Before long it’s going to be hard to turn the channel and not see Usman Ally. In fact, 2017 is shaping up to be the kind of year that most actors could only dream of. Having already appeared in the recently-released Netflix series “A Series of Unfortunate Events” as the Hook-Handed Man, Ally will soon be seen in the new TV Land series “Nobodies” (executive produced by Melissa McCarthy), season 6 of HBO’s “Veep” (opposite Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s YouTube Red series “Lifeline.” And that’s just scratching the filmography surface.
We recently sat down with Ally to discuss his current run of high profile roles, breaking out in comedy and how living all over the world has helped shape his approach to acting.
TrunkSpace: We don’t mean to curse it, but it seems like you’re having a pretty crazy 2017 so far?
Ally: I am having a pretty crazy 2017. (Laughter) I think I have about six projects that are slated for this year. It’ll be, one that already aired, which is “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” and then there are five others that are coming up this year. So, yeah… it’s a really, really good year.
TrunkSpace: As an actor, what is the wait like for you for when you shoot something that you know could very well be a career changer to that moment when it actually gets released?
Ally: It’s a lot of like not knowing at all what’s going on. (Laughter) Unless you’re number one on the call sheet, I would imagine most people are sort of left in the dark about what’s going on. And these days there’s so many NDAs that you sign as well so you can’t say anything and you can’t post anything about it as well.
TrunkSpace: And we would imagine that applies even more so to a project like “A Series of Unfortunate Events” where it’s based on existing material and already has an established fan base.
Ally: Oh my God! Absolutely. I remember when we were shooting the first season of “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” we hardly did any shots on location… a lot of it was on stages and I think some of that was also just for privacy. We did shoot once out in downtown Vancouver and instantly all of these photos of us ended up on the internet and people went nuts. I was never really active on social media and suddenly I was inundated with all of these people ALL over the world. Brazil and Turkey and Hungary. It was really great that they loved the show so much, but some of the things they say… like, “I love you and I will always love you.” And I’m like, “Wow, we just met, man.” (Laughter) It’s pretty crazy.
TrunkSpace: Is it important for you to sort of temper expectations with that kind of thing and not put too much stock into how a project will hit with an audience or how those fans will receive it?
Ally: I try not to think too much about it. I just try to give an honest, sort of even keel response to how things are going. I never try to be like, “I can’t wait for you to see all of this!” I do say that I’m personally excited to share this with you all. That’s sort of my perspective on everything, that I’m happy with what we created and I’m excited for the fans to see it and to get their response to it all. So, I kind of make sure that it’s sort of in the middle of the road a little bit.
I have to be honest, some of the shows that I’ve worked on… I can genuinely say I’ve been really excited that they are very good and very funny. There are certain shows that when you’re on set you just have a feeling that you’ve got something good cooking and under those circumstances I sometimes do put out a little something here and there that “this is going to be good.” But you’re right. You have to be a little careful sometimes.
TrunkSpace: If someone asked us if we would like to star in a new comedy in 2017 and then followed it up with who would be the ultimate person we’d like to executive produce that comedy… Melissa McCarthy seems like a slam dunk response.
Ally: (Laughter) I know.
TrunkSpace: It must be easy to get excited for a project like that when you know the level of talent involved.
Ally: Absolutely. And not just the level of talent, but the kind of people they are. Working on that show… when we shot the pilot, it was like the most fun I had. It was such a good time on set. And it was amazing to work with people who have such high profiles like Melissa McCarthy but who are really so… just down to earth, but also very collaborative. It was one of the first times for me… and since then I’ve actually worked on a few other shows where I’ve had a similar experience of just feeling very much a part of the artistic and creative process. Helping to make decisions on a scene and improvising. When we shot the pilot, there was so much improv that we did. Now, of course not all of that can make it because you’re trying to fit all of that into a half hour or whatever, but just to feel like you’re part of something… that you’re really creating something. And having a background as I do in theater, that was something sometimes you’d miss on television, but with “Nobodies” it really did feel like you were just sort of building something together, which was fantastic.
TrunkSpace: Well, and with the way that the spotlight is shining so bright on Melissa right now with her guest spots on “Saturday Night Live” as Sean Spicer, that’s a really great thing for “Nobodies.”
Ally: Yeah. Really great. I mean, she’s kind of like the boss! Isn’t that one of her movies as well? (Laughter) She is everywhere. I was watching a commercial the other day that just happened to come on with her saving whales and trees. It was hilarious. She’s really great. And you are really aware that people will be tuning in because of her name, but I think once they do and they see the show, they’ll see that there’s some really great actors on the show. We don’t have the profile that she does, but they’re all hilarious.
TrunkSpace: You’re portraying a Hollywood exec in the series. Is it a thin line to walk… parodying the very people that can make or break your chance on future roles?
Ally: (Laughter) Well, you know… when I played the character I was like, “I know this guy” because I’ve interacted with people who were kind of like this. And it was so funny because when I got to set and we were shooting the first few things… I kept bringing this up. I’d always say to the director Michael McDonald, “I just want to make sure this isn’t too big.” Again, because my background is in the theater and I’ve also done a lot of drama in television, I’m always like, maybe I should dial this down a bit. And they were like, “Okay, but then let’s also do a take where you really go for it.” So, just working in the world of comedy, it gave me a lot of license to sort of go for it and with the character… I do some really crazy things on this show. After awhile, it became like, “You know what… forget it. Let’s just do this and have fun with it!” And of course, all of these characters are sort of dialed up versions of reality in some ways. The leads… Hugh, Larry and Rachel… they also say that these characters are heightened versions of themselves and I think that’s sort of truthful for pretty much everyone you see in this world.
TrunkSpace: You mentioned having done a lot of drama, but this run you’re currently on seems more seeped in comedy… even with the Hook-Handed Man in “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
Ally: Yeah. I was happy that Barry Sonnenfeld sort of allowed me to go in that direction with the character. To give him some comic moments. It’s sort of mixed with the villainy and the kind of evilness of them all. It’s a lot like what Neil is doing with his own character on the show. There are moments where you can laugh at him. The Hook-Handed Man is sort of like a pathetic clown at times.
I’ve been wanting to break into comedy for awhile because… I think I’m funny. (Laughter) It’s not always the case that the people who are making these decisions might see you in that way. It’s hard once you’re doing shows that are really good but are very serious, you start being seen in that light. I have to say, about a year and a half ago when I first worked on “Veep,” it was in a very small capacity… just a small gust star in season five. But, it’s amazing how just doing one comedy, even in that sort of small role, breaks the seal. Right after being cast by Allison Jones in that, I was suddenly being seen for so many comedies. The last pilot season as well. Just a ton of comedies. So it’s amazing how opening people’s perspective up to something else can sort of change the trajectory of your career in that way. And I’m all for it because I really enjoy working on them.
TrunkSpace: And you’re back on “Veep,” correct?
Ally: It’s going to be great. I’m back in season 6 and in a much larger capacity. I can’t really talk too much about it, but again, it was such a fantastic experience for me. And you’re talking about working with like the top comedy legends like Melissa McCarthy, but then Julia Louis-Dreyfus on that side as well, so it’s been fantastic.
TrunkSpace: So now that you’re moving in a more comedic direction, is it important to you to maintain a balance and make sure that you’re still seen as a dramatic actor as well?
Ally: I think so. One of the projects that I’m working on this year is actually not a comedy. I’m doing this thing for YouTube Red called “Lifeline” and in that I play a kind of very serious sort of character… this head of a corporation that has figured out a way to time travel. So, I feel like I’m finding some of that balance, but… you know, somebody once told me that in your work you should just make sure you’re enjoying it. You also never know when the ride will end, so, for me, as long as I’m getting these roles that I feel passionate about and I’m having fun on set and having a good time and creating something that’s interesting, I don’t mind if it’s in the comedy or the drama world. I just want to have those experiences and to enjoy them in the moment. You have no idea what’s going to happen next. There’s no rhyme or reason to why things happen to you as an actor in Hollywood. They just sort of happen or they don’t happen. So, I’m trying to temper everything that’s happening by just telling myself that this is a great ride that I’m on right now and that I should enjoy it. We’ll see what comes up next.
TrunkSpace: Is it an exciting time for an actor given all of the various platforms that quality content is being developed for? Your career seems like proof of that given you’re working in cable, network, streaming, and now on “Lifeline,” which as you said, will be a YouTube Red series.
Ally: I think a lot of these new streaming outlets… they allow creative people the opportunity to really make their shows with less stipulations or structure that is holding them back. I think they have more freedom to sort of create the work the way they want. There’s a lot of really great stuff on network TV, but I think there are more guidelines in terms of what you’re allowed to create and what you’re allowed to say. With this streaming content there’s this misconception, I think, that maybe they don’t have as much of a budget, but my God, the show I’m working on for YouTube Red… we were shooting last night and they’re going all out! There is a lot going into it and I’m excited for how it’s going to look.
TrunkSpace: And with Dwayne Johnson involved, in a lot of ways it feels like their coming out party in terms of original content.
Ally: Yeah, that’s the way it feels. The Rock is part of the production team and so they really are going all out for it. And I have to be honest, I was a little unaware of YouTube Red before I signed up for it, but now that I’ve been talking to them, it really does seem like a big thing coming. It will be really interesting to see how they take their share of the market in terms of viewers and subscribers. You just have to sort of be up to date with this whole new ballgame in terms of how people are accessing the shows that they want to watch.
TrunkSpace: Theater has been strong part of your career. Now that you’re living in LA, are you still finding time for the stage when you can?
Ally: I try to. I’ve been one of those actors who was fortunate that, every time I moved to a different city, it was always with a job. When I used to go to New York, I was going because I was doing a play out there. I’d be doing a play and it would eventually lead to doing a few episodes of “Madam Secretary” or something else. Similarly when I came out to LA the first time, maybe like five years ago now, I came with a play to the Geffen Playhouse, which we had done in New York as well, called “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” And that sort of led to a few other opportunities here. And then when I came out again three years ago it was again with a different play at a different theater company. So, I think it’s always going to be a big part of my life and my career. I do miss it. I miss being on stage because now it has been over, for me, about a year and a half since I did a play. In my career, that’s like an eternity almost because prior to doing all of this TV I was consistently working on stage. So, I do feel like at some point I’d like to find a way to do some more or get involved with it in LA. It is harder in LA. It’s harder to find the work out here. There are a lot of small theaters and I don’t really have that “in” yet with the theater community over here.
TrunkSpace: You’ve lived all over the world and within different cities here in the states. Has that exposure to different people and cultures helped you to become a better actor and to find those various voices?
Ally: That’s a great question and I’m glad you asked that because I think that’s really important in terms of my journey as an actor. I have been very much defined by my experiences living in different environments around the world. It gives you a better understanding of humanity. I think as actors one of the most important things we need to have is empathy and having access to different people, different worlds and different living conditions and standards…it does make you aware that the world is different and that you’re not maybe as important as you think you are. (Laughter) There are different ways in which people access their lives and I think that has been crucial for me in understanding the characters I play and understanding their logic.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events” is available now on Netflix.
“Nobodies” premieres on TV Land March 29.
Season 6 of “Veep” premieres on HBO April 16.