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How Ken Hall of ‘Umbrella Academy’ learned to say yes

It started with sushi.

Sushi is what Ken Hall steered to take chances, onstage and off.

Hall, a Second City-trained performer is, by his own admission a picky eater.

When a good friend invited him to try the Japanese dish, Hall, albeit reluctantly, acquiesced.

“So I had sushi for the first time,” he recalled during a Zoom interview from his Toronto home. (His cat, Gizmo, periodically hopped onto his lap). “And it was delicious! And I realized, ‘Oh, I’ve been doing life all wrong,’ ” he beamed.

Shortly after, Hall saw the benefits of saying “yes” beyond menu items; he started accepting roles and projects that are as varied as the audience suggestions shouted out at an improv show.

He performs regularly in his comfort zone as one half of 2-Man No-Show, an improv duo with Isaac Kessler.

Then there are the roles of both dukes, Frederick and Senior, which Hall is playing in the Canadian Stage production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” in High Park.

In a nod to the sushi-inspired epiphany of saying “yes” to unknown opportunities, the actor excitedly explained how the director “ordered in some wonderful Mediterranean food,” as he spoke to the star shortly after rehearsal for the comedy, which opens July 28

He has also played countless aliens and monsters on TV during a vocation that followed 10 years as a career counselor and some volunteering at a Scarborough youth shelter.

Some of his finest work — and it’s a true artistic stretch — is as Pogo, the sentient chimpanzee in “The Umbrella Academy,” which recently dropped its third season on Netflix.

Hall did the computer-generated motion capture for the part, drawing on the uniqueness of his four-foot, seven-inch frame, the result of scoliosis, which affects the spine’s curvature.

As a child, the condition forced Hall to the outside — literally, as he recounted not being able to participate in gym class.

“(I was) sitting on the bench in this lonely world and not feeling great about myself,” recalled Hall, 48, who grew up in Etobicoke.

“But now,” he beamed, “the irony is that because of my sizing and how I move in my body, that’s my money-maker. It’s such a paradox.”

He offered this advice: “Accept what you have, rather than debate it or fight against it. own it!”

To be sure, it’s that can-do philosophy and willingness to say “yes” that helped him land the Pogo gig, which is more of a dramatic role than a comedic one. Hall does the movements, but another actor does the voice. “To play a talking chimpanzee butler who’s also geriatric…” Hall said, his voice trailing off with a laugh. “That’s what I love about this industry. It’s playing ‘pretend.’ ”

Credit the “Umbrella Academy” showrunners with capitalizing on Hall’s acting chops beyond playing a computer-animated elder statesman of a monkey. In Season 2 of the time-travel series, Hall was also cast as Herb, the affably charming employee, with horn-rimmed glasses and fedora, of the commission that manages the space-time continuum.

To see the actor’s restraint and impeccable timing in the part, featuring both Hall’s body and his voice by the way, it’s easy to understand why he was recruited for double duty on the hit series, which is mostly filmed in the GTA. The “Umbrella Academy’s” producers, he said, were impressed by how he got big laughs with few lines.

“But that’s what I do,” he said, matter of factly. Herb “is really just a heightened version of myself.”

There’s a genuine, positive disposition to Hall — and a lot of political patience. Watch his interactions (on YouTube) with overzealous entertainment reporters and their meandering questions on the red carpet at premieres. Hall is always gracious and attentive.

It wasn’t always this way; he talked openly of a dark time, before he discovered a beginner’s drama class via the Toronto District School Board. He recounted with sobering honesty his depression, debilitating anxiety and despair … and his propensity for always saying “no” as a way to “keep me safe and predictable.”

“I was very unhappy. I know what it’s like to have a very negative mindset and to be afraid all the time. And I know that it doesn’t pay. It erodes you.

“I had to get miserable in order to catapult myself out of that.”

At 28, he quit drinking, “which allowed me to connect (with people) outside of a bar.” He discovered 10-day meditation retreats and said he hasn’t needed anxiety medication for seven years. Today, Hall draws on his life experience for his work as an improv teacher and inspirational keynote speaker.

Discovering improvement and joining Second City, he said, “was the biggest leap … very nourishing. Something that had been missing in my life.”

“I found a community.”

That last sentence was barely out of his mouth before Hall quickly qualified it.

“I found myself, actually.”


Denis Grignon is a writer, broadcast journalist and regular contributor to the Toronto Star.

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