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What It's Like To Be A Part Of The 'Vanishing Middle Class

For many people being part of the vanishing middle class is more of a steep and violent descent rather than a gradual fall.


Other segments from the episode on June 22, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 22, 2016: Interview with Tony Hale; commentary about the "vanishing middle class"



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Tony Hale, has won two Emmy awards for his performance on HBO's comedy series "Veep." He plays Gary Walsh, the personal aide to Selina Meyer, the vice president who last season inherited the White House after the president resigned. Hale also co-starred in "Arrested Development" as Buster, the youngest of the Bluth siblings. "Veep" is about political rivalries, power plays and gaffes, and there's plenty of gaffes since Selina and much of her staff are pretty inept.

Last season, Selina Meyer ran for president, hoping to stay in the White House, but the election ended in an Electoral College tie. This season, her attention turned to the recount and to the House of Representatives, which is supposed to decide the outcome in the event of a tie. Meanwhile, Gary, who's been with Selina for years, remains loyal to her. He worships her and he fawns over her. He carries her oversized handbag, nicknamed the Leviathan, which now holds the nuclear code. He's always standing right behind her, reminding her of the names of the people she's greeting and suggesting things she might say to them. He even chooses clothes for her. In this scene, from earlier this season, Selina's mother is in the hospital and critically ill, but all Selina can think about is the recount. In order to have a quiet space, Selina, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Gary go to the hospital chapel.


JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Do you pray?

TONY HALE: (As Gary Walsh) A lot.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) What do you pray for?

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) You - you know. Do you want - do you maybe want to try it?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Sure. You know, what the hell? We're here, right?

HALE: (Gary Walsh) OK. All right.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Yeah.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) OK.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) God, I - I just - I'm...

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) God, it's me, Selina.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Oh, Lord, God. It's me, Selina.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Wisdom and strength.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Grant me wisdom and strength.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Give us your comforting presence.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Give us your comforting - I've got it now. I've got it. Lord, God, please ease my mother's pain and suffering.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Ease her passing. Ease it all. Ease it down the - the - Lord, let her daughter, thy humble servant, be the first woman elected president of the United States. Please. This is so much to bear.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) It is, Lord, it is.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Hear my prayer.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Hear her prayer.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Lift me up.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Lift her, Lord.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) No, I mean actually lift me up 'cause my heel is stuck in this.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) OK.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Yeah, I got it.


GROSS: Tony Hale, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me ask you to describe your character of Gary.

HALE: Oh, sweet Gary.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (Laughter).

HALE: Gary has been with the president for many, many years, and he's what's called a body man. It's - and he what he does is, he pretty much carries around a bag and anything she needs, like, it could be Purell or pens or her speech or other things is in this bag. And so he's always by her side. And typically, when we - before we started the - shooting the pilot, we were able to meet people who had done this role just to kind of find out about their life. And I met a guy who was a body man, and he did it his 20s and he did it for a couple years and then burned out and moved on to other stuff. My character has done into his 40s because he has no identity outside of Selina Meyer, and he worships her. She is so verbally abusive to him, (laughter), but he doesn't hear it. He just bounces back like, you know, some kind of domestic abuse situation. And he is perfectly content where he is.

GROSS: So I never heard the expression body man until I started watching "Veep." Is that the word that's actually used in Washington for people who follow around? Is it only - do only women in politics have a body man?

HALE: No, both men and women do. It's either called - there are two ways of saying - there's either a body man or a bag man. And - but typically, body man is the term used, like Reggie Love was Obama's at a time - and so the - each famous politician will have one.

GROSS: But Obama doesn't have a giant handbag like President Meyer does (laughter).

HALE: (Laughter) Yeah. Well, they typically carry around some kind of bag to kind of - if they - whatever they need.

GROSS: An attache or something...

HALE: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: ...Briefcase.

HALE: And my character, there's a - it's - the horror is if he runs out of anything in his bag, that is just an absolute nightmare. So he's got, like, Costco versions at home of what's in his bag because God forbid he runs out...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HALE: ...And gets abused again (laughter).

GROSS: So the handbag, which has been nicknamed The Leviathan, now has the nuclear code in it as well as things like tampons.


GROSS: So do you have...

HALE: Very important.

GROSS: Have you met, like, the person who's done this for President Obama? Did you meet him, or did you - did you meet the equivalent for Hillary Clinton or...

HALE: Yeah, we...

GROSS: ...Does Donald Trump have a body man?

HALE: Yeah, I'm sure - yeah, I'm sure he does.

GROSS: He has a very small staff, I don't know (laughter).

HALE: Yeah, (laughter) I know. I did - well, we - I actually did meet Reggie. We did this panel together, and he kind of talked about his experience and I talked about my experience. And I pretty much just apologized because I brought shame to the position because what my character does and is, is no representation of what actually happens. He's kind of a mess. But yeah, as - you know, as - we did - I did get a chance to meet that guy before we shot the pilot.

And it was fun to kind of hear of his experiences. And he really didn't have, for two years of his life, any life. He never saw his family. He never saw his friends, anybody because he was so connected to his politician. And my character, obviously, has continued it for several years beyond that. And he's happy to not have any life outside of Selina (laughter). He loves his identity being wrapped around her.

GROSS: So one of the things your character has to do is whisper in Selina's ear what she needs to know about each person that she's meeting and what she needs to say. So, like, when she says to a congressman, oh, and this must be your wife. You whisper...

HALE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In her ear, that's not his wife. It's a prostitute.

HALE: Yeah.


HALE: Yeah. That's not his wife. And there was another time when she said - she was talking to somebody and she said, oh, how - right before, she said to another guy - how is your wife? And I said, he's divorced. And so she has to quickly turn it into some other topic. So I think Gary is very important, but he - the thing about Gary that's - is fun to play is he knows nothing about politics (laughter), doesn't care to know about politics, doesn't know - but he knows these random factoids about people. And so he'll just whisper in her ear just, like, you know, I don't know - his daughter's in rehab or he likes eclairs or he's a fan of Britney Spears or something just random so that she can have these conversation pieces, which are probably not good conversation pieces to have, but he thinks so.

GROSS: So your character hardly talks. He's usually just, like, whispering lines to...

HALE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Selina. So what does your script look like? When you get your script, does it say, Gary, parentheses, looks pained, Gary, parentheses, winces...

HALE: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Gary, parentheses, looks confused? Like, what - because you don't always have lines, but you're on camera...

HALE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...A lot and you're conveying a lot through your facial expressions and your body posture.

HALE: Yeah. I mean, they definitely - they give me kind of a lot of fun lines and tidbits to play with and to kind of react off of her. However, there's times - because in the - which is very special to this show that I've never experienced before - they do give us these two weeks of rehearsal time before we shoot. And so in that time, since I'm always standing behind her, I can kind of play with, you know, how would I react to that, or, you know, make odd noises. I mean, Gary's, like, big on, like - all of a sudden he'll just go (makes noise). He just makes these really awkward noises behind her, which I'm sure is so annoying. But - so it's fun to kind of play with that and just to kind of have that life behind her.

But, I mean, what's crazy is, you know, she's in the public eye and there's stuff that she - you know, she can't react a certain way or say certain things in public. But it's wild that I'm standing behind her and I have got the worst poker face. Like, I am having the most - I'm - my reactions are kind of saying what she wants to say sometimes, like I'm just looking at somebody deadpan or thinking they're an idiot or - and I just freely react. And it's - amazed that I still have this job because anybody else would be fired.

GROSS: So although your character doesn't have much dialogue because he's mostly just, like, reacting and giving her little verbal cues, there is a very famous scene (laughter) in which you and Selina have a big fight. And this is...

HALE: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...Soon after the president resigns and Selina becomes president. You start to assert your new power by doing things you believe are right but probably aren't. For instance, there's a painting she doesn't like, so you have it removed from the White House, but it turns out to be the only painting in the White House by a Native American.

HALE: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: And that becomes this, like, huge issue and a big PR crisis. Then you also spend way too much money on the first state dinner, which also becomes a big PR crisis because she's accused of overspending. When Selina finds out that you're the person behind these disasters, she's furious with you. And she goes to find you and you're kind of trying to hide from her.


LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Come out of there.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Ma'am, if you'll just let me explain.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Come out here now. Who do you think you are, Gary Antoinette? Did somebody make you first lady 'cause I don't remember marrying you, Gary. I don't remember [expletive] you in Niagara Falls. I think I'd remember that.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Ma'am, I'm really sorry for the painting, and I'm really sorry for the spending, but you have to understand...

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Oh, shut up. Just shut up. You are unimportant, OK? And you have suckered on to me like some sort of a car window Garfield.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) That is not true, ma'am.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) You think you're some sort of a big shot here? (Laughter) Oh, my God. You are not a big shot, Gary. You are a middle-aged man who sanitizes my tweezers - God.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) You're wrong.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Excuse me?

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) When Catherine's birthday?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) June 8.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Ninth.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Ninth.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Which senator's daughter's in rehab?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) You're out of line, missy.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Gildrey (ph). What are you wearing tomorrow?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) I don't know.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) I do. I'm your calendar. I'm your google. I'm your Wilson the volleyball.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) No, you're not.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Yes, I am.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) No, you're not.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) I have broken my body for you.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Oh, come on.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) I have let myself be laughed at. I have let myself be humiliated. Now, I'm happy to do it. Most of the time you don't even know that I exist. But I am [expletive] everything to you.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Oh, well, I am so happy to get somebody else to give me my hand cream.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) OK, go.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Yeah.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Can you find somebody else who did what I did?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) You mean on Labor Day.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) I didn't say that.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Yeah, you did. You just did - you - you just said Labor Day.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) I said I would never mention that ever.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Oh, God. OK, look, I'm - I'm sorry if I lost my temper a little bit.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) I am so sorry for the words that I just spoke.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) You know, in a relationship - you know, it's just good to clear the air is what I mean to say.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Yeah, I think any relationship...

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Yeah, should do that, you know, from time to time.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Yeah, yeah, yeah.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) That looks good.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Do you - it's light sponge. Would you like a piece?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) OK, I'll have one piece I guess.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Yes, ma'am. It's light sponge.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) You just told me that. Gildrey's daughter is in rehab?

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Yes.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) That explains all that energy.

HALE: (As Gary Walsh) A lot of energy.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Right. Wow, this is a light sponge.

GROSS: (Laughter) And the sponge is sponge cake (laughter). That'll give a nice sense of the dynamic between you and Selina Meyer on "Veep." My guest is Tony Hale who plays Gary, the president's personal aide, body man (laughter) on the HBO series "Veep." So what happened on Labor Day? Do you know?

HALE: Oh, man, I don't know. But I am dying to find out, man.

GROSS: Do you think you're going to find out?

HALE: Something dark.

GROSS: Do you think there's going to be a thing about that?

HALE: That's a good question. I - I hope we do. I mean, there's something fun to not knowing just because it's got to be something really dark...

GROSS: Yeah.

HALE: ...'Cause I've done some dark things for her. I've dug out the - I've dug out stuff in the trash for her. I've broken up with boyfriends for her. She told me - I think it was season one where she's like, I need you to break up with this guy for me, and I was like, I'm on it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HALE: So, I mean, I've done a lot of weird stuff, but something happened on Labor Day, man, that takes it - like that's - it's got to be really dark.

GROSS: Hey, you've walked in on the president and the vice president having sex, right? I don't know what you're going to be doing with that information.

HALE: Which was like walking in on Mom and Dad having sex. That was a rough day for Gary.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HALE: That was a rough one.

GROSS: So there's times when you seem to be improvising. Do you do a lot of improv and do you have any favorite improv lines?

HALE: Oh, man. I remember there was one time in this season where John Slattery came in to play Julia Louis-Dreyfus' love interest. And he's such a nice guy. And we were rehearsing and he was the - he's the first person in Gary's career that has known Selina that has been kind and genuine to Gary 'cause Gary's never - Gary's never really noticed. And he started asking Gary questions about where he's from and what his family's like and Gary just started getting obsessed with with this character. And I remember one time he says, Gary, do you come from a big family? And I said, I do come from a big family. I do. And then I said, I'm actually an only child. I don't know why I said that.


HALE: 'Cause he so desperately wanted to agree with whatever this man said to him, and he so desperately wanted his affection. That kind of came out at rehearsals and that was fun.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tony Hale, and he's one of the co-stars of "Veep." He plays the vice president, now president, Selina Meyer's personal aide. So we're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Tony Hale. He co-stars on "Veep" as the vice president - now President Selina Meyer's personal aide or body man, as it's called in the biz. He carries around her oversized handbag and whispers in her ear reminders about things she's supposed to say and the names of people that she's meeting. Tony Hale also co-starred in "Arrested Development" as Buster, the youngest of the Bluth siblings. So on "Arrested Development," you played a character who has similarities to your character on "Veep" in the sense that they're both kind of under the spell of a very dominant woman.

In the case of "Veep," it's Selina Meyer, the vice president, now president. But in the case of "Arrested Development," it was his mother, who - she wasn't president, but she was a kind of very snobbish, controlling socialite who told him what to do and when to do it. And he was - you know, it was hard for him to develop - to leave the house (laughter), to leave home and to develop any kind of personality of his own. So how did you get that part?

HALE: Wow, I was - and yes, there definitely are. There definitely are similarities. I always think, like, Gary would - with Selina Gary would definitely defend his Selina whereas I don't know if Buster would defend his mother. I think Barry - Buster's kind of in a state of constant paralysis. But I was living in New York. I had moved to New York in '95 and was there until 2003. And then towards the end of my time there - I had been doing commercials and theater. And this audition came my way. And I was a big fan of Christopher Guest movies - "Waiting For Guffman" and "Best In Show" and stuff. And this script reminded me of that.

But again, I had just been doing commercials and hadn't done - very little television. So I was thinking oh, this is such a long shot. But I'll go in and put myself on tape. And they - you know, they called me out to L.A. for a callback which was crazy. That's crazy. And I was - just remember telling my then-fiance just, like, what's happening? And so I flew out to L.A. And, you know, I was in the audition and got the part which is nuts.

And I remember - I just - I think I stayed out there for - my memory is kind of bad. But I think I had to stay out there to - we were going to go right into shooting. Yeah, we were going right into shooting. I remember I didn't have any underwear. So I had to, like, go to Old Navy to get underwear. And I was just, like, I was just so overwhelmed by the experience. And I loved Mitch Hurwitz. And I loved the writing and the character. And it was just - it was quite crazy.

And then I moved back to New York and I was done. And then 10 days before I married my wife, the show got picked up. And I was like, sweetie, we're moving to L.A. And she kindly followed me.

GROSS: Aww, that's great. Let's hear a scene from "Arrested Development." And this is a scene from season one. And your character is Buster. And you've gone out with your mom to a fancy event. But she's forced you to leave your eyeglasses at home because she says you look better without them. Meantime, during the event, a woman writes you a note propositioning you. You don't know who the woman is because you only saw a blurry figure without your glasses.

But you're so excited that somebody - oh, that a woman is paying attention to you. And so neither you nor your mother realize that this woman who sent you the note is actually your mother's rival. You know, she's your mother's age, she's her rival. And she's played in the series by Liza Minnelli. So you're so excited that you got this note that you're already in love with her even though you have no idea who she is. And your mother, who's played by Jessica Walter, is very upset by this.

And so in this scene - your mother, your brother, Michael, played by Jason Bateman, and you are all talking about this. And your mother speaks first.


JESSICA WALTER: (As Lucille Bluth) Buster's out of control.

JASON BATEMAN: (As Michael Bluth) What do you mean, another panic attack?

HALE: (As Buster Bluth) Me? No, she's just wigged out because I have a girlfriend.

WALTER: (As Lucille Bluth) A waiter hands him a note, suddenly he's Steve McQueen. He doesn't even know what she looks like.

BATEMAN: (As Buster Bluth) I know she has a brownish area with points. And I know I love her.

WALTER: (As Lucille Bluth) I'm calling Dr. Miller.

HALE: (As Buster Bluth) OK, I don't know I love her. But I cannot tell you how liberating it is to be with someone who's not mom, who's nothing like her.

BATEMAN: (As Michael Bluth) Yeah, and you just - you're just jumping right into this, huh?

HALE: (As Buster Bluth) Oh, yes, yes - that's what you do when life hands you a chance to be with someone special. You just grab that brownish area by its points. And you don't let go no matter what your mom says.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HALE: Oh, my, I haven't heard that in a while.

GROSS: Because of the similarities that we've discussed between the two characters, do you ever wonder, why do I get roles representing a character who can't differentiate himself from a parental figure?

HALE: (Laugher) I guess I just do emasculated and meek very well.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HALE: Yeah, definitely the two characters that have gotten the most, I guess, attention have - there are some similarities there.

GROSS: My guest is Tony Hale. He plays Gary, the president's personal aide on HBO's comedy series "Veep." After a break, we'll talk about playing characters coping with anxiety and how he deals with his own. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Tony Hale who co-stars on the HBO comedy series "Veep." He plays Gary, the personal aide to the vice president who recently became president of the United States. She's played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Hale also co-starred in

GROSS: The personal aide to the vice president who recently became president of the United States. She's played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Hale also costarred in "Arrested Development" as Buster Bluth. He won two Emmys for his performance on "Veep."

So your wife won an Emmy Award as a makeup artist. Did she ever do your makeup?

HALE: She did not in New York. We didn't meet that way in New York. We actually met at church. But she now - in LA, if I'm doing stuff for where I - where I need makeup for an interview or something like that, she'll do that, and it's great. We love working together.

GROSS: How did you meet at church?

HALE: She - she was a makeup artist on "Saturday Night Live!" at the time. And we were going to this church called Redeemer Presbyterian in New York. And I actually - it wasn't at the church. It was this - I had started this kind of - my friend and I actually had started this group called The Haven where we had met a lot of people who are artists whose faith was important to them, but they maybe weren't necessarily supported by their church back home or they weren't maybe supported by the Christian community with what they were doing.

And my parents were very - I'd like to say that my parents were very supportive. But we just kind of started this group where we kind of went to see each other's work and just hung out. And she had come to that. And we met and just kind of hit it off.

GROSS: Do you still practice faith the way you were brought up, or did you try to redefine what faith meant to you as an adult?

HALE: I think - yeah, I think any time in someone's faith journey - my faith journey also - you go through doubting. You go through - I think you kind of have to go through that, honestly, just to ask the tough questions. And so I think yeah, there's always been some redefining - I don't know about redefining it is the right word but just making it more mine rather than maybe something I grew up with because I was raised in the South. And I was raised in the Baptist church.

And yeah, I mean, it's everything to me. It's incredibly - to walk through this - I mean, life is crazy. And to know that, honestly, a loving God is walking through it with me is very comforting for me. But yeah, I mean, it's - I've been through my own times of just like what does this mean? And how can this mean this and asked the questions.

And I've thankfully had a lot of people around me who have allowed me to ask those questions. And we've talked about it and walked through it together and struggled through it. And, I mean, that's very, very important. And it's important to have those people around you you can be honest with.

GROSS: So like a lot of actors, you got your start in commercials. And I think the most famous of the ads that you did was a VW ad where you're in your car with the windows rolled up. And you're dancing and singing along, but we don't hear you at first, with the Styx recording of "Mr. Roboto." And I confess I did not know that song. I'm not a close follower of Styx' musical output. But did you know the song? Did the song mean anything to you?

HALE: I don't know if it meant anything to me. I did know it. And the director just kind of - who was Phil Morrison, actually - the director, he just, you know, put me in a car and just said, you know, just go crazy. Just lose your mind to the song. And I was like all right, game on. And it was actually between that song or "Rock Me Amadeus," was the songs they were they were trying to choose from.

But that was just - all I remember is just, you know, going crazy and having fun and being silly. And, you know, because I did commercials for, like, six years. And I will say I loved it. I really had a fun time with it because a lot of the commercials were silly and quirky and fun. And they were really fun to play.

GROSS: So does it pay well to do commercials?

HALE: Yeah. I had a lot of jobs in New York. I cater-waitered and did commercials and temped. And then it got to a place where I was getting enough commercials that I was able to pay my rent through it - from it. So yeah, at the time it did. New York is a very, very expensive place to live. And it afforded me to live in this little studio I had.

GROSS: You also got some tiny parts on big shows, like, for example, in "The Sopranos" you played a medical worker who's giving chemo to Uncle Junior. So I don't think it was a speaking role. But, like, you're so close yet so far away with a role like that (laughter).

HALE: But I was so excited to get it. I remember - 'cause I did that and I did this little part on "Sex And The City." And I was so ecstatic because I was doing commercials, loving doing commercials. But, you know, the TV roles were not happening. And so getting that, I was very nervous.

And I played, like, on "Sex And The City" I played this photographer's assistant. And I remember I just had to stand - or I was sitting next to the photographer, and I just kind of had to look like with these googly eyes on Kim Cattrall, who was having photographs taken. And so maybe I gave some kind of a weird look, which I guess is my forte.

GROSS: You've said in the past that you used to be worried at parties that you'd be asked, so what do you do for a living? And if you didn't have a role booked, you wouldn't know what to say and you wouldn't know how to present...

HALE: I know.

GROSS: ...Yourself. Can you talk a little bit about the anxieties that that kind of thing creates?

HALE: Yeah, it's my favorite topic. I mean, there's a reason I do anxiety - anxious characters. That comes from a lot of personal anxiety.

GROSS: Does it?

HALE: Oh sure. I mean, yeah, I remember being in New York and thinking like, oh, I want to have something in my back pocket to be able to talk about. And if, like, three or four months had gone by since doing the job, I'd have been like oh, that's too much time to bring that up in conversation. So you wanted to have something relevant.

And I just remember doing that a lot, which is a bummer - you know, which is a bummer because I think in this business you get the question of, like, what's next for you? What's next for you? What's next for you? And it can get you so focused on that - oh god, I have to have something coming up or I have to have something that you can - because, you know, you don't kind of go up to a dentist and say what's next for you? Oh, I'm doing this molar and I'm - you know, I might do a cavity.

You know, it's like there's - since we're free-lancers, people are curious, which I think is great. But you kind of always maybe want to have something in your arsenal to say, oh this is - you don't - I don't think it's right. But in your head actors can be like, oh, I want to have something coming up or having just done something to have something to talk about, which is a really unfortunate way of thinking.

GROSS: I guess it's the opposite of being in the moment.

HALE: It's opposite of being in the moment. And honestly, that - when I was on "Arrested Development" - I really learned a massive lesson from "Arrested Development" because here's a show that was so well-written and so funny and the cast was so great and I really did love being there. But I remember getting it and it's all I ever wanted. And I remember it not satisfying the way I thought it was going to satisfy.

And it really freaked me out because it was my dream. It was my dream to be on a sitcom. And I look back, and I think even though New York was great and I had a fantastic support system and I did get all these commercial jobs, I don't think I was very present. I don't think I was very much - I was very in the moment. And I always looked, whatever happened I was always like oh, that sitcom's coming. That sitcom's coming. And I was so always far ahead.

And then when I got it, and I'd given that thing so much weight and it didn't satisfy, it really woke me up that if you're not practicing contentment where you are, you're not going to be content when you get what you want. And it really scared me. And it actually really woke me up when my daughter was born right after "Arrested Development" because if there's anything a baby does, is you have to be present 'cause you've got to keep it alive.

And it really gave me an opportunity to kind of assess some things and look back in my life and be like I just have not been very present. And since then, you know, through just kind of walking through that kind of awareness and therapy, just it's - practicing being present has made things richer for me, honestly. I kind of suck at it. I'm getting better at it. I'm not great at it. But I'm trying to work on it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tony Hale. He co-stars on "Veep" as the vice president and now President Selina Meyer's personal aide, and he also co-starred in "Arrested Development" as Buster. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Tony Hale, the co-star of the HBO comedy series "Veep." He plays Gary, the president's personal aide. He also co-starred in "Arrested Development." Early in his career, he founded a group of Christian artists and performers. When we left off, we were talking about playing characters who deal with a lot of anxiety. Hale tries to counteract his own anxiety by trying - and trying - to be in the moment.

Do you consider prayer a kind of exercise in being present and in kind of focusing your mind on the present and on something outside of yourself?

HALE: Yes, I do. I think prayerful meditation, being still in a space, being still with God - I don't do that enough. And I - and it's crazy because when I do do it, I always walk away from it going, why the hell am I not doing that more? Because it's so centering and it's so - it just, it broadens just the picture of life, really. I mean you just kind of go, we're spinning on a planet here, and I'm giving a lot of anxiety and a lot of weight to stuff that just doesn't matter. And it just, it's so focusing.

And so even having this talk with you, it's like, man, I need to get back to that. I need to do that a lot more than I'm doing.

GROSS: So you talked about having personal anxiety like the characters that you're famous for. What are some of the ways that that anxiety has manifested itself over the years? Like, do you get like nervous ailments, or...

HALE: When I was younger, I used to - I remember I would get panic attacks 'cause many times when those thoughts or feelings came in, I would identify with all of them when I was younger, and I'd be like, oh, my God, this is a lot. You know? But as you get older - as I've gotten older, being able to separate that from myself and being able to be like, oh, yeah, there's that crazy thought, there's that feeling, and not identify with it. But what the great thing is, having that history, it's really fun to bring that into the characters 'cause it's, (laughter), it's fun to act out an anxiety that was so full of fear when I was younger but to act it out now and play with it, that's pretty cool.

GROSS: Can you think of an example where you drew on your own anxiety to play the character?

HALE: I think with anxiety, it's not necessarily always, like, a panic attack, you know? As we all know, it's not, like, a full-fledged panic attack. Many times, it's that silent prison that you put yourself in where you're just standing there, and the tension and the awkwardness and the what-ifs in your head and the chaos in your head. And with Gary on "Veep," he, many times, just sits in that tension, and you can see so much is going on in his head but he can't say anything. He can only react. But he's just - you can tell that just something's about to explode in his head, and I love bringing that. You know, it's not this, like, wah (ph) and running around and losing your mind and - I mean sometimes anxiety can play that way out, but many times, it's just you're kind of sitting in it and it's terrifying.

And so I think I do that with a lot with Gary. And also to add to that, I remember watching - my two guys that I watched growing up were Tim Conway and Bob Newhart. I loved those guys. And they never pushed the comedy. They would always just sit in that tension. They would sit in that awkwardness. And so - 'cause I think in life, that's kind of what we do sometimes. Like, if chaos is happening around us sometimes, it's not always, like, wah (ph), run for the hills. Everybody just kind of gets really quiet and gets really still. But there's a lot going on in the head. You know?

GROSS: Yup. Yup. (Laughter).

HALE: And I like bringing that to Gary.

GROSS: So you were talking earlier about living in this, like, what's-next kind of anxiety. Are you, like, more secure as a person now?

HALE: That I attribute to therapy.


HALE: I mean, yes, maybe with certain jobs, I've become a lot more comfortable in my craft. But I think, honestly, it relates to also - sorry if I'm, like, going on tangents, but also relates to kind of fame. You know, I think people look at - I think the base of fame is, everybody wants to be known, honestly. And people look at fame as that's, like, the ultimate being known and whoever's famous, man - man, they've got their crap together. But in actuality, if you're known by people who love you and you're known, that's all the knowing you need. And actually, people who are famous and have - have a lot of people know them, that can actually make you less known, personally, because a lot of factors are involved in that.

So it's that sense of, yeah, I might have confidence professionally. Like, I might be more comfortable in front of the camera. I might - since I've had all these experience, I'm a lot more comfortable in kind of the craft of it. But in terms of personal value and personal growth and personal confidence, that's a whole other game. That's whole other - just, you know, just a journey of healing in my life or whatever and having friends around me who support me and love me, and me seeing the value in that - the most value in that. I think that's a different game.

GROSS: So one more question. When you get your script...

HALE: Please.

GROSS: Each time you get a new script for "Veep," is the first thing that you look at how many lines you have or how many times you appear on camera?

HALE: (Laughter).

GROSS: Do you just kind of skim it for your name?


HALE: Well, yeah. I mean, yeah, of course. I think, (laughter), selfishly, there is a part of you that goes, huh, what's Gary doing in this episode? I'm just curious. And then I kind of go back and read the whole story.

HALE: What's Gary - what's Gary doing in this episode? I'm just curious. And then I kind of go back and read the whole story. Yeah, totally. I'm not proud of that, but I...

GROSS: It makes sense to me (laughter).

HALE: Yeah, exactly because, you know, I'm really - Gary's a sweet little guy, and I'm curious what kind of circumstances they're giving him. They've put him through a lot.

GROSS: Well, I really enjoy watching you, and I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

HALE: Thanks. Thanks for having me. This was fun.

GROSS: Tony Hale plays Gary Walsh on the HBO series "Veep." The season finale is this Sunday. Coming up, growing up on the losing side of the economic divide. But first, there's just enough time for me to play a song I've been wanting to feature by a singer I like who's performed on our show, Susie Arioli. She loves great songs. And on her new album "Spring," she gets to show off some of her own songwriting. Here's one of her originals. It's called "Can't Say No."


SUSIE ARIOLI: (Singing) Every night is like the night before. I forget to say when, then get one more. And I'm so regretful in the morning as I stumble from the bed and out the door. And I'm groggy as I turn to face the day. And I'm foggy as I search for words to say. A little doggie has more sense to stay away from the devil in the garden, Tanquery (ph). But I can't say no. I'd often saying just let it flow because I'm a babe in this old world. I see a great big hole, and I fall in. Well, I fall in a great big hole again.

Oh, I wish that I could find a quiet place. Yeah, I know I'm better off just staying straight. I guess I can't always get my way because the devil's in that garden, Tanquery. But I can't say no, oh, I'm an optimistic girl. But just let it flow 'cause I'm a babe in this old world. I see a great big hole, and I fall in. Well, I fall in the great big hole again.

GROSS: That's Susie Arioli from her album "Spring." We'll be right back after a break with writer Mat Johnson's personal essay about growing up shut out of the middle class. This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. The expression the vanishing middle class has a lot of meaning for people like Mat Johnson, who grew up on the sinking side of the income imbalance. He's going to tell us about that in a personal essay he's written about watching his mother try to keep from getting deeper in debt. He last joined us on FRESH AIR to talk about his novel "Loving Day."

MAT JOHNSON: (Reading) When it was hot, the bill my mother wouldn't pay was the gas one. This meant peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and also dinner peanut butter sandwiches or fruit or anything else good that didn't have to be cooked or refrigerated. In the colder months, her neglected bill of choice was the electric, which meant reverting to an agrarian sleeping schedule - up at dawn, down at sunset and candlelight, despite the fact that the larger city of Philadelphia glowed alive outside our window. In the apartments where we had electric heat, we warmed ourselves by turning the oven up high and leaving his door hang open, my mom's fingers held wide to catch its heat like it was a campfire.

The phone being turned off was my favorite because it just meant more conversation and walks to the payphone two blocks away for essentials. These periods would last weeks or hours, whatever it took to get her next payday. My mom couldn't pay the bills on time during this period because she was generally broke - a full-time college student also working a full-time clerical job all while being a full-time mother as well. Without sufficient funds, some months she had to choose which bill could get paid, which bill could get paid late, which bill couldn't get paid that month at all. But eventually, whatever was turned off would be turned on again, after paying the original balance plus the late fee plus the reconnection fee plus sometimes having to lose a day of work and pay to stay home for the technician to eventually show up and bring us back into the modern age.

On top of the existing cost of her keeping her house a home, which she already could barely afford, my mom paid the poverty tax. And that informal poverty tax wasn't just on utilities. It was there in her bank account where $45 overdraft charges could accumulate into hundreds in a day. It was there in the high interest rate when she bought a car and finally bought a home, rates that may have also been higher because her blackness was factored into her loan. She wasn't just struggling with poverty. She was also struggling with effectively being fined for being poor and what together became a societal mechanism to keep her poor as well.

The three words vanishing middle class are a popular way of describing America's increasing income inequality, our slow but steady move to a polar society of haves and have-nots. But in my head, it's a sterile, nebulous phrase evoking the image of an idealized 1950s family slowly fading into grey. At best, it hints towards the long-term elements - stagnated wages, a statistical trend towards a lack of upward economic mobility and a generation shift downward. It's evidenced in omnipresent and omnivorous check-cashing storefronts which offer broke people the opportunity to further break themselves at usury rates, appliance rental companies that cause customers to pay more over time for essentials than they ever would have if they can manage good credit and an arcane credit-rating system that lowers scores drastically just for having small balance allotments or minor payment latenesses years before.

I managed to get to the middle class and grab enough of a foothold to stay in it - knock on a forest of wood. I teach at a large university in Houston and I'm fortunate to be one of the salaried professors here, as opposed to the freelance adjunct professors on campus, some of whom teach more classes than me - and get paid far less - with none of my job's benefits. I drive home to my middle-class suburb through the poverty of the Third Ward, past people who are paying far more for many of the expenses of living even though I make far more.

It would be nice to sit in my car and think that the difference between my lifestyle and theirs was just down to hard work. But I'm under no such delusion. I'm where I am in part because of my mother's sacrifice, in part because I also had a white middle-class father a few miles away who was active in my life and invested in my education. I worked hard, sure, but nobody works harder to survive than poor people. I just got some good breaks and so do many of my ancestors.

A wealthy friend told me recently that this was an anti-rich moment in America. But I see Donald Trump on TV constantly bragging about the billions he says he has, and his crowd is cheering. I think most Americans love the rich as long as they can convince themselves it's possible to join their ranks. But it's becoming increasingly obvious to even casual observers that there is no real right-angle triangle graph between our economic classes with a slow and steady gradient to the top. We are separated by cliffs incredibly easy to fall off and with few handholds to climb. The vanishing middle class sounds cold, moderate, gradual, but it's not. For far too many, this economic reality is hot, violent and now.

GROSS: Mat Johnson is the author of the novels "Loving Day" and "Pym." He's a professor in the University of Houston creative writing program.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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