“You know my name’s not really Tex, right?” charmingly wily tycoon James Joseph “J.J.” McCready asks midway through the third season of GLOW. All the other characters on the Netflix comedy keep calling him “Tex,” despite the fact that he hails from Wyoming. It’s a mistake that J.J. graciously chalks up to “the hat or the accent or some such” (or maybe it’s the boots). It also echoes a real-life mistake that audiences often make about the actor who plays him, Toby Huss.
You might remember Huss as surreal superhero Artie, the Strongest Man in the World, on Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete and Pete, or as Elaine’s oddball boyfriend “The Wiz” on an episode of Seinfeld. Or maybe you have vague, VHS-warped memories of those bizarre MTV promos he did in the mid-nineties, in which he busted out a killer Sinatra impression to croon lounge versions of “Jeremy” and “Insane in the Brain.” But the Iowa native has made his biggest impressions on audiences by playing Texans, along with guys-who-could-be-mistaken-for-Texans.
In fact, when I tell him the premise of this article, Huss just laughs. It’s the sort of gleeful, rocking-back-on-your-heels laugh you might hear coming out of drunken cowboys or old-timey prospectors or assorted roustabouts—the kind of role, not coincidentally, for which you’d look to cast Toby Huss. It also sounds like it could have been issued from either of his best-known roles: Cotton Hill, the tactless (and shin-less) father to King of the Hill’s Hank, and John Bosworth, whom Huss played across four seasons on AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire.
In Bosworth, Huss took a character that could have been a lazy stereotype—a good-ol’-boy Texas businessman grappling with the rapidly changing technology of the eighties—and turned him into a fully inhabited human, subtly imbuing a world of complicated emotion inside a single “Aw, hell.” It’s one of the most authentically “Texan” portrayals on TV since Friday Night Lights, or maybe even Larry Hagman. That it belongs to a Midwesterner who cut his teeth in experimental theater makes it all the more impressive.
At the moment, Huss is about as far away from John Bosworth as you can get, in production playing Edward Dickinson, the Massachusetts-bred father of poet Emily Dickinson on Apple TV’s forthcoming Dickinson. He was all too happy to discuss how he came to find his way to his pretend home and the complexities of playing Texan without ever tipping into caricature.
Texas Monthly: While I was watching Halt and Catch Fire, I kept thinking, “This guy could be one of my uncles.” It was a real shock to me to discover you were actually from Iowa. Do people make that mistake a lot?
Toby Huss: Well yeah, because I’ve played so many! From Cotton on King of the Hill to Bosworth, those are two pretty supremely Texan Texans, so people assume I’m from down there. But you know what’s interesting is that the older Iowa accent—that kind of rural-living, agricultural guy, old farmer accent—it’s not too far away from Bosworth’s. It’s pretty close to my father’s, who’s an Iowa guy, born and raised. But also, Bosworth is based on my uncle Tom, who’s still around, and he was an oilman in Houston for a long time. He’s from Montana. My father from Iowa and Tom Rollins from Montana, I kind of combined their accents and made them slightly Southern, and that’s the John Bosworth accent. I don’t think Tom ever wore those zippered cowboy boots like Bosworth. But I know the moment I got those zippered cowboy boots on, I started walking like my uncle. He’s shorter than I am, so I was taking some small steps. And those small steps, they felt right.
TM: So the fact that everyone keeps calling you “Tex” on GLOW, is that a wink to how things actually are for you?
TH: It’s funny, because when I got the role, he was named Tex, so I came in with a Southern accent that was hopefully a little more like Southeastern Texas—a little bit more like Vidor, where I’d spent some time, which is close to Louisiana. I worked there in Vidor for one summer when I was a kid, at Florida Natural Gas Transmission Station No. 6. How ’bout that for a summer job? My uncle got me the job through Pennzoil. I was the station maintenance guy. Last summer, I drove my daughter to college, and we drove through Vidor. I pulled into the gate, and I thought, Let me see if those guys are still around—they can’t still be here. And all the old dudes that I worked with in ’84, a lot of those guys were still there.
Anyway, about two episodes into [GLOW], they said, “Oh, yeah, it’s in the script that he’s not from Texas. He’s from Wyoming.” I went, what the—? I had this whole Vidor, Texas, accent worked out! So towards the latter episodes, I just kind of flattened out the twang so it’s just a sort of regular, generic Southern accent, I think.
TM: When did you first discover you had a knack for playing Southerners?
TH: King of the Hill started a lot of that for me. But, when I was a kid growing up, I would always hear interesting accents around town and from people that I met, and I’d try to mimic them. My aunt Mary, Tom’s wife, she developed a little bit of a Southern draaaawl, this juicy drawl, even though she was a Colorado girl. My grandfather was Italian, and he didn’t speak English that well, so his accent was really Italian. Another uncle married a woman from Yugoslavia, from Sarajevo. So there were all these accents around me, including the everyday Midwestern. And I just mimicked all of them when I was a kid. But the Texan accent just seemed to fit for me. It came easy.
TM: One of your first big breakthroughs came with those bumpers you used to do on MTV, and it seems like Reverend Tex Stoveheadbottom might have been your first real “Texan” character. Where did he come from?
TH: I was performing that character on the Lower East Side for a bunch of years back in the late eighties, early mid-nineties. I just came up with the word “Stoveheadbottom” and I liked that, so I wrote that down on a piece of paper and that stayed somewhere for a few months. Then I heard a preacher on the radio one day, and I thought, “Oh, that’s Stoveheadbottom! Maybe Stoveheadbottom is a preacher.” Then “Tex” just seemed like a good place to put him—this Southern beatnik, crazed preacher. And then yeah, I performed him all over eighties New York, back in the day.
TM: You’ve played a lot of different kinds of Southern characters since then, hailing from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico. Do you differentiate in your drawls? Do you try to tailor it to each region?
TH: Oh, definitely, yeah. I’m also a photographer—if you go onto TobyHuss.com, you’ll see a bunch of photos there that I’ve taken over the years—and I’ve spent a lot of time driving around the country taking photos, talking to people. There’s so many distinct little accents around the U.S. Northern Florida is so different from Georgia, even though they’re really close. New Mexico has a strange, weird, kind of non-accent accent. Alabama is different than Mississippi. They all have a little different flavor to them.
TM: What do you think the pitfalls are of playing Texan, specifically? What do the actors who get it wrong not understand?
TH: I think they lean in too heavy, and they don’t make it human. They make it generic. I saw John Bosworth as a guy who probably had a much thicker accent when he was younger, and because he was a business guy, he decided to kind of lose it. And when he got a little bit older and more successful in the business world, he decided, screw that, I’m going back to talking how I want to talk. To me, that’s the essential Texan spirit. That sort of Texan thing of walking around the world saying, “I don’t need any improvement, I’m fine.” Until the time comes when his whole world comes crashing down, and then he goes back on that, of course. But there’s that sort of indomitable spirit: I don’t need to move for anyone. I don’t need to change, unless I see fit. So it starts from that point that says, I’m fine the way I am. I like that, and I think Bosworth was that kind of a guy. Cotton Hill was definitely that kind of guy. He didn’t change for anyone. I think that’s the essential Texan aspect.
TM: Cotton, obviously, is a cartoon, which means you could play it pretty broad. How do you keep something like that grounded and still find the human within them?
TH: There’s still some really broken aspects to Cotton Hill. He’s sort of a sad character, you know? He wants to love his son, but he just thinks his son is a horrible failure. He’s not just a yelling, old, cantankerous jerk. There is a human there somewhere. And he’s a war hero, this guy who, hilariously, sacrificed his shins for his country. The guy’s heart was in the right place. He just didn’t know how to articulate any sort of intimacy or tenderness, to his son or any of the people around him whom he loved. In that, he’s a real human guy. There are a lot of guys who are like that, though maybe not that extreme. Their hearts are in the right place, but it’s really difficult for them to show emotion or vulnerability around other people, and it makes them act out in all kinds of ways. I saw Cotton as that kind of a guy.
TM: Do you think that the reluctance to show vulnerability is a particularly Texan sort of affliction?
TH: I don’t think Texans in general are like that—you know, it goes on an individual basis. I do think Bosworth had a real problem with being able to show any intimacy. But that made him more of a complex, interesting character, because he grew into being a warmer, more intimate guy after his world caved in on him. His wife left him, he lost his business, and that was it. He was left to his own devices. He had to reinvent himself. Those are the characters that are always interesting to me, the ones in the process of reinvention.
TM: Was there someone specific you drew on for Cotton’s voice? It’s very distinct.
TH: That one was weirdly technical, actually, because I started doing a Southern accent in my head, and then I found this place in my throat and just moved my mouth in a certain way, and [adopts Cotton’s voice] I could hit this high-pitched thing. It was a weird place to put a voice—just a weird physical place to put my voice inside my head where I’d never put it before. And it worked! Sort of strange. But they had the drawings of the character, too, which really helped. And again, my uncle features prominently in that, too, because he’s not the tallest guy in the world. He’s five-five, or something, and his face is slightly Cotton Hill–esque.
TM: Have you told him that?
TH: Oh yeah! I think he likes it. He sent me some photos one time where he’s goofing off, making a face like Cotton Hill. Hey, he looks like the guy! And, with Bosworth, before we started shooting in Atlanta, I went to go see him and Aunt Mary and hang out a little bit, just to get the essence of that guy again. He’s a Montana boy, but as far as I can tell, he’s a full-on Texan now.
TM: Now that you’ve built a career on these kinds of characters, how many scripts do you get these days that are just looking for “good ol’ boys with a heart of gold”?
TH: The GLOW thing was a little bit like that, and I was flattered that they offered me the role because it’s great, and the scripts are really good over there. But that doesn’t happen an awful lot, actually. You always want to do a good character, but if it’s somebody that wants a clichéd redneck Texas dummy, man, I don’t want to play that thing. That’s no fun. I’ve been lucky enough to get roles that are more complex than that, with writers who were open to keeping them that way and not dumbing them down.
TM: Well, on behalf of Texas, we thank you for wanting to play us that way.
TH: Yeah! Well, you know there are guys down there who seem pretty non-complex, let’s say. There’s old Iowan guys who are pretty simple old fellers, and there’s the same thing in Texas—you’ve seen that guy a hundred times. You know, that redneck from 100 yards away, and you know exactly what he’s about. But I’ve always found that, when you really delve into those guys, there’s a lot more in there. But I love it, man! I have a strange, wonderful connection with Texas. I love that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.