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Christian actor Tony Hale on playing the villain, importance of modeling empathy for next generation (video)

'Clifford the Big Red Dog'
"Clifford the Big Red Dog" |

At a time when society seems increasingly divided, Emmy Award-winning actor Tony Hale is on a mission to encourage empathy, kindness and understanding — especially in the next generation. 

In an interview with The Christian Post, the outspoken Christian actor and father shared his concern for how social media is shaping the next generation and the responsibility of parents to raise children to treat others with compassion. 

“Social media … I think it's a platform that is very dangerous because people can kind of be anonymous and break people down,” the "Arrested Development” and "Toy Story 4" star said. 

“On the outside, they might go about their regular lives and be kind, which is wonderful. But behind closed doors ... there's a lot of comments and ripping apart through social media that they feel isn't necessarily as powerful, but I think words are very, very powerful. And these kids that are being raised in this social media thing, I think that's dangerous ground.”

Kindness, he stressed, is the antidote to the vitriol and hatred pervasive across society. He encouraged parents and adults to “never underestimate” the power of modeling these positive qualities for children. 

“You might not see the fruit of that in your day — never underestimate the power of it,” Hale advised. “When you are kind to someone, when you do the right thing, you might not see the result of where that goes, you might not see the path where that leads, but never underestimate the power of that. I remember people who were kind to me when I was younger. I remember people who supported me, and honestly, they might never have seen where that went. But it made a huge difference in my life. And so even if you don't see the result, [there is] tremendous power where that goes.”

The 51-year-old actor portrays the central villain in a new, live-action “Clifford the Big Red Dog” film, also starring Darby Camp, Jack Whitehall and John Cleese. The film introduces Clifford as a tiny, bright red puppy who forms a bond with a lonely New York City girl named Emily Elizabeth. It’s Emily’s love that spurs Clifford’s enormous growth, prompting him to grow 10 feet tall.

Hale’s character is tech CEO Zack Tieran, whose company, LyfeGrow, is set on artificially growing animals larger in hopes of increasing the global food supply. Though Tieran's motives are seemingly altruistic, he’s in fact motivated by greed — an equation that Hale stressed “never works out.”

“I don't think he sees himself as bad,” the actor said of the character. “He sees himself as investing a lot of money in this company. His employees are idiots; they're making two-headed sheep. They're just not getting it right. And so he sees Clifford as an opportunity … in his mind, he's saving his company. But obviously, his motives are all wrong. But I love playing evil because that equation never works out. It always spirals out. I love showing that process.”

Over his impressive career, Hale has played a wide range of characters, from the bumbling Buster Bluth in the TV comedy “Arrested Development” to the cunning soul trying to earn a shot at life in the artistic film “Nine Days.”

But before tackling a character, Hale said he first needs to see himself reflected in them — a task that forced him to face some ugly truths when playing Tieran.

“Any character I play, I have to resonate with something in their character in order to hopefully bring an authentic version of it,” he said. “Because if I'm honest, the people that I can't stand — I can think of a couple of people in my life that I'm not a huge fan of … maybe I think they're kind of manipulative, or I think that they're kind of full of themselves or something. If I'm honest with myself, I've been manipulative in my day. I've had times where I'm kind of full of myself.”

“If I'm honest, I just see that in myself,” he continued. “And I think that's where you can see the judgments [are] dropped because we can see ourselves and each person. So I can see parts of myself in this character, which I'm not proud of, but that's the way to kind of connect with a character somewhat.”

The new “Clifford” movie, arriving in theaters and Paramount + on Nov. 10, is adapted from Norman Bridwell’s popular book series that began in 1963. Hale credited the series’ celebration of differences as the secret to its enduring popularity.

“One thing I love about Clifford is [it's an] ‘abnormal situation’ put into a ‘normal situation,’ and everybody's reaction to this abnormal situation — some people embrace it, some people are turned off by it. But it's the embracing of that uniqueness … and to not judge that uniqueness." he said.

Hale added: “Everybody relates to that; I don't care how cookie-cutter somebody looks, everybody has kind of felt like the outsider at points. Everybody has had moments where they might not be deemed bullied, but they definitely didn't feel accepted. And so there's this dog who is literally bright red and 10 feet tall, in the middle of the world. He could not be more of an outsider, he could not look more unique, and so everybody has some sort of connection to that.”

In one scene, Clifford attempts to make himself small to be accepted by those around him — and it’s a scene Hale said breaks his heart, as it all-too accurately reflects the isolation many feel. 

“What you want to do is be like, ‘No, own it. Own your uniqueness.’ And so when kids see that, and they go, 'Hey, I want Clifford to own his uniqueness. You know what, maybe I should begin owning my uniqueness.' I think that parallel is really big.”

Rated PG, “Clifford The Big Red Dog” is a colorful and high-paced film geared toward children — “we're all really hungry for it, just to have that family experience,” Hale said of clean entertainment. 

But adults would do well to consider its themes of acceptance, unconditional love and empathy, too, the actor emphasized. 

“There’s a beautiful message of acceptance and celebrating differences. I don't think that message ever gets old,” he said. 

Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: leah.klett@christianpost.com

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