For years, Toby Huss has been stealing the spotlight, starting with MTV promos in the early 90s to playing Artie, The Strongest Man in the World on The Adventures of Pete and Pete. In his three decades as an actor and a comedian, he’s been on Seinfeld, King of the Hill, Beavis & Butthead, Reno 911! and appeared in a diverse array of films from directors like Werner Herzog, Michel Gondry, Nicole Holofcener and Bobcat Goldthwait. He’s even created the character of Rudy Casoni, a jazz singer who may or may not be the bastard son of Frank Sinatra.
In the first season of Halt and Catch Fire, his character Joe Bosworth allowed the three computer geniuses at the center of the series to do their thing, while he played his position as Senior VP of Cardiff Electric. Paste caught up with Huss to talk about the upcoming season of Halt and Catch Fire, his more dramatic roles and what it’s like being a Texas ass-kicker.
Paste Magazine: Let’s start with your beginnings. What made you want to become an actor and a comedian?
Toby Huss: You know, I’m not sure. I think it’s a coping mechanism early on, and you get some feedback from kids in the neighborhood when you do a squirrelly voice or something and they laugh, you think, “I guess I could do a few more of those.” It sort of builds from there. It’s where you get your juice from.
Paste: Who were your influences growing up, because comedically I can’t really compare you to most people.
Huss: I liked the friends of my father, old Iowa guys. There were a bunch of old guys that you’d meet hanging out with dad that were sort of funny guys. They would tell jokes and stories and they were sort of very unique people that. I think I was influenced by those guys initially. Like a lot of kids my age I watched Abbot and Costello, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin movies and such.
Paste: Lately with the movie 42 and Halt and Catch Fire, you’ve been taking on these more dramatic roles. Had you been wanting to branch into that for a long time, or was it just sort of happenstance?
Huss: Well, a little of both, you know? I was never turning down dramatic stuff if it came my way, I was just doing more comedy—that was just how I was known and people would cast me in comedic roles. But I liked the other stuff as much, or more. It’s fun not having to improv all day, and having lines that you can memorize. Being dramatic, rather than improv-ing and trying to be funny all the time. That can get exhausting man.
Paste: You’ve said that when you auditioned for Halt and Catch Fire you weren’t exactly what the creators had in mind. What do you think you brought to the role that they weren’t expecting?
Huss: I think they had more of an older, sedentary kind of conservative Republican Texas guy in mind, you know? I read it and I didn’t even think the guy was like that at all. I thought he was pretty much like the character I’m playing right now, so I came and did it and I think they thought, “Well, hell, we didn’t think of it like that, that’s interesting.” And to give them credit, they were open enough to hire and let me play around with it.
Paste: I’ve also noticed that, with a lot of the characters you play, there seems to be a darkness under the surface to them. Like Rudy Casoni—you’d think he was a normal crooner, then he kind of gets dark. And I heard you say that Artie, The Strongest Man in the World had a lot of dark stuff he was hiding that made him the way he is. John seems to have that too, where you think you know him, but then he’ll punch a guy at a strip club, or he’ll help embezzle.
Huss: Yeah, I dig people who think like that. There’s a lot of dichotomy in people, and you can look at Bosworth as a sort of this sweet, paternal savior, but what you don’t see is—I mean, that’s the man when he’s 60 or 55. You didn’t see him when he was 26, when he could’ve been a pretty heartfelt, partying ass-kicker. You know, a real shit-kicking jerkoff in Texas. People meander around, and they change and they become different things and I think at this point in his life, he’s very different than he was.
In a way, when that thing is in you, when there’s that other side in you, it can work in the converse of that too. You can be a calmer, more numb guy and you can go through something when you get older, but I think once you have that thing established, you know as a part of your personality, it’s always there. So if a guy calls Joe a “queer” in the strip club, well, then he reverts back to the 26-year-old and it’s time to kick ass—but he also showed some restraint. It’s fun to play those characters, because it’s like with anyone you meet—if they’re just one thing, they’re boring.
Paste: Another thing I like about him is that everyone else in the show is selfish in some way, or they’re trying to prove themselves and John is sort of pushing everyone else in the spotlight.
Huss: Well especially in Season Two, Bosworth has had a pretty rough go. In Season One, when he gets wailed on, he has a real epiphany when he’s off in jail and that changes him as a man. He reevaluates who he is.
Paste: John seems like he’s the heart of the group. He has a very interesting dynamic with each person. Who do you find your character relates to the most?
Huss: It’s definitely Cameron. He sees a lot of himself in Cameron. She’s smart, and she’s a little reckless and she’s really forward thinking. That reminds Bosworth of how he used to think, before he became the sort of conservative Texas, tired old businessman. He remembers those days when he used to walk into a meeting and kick ass like Cameron does and he was technically as bright as Cameron, so he can appreciate that.
Paste: He also seems like a combination of all three main characters. Joe is very brazen and by the end of Season One, Bosworth has become like that. But when he has to deal with his boss, he’s a little more like Gordon, a little shy and reserved.
Huss: Interesting, I hadn’t thought about that. But you know, he’s also a lot savvier than he gets credit for. He’s not necessarily playing Nathan Cardiff when he’s hanging out with him or talking to him, but he knows how to talk to his old shit-kicker boss. He knows how to talk to Joe and he knows how to talk to Cameron. I think with Cameron, however, his relationship is different. He’s very paternal towards her because—let’s face it—he’s been neglecting his own family while he’s been at work these last twenty years. He hasn’t been there for his son, he hasn’t been there for his wife and Cameron is with him all the time. So he feels really close and really paternal towards her.
Paste: Who would you say personally would’ve related to the most if you had been in with that crew in the early 80s?
Huss: Probably someone like Cameron, ‘cause she’s more sort of punk rock than the other ones. She would have intimidated the hell out of a 1985 Toby Huss, but I still think it would’ve been fun.
Paste: On the show, you guys are competing with these giants like Apple and IBM, and on AMC, you were amongst giants like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Did you guys feel that weight?
Huss: I can only speak for myself, but I didn’t feel it and I don’t think the other guys felt it. As a group we were all in it to do really good work and if people watch the thing and respond to it, great, but that’s out of your hands, you know? And Mad Men is a great show and so is Breaking Bad, but we can only do our show the way we do our show.
Paste: You’re sort of a Renaissance man, with acting, singing, photography and painting. Is there anything you haven’t done that you’d like to try in your career?
Huss: Trying different stuff has been fun. You know, I don’t know how to weld very well. I want to start welding some metal shit this summer, so I’m probably going to that. There are a couple of guys that I know at a studio, so I’m going to hit those guys up this summer and I know a couple of artists that do a lot of welding. I’ll stick some metal together and see what happens.
Paste: Are there any projects on the horizon that you’d like to tell us about?
Huss: There are a couple of horror films I did this summer that should be coming out. One’s called Havenhurst and there’s a really great independent I did that Ti West directed called In a Valley of Violence. It’s with Ethan Hawke and [John] Travolta and that’s going to be a really good picture. Ti is a really fine young director. He’s a smart guy and he’s just really good. He’s done a lot of horror stuff, and this is a Western, but he’s fantastic.
And then I’m doing some web thing about some oncologists from the guy who directed this movie Bad Milo! that I did. I think I’m doing that this summer. It’s a little weird.
Paste: Yeah, Bad Milo! was pretty weird.
Huss: That’s a fucked up movie man.
Paste: There aren’t many ass-demon movies.
Huss: It’s hard to watch! Ken Marino is so good in that, and he makes it hard to watch ‘cause he’s such a good actor and that’s a really big monster coming out of his ass. It’s huge! It’s a really fucked up movie!
Paste: And weren’t you the doctor who had to explain what has happening to him?
Huss: Yeah, it was terrible. I think they got the idea to do this series and they thought that me and this other guy should play doctors, and just be stupid oncologists who said awful things.
Paste: Looking forward to it! And thanks a lot for talking with us.
Huss: Sure man!
Halt and Catch Fire: The Complete First Season is out now on Blu-Ray and DVD. The second season of Halt and Catch Fire premieres Sunday, May 31 on AMC.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.