he’s done, and the learning curve one faces in a recording studio. “One of the things that I really appreciate about Pixar is that, typically when you do animation, you’re set apart from the creators by this sheet of glass between you. You have your headphones, you do your lines, and then everything tends to go silent while you see all of these mouths on the other side talking about you and what you just did. You see that when you’re working on animation, and you get this wave of insecurity that comes over you. But Pixar keeps you in the same room as the directors, writers, and producers, so you feel like a part of the collaboration and not so set apart. They know that you can’t be in the booth with other actors, so they want you to feel like you’re still very much involved in the process. That helped me gain ownership over my part of the story.”

Not interacting with other performers also adds a bit of difficulty when it comes to the creation of comedic timing. Hale also says that Forky’s unique appearance and limited movement posed its own set of fruitful creative challenges for the actor.

“It’s tricky, because with comedy, you’re always used to using physicality and conveying things non-verbally, like raising an eyebrow, or giving someone a look, or some small thing. When you just have the microphone, it’s intimidating at first. You wonder how to channel that into something the audience will hear. Then you learn how to use that physicality while you’re performing to hopefully send some of that energy through the mic. And it’s also tricky because Forky’s only real physicality is through his arms, which are these pipe cleaners. He has no flexibility in any way. Even his googly-eyes are going off in different directions all the time. He doesn’t even have control over his eyes. One of my favourite visuals in the movie is Forky and Woody walking down the street, and Woody has this really confident stride, and Forky just kind of waddles or has to be dragged down the street by Woody. That’s such a fun thing to see and think about when playing a character like this.”

One thing Hale was quite prepared to play was Forky’s perpetually flustered and high strung nature, something that actor admits has similarities to some of his most well remembered and regarded on screen characters. In fact, Hale suggests that a lot of Forky’s performance is an extension of the character that he recently wrapped performing, Gary Walsh on Veep.

“I think it helped that I was coming from Veep, where so much of my character was made up of these really odd noises that Gary would say,” Hale says with a chuckle about Forky’s obvious comparisons to some of his past characters. “Selina Meyer and I on Veep had this idea that my character shouldn’t speak, and I would often speak in these grunts, mumbles, and moans. I was called, for lack of a better word, a ‘mime,’ but think of a worse word for that. (laughs) I brought a lot of that into Forky in terms of the grunts that would happen. Veep actually gave me a lot of practice for playing Forky.”

Hale is humbled by his chance to be a part of one of the most beloved animated franchises of all time, and while he can readily talk about how proud he is of his performance as Forky, he still can’t quite articulate how mind-blowing it was for him to see the final cut of Toy Story 4.

“All of us are so thankful and grateful for being a part of the cast of something like this, but we’re such a small part of the pie,” Hale says, making sure that those working behind the camera to make Toy Story 4 into the most beautiful project he’s ever been a part of get their proper due. “The artistry that went into the film is most of the pie. They have put years of labour into this, and it’s a work of art. It’s like magic to me. I still don’t comprehend the amount of hours that goes into something like making Bo Peep’s skin look like it’s porcelain. The lighting during the rainstorm at the beginning of the film blows my mind. You can’t believe sometimes that this isn’t real. I don’t get how they do that. It just seems like a stunning masterpiece to me.”

Toy Story 4 opens in theatres everywhere on Thursday, June 20, 2019.

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