It’s hard to think of an actor more versatile than Alan Tudyk, who’ll appear at Brisbane’s Supanova Pop Culture Expo this weekend.
Tudyk is probably best known for his role as lovable space pilot Hoban ‘Wash’ Washburn in Joss Whedon’s cult sci-fi series, Firefly (and its cinematic spin-off, Serenity).
Before that, his breakthrough role came as a gay German drug addict in 28 Days, and since then he’s popped up just about everywhere, playing just about everything — a monosyllabic pirate in Dodgeball, an emotional robot in I, Robot, a well-meaning hillbilly in Tucker & Dale Vs Evil, a racist baseball manager in 42, a cult leader in Strangers With Candy, a convicted pedophile in CSI, a pastor in Arrested Development, an inappropriate boss in Knocked Up, a square on a bad drug trip in Death At A Funeral, and dozens of other roles besides.
He’s also lent his voice to a vast range of animated projects, including Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. He’s even played Superman (in the animated Justice League: War).
Tudyk is so versatile, in fact, that Joss Whedon actually turned his skills into a plot point in Dollhouse, where Tudyk played a man who accidentally downloaded 48 separate personalities.
When I ask him which role has been closest to his true self, though, he doesn’t hesitate.
“That’d be Wash from Firefly,” he says. “He flew the space ship, but he was a smart-ass, and he would rather hang out with his wife than fight. He would always say, ‘Why don’t we just run? Can’t we run? Isn’t that an option? Nobody said run. I want to put run on the table. Let’s run away.’ He had no problem with that. And that’s me, really. That’s how I am. Let’s just enjoy ourselves! He just wanted to have a good time and enjoy his wife and his life and have a little bit of excitement here and there, but no violence. That character was probably the closest to me.”
Firefly was cancelled after just one season in 2002, but its fans have always insisted that it didn’t get a fair go — and that if the show aired today, it would be a hit.
“Oh, it would absolutely fare differently today,” Tudyk agrees. “There’s one thing that people always forget about when they talk about Firefly, which is that at that time, Buffy and Angel were on the air simultaneously. So we were the third Joss Whedon show on the air. So I think that factored into it. That had to have factored into Fox’s decision [to cancel the show]. It’s not that they said, ‘Oh, well, we can afford to lose a Joss Whedon show’, but his voice was around.
“But now? If Joss Whedon had a space show on television? I mean, come on! It’s got a built-in audience, and it’s an audience that people are always trying to capture, that Hollywood is always trying to capture. Comic-Con is huge. I mean, there are Comic-Cons all over, but if you go down to the big one in San Diego, that is Hollywood in San Diego. They land there and they have these huge events to draw attention to their projects. They’re trying to capture the interest of sci-fi nerds. They want the nerds on their side, and they want them to start tweeting and talking about it so they can become the cool thing for nerds. None of that existed back then. I mean, the internet existed, but it didn’t exist the same way it does now.
“The landscape of cable channels didn’t exist then as it does now, either. When a show gets cancelled now, there are other opportunities for it to land someplace else. SyFy was our best chance when we got cancelled by Fox, but they were just starting this little thing called Battlestar Galactica. It hadn’t come on yet, but they were like, ‘No, no, we’ve got this other thing we’re going to do that’s set in space’. And that ran for years.
“But I certainly think that if Firefly came on now, it would be a different story.”
Some of Tudyk’s other parts have been far more of a stretch for him — for instance, his turn as racist baseball manager Ben Chapman in 42. The role required him to hurl racist slurs at actor Chadwick Boseman (who played pioneering African-American baseball player Jackie Robinson), and some of the slurs were improvised.
“Yeah, the director [Brian Helgeland] asked me to improvise, more for the benefit of Chadwick’s performance than for me,” Tudyk explains. “He wanted to see his reaction, because Chadwick had obviously read the script, so he knew what was coming, and that made him a little bit immune to it on some level. But when I went off-script, and started saying all this other racist stuff, well, then… Chadwick’s eyes flashed, like, ‘What the hell? This isn’t in the script! If this isn’t in the script, where is this coming from? Who’s yelling this at me? Is that Alan’s character yelling at me, or is that Alan yelling at me?’
“But honestly, racism is alive! There were people in the stands coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey man, you’re not saying my favourite one!’ I’m not kidding! People would come up to me and say, ‘Here’s one you should say’. And not just random people in the crowd, it was the other actors, too. These very sensitive actor types would come up and say, ‘Well, I grew up in North Carolina, and in North Carolina, we’d say this…’ And some of that stuff ended up in the movie. Sad, but true.”
Physically, Tudyk’s biggest challenge came when he provided the voice and motion capture for the robot with a conscience, Sonny, in I, Robot.
“I got in shape for I, Robot, even though you didn’t see me in the movie,” he laughs. “They had a teamster show up at my apartment every morning at seven o’clock and buzz me awake, and then drag me to the gym for an hour and a half. I didn’t have a choice! Then they’d take me to ‘robot camp’, where we figured out how the robot moved, how he walked, how he behaved. That was really the best part of the process, because it was like theatre camp. I got into crazy good shape, because they wanted the robot to walk with muscles, or something. I don’t remember the excuse, exactly.
“A lot of people think that digital animation is just digital make-up; that the animation does whatever your face does. And to a certain point, it does, but it’s limited. There’s a team of thousands of artists who take your face and then add a face to it. They use your face as the guide, but things get changed. They can’t do everything you do. It’s a collaboration. So if I could change anything, I wish that there was some piece of film somewhere that was just of my performance, before the collaboration took place. I think we got some really good stuff that got changed.
“But it definitely looked a lot better as a robot as opposed to some guy in a spandex suit. I don’t think the movie would have been as successful if the robot was a ginger guy jumping around in a green suit.”
Tudyk just wrapped his latest film, Trumbo. It was also a physically demanding part, but not for quite the same reasons.
“We shot it in New Orleans,” he explains, sounding sheepish. “New Orleans has a lot of food that is very tasty but it’s very fattening. My favourite dessert is bread pudding, and usually, nobody ever has it! So whenever I see it, it’s like, ‘Oh, let me get that, because it’s my thing that I love more than anything’. But in New Orleans, everybody has it! So my default setting, that I have to grab it while I can just because it’s there, it became a problem. It was raining bread pudding, and that’s disgusting. Just the image of that is disgusting.
“So I put on about, oh, ten pounds, which I’m feverishly trying to… pretend isn’t there. I’m not really working to get it off, I’m just avoiding it. You do what you can.”
Clearly, Tudyk hasn’t been affected by the typecasting that often comes with a role in a cult sci-fi show. In fact, virtually all of Firefly‘s cast members have gone on to do more high-profile work, which Tudyk says is a credit to the talent that worked on the show.
“From my perspective, I was fortunate enough to have had a couple of other projects prior to Firefly,” he remembers. “That may have helped. I played characters in A Knight’s Tale and 28 Days, I did some movies. So by the time I did Firefly, it kind of became just another role. But I don’t know… there are some people who were in that cast who are just really talented, and they couldn’t be defined by that one show. People in Hollywood wanted them.
“Nathan Fillion was very sought after, because he’s good lookin’ and he’s funny. That’s rare. I’ve got the funny thing down, but the other part, that’s the hard one. But hey, that’s what make-up’s for… and once I get these ten pounds off, I’m back, baby!”
Alan Tudyk will appear at the Supanova Pop Culture Expo from 28-30 November at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre.