Alan Tudyk on Kissing Heath Ledger and How ‘Resident Alien’ Made Him Believe in Aliens
Ahead of his debut as a genocidal alien, the beloved ‘Star Wars’ actor chatted with The Daily Beast about UFOs, clown school, and the 20th anniversary of ‘A Knight’s Tale.’
Harry Vanderspeigle, the hero of Syfy’s newest comedy, Resident Alien, is a totally normal guy. The local doctor for the tiny, sleepy town of Patience, Colorado, he likes to spend his time fishing and going for treks out on the nearby frozen slopes, and watching Law & Order re-runs.
There’s just one catch: He’s actually an alien on a mission to kill all of humanity. He’s fishing for the corpse of the actual Dr. Harry Vanderspeigle, which accidentally fell into the lake after Alien Harry murdered him to assume his likeness. He hikes mountains because he needs to find his spaceship, which crash-landed before he could drop his murderous payload. And the Law & Order re-runs are actually his study materials; after all, what better way to learn normal human behavior than by mimicking Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterston?
Alan Tudyk’s delightfully idiosyncratic repertoire makes him one of the only actors on Earth one can imagine pulling off such a role—and, indeed, he makes a whole meal out of it across the seven episodes made available to critics before Syfy premieres the show on Jan. 27.
“It’s a fun challenge for him to be likable if he’s here to kill us all,” the actor said of his character during a recent interview with The Daily Beast. “And the way he’s likable is because even though he’s so advanced, he’s stupid when it comes to humans.”
For those wondering: Yes, Tudyk does believe in aliens. On Resident Alien creator Chris Sheridan’s recommendation, he pored over Communion: A True Story—the 1987 book written by UFOlogist and horror author Whitley Strieber, who claims to have recovered memories of his own abductions after hypnosis. (In 1989, Philippe Mora adapted the book into a film starring Christopher Walken.) Tudyk is effusive in his recommendation: “Oh my God! Read that book,” he said. “It’s disturbing as hell.”
But it’s not just books that have convinced Tudyk; he’s heard some credible stories, as well.
For instance: a news report from his home state of Texas, where a man named Roy gave testimony about his run-in with a UFO. (“I thought I was going to shoot it, and I thought, Why?” Tudyk paraphrased in a perfect Texan drawl. “No point in shooting it, so I didn’t.”)
“I believe it, 1,000 percent,” Tudyk said. “I know people like Roy, and they don’t lie about stuff like that. There’s no purpose to it.”
Another real-life encounter Tudyk has heard about? Chris Sheridan also told him he saw a UFO on his own honeymoon. “I mean, he’s not as legitimate a witness as Roy,” Tudyk quipped,“ but I believe him, too. Why not?”
But unlike most aliens, who seem to visit Earth only fleetingly in these stories, Harry is stuck here on Earth. And despite his dedication to his studies at the Law & Order School of Human Behavior, he doesn’t exactly fit in with his Colorado neighbors. His smile is unnerving, and his laugh is unhinged; despite being a “doctor,” he doesn’t realize that “tits” is not the preferred term for “breasts” in a medical setting; and speaking of mammary glands, he likes to drink his milk straight from the cow’s teat.
The first few episodes of Resident Alien find Tudyk knee-deep in physical comedy, and as the series progresses, Harry’s relationships with other humans provide some emotional texture to complement his many comedic faux pas. But even as Harry bonds with some of his fellow Patience residents—particularly his colleague Asta Twelvetrees (Sara Tomko) and her high school friend, local bartender D’arcy (Alice Wetterlund)—he never abandons his mission. Humanity must be destroyed.
Somehow, most of the people of Patience completely fall for Harry’s act—even if they think he’s kind of a weirdo. But there is one exception to that rule: a mischievous young boy named Max who can somehow see through Harry’s disguise. Pint-sized actor Judah Prehn plays the precocious little squirt, whose feud with his extraterrestrial neighbor quickly becomes one of the show’s most reliable punchlines.
“He’s always a step ahead of me, the little shit!” Tudyk said with a laugh. “It’s something that we carried off-set, poking at each other... I’m always getting in trouble because I keep swearing around him.”
There’s already a swear jar on set, which Tudyk has quickly filled over and over again. “I thought I’d learn fast; I did not learn fast,” the actor said. “And he learned how to make money.”
When asked how one prepares to play an extra-terrestrial, Tudyk cited a couple influences. He noted that his past experience playing robots helped a bit; their tendency toward ergonomic movement, he reasoned, could also apply to aliens whose primary motivation is efficiency. But the real key to cracking Harry as a character came from another source entirely: clowns.
Tudyk took his first clowning class with Christopher Bayes during his Juilliard days in the 1990s—and returned to the director for another clowning intensive in Los Angeles before he started shooting Resident Alien.
“I’m a huge proponent of clowns,” the actor said. “Now, a lot of people are down on the clowns. They think It, they think maybe that creepy clown in Venice Beach that wears dirty white makeup and makes very suggestive balloon animals... That’s not the clown I’m talking about.”
The clowns Tudyk is talking about are those from the European Lecoq school of clowning; the Bill Irwin and Charlie Chaplin types, and even Wall-E. “That is one of the best clown stories,” Tudyk said of the Pixar flick. “That first portion of Wall-E is all clown.”
As for how it helped him play an alien, Tudyk said, “One principle of clowning is that clowns are what you would get if you never told a child ‘no.’ That curious, rambunctious child that doesn’t know where any of the lines are drawn... That is, in a lot of ways, how Harry operates.”
Harry isn’t the only oddball character Tudyk will play on Syfy in the coming weeks, either. On Feb. 6, Syfy’s animated series Devil May Care will also premiere—with Tudyk at its center playing Satan.
The show, which takes its cues from classic Adult Swim animation, is built around the idea that everything that is useless on Earth ends up in hell. The Devil isn’t so much a “villain,” Tudyk explained, but instead just a guy who wants to make the underworld a better destination. “He doesn’t want to do all that torture stuff anymore; he just wants it to be a fun place,” Tudyk said. “It’s full of monsters and demons—and torture here and there, but people seem to enjoy the torture.”
And as much as Tudyk has to look forward to this year, 2021 also marks a fascinating time to look back on one of his earliest hits, as A Knight’s Tale turns 20 in May.
In a distinctly pre-2010s recollection, Tudyk noted that the entire cast brought cameras with them throughout filming in the Czech Republic, and spent the duration of the shoot taking photos on set and in precarious pedi-cabs. He remembers one snapshot in particular: a selfie star Heath Ledger took during the scene in which Tudyk’s character, Wat, “delivers” a kiss from Jocelyn, Ledger’s character William’s love interest.
“When we rehearsed it, Heath took the camera—he had this little Leica camera—and as I kissed him, and [as] I’m just pulling away to spit because Wat spits, Heath took the picture... He’s staring at the camera with this little, bitty, wry smile. It’s a great picture he took of the two of us.”