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Alan Tudyk - Hollywood's Ginger Ninja

Published on “Alan who?”

You might not know Alan Tudyk by name - but you’d probably recognize his face. The charming, yet unabashedly brash ginger-haired actor is known for stealing scenes from headlining actors in memorable turns - the excitable, oft-harrassed teammate, Steve the Pirate, in Ben Stiller’s comedy, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004); playing Doc Potter opposite Christian Bale in Western 3:10 to Yuma (2007); a greedy, quick-to-anger dentist Noah Werner in the ABC sitcom, Suburgatory (2011-2014); one of a pair of loveable hillbillies mistaken for bloodthirsty killers in Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010); and a comedic, yet physically demanding part as the hallucinating, mostly-naked Simon in the original Frank Oz-directed British film, Death at a Funeral (2007).

Tudyk may be easy to identify, but, honestly, he’s probably better known to most as “Oh, that guy.” Though mainstream audiences might be clueless, Tudyk’s name is well-known and beloved by sci-fi fans and Joss Whedon devotees for his portrayal of the happy-go-lucky, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing spaceship pilot Hoban 'Wash' Washburne in Firefly (2002), and subsequent film Serenity (2005). It makes sense outsiders find him so relatable - as he revealed to Collider, “I'm a geeky actor, in the way that I like the craft of acting.”

Though he has yet to reach even B-list status, Tudyk’s IMDB profile boasts nearly 100 credits spanning his work in theatre, television, movies, webseries, and videogames - to put it into perspective, Brad Pitt, an international celebrity known worldwide, has only 74. The irony of the situation is not lost on the humorously self-deprecating Tudyk, whose Twitter biography is short and to the point:

“i am an actor and sh*t.”

The “i” isn’t even capitalized - a reflection of his humble, non-celebrity persona. Tudyk’s Twitter profile picture shows him soaking wet and miserable, standing under an umbrella that, protects him from attacking alien laser beams, yet rains mercilessly on him - a promotional still from his new comedic web-series, Con Man, a semi-autobiographical account of Tudyk’s life attending numerous sci-fi conventions after Firefly was cancelled. As he has slowly progressed from character player, to voiceover go-to, to leading man, Alan Tudyk is an actor who does it all.

Theatre work - from youthful ham to Spam(alot)

Alan Wray Tudyk was born on March 16, 1971 in El Paso, Texas - the son of Betty Loyce (née Wiley) and Timothy Nicholas Tudyk. Raised in the suburbs of Plano, Texas, Tudyk claims he was a natural “ham” from the start and began acting in local theatre at a young age. His favorite thing, however, was making his family and friends laugh. As he recounted to The Lo-Down, “Back then, if I could have any superpower, I would be the funniest person in the world.” Tudyk began creating characters on his own and participated in local theatre productions. After graduating from Plano Senior High School, he studied at Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, Texas - known at the time for its rigorous theatre program, where he won the Academic Excellence Award for drama. Tudyk formed some local sketch comedy troupes and briefly tried his hand at stand-up, before entering Juilliard. However, he left in 1996 - he felt he didn’t fit in with his intense, all-too-serious, often neurotic classmates. “I did three years at Julliard and bolted,” he explains to Steve Karras of Web2Carz. “There were a lot of drugs, some truly disturbed people who were in and out of mental institutions. They’d get out of the hospital one day and the next they’d be Othello.”

Though Julliard was out of the picture, Tudyk continued to flex his theatre muscles, debuting onstage in the Alan Zweibel play Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner – A Sort Of Love Story (1997), which explored the friendship between Zweibel and SNL funnywoman Radner. While Bruno Kirby and Paula Cale played the two leads, Tudyk played literally every other character in the script - over 20 different parts ranging from a thumbless surfer dude to Radner’s voluptuous best female friend, Judy. He went on to win that year’s Clarence Derwent Award for Most Promising Male - an honor bestowed annually by the Actors' Equity Association.

Among his other New York stage credits are Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told (1998) and David Lindsay-Abaire's Wonder of the World in 2001, both presented off-Broadway. In 1999, he made his Broadway debut, opposite Kristin Chenoweth in Larry Coen and David Crane’s Epic Proportions at the Helen Hayes Theatre.

In 2005, after filming Serenity, Tudyk replaced Hank Azaria as Sir Lancelot in Eric Idle’s Spamalot for six months when the Huff actor returned to his TV show to film the new season. Recounting his experience to Broadway World, Tudyk envisions the whole process like a natural flow: “It was great, Hank jumped off the surfboard and said "jump on buddy, it's yours". Tudyk not only had to play Lancelot, but also took on duties as the French Taunter, The Knight Who Says “Ni!”, and Tim the Enchanter. The song and dance numbers added an extra bit of difficulty - Tudyk notes, “it's a different kind of discipline you have to go through to maintain that kind of performance.”

He then starred in a limited run of Prelude to a Kiss on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre (2006) before rejoining Idle as a cast mate of An Evening Without Monty Python, which went for two nights in 2009 - first at Los Angeles’s Ricardo Montalban Theatre then in NYC, at The Town Hall. Tudyk confides to Broadway World though he loves working on films, he considers theatre his true “vacation” - “If go too long without doing a play, I just feel empty.”

Quirky roles - from flamboyant Germans to garrrrrrgantuan pirates

Tudyk made his film debut in Mark Schwahn’s indie feature, 35 Miles from Normal, playing the aimless, wisecracking best friend, Trevor. Soon after, Tudyk was cast as cheerful mental patient, Everton, in Patch Adams (1998) and stoner Janitor Sam Traxler in The Wonder Boys (2000), but his “breakthrough” came later that year, as Gerhard, Sandra Bullock's sensitive German rehab-mate in 28 Days. In test screenings, Tudyk's character was so popular with audiences, director Betty Thomas called him back to film an extra scene for the ending. As he explained to Empire, “they liked the weepy, gay, German guy so we did the scene in the flower shop in a day.”

Steady work as off-center characters kept coming after that - Tudyk did bit parts in TV shows before being cast as the jovially uber-aggressive Wat, Heath Ledger’s fiery companion, in Brian Helgeland’s jousting story, A Knight’s Tale (2001) - a performance which Variety described as “noisy and colorful”. In a Broadway World interview, Tudyk admits “I definitely drift towards the quirky, supporting roles.” The aforementioned turn as the longhaired “garrrrr”-muttering Steve the Pirate in Dodgeball is a perfect example of the types of wacky individuals he portrays. Tudyk jokes to Broadway World that the film producers seem to have him in mind when they create the characters - “’We need a guy who plays dodgeball and thinks he's a pirate! Get me Alan Tudyk on the phone!’ Those are the jobs I do.”

The actor continued to make his mark in striking parts - He and then-unknown Kristin Wiig both had scene-stealing moments as a pair of smarmy E! executives in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007) (“Just…tighten it up!”). He teamed up again with Whedon to play rogue Active - Alpha - in the short-lived series Dollhouse (2009-2010); took a martial-arts turn as Dutch, the mysterious assistant in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011); played the “haunting” historical politician, Stephen A. Douglas, in an uncredited role in the horror comedy Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012); reunited with Helgeland to play bigoted Phillies manager, Ben Chapman in the biographical baseball drama, 42 (2013); and took a memorable turn as British ghost screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter in Trumbo - a film in which the cast was nominated for both a Critics' Choice Movie Award and Screen Actors Guild Award.

A-Wash with fan support

Tudyk’s closest foray into the mainstream and stardom stemmed from his 2002 stint on Joss Whedon’s single-season FOX series, Firefly. The sci-fi/western comedic drama, set in the year 2517, followed the adventures of the ragtag, renegade crew of the smuggling spaceship, Serenity, helmed by Captain Mal Reynolds (Castle’s Nathan Fillion). Tudyk portrayed the ship’s happy-go-lucky, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing pilot, Hoban 'Wash' Washburne, who keeps his sense of humor even in the most stressful situations. Married to the captain’s tough second-in-command, the statuesque, no-nonsense, Zoe (Gina Torres), Wash is more like a little kid in an adult body. His cockpit is adorned with plastic toy dinosaurs, which he pits against each other in mock-battle in one episode.

Joss Whedon was eager to cast Tudyk in the part. As the director explained to Wired, he likes to hire comedy actors, noting “if they can do comedy, they can do everything.” Tudyk confided to Collider the pilot’s easygoing nature truly resonated with him. “Wash was the closest role to me I’ve played. He was more of a pacifist than everybody else, he was a smart-ass. He was just wanting to have a good time and get along. Do the job, have some adventure but ‘if we could not kill or hurt anyone that’d be the best’ and that’s closest to me.”

That blend of acting backgrounds certainly fit in with the theme of the show. Firefly was, arguably, unconventional - a merger of sci-fi and western genres that took place in a multi-cultural future, it also blended Western and Chinese cultures, and, unlike most sci-fi shows, featured no alien characters. “Firefly was really funny while it was still existing as a one-hour acting drama,” Tudyk explains to Hollywood News. Though Tudyk, his cast mates and Firefly fans were positive about the show’s hybrid-style presentation, Fox executives weren’t sold on the idea - Firefly was canceled after 11 of the 14 finished episodes had aired.

In an interview with Hypable, Tudyk recounts the cast’s struggles with show executives - “we were fighting, holding on, and being like, ‘don’t cancel us. We think this is awesome! What’s wrong with you?!’” Hundreds of thousands of fans, who dubbed themselves “The Browncoats” - after the rebel fighters from the Firefly backstory - agreed, creating numerous campaigns to protest the show’s cancellation.

Tudyk is amazed by the support. “To have people who agree with something that you were fighting so hard for is amazing.” Their impassioned letters and phone calls (and, most likely, the unexpectedly high revenue from the show’s DVD sales) convinced Universal Pictures to allow Whedon to make a film, and Serenity was born in 2005.

However, the film provided a sad turn for viewers - SPOILER ALERT! - when Wash, after deftly maneuvering the titular ship through an enemy Reaver fleet (all the while repeating his now-famous and oft-quoted impassioned mantra “I am a leaf on the wind….watch how I soar…”), is unceremoniously impaled by a Reaver harpoon slamming through the cockpit, killing him instantly. His death was a cruel, unexpected shock to Firefly fans, who didn’t predict such a fun-loving character could meet such a gruesome demise. Tudyk admits to Empire that he, himself was rattled by Wash’s ending. When Whedon initially handed him the script, he told Tudyk to call him as soon as he was done reading it. “I knew something bad was coming!” he recounts. But Whedon’s motivation was to raise the stakes of the plot, and Tudyk understood it was crucial to the film -“Wash died in the service of something greater than himself: the story.”

A Rogue presence behind the mic

The multi-talented actor has also made waves in the animation and videogame worlds - lending his flexible voice skills since 2002, when he played multiple characters in 20th Century Fox’s Ice Age. Tudyk lent his voice to various characters in videogames such as Call of Duty, Halo 3 and Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars. He portrayed numerous characters in both the film and videogame versions of Astro Boy (2009), voiced Simon’s alter-ego, Simone, in Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (2011), various parts in Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012). Tudyk really loves this area of acting, as it lets him use his creativity. “The great thing about voice-acting is it isn’t animated yet,” he tells The A.V. Club, “They’ve set the scene, but you’re imagining it. For me, it’s fun, playing all that stuff and coming up with ideas. It’s a blast.”

Tudyk is a sort of anomaly. His characters are distinctly different in all of his voice work, proving how much of a vocal chameleon he is, especially notable in his work with Disney. He’s worked with them so often that The Inquistr suggested Tudyk has become “the John Ratzenberger of Walt Disney Animation Studios films”- comparing his prolific work with the company to the Cheers actor’s rebirth as a voiceover staple. Tudyk won the Annie Award for Voice Acting in a Feature Production for lending his voice as the villainous King Candy in Wreck-It Ralph (2012). He then depicted the proper but antagonistic Duke of Weselton in Frozen (2013), misguided entrepreneur Alistair Krei in Big Hero 6 (2014), and, most recently, the sneaky thief, Duke Weaselton, in Zootopia (2016). Tudyk’s voice will be heard later this year in Disney’s upcoming feature, Moana, in which he portrays Moana's pet rooster, Hei Hei

Perhaps Tudyk’s most memorable voice work is yet to come: he will be featured in the upcoming Star Wars standalone film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, as the voice of the series’ newest mechanical sidekick - the reprogrammed security droid, K-2SO, or “Kaytoo” for short. K2 serves as the metallic counterpart to Diego Luna’s character, Rebel captain Cassian Andor. At the Star Wars Celebration Europe this past July, Tudyk was part of the cast and crew panel. Asked by an audience member how K-2SO would sound, Tudyk shared that he chose a British accent for K2, deducing that “Imperial characters are English. He was a droid, it made sense that it would be more of a proper accent.” Is K-2SO similar to Sonny, the uniquely emotional android Tudyk voiced in 2004’s I, Robot? Not likely. Tudyk shook his head as he shared bits about the character’s persona with Entertainment Weekly, “He’s not an overly emotional guy. He’s not like C-3PO, who’s like a neurotic mess. He’s flappable. K2 is much more in the unflappable category.” Tudyk assured the group that K2 would be very different from the childlike droids Star Wars fans are familiar with. “He’s very honest. If you know any old people, he’s like that; he just says whatever he thinks.”

Con-juring up a new series

This year marked the release of Con Man, a web series developed, written, and directed by Tudyk and fellow producers, sci-fi novelist, PJ Haarsma and Firefly co-star, Nathan Fillion. The team created and funded the show through a tremendously successful Indiegogo campaign. Why “Con Man”? Well, as the tagline says, “Because ‘convention’ doesn’t sound as cool.”

“Cons” in this case are sci-fi themed extravaganzas fueled by appearances from mostly B, C and D-list actors (and E, F, and G, if those count) who sign memorabilia and take pictures with fans who are, surprisingly, as the actor explained to the 2015 Comic-Con crowd, “the most normal and beautiful part” of the whole crazy convention world.

Tudyk stars as Wray Nerely, a struggling character actor who is unable to escape being typecast as - you guessed it - a starship pilot from a short-lived, popular sci-fi series called Spectrum (an obvious throwback to Firefly). Wray's Spectrum co-star, Jack Moore (Fillion), has reached A-list celebrity status after the show’s cancellation, (again, mirroring reality - after Firefly, Fillion went on to star in ABC’s successful whodunit drama, Castle) while Wray's been relegated to making nominally-paid appearances at sci-fi conventions and comic book stores.

 “This world of Cons, of the sci-fi conventions, is built by the fans,” he shares with The A.V. Club. So, the crowdsourcing route was “something that just made sense.” Within the first 24 hours of being posted online, Con Man collected more than $1M from donors - far surpassing the original goal of $425K , with which Tudyk had intended to produce three 10-minute episodes. The campaign raised over $3.1M, allowing Tudyk and his counterparts to create an entire season of 13 episodes, which currently can be viewed on Vimeo, iTunes, Google Play and Amazon. In a scene from the series’ pilot, Wray, sits in an airport toilet stall, when a fan in the next stall recognizes his voice and passes him a magazine to autograph. Tudyk explained to the 2015 Comic-Con crowd that something similar had actually happened to him “except it was a urinal.” The series premierd on September 30, 2015. Audience response to Con Man has been positive, and Tudyk and cohorts are already filming Season 2, which will be available on Comic-Con HQ, their subscription streaming video service, in late 2016.

When asked how it felt to be the object of such affection, Tudyk told The A.V. Club “Sci-fi fans are the greatest. When you go to [conventions], it doesn’t matter who you are. There’s little to no judgment… how badass is that?”

Perhaps the secret behind the show’s success is that Wray, though a celebrity in his own respect, is relatable. Indiewire’s Liz Shannon Miller noted Con Man portrays “a life that might seem glamorous until you lead it.” Tudyk certainly verifies this fact, recounting to Entertainment Tonight’s Ashley Crossan about the most interesting thing a fan has asked him to sign:

"A foot," Tudyk states, definitively, "[Which] he took off and put on the table."

A strange request, indeed. But even if the redheaded thespian became a red carpet regular, to this unconventional actor - it’s all completely normal.


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