Season 3 of The Umbrella Academy was an absolute doozy. In a pantheon of superhero content, from Disney+, HBO Max, and theaters, Netflix has absolutely made its stamp on the genre with its quirky, fun, constantly entertaining adaptation of Gerard Way’s comics. Similarly, one of the show’s stars, Ken Hall, is making his stamp on the entertainment industry! Hall, who plays two roles on the show, the Commission’s Herb and the motion capture performance for Pogo, is a terrific performer and proud advocate for physical diversity. Ever the hard worker, when we spoke with him, he had just finished a long rehearsal for the Shakespeare in the Park production of As You Like It, in Toronto at the High Parks Amphitheatre this month. Thus we were very lucky and honored to have such an incredible conversation with him.
Here’s what he had to say:
That’s It LA: We’re really stoked to be talking to you and excited to hear about As You Like It. If I could talk about the reason I geeked out so much when we first got the opportunity, I’m a huge fan of The Umbrella Academy. And when they asked if we wanted to interview you, we had to jump at the opportunity. I love both Herb and Pogo!
Ken: I’m very grateful I get to play 2 characters on such an awesome show and get to see the show from 2 very different perspectives.
Absolutely. It’s kind of different, because when we think about Justin Min for example, he plays 2 variations of the same character. But you’re playing two entirely different characters in wildly different performances. Can I ask you about the differences between the roles and the challenges between both?
For me the more complicated one was doing the body of Pogo. Because Pogo is a chimpanzee. You’re not just playing a chimpanzee, you’re playing one that’s geriatric. For me, I’ve done a ton of physical comedy stuff and prosthetic work, so this was my first time doing mo-cap’ish work. It was lovely. Herb on the other hand is written much more comedically. That’s more my bread and butter. I can relate. He’s just a more exaggerated version of me. Jittery, nervous, awkward kind of person wanting to do well. I think he has a very good heart. So for me, stepping into Pogo was stepping into the unfamiliar. However, having said that, after doing Pogo for 6 months in the first season, it became like a well worn glove, or a comfy sweater. They physicality to get into Pogo was quite grounding. His demeanor in first season is very paternal-like and that felt good as well. Fast forward to Season 3, like what you were saying with Justin playing a different version of himself, it’s the same with this Pogo. In season 3 where he starts off with a paternal-like spirit for the academy. Then he turns into a biker. It’s such a cool storyline that I didn’t see coming.
It really surprised me when I watched it. I was wondering if you learned how to tattoo people.
Yes he’s very versatile. He’s just got brand new skill sets. He should do Survivor. He’d do very well. But yeah it’s lovely to play both of them. Every show that you do, every character, every scene. There’s always A) something to learn, and B) a math formula. How do you make this work. All the moving parts that go into it. For me I like doing each scene and breaking it down. For me most of the stuff I do is more comedic in nature. So I’m always thinking about how to make it funnier. And my background in improv certainly helps within that to exaggerate physicality or moment. So every scene is a cool challenge to arrive at.
In regards to Umbrella Academy you have a great foundation in Gerard and Gabriel’s comics. But the show really becomes its own story, told differently. With your skills and improv, did you start with the comics and make it your own, or start fresh from the get-go?
I did read the graphic novels first going into season 1. Just to acquaint myself with the universe and understand. There are departures…I remember also showing up for camera tests…they really gave me a lot of range. A lot of dialogue between the special effects people…the final version of Pogo costs so much money…There was the also cool challenge and experimentation of getting Pogo in, get what you need to get from Pogo, and get out of frame…There was a lot of really cool dials and levers to play with.
I love that collaborative spirit.
I love that too. It’s not like there’s one right way to do this. And for me I’m appreciative of directors and showrunners in particular that are encouraging of using improv…It’s a nice meeting of the writing and openness to bringing everyone’s skillsets to the table.
One of the things I want to touch on – going back to the early 00s, thinking about physical diversity in Hollywood, you had some pretty terrible moments. Like for instance, the Austin Powers movies and what they’d do for some of the most physically diverse cast members, particularly Vern Troyer. It was pretty terrible. Now flashforwarding to 2022. There’s a changing landscape. How do you feel about the opportunities for opening up casting for those in real roles and real diverse casting for those roles without any slapstick “Mini-Me” type performances?
It’s a great question and I appreciate you asking it. For me change comes pretty slowly. And I still hear and see it. But quite honestly I don’t see a lot of physical diversity still. I appreciate working with people who look at differences not as punchlines, but in terms of uniqueness and more reflective of what the real world is. And if you want to have more physically diverse people, we need to take a step back and need to look at training centers and looking at acting classes and improv theaters, and what kind of systemic barriers there are for people to access those. I know here in Toronto there’s a lot of comedy stages that are just inaccessible for folks. Stairs, barriers, inabilities to get into the theater. If you’re unable to even access training centers, that’s a problem.
I can speak specifically about height. And of that being the punchline, and me being three-quarters. I’ve grown with that. And it’s interesting how there’s a lack of self awareness on some things. For example how [some think] men with small statures can still be joked about. And I’m like, “No. My feelings get just as hurt as anyone does.” And I feel like it’s still something that for me is still very much apparent. I understand it. I’m saddened. I’m hurt. I don’t always speak to it on most occasions, because it’s contextual and I don’t think people understand that. And I want to be that change. I want to affect positive change when I hit the stage. Me and my comedy partner Isaac for example we do an improve clan/sketch duo, and have been for 14 years. I lead by my talent and my physicality. What people react to walking down the street, that’s my money maker. That’s the very thing I can put on display. And hopefully through entertaining and educating, people will be like” wow that guy’s got chops.”…For me that’s the longer route but it’s the only route for me to take rather than…I have to be the change. I am an optimistic person, and I tend to view that the glass is half full.
I’ve come from a very pessimistic mindset, and I know how easy it is to fall into that trap of feeling down on yourself. Or feeling you don’t fit in. And the beautiful thing about the improv and acting and such, that over the main years I’ve been doing this, 18+ years or so, it really has allowed me to really step into my skin and feel comfortable within that. And if I can be on the stage in front of people, when initially I wanted to hide and withdraw from people because I had messaging from the external world that got amplified inside me. That I didn’t fit in…So that’s something where the irony now is that this is what I do for a living. I’m on a stage in front of an audience, really owning everything and in a state of playing. And finding more self acceptance with every year that goes by. And getting affirmed by the world around me, And that changes the inner dialogue that I’ve had. And getting to a point where I can start to let go of the labels holding me back. It does exist. There are people out there not as self aware. They don’t get it, and think it’s okay with how someone looks…And I love that the last two years, with representation and such, it’s such an important conversation to have. And I know for myself I’d love to see more of that. And I don’t see a lot of physical diversity still. I hear about it. But I still don’t see it.
Take someone like Peter Dinklage for example. Who was a powerhouse in Game of Thrones. And at the same time it’s so easy to dismiss someone just on their physical structure. And I think that’s sad that this is still a reality in certain places. So again, my job, is to make you laugh and make you think. And perhaps I can reflect more on how people grow.
I really love that answer. It’s one of the most candid responses I’ve gotten to a question before. I think you’re 100% correct. There’s still so much work that needs to be done. And it’s easier for studio executives to pretend they’re being diverse for the sake of politics and appearances. But to actually act on it. I want to be cognizant of your time. So I have one final question. Can you talk about your future projects that you’re working on now that Umbrella Academy is over?
Yeah! I’m currently in the midst of rehearsals for Shakespeare in the Park here in Toronto. We’ll be doing 34 shows. And to play As You Like It it’s a comedy, and we’re in week 3 of 4 weeks of rehearsals…It’s exciting! I’ve done a lot of traditional theater. I’ve done some second city stuff. So this is a departure in that sense. However this version of As You Like It is very physical comedy…I’m really excited about it. I’ve never done theater…It’ll be a year of theater which I’m not used to. I’m doing another – a special rendition of Snow White, with the Young People’s Theater. So that’s going to be very clown and physical theater. It’s a great opportunity…It’s largely going to be for kids as well. So to come from Shakespeares and switch gears to play more for younger people…That’ll take me to January 7th. Then I’ll probably get some rest. I’m looking forward to it. Pretty soon we’re opening the Shakespeare July 28th. So it’ll be a fun several months of live performance, which is again, my bread and butter. So those are the bigger projects.
And you know, when season 4 of Umbrella Academy comes back, you’re going to be Shakespearean actor Ken Hall!
Fingers crossed for Season 4! I can’t wait!
It was truly an honor to speak with Ken Hall! Enjoy his performances as Pogo and Herb in The Umbrella Academy only on Netflix, and in As You Like It, live in Toronto at The High Parks Amphitheater starting July 28th!