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To understand Alan Tudyk’s love for what he does, look no further than the joy he took in voicing Moana’s Hei-Hei, the dumbest chicken on earth: “The thing for me that really resonated is that when you put a pile of grain in front of him to feed him, he pecks not at the pile of grain, but at the wood plank just next to the pile of grain, happily.”
For a kid whose “stupid ideas” cracked up his friends but barred entry to the theater shows he desperately wanted to be in, Tudyk must be living the dream. For the last two decades, he’s played – and voiced – some of the most antic, idiotic, self-involved, and just plain naïve jackasses known to the big and small screen, and done so with more variety and inventiveness than just about anyone. The A.V. Club doesn’t cite just anyone for “peerless buffoonery.”
And for that, he went to Juilliard? Well, yeah. He studied at Lon Morris College in Texas, where he won the Academic Excellence award for drama. He did summer stock and then entered Juilliard, where he found that a lot of the drama seemed to happen off stage, with the personal issues that seemed to plague many of his fellow students. Most of what happened on stage was drama, too. He left, seeking more comedic pastures.
He got his first film role in 1997’s 35 miles from Normal, his first TV role in 2000’s Strangers with Candy, and has rarely stopped working since, racking up hundreds of credits – even more when you consider that in most of his animated work, he’s played multiple characters. In fact, he’s voiced roles in every Walt Disney Animation Studios film to date, starting with King Candy in Wreck-It Ralph, for which he won the Annie Award for Voice Acting. On screen, he’s probably best known for playing “Wash” Washburne in the space western television series Firefly, Alpha in the science fiction series Dollhouse and Tucker McGee in Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. He’s made off with virtually every scene he’s ever entered in supporting roles like Steve the Pirate in DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story, Wat in A Knight’s Tale, Gerhart the gay, drug-addled German in 28 Days, and most spectacularly, as the straightlaced Simon who goes from stoner bliss to cokehead paranoia to clothes-shedding madness in a case of mistaken pharmaceutical identity. Oh yeah, and he’s also really good at motion-capture robots, first as Sonny in I, Robot, and last year as K-2SO in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. And that’s not even touching on the stage work that started it all. From The New York Times 1997 review of Bunny Bunny: “Alan Tudyk is a smashing young actor who gets to show off his impressive comic range in 25 minuscule and entirely memorable roles, from a dizzy Sikh cab driver to a jilted Detroit housewife.”
Since that’s just the tip of a career iceberg unexplorable in a few paragraphs, maybe it’s best to call out the projects that represent not only some of his best work, but a slow deterioration of Hollywood’s sci-fi ghetto. Tudyk is part of a talented group of artists gradually legitimizing the genre with a smart, funny approach that’s broadening its appeal. It goes back to Firefly, Joss Whedon’s short-lived space Western, in which he played ‘Wash’ Washburne, the pilot of the ship Serenity. Wash’s joke-in-the-face-of-danger resilience made him a fan favorite. The show’s small but loyal audience of sci-fi geeks turned out in droves to see him reprise it in Serenity, its big screen spinoff. As a result, Tudyk found himself spending a whole lot of time at sci-fi conventions, immersed in the odd feverish scene he found both disconcerting and affirming.
And rich in comedic potential. He began writing Con Man, a short-form web series in which he stars as Wray Nerely, an actor who finds himself pigeonholed after starring in a hit sci-fi series, and not dealing at all well with his ensuing lack of success. Tudyk’s biggest concern was how well sci-fi fans would deal with a comedy that mocked the genre. They took it pretty well. The series broke crowd-funding records when it launched on Indiegogo in 2015, with 46,000 people contributing $3.2 million. The SyFy Channel picked it up, and it subsequently received an Emmy nod – a nice tip of the hat, courtesy of the Establishment.
Watching Tudyk’s character stare in hallucinogenic fascination at his own gargantuan hands in Death at a Funeral, they seem to grow before our eyes as well. In Moana, we feel the full range of his rooster emotions, despite the fact they’re expressed solely in clucks. Such characters – often not more than outlines in most scripts – require more of an artist than we realize. Tudyk supplies a depth of imagination that not only fills in the blanks, but renders them in clear, rainbow Technicolor. We need to see Tudyk in more lead roles. And if the Establishment is smart, we will.