Ken Hall has a long and accomplished career in improv comedy and a successful background in live theatre. Perhaps most recently recognized for his work in The Umbrella Academy, the talented Canadian actor is just getting started. Starring as Herb in the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy, fans may be surprised to know that Hall also provides the motion capture work for fan-favorite Pogo as well.
We had the chance to chat with Ken Hall about his time as Herb on The Umbrella Academy, that experience filming as two very different characters on the same series, working alongside both The Umbrella and Sparrow Academy, the importance of diversity and visibility in media and entertainment, and what’s next for him.
Read on for our exclusive interview with Ken Hall below:
Do you want to talk a little about what initially inspired you to pursue acting and entertainment?
I stumbled into acting later in life. I didn’t do much in my 20s. I played drums in a punk band. I had a lot of anxiety and depression around that time so I needed to make a change. There was that process of trying to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be. I started taking creative writing classes and they were great. For the first time, I realized I was a creative person. I enjoyed writing short stories and playing with words. That was one of the first incarnations of that.
On a whim, I decided to sign up for a beginner’s drama class, never having done that before. I was a very shy and introverted person and very afraid. What am I doing signing up for acting? Very much out of character. It so makes sense now. I look back and see that I always loved comedy. I loved the idea of performing and making other people laugh. I was very shy but if I felt comfortable around other people then I could feel much more like myself.
The right people can bring out the best in you.
After the first classes, I realized this is a huge chunk of my life that had been missing. It’s kind of funny, we all in our own way go on these particular journeys and sometimes we get lost and lose ourselves but I’m very happy that I was able to reconnect with that playful part of me that had been muted for a very long time. It’s so much fun to play pretend. Maybe I’m making up for lost time. That’s something that’s very important to me.
I teach a lot in Toronto and for me, a big part of that is to try to help adults feel more comfortable in their own skin and not judge themselves so harshly. To bring that sense of imagination that we all have that we lose as adults… it’s a serious world. That’s something I try to keep, is that sense of joy and creativity. That’s what acting and improv were for me.
That’s important. Don’t ever lose that. We need more of that in this world.
I appreciate that.
Over the course of your career was there anyone who influenced you or inspired you when it came to acting?
My parents are Scottish so I was raised on a lot of British comedies and stand-up. Billy Connolly, Benny Hill, Monty Python. That was all a big part of it. Other actors like Robin Williams have such an amazing versatility to be fast and funny but also be powerful dramatic actors. That was someone that I thought had it all. Also, John Ritter when I was growing up. John Ritter and his physical comedy was something that was genius, how he plays to the audience and so amazing. It’s interesting to look back to see how the people who have influenced me and combined with me and what I put out, it’s nice to have those influences.
You also have an extensive background in comedy and improve and live theatre. How would you say that compares with scripted acting, do you prefer one over the other?
I’m so much more comfortable without a script. I find it more challenging to have a lot of parameters on things. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. With improv, I feel so free and whatever comes out is meant to come out. If it goes off the rails, there’s enjoyment within that because it’s okay if something fails. With scripted material, there’s a bit more of a dart board with a bullseye that you’re striving to hit.
I love working with great scripts and playing with the timing. It’s like a Rubik’s cube that you’re trying to put together in collaboration with the actors and writers and directors and the technical side of things. I like them both.
I never thought about that. How with a script there’s a target you need to reach. That would give me anxiety now that I think about it.[laughs] With me as well. That’s part of every actor’s journey. How can you make it your own and feel comfortable with someone else’s words and make it authentic? It’s an interesting thing. I think a lot of really great actors make it look really easy. It’s a fun challenge. If it’s not accompanied by any kind of risk or reward then why are we doing it?
We’re huge fans of The Umbrella Academy here. Can you talk a little about your character Herb and what initially attracted you to the role?
Herb is the acting commissioner of The Commission. It oversees the timelines and portals within the show. It’s a pretty big universe. Herb’s role initially was much more like a desk worker. What really appealed to me about Herb was I saw a lot of me, I could see myself playing him quite easily. He’s an exaggerated version of me. There’s a heightened sense of awkwardness and he means well and has a good heart. Yet at the same time, he plays it by the book. He’s an adorable character and he’s very comedic. I feel very akin to how he’s written. I feel like that brings a lot of myself to it.
I love his interactions with Five. Some people may not know that you provide the motion capture work for Pogo as well. What was that experience like? Because Pogo is also a very complex character.
He is. He’s a joy. He’s so different than Herb. On the show, I actually started doing bodywork for Pogo first and then my agent asked if I wanted to play a person and I was like “Yes, I’d love to play a person.” [laughs] I got a little mini promotion. Pogo is not written to be comedic and he’s more the heart of the family. A parental figure when Hargreeves isn’t there emotionally and I feel that Pogo can circumvent that in ways to help to raise the kids. To play the body of a geriatric chimpanzee, was a very cool challenge. I’m very blessed to have had that experience.
They both use their unique strengths to guide and help the characters in The Umbrella Academy.
I do see the parallels in both. My background is in career counseling. I’ve worked in the field of employment counseling for 10 years so I’m curious if there are parts of that that come out. That’s interesting to consider.
I need your services.[laughs]
What would you want your Herb’s unique power to be?
I feel like something with time would be appropriate for Herb. Probably something to speed up and get so much accomplished in one day. Every day would be so clean and organized and running smoothly. I feel like he works very hard and he should get that time off that he so deserves.
What about for yourself?
That’d be cool. I’m a great procrastinator. I’m very good at leaving things to the last minute. Maybe mine would be slowing down some and giving myself more time to be on time for phone calls such as this one. That would be a great superpower.
That works. Speaking of time, that was a great segue. If you had your own time briefcase, where in time would you like to travel?
Oh, man. That’s a good one. That’s a hard one to nail down. I could be more imaginative like the dawn of time but I was thinking of the 60s. But maybe being around for moments like when they actually landed someone on the moon, that’d be an incredible experience to witness. Maybe the 60s and get some good tye dye and clothing. Where would you go?
Oh gosh. Mine would be sad, like seeing relatives that have passed or something.
That’s a great idea though, I didn’t think of that. That’s a good option, seeing older family members.
Otherwise probably the 80s or the 90s, the good stuff that I’ve forgotten.
A lot of good bands and good music.
It was the best of both worlds, at that time. Can you talk a little about how it’s been to work alongside the cast? Are there any fun memories?
It’s really cool to play two characters on the show and to see it from two different angles and have different interactions as characters criss-cross. In the first season, I did a lot of things with Elliot Page, which was really cool. That was someone I really looked up to. The same with Colm Feore who is a great Shakespearean actor. They’re all great to work with and everyone is so different. It’s cool for me to see more theatre-trained performers because of my background. I haven’t done that training they have but it’s nice to watch them in their process.
I really enjoyed working with Robert Sheehan on and off. He’s such a funny, charismatic person, with no ego, and is very down-to-earth. Working with Kate Walsh who played the handler, she’s so good at playing high status and I thought that was such a fun dynamic and fun energy to play with. I didn’t want her to kill me. It’s been great.
This past season working with The Sparrows was such a treat. This whole other group of people came in and hit the ground running. Very lovely people and down-to-earth and I admire that in people. Someone like Colm Feore, in Canada he’s a big deal, but he treats everyone the same and pals around with the cast and crew alike. That’s exactly how I want to be. It’s a team effort. We’re all in this together. Very blessed to work with this ensemble.
That’s great to hear. I loved the addition of The Sparrows as well. As far as Canadian actors go, we were so excited to see Jake Epstein on the show after growing up watching him.
Jake Epstein, I love that guy. He is so funny. We got along really well. I’d wanna give a shoutout to him. His stuff in particular, anytime he comes on screen I just start laughing. His mannerisms and his character are so in contrast to all the other Sparrows. He’s a really nice guy with a great sense of humor. I really enjoyed hanging out with him and getting to know him.
His character was great. He always had a snack which I found very relatable.[laughs] Like when everyone was on the treadmill and he’s just casually strolling.
What are your hopes for The Umbrella Academy moving forward? What would you like to see in season 4?
Great question. In a show like this, anything is possible. For me, I would be very curious to see how you top it. Every season, the world is ending. They have set the bar so high. I’m so curious. Maybe going other places and bringing some other people back that we saw in season 3. [ laughs] I love that show. I’m also really touched to be on the kind of show that has really impacted people in such a big way. I don’t think we realized that going into it. But that is another cherry on top.
It has a very dedicated fanbase and it’s a joy being connected to the show.
I think the series does a really good job of being accessible to people. I think it’s really special that the fans are particularly loyal to it. I think it’s a fun fantasy-style world but has appeal for everyone. Everyone can relate to it. I think that’s that part of the success. It celebrates differences.
The framework is killer. It’s not your average superhero world. I think it already sets it apart from others. Growing up as someone who never fit in, it’s like there’s a place for you. There’s a universal connection that does not happen often. That’s really lovely.
You can do it all with a really kick-ass soundtrack.
That’s another character itself. The soundtrack is amazing. Every year.
You’ve spoken before about being a proud advocate for physical diversity. Can you talk a little about why it’s important to have that visibility in media?
Great question. I grew up feeling that I never fit in because I didn’t. I didn’t see representations of myself on tv. I feel like a lot of the time, we learn about the world around us from tv. I know that that’s a big part of how I learned about the world. If I don’t see a representation of myself then that’s an issue and a disservice to people. It’s nice to see a little bit more physical diversity on the screen but I still don’t see a lot of it, to be honest.
I’m not even that physically diverse, I’m small. I don’t think of myself in that way. I would like to see more of the world reflected, instead of people trying to feel bad or feel shame about how they aren’t reflected on tv or social media. Being different is totally cool and is a very good thing.
Standing out is not something to avoid it’s something to embrace. I think it’s really important that we can entertain and educate people. I think seeing a representation of the whole world and not just one small slice of it is important. The Umbrella Academy is so different. Differences are not something to be afraid of.
This world has the potential to be a very beautiful place. There are so many people in it that you can include. I’m always wishing that the media can do better, can do more.
That’s such a great point. A lot of theatres aren’t accessible and people with differences couldn’t access the space. It’s a battle on many different fronts.
That’s funny you say that, I had that issue with an older theatre recently. They don’t have any accessibility or elevators. It’s 2022, this shouldn’t be an issue. There’s always room to improve.
The more that people have that brought to their attention…I think society has been structured in a way to be inaccessible. I don’t think it’s that hard in a sense to re-look at the world. It’s an ongoing discussion that I’m glad people are having. Helping people think in ways that they may not have thought of before.
What’s next for you? What else are you working on?
Right now, I’m going to be doing Shakespeare in the Park here in Toronto. I’ve never done professional theatre or Shakespeare before. It’s exciting and kind of scary. We’re doing a play As You Like It running until September at the High Parks Amphitheatre. Then I’m going to be doing Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. A reimagining and retelling of that with the Young People’s Theater. You get to learn a lot with theatre. We’re set to open this week and it’s been full steam ahead.
Thank you so much to Ken Hall for taking the time to speak with us!
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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