Exclusive: Tony Hale on how Nine Days explores the meaning of life and community

Tony Hale as unborn soul Alexander in Nine Days. Pic credit: Michael Coles/Sony Pictures Classics

Nine Days is the length of time each of several unborn souls will have to convince Will (Winston Duke) that they deserve the gift of life, but only one will win the prize in Edson Oda’s meditative vision of human souls in limbo.

Will is a being who spends his days in a remote outpost watching people as they live out their lives in what can be called a media room until one of his subjects dies opening up a slot on earth for a replacement. Not long after, several unborn souls show up to audition for the chance to be sent to earth and live.

“It is a very different role from what I’ve done, so there was that challenge, but also, it’s a pretty universal theme that you see in a lot of stories about making the most of life and making the most of moments,” Tony Hale, who plays unborn soul Alexander, tells Monsters & Critics in this exclusive interview. “But the uniqueness of writer/director Edson Oda’s telling the story of Will, choosing souls as to whether they’re going to live or not, the different people’s stories, and Winston and his own journey, it is just so unique.”

As he tests the potential candidates, Will develops his own existential challenge when he isn’t sure what to make of free-spirited Emma (Zazie Beetz), a candidate unlike the others, forcing him to turn within and reckon with his own tumultuous past, which does include time on earth.

“When I first saw the movie at Sundance in 2020, I walked away from it going, ‘Oh, my gosh, what a beautiful message of appreciating moments and appreciating life,’” Hale says. “And now post COVID, after what we’ve all been through — the isolation and not being able to experience life like we used to — it’s that times 100 of ‘Wow, man, it’s not the large, big moments. It’s those small moments just to sit in and enjoy.’ There cannot be enough of those reminders. There really can’t.”

M&C: You play a character named Alexander. Each character has a different take on life. What is his?

Tony Hale: He doesn’t take things too seriously. He tries to find the joke a lot. He has a little bit of an edge to him. But over the course of the story, you see the real deep desire of him wanting to live life and also his deep desire for community. Whereas other people want different things, there’s just something about being with other people, hanging out, and having that community he really craved. Even to the point where he even wanted it with Will, Winston’s character. So, he was a fun guy to play.

M&C: As I mentioned, the different characters bring different perspectives. Why do you think that that’s important to telling this story?

Tony Hale: The obvious reason being the differences of the world. I think probably one of the biggest things that I appreciated and it’s in the story is these different souls didn’t change who they were to fit Will and whatever he wanted. They didn’t try to find out: What does he want to get me into? They were fully themselves. I was very much the jokester and didn’t take things seriously. Arianna Ortiz’s character, Maria, was a romantic. David Rysdahl’s character, Mike, was very much a sensitive soul. There was a risk that we each took fully being ourselves. For some, for many, it didn’t have the result we wanted, but we did take that risk. I love that.

M&C: Winston played the only character that had previously been alive. Sometimes when we see souls in films, they’re going to be reborn, but these were unborn. What was important about that aspect of it?

Tony Hale: There was very much a parent quality to it, of coming into it for good and bad. “Hey, I know what you’re getting into, and I know the narrative you might have, but I know what the real narrative is.” And there is maybe a protection element to it thinking, “I don’t know if you can handle what I’ve experienced.” So, I think there was this all-knowing like, “Hey, I know what you’re getting into.” And he sees himself as the person that can make the best decision.

M&C: And yet, I think, his judgment is colored by his time on earth, which wasn’t maybe the best time.

Tony Hale: Totally. And also, I think each of our personalities triggered something that I think he felt he might’ve lacked. And so, since he didn’t understand it, he didn’t think we could take it when in actuality, it might’ve been a piece of him that was missing that could have helped.

Tony Hale in The Mysterious Benedict Society Pic credit: Diyah Pera/Disney

M&C: Also coming up, you play I Love Lucy writer/producer Jess Oppenheimer in Being the Ricardos. Is that going to be a biopic of Lucy and Desi, or is it going to tell the story a different way?

Tony Hale: It’s going to be a drama about a week in the life of shooting I Love Lucy and hearing about Lucille and Desi’s life and the stuff that was going on with her and the team around her. And so, it’s really a drama about a comedy. It’s also seeing where she came from. For example, my character Jess did a show with her called My Favorite Husband before I love Lucy. And it’s also about how I Love Lucy came to be, and the stuff that she and Desi went through. I’m very grateful that I just got to experience it. It’s Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem with Aaron Sorkin directing them. It was pretty special.

M&C: You wrote this book, Archibald’s Next Big Thing, which also became a TV show. But what I liked about it was it’s about the importance of being present in the moment. Does that come easy to you now? Or is it something you still have to work on?

Tony Hale: Oh gosh. I’ve had a lot of therapy, but it’s a daily reminder. I have little tools that I use. Whenever I find myself living in the what if, I say, “Not now. Right now, I’m talking to Paulette, that’s where I am.” There’s one tool I do where you activate the five senses and you’re like, “In this moment, what am I smelling, seeing, hearing, touching?” All that kind of stuff. And it grounds me. It’s something that for the rest of my life, it’ll be a daily exercise because my default is to check out. My default is to go somewhere else in my head or wherever. I have to practice those things. And, hopefully, the more I practice them, they come naturally, but it’s still a daily practice.

M&C: It’s something I have to work on, too, because I tend to be a dreamer.

Tony Hale: Oh, me, too. Which is fun, but the main thing when I remember to practice these things is I actually remember stuff more. The times of my life where I felt pretty checked out, I don’t remember stuff. So, when I really choose to practice being present, I remember details more.

M&C: Do you know what’s next for you?

Tony Hale: Right now, I’m just enjoying people seeing Benedict, which is really fun. I was very grateful to be working during COVID. So right now, I’m just hanging with the family and loving that and doing the day-by-day thing.

M&C: Speaking of The Mysterious Benedict Society, what has been the reaction? Is it what you hoped for?

Tony Hale: People seem to really be enjoying it. It’s fun. Recently, I was visiting a friend and her little niece has gone on FaceTime and they were excited to talk about it. It’s not only a beautiful show, but it’s that mystery that activates puzzles. I think I mentioned this earlier. It’s not so much about magical powers, but how you treat others. But it’s still a mystery and so brilliant. It’s really fun to talk to them about it. love that stuff.

Nine Days opens in theaters in Los Angeles and New York on July 30, followed by a nationwide expansion on August 6, 2021.

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