Tony Hale on mental health: 'There's a reason I do anxious characters'

Tony Hale talks faith, anxiety and the importance of health. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Tony Hale talks faith, anxiety and the importance of health. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

In addition to being one of the funniest men in Hollywood — with two Emmys to show for it — Tony Hale might also be the nicest, whether it's volunteering to drop into character as Forky from Toy Story 4 just to amuse a toddler, or digging deep to speak candidly about his personal experience with matters of health, from anxiety to asthma.

It's his lifelong struggle with the latter that has the Arrested Development and Veep actor — currently starring in The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Sundance darling Nine Days — lending his support to a new AstraZeneca campaign on "e-asthma," or asthma triggered by a type of white blood cells called eosinophils, which can be detected by a blood test.

Here, Hale shares how his condition has brought on anxiety, which has, in turn, helped inform some of his most famous roles. Read on as the star opens up about learning to be present, avoiding crowds and finding comfort in his faith.

Tell us about your experience with asthma and why this partnership is so important to you.

I've had asthma for as long as I can remember, and it is not the funnest of things. And there's a reason I do anxious characters — it's because a lot of my anxiety has come from having asthma for most of my life. I'm thrilled to partner with AstraZeneca because what I've learned is asthma's not just triggered from outside of the body; it can be triggered from inside the body...

Having struggled with it in my life, I know what it feels like when your life source feels like it's being taken away from you. It's very scary. And so to be able to give people this information so that they can, if needed, alter their treatment plan, that's incredibly encouraging.

In terms of your mental health, do you have any therapeutic practices that you use, such as working out or therapy or journaling or forest bathing?

All the above. Having struggled with anxiety, I do a lot. I actually did this children's book years ago called Archibald's Next Big Thing, and it talked a lot about this little chicken who's always looking to his next thing and he's missing where he is. It was a big lesson on just being present and trying to find contentment in the present. Trying to be present has always been a struggle for me. Having worked with a therapist, there's tools [to help]. What I love to do, and I still do these on a daily basis, is whenever I find myself "what if-ing" — especially this past year — you just say "not now." You just say "not now" out loud. And so I would be like, "Not now. Right now, I'm talking to Erin. That's exactly where I am right now."

Another tool I do is activate the five senses, where it's like, OK, what am I seeing? What am I smelling? What am I hearing? What am I tasting? What am I touching? And so it's just things like that, very simple things. But when you allow yourself to do that, it grounds you in the space. My default is to be somewhere completely else — like, just to completely check out — and it takes a lot of work to be right where I am. And somebody said to me once, "You have to wake yourself up 100 times a day to where you are." And I think that is very true for me. I just have to constantly wake myself up to where I am. So things like that have really helped kind of ground me in my anxiety and in terms of mental health.

What does self-care look like to you?

The word boundaries — that's a big buzzword and it's a word that I've gotten better at. Saying no is not easy for me, and I think there's a lot of power in that, just to kind of know your personal boundaries. In the past — I'm sure we all have — I've said yes to too many things and I spread myself too thin and then I just put myself in a really stressed-out space. Honestly, in terms of saying no to things, I kind of reframed it, which actually really helped. I looked at it more that I'm doing them a service by saying no because if I were to say yes to something that I don't think I have the bandwidth for, they're actually not getting 100 percent of me. And so in saying, no, I'm actually doing them a favor rather than [being] worried about hurting their feelings or whatever. It's like, no, I'm actually helping you out by saying no because I just don't think I'd have the bandwidth.

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You mentioned that some of the characters that you have played have their own anxieties; they're sort of high-strong guys, typically. Does that resonate with you given your own experience with anxiety, or have those roles helped you channel out some of that energy?

Yeah, I think definitely. I mean, it's been a progression. A prime example is when I started shooting Arrested Development back in 2003. I was very overwhelmed coming to L.A. I had just gotten married. I had never been on a studio lot. I had never even had, like, free food offered to me [laughs] like that. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know the Hollywood game. I was very nervous and I kind of just channeled that into Buster. Buster was very overwhelmed. He was always in a state of defense, even his physicality was in a state of defense. And so it was nice to have a character [like that]. I was kind of thankful I wasn't playing an overly confident character [laughs] because I definitely wasn't in that space.

Over time, now I can draw on that anxiety, but it's nice to be in a space where I have the tools and I have the therapy and I know how to kind of live my life; then I can tap into the anxiety. All of that to say, I do think acting can be an act of empathy and you can learn when you're playing a character; you can really kind of live out those emotions. And there's something really therapeutic about playing a character who's really pissed off [laughs] and just getting really pissed off ... you can't do that in life.

I bring up empathy because you're doing other people's stories that aren't your own. And I think where we are in our world, we're not hearing people's stories. We're not listening. We're just kind of talking at each other and there's a lot of power to just shutting up and listening to someone's story. And with acting, you kind of have to shut up. You have to shut up and you have to dive into this person's story and listen to them in order to portray them in the most authentic way you can.

Do you have a mantra or piece of advice that you draw solace from when you are going through a change or having a tough time?

My faith is really important to me, so I daily will surrender to God. It's very comforting to me to know that a higher power sees a bigger picture than I do. That is incredibly comforting to me because my limited sight can give me a lot of anxiety [laughs]. But knowing that God sees the bigger picture gives me a lot of comfort.

I think our business kind of gives you value by what you do. I think life gives people value by what they do. What you're doing, what jobs you have, what success you've gotten. And I just always remember that the value I had starting out in this business, that value is the same as I have post-whatever successes I've had. [I always keep] that reminder that that does not alter someone's value. In terms of Hollywood it's like, "Oh yeah, your value is this" — and that's all BS. Your value always is consistent. It stays the same. I always have to remind myself that.

What stresses you out, and what brings you joy?

What stresses me out? What doesn't stress me out? A lot of chaos stresses me out. If there's too much stimulus or crowds or if there's a lot going on and I kind of feel scattered that can stress me out. I would say the thing that does give me peace is simplicity. I love small groups of people. I love sitting around the fire with my family or my friends and having a glass of wine. Having that focus, that gives me a lot of joy and peace. But big kinds of things can get kind of overwhelming and that can tend to stress me out.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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