The Extraordinary Life of Alan Tudyk: The Man of Many Faces

7 minute read

By Nick deBruyn

Over the last couple of decades, Alan Tudyk has been using his winning charm and upbeat sense of humor to craft and create memorable, endearing, and often beloved characters. His role as Hoban “Wash” Washburne, the pilot of the starship in Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which he later reprised for the sequel film Serenity, generated early fan interest in his career. Since then, Tudyk has played any number of roles, from a dodgeball loving pirate to a dangerous killer with multiple personalities. All this on his path to conceiving and portraying a character which he has loosely based on himself and his own experiences. With all the places you might recognize his face, and the many more that you might know his voice, there are some things that you may find interesting to learn about Alan Tudyk.

Beyond his on-screen personality and his voice talent, Alan Tudyk is an accomplished Broadway actor. While attending Juilliard School, he began auditioning for stage shows, something he had been a part of and even competed in while growing up in Dallas, Texas. After a few opportunities in shows like Epic Proportions, Wonder of the World, and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, he was presented with a series of roles in a production called Bunny Bunny. He has attributed this play to help promote his name and forward his theatrical career. He starred in a staging of Prelude to a Kiss and took the place of Hank Azaria playing Sir Lancelot in the Tony-winning show Spamalot to give you a sense of his versatility.

Source: Monty Python’s Spamalot

In the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Tudyk plays the part of an Imperial security droid who has been re-programmed by the Alliance, known as K-2SO. While his voice work on the movie is remarkable, including more improvisation than you might expect, the truly incredible part is that he is also the body providing the motion for K-2SO’s animations. All of his gestures, including his eye movements, were being recorded as a template. This required him to be on stilts and using animatronic hands for the duration of the filming to account for the droid’s frame. Catching and tossing objects, pushing buttons, or running across sandy beaches were all done with unfamiliar prosthetics.

K-2SO in Rogue One was not Alan Tudyk’s first portrayal of a robot on screen. In 2004 Tudyk had a lead role alongside Will Smith in the film I, Robot. In that movie, Tudyk played the part of Sonny, a robot with a unique set of programming which had been accused of killing its creator. While working on this project, he spent time considering mechanical or synthetic voices, tones, and inflections, as well as experimenting with gestures, movements, and posture. His experience here allowed him to more easily re-approach the idea of playing a believable machine who still has a human feel when contacted for Star Wars.

Source: Screenshot via Lucasfilm/Disney

After graduating from Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, Texas, Tudyk first tried his hand at stand-up comedy. A local performance of his caught the attention of a manager at the Jacksonville Holiday Inn, where he was invited to perform half-hour sets. However, at one of his shows, an audience member who was upset at being included in a joke, stood up and threatened Alan with violence. This reaction was so far from what Tudyk had intended or anticipated that he has not tried his hand at stand-up comedy since. After that, he spent some time as a part of the Rubber Chicken Improv Group in Dallas before moving to New York to attend Juilliard.

Although he successfully auditioned for, enrolled in, and studied at Juilliard, Alan decided that he was not interested in graduating from the school. While he appreciated much of what he learned and credits some of his proficiency in voice work to his time spent learning there, the environment itself didn’t suit him. He began taking any work inside the industry that was presented to him, looking for an alternative to his current situation. Three years into his four-year program, he found success with a stage show called Bunny Bunny in such a way that he was able to quit school in order to pursue a newly developing career.

Source: Screenshot Paramount Pictures

Alan Tudyk is known for his improvisational skills. His ability to use a character to generate unscripted content that feels authentic has produced iconic moments in noteworthy features. Everything from Transformers: Dark of the Moon to Rogue One contains some of his off-book spontaneity. He has claimed that this element of his acting tool kit is a large part of his success. His creativity and enthusiasm provide him with the energy to bring more to the production than what was there, to begin with, to fill in gaps that writers might not have noticed. This skill set has made him an asset, most notably in the world of voice overwork.

Since Wreck-It Ralph, in which he played King Candy, Alan Tudyk has had a role in each of Disney’s animated features. It is worth mentioning that the performance of King Candy secured him an Annie Award for best voice acting. He was participating in voice overs for features as early as Ice Age, in which he provided several voices including that of Lenny, but has become a staple more recently. From the Duke of Weseltown in Frozen to Iago, the parrot from the most recent adaptation of Aladdin Tudyk has been improving your movie-watching experience, whether you were aware of it or not. Even the clucks of Hei Hei, the chicken in Moana, should have a familiar ring to them.

Source: Screenshot via Disney

Although he has proven himself to be a versatile actor, Tudyk prefers to embody nice guys in comedic roles. He says acting like the antagonist requires a different kind of focus and intensity, which requires all of his attention. This can make it harder to be creative, to be thinking about anything other than the specifics of his character in the moment, which limits experimentation. When performing inside a friendlier or sometimes goofier role, he has more time and freedom to consider the alternatives that make his improvisation so effective. He says this is because it is closer to the real him, and so some of the specifics of the movement and inflection require less attentive adjustment.

Tudyk raised more than three million dollars in a fan-based crowdfunding campaign to support his own concept for a show called Con Man. One million of those dollars came within 24 hours of the announcement. The characters and plot draw loosely on people and situations which Alan encountered while doing conventions representing Firefly. The show ran for two seasons and starred Tudyk alongside Nathan Fillion and Mindy Sterling. Besides acting as a lead, Alan was responsible for the creation, writing, direction, production, and even editing of the show. When first offered the role of K-2SO in Rogue One, he almost turned it down based on his commitment to his own project and the donations of fans. He accepted the part only after learning that the timeline for the two productions would not overlap or interfere.

Source: Screenshot via 20th Television

Although it may be hard for us to picture him doing anything else now, there was a time in his life where Alan Tudyk was not considering the performing arts as a career. While still in high school and working at a fast-food establishment, he had begun to consider a future for himself in hotel management. Although he had been in plays before and was competitively successful winning trophies in junior high, his relatively poor grades kept him out of extracurricular performances through most of high school. It was on the suggestion and recommendation of a drama teacher, who identified a talent within him that he decided to pursue theatre and specifically acting.

Tudyk is truly interested in games and game culture. From stories about sitting and playing Pictionary with friends to anecdotes from video game release parties to guest slots in videos teaching people how to play Magic the Gathering, he has made it well known that he appreciates gameplay. So much so in fact that after announcing that Halo had been his favorite game, he was given a chance to voice a marine in Halo 3. His character is a rough reflection of his portrayal of Wash from Firefly and voiced alongside Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin, two of his co-stars from the show. Tudyk has leant his voice to other games, some of which feature characters he portrays on screen.

Source: Screenshot via Magnet Releasing

Being involved in comedy, physicality, and acting, Alan developed an interest in and appreciation for clowning. He once said in an interview that one of the more profound lessons he learned about performance while at Juilliard was from a clown. His own expression of this led him at one point as far as an off-Broadway show called That Beautiful Laugh, in which clowns are left searching for a pure and beautiful laugh in the wake of a disaster. While opportunities to find him clowning may be few and far between now, it is hard not to see the earnest emotion and excitement that he produces on-screen translating well into this context.

Nick deBruyn