A prolific actor and voiceover artist earning his first Emmy nomination this year for Con Man—a short-form comedy series of his own creation in which he also stars—Alan Tudyk has to be one of the most versatile performers in Hollywood today. Appearing in dramas like Trumbo and 3:10 to Yuma and instant animated classics including Moana and Zootopia, Tudyk is perhaps best known for his sci-fi outings—particularly Joss Whedon’s short-lived Firefly, which has given the actor a significant fan base.
A major fan of genre work himself, Tudyk’s fandom in this arena doesn’t necessarily indicate his strong inclinations toward another space. That would be comedy, a longtime passion of the actor, who certainly has his credentials there, as well. With memorable roles in Knocked Up and the original, British Death at a Funeral—not to forget his portrayal of Steve the Pirate in Dodgeball—the actor has further mined all things comedic with his digital series, which has had both seasons picked up for broadcast on Syfy.
Speaking with Deadline, Tudyk explains the difference between his industry experience and that of the misanthropic Wray Nerely, conveying his hopes for a third season that goes directly to network TV.
What fueled your desire to create Con Man?
I had been going to sci-fi conventions for years—ever since 2003, when Firefly was canceled. I’d like to say that I’m a totally original person, but there’s a lot of people who would go to those cons and say, “God, somebody should make a show about this,” because it’s such an exciting place, so many interesting things to look at.
Because it’s the world of fantasy and stories coming to life around you, it made sense that putting a comedy in that world could work. If we could figure out how to raise the money and make it, it would be a good thing to do, so we went about doing that.
How did you make your way through the experience of wearing multiple hats on this series?
I was wearing a lot of hats for the first time, which doesn’t happen easily if it’s somebody else’s money. If it’s the production company’s money, they want to protect their investment, which makes sense. With this type of project, definitely the allure for artists is not just to do things for the first time, but to control their project, with other people stepping in and collaborating.
With this, 47,000 fans said, “All right, we saw your pitch. We saw the scene you shot. We like you guys. We trust to see what you guys will come up with. We’d like a t-shirt that says this, or a signed poster that says that.”
With that, I was able to shoot what I wanted to and make the jokes I wanted. Since it was in the digital space, there weren’t restrictions on language—which wasn’t terrible. But we didn’t have to fit within a network’s image or a style that we needed to cater to. We were able to create our own thing.
It’s been great that it’s going to go to Syfy, that they could see it and say, “Yeah, that’ll work over here,” but we get to maintain the vision of what I had hoped to make from the beginning.
As an actor who has worked across the spectrum of entertainment, what are the things that excite you in the comedic space?
I like the most basic comedy of the man in trouble. I love that story. In Con Man, it’s that. It’s my character, Wray, standing in the middle of all this insanity, and people are treating the insanity like it’s normal, and him going, “What are you doing?” He’s having to cope with his manager, [played by] Mindy Sterling, who also got an Emmy nomination, which is so fantastic. She’s a former actress who wants to take his auditions, and audition herself. She still sees herself as a possible working actress who could play 20, 60s. She says she cut her teeth doing commercials, and industrial films, films, television, snuff films. [laughs]
I like comedy where you can go as insane as that, but you have somebody who’s standing there going, “Did you say snuff films? Wait a second. Were you the one they were supposed to kill?” As long as you have that guy there, you can go really broad.
Comedy that excites me is old school comedy. I was a fan of early television before the internet, when you couldn’t just dial anything up. I would go to the Museum of Television & Radio to watch Show of Shows, to watch Jack Benny, and definitely Warner Brothers cartoons, as well—a lot of physical comedy. That’s how my mind works and what I wanted to do.
This season, where we’re making a commercial about asteroid cereal—Astros—I got to put myself in an astronaut suit and have boulders thrown at me and hit me in the face, getting a chance to do physical stuff, not just basic talking heads.
While the show is heightened, it does make some astute observations about the entertainment industry. For one, it comments on the fact that genre films don’t tend to win major awards, though that now seems to be changing.
I think if I make any more Con Man, I want to start to acknowledge that because it is a real thing that’s happening, and it’s great. I heard Joss Whedon call it the “sci-fi ghetto,” where certain people absolutely condescended to the work that is done in the genre.
I was given a job on Dollhouse with Joss Whedon. It was an amazing role, Alpha, who’s a killer. He’s got 40 personalities in his head and he can’t focus on one. They keep switching back and forth. He’s just driven insane by it, and he started out insane.
There was a casting director that had a job for me on a cop drama, and it was a really good one. He called me personally to say, “Don’t turn this down. Why are you turning this down?” I said, “Because I’ve said yes to Joss Whedon. It hasn’t been announced or anything, but I’m going to be doing this Joss Whedon show.” He went off on me. “How dare you do that pulp crap?” I was like, Wow.
It’s definitely changed. All of the big hits in movie theaters come from comic books nowadays. It seems like those are the sure thing. And TV shows, as well. I think it’s great. It’s hard to find TV shows that don’t have a sci-fi element in them. At some point, you’re just going to have to give awards to sci-fi because there’s going to be nothing else. [laughs]
Bearing in mind that Wray is intentionally rendered unlikeable, are there any similarities between his experience in the industry and yours?
No, a lot of the fans that approach me tend to be sci-fi fans, or Firefly fans, but they’re extraordinarily respectful. The only reason they come up is because it means so much to them. I don’t have a problem at all. I’ve always said that Firefly fans are the most generous and kind fans. It hasn’t changed with the different sci-fi projects I’ve been in, but Firefly seemed like a family-type thing because they’re the ones that kept it alive and made the movie. There’s a lot of goodwill between us. It’s like a partnership almost, and definitely to that extent, Con Man.
As far as Wray Nerely being this jackass, which I was really worried about in the beginning, sci-fi fans have given us money to make a show where I’m at the center of it, not appreciating sci-fi fans. Oh my god, that kept me up [at night].
The way that it’s written, a good example is Felicia Day’s character in Season 1. She’s his assistant. This is true: You’ll have assistants, and they’re volunteers. You spend the weekend with them, and they think that your security is going to be much more of a problem than it ever is. [laughs] People aren’t going to mob you, or hurt you, or grab at your clothes or anything. You’re just a person and people are saying, “Oh, hi.” That’s about as much hassle as you get at the con, if you’re just walking through.
In this show, she’s hypervigilant about Wray’s security, and dresses exactly like him in case he gets mobbed. She can draw him away as a decoy, and he can run to safety. Wray’s like, “There’s no need for that at all. You’re out of control. You’re wrong.” Then, there’s a lot of fun comedy where she somehow can morph into whatever he’s wearing. She somehow anticipates it every time.
In the end of that episode, he does need a decoy because he’s pissed off the fans so much because he’s such a moron that he’s insulted everybody, and they’ve formed a mob, and they’re coming after him. She saves his life, and she’s still by his side even after he has been such an insulting buffoon.
If Wray does something, or assumes something about a fan, or disrespects them, what he thought turns out to be wrong. They usually save his ass, or he gets it in the end. He falls down. The fans, they’re consistently a support system within the show. They’re the constant, and I guess Wray is consistent in being a jackass.
Just looking at your resume—and Firefly specifically—it’s clear that you’ve brought friends into the project. How has it been to work with people you know and respect the most?
It was amazing getting to work with friends, some people I haven’t been able to work with before, and having a chance to play with them in characters that they have never done before. Tricia Helfer, I think of as one of the main ones that I’ve known just around conventions.
To write a role that has physical comedy in it, where she plays a crazy woman who gets off on somebody kissing her cheek like it’s an orgasmic experience, and she has that baby doll she treats like a real baby…Not just to work with friends, but to go, “Here, I would love to see you fall on your face.” [laughs] You just never see statuesque model-type women take a header for comedy’s sake, and she did it twice. So there’s that. It’s getting to work with friends on things where I give them roles that I would like to see them do that I’ve never seen them do, that they will have fun with.
It does bend your head a little bit. Sean Maher was in one of the episodes from Firefly. He’s coming to the con as Sean Maher from Firefly, I’m Wray Nerely from Spectrum, and I say, “I’ve never seen your show, Serenity.” He goes, “Serenity was the movie. Firefly was the show.” I say, “That’s good stuff man, good stuff,” just blowing him off. There are obviously other nods that we’re on the same show, but now we’re in this new reality where somehow we were on shows that had the same fate of only being on for a short amount of time, and then canceled.
It’s a lot of fun—getting Lou Ferrigno in a musical. It deepens my relationship with the people, certainly. To actually have them say, “Yes, I want to come play with you,” means so much.
Can you expand on the future of this series?
Syfy is taking over the seasons that exist. I think they’re going to see how it works—it’s a very different show for them. For years, before we even crowdfunded, I thought, “Oh, Syfy would be a great place,” but you look at their line-up and they have a lot of science fiction shows, but no shows about science fiction, not a lot of comedy.
Sci-fi comedy is a tough one to pull off. This is a comedy about sci-fi, so it’s in its own little category. It’s different, and I think it’s really ballsy of them to bring it over there. I’m hopeful that a larger audience will like the show. The fans that have seen it on these smaller platforms, it’s been such a great response, so I’m hoping that continues on Syfy. If it does, then I think you can expect to see more.