Consistently an Emmys favorite throughout its first three seasons, with 23 nominations and 2 wins to date, HBO’s Silicon Valley finally broke through in the acting categories this year, with series lead Thomas Middleditch landing a nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. Though the entire ensemble of brilliant comedic actors is certainly deserving, Middleditch brings something unique to the table. An actor well suited to the straight man role, who can also deliver quips with a punch, Middleditch also brings his skills in physical comedy to bear, enduring scrapes and bruises for his art and bringing the laughs in the process. Sitting down with AwardsLine for a candid discussion, it becomes immediately clear that there is much more to the actor than meets the eye—a discontent with some industry conventions, and a real desire to explore new territory. Below, Middleditch discusses his awards show cynicism, his thoughts on contemporary comedy, his Comic-Con highlights, and more.
This year marks not only your first Emmy nomination, but also the first recognition by the TV Academy of the actors of Silicon Valley. What does this mean to you?
You’re talking to a very cynical person, who thinks awards are a little bit silly. But it’s like, they’re silly until your name is called—and then you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re pretty cool.’ [Laughs] So it’s certainly nice. I’m just happy for the show; it just lets us know that, at least in some peoples’ minds, we’re doing it right.
You’ve spoken about a broadening of what is termed “comedy”, particularly in terms of awards consideration—is this a source of frustration for you?
Well, I don’t know. In any awards ceremony, if you’re a finicky person like myself, you can pick a multitude of things to nag about. I get frustrated with the comedy category because it feels like it gets sidelined a lot of the time, for all kinds of things—not sidelined, marginalized. It’s ‘drama, drama, drama’ that’s super important, and then like, “Oh, whatever the comedies are doing. That’s cool, too.”
For film, lately, I understand the marginalization, because comedy in film seems really formulaic. But I think comedy in TV right now is actually super exciting, and when certain shows get in because they feel like, politically, they have a better shot at getting awards than if they were to go to the drama category—which is really what they are—then it frustrates me because it kind of takes away from what I do, and what other comedians and comedy shows do. I mean, why isn’t [FX series] Baskets on there? Baskets is incredible—Baskets is so funny and poignant, and sad, and dark.
I’m not saying that comedy has to be a certain thing—I’m not trying to define comedy, where it’s like, it can only be silly things. But I think part of what makes a comedy is that at least part of the mantra of the show is trying to make people laugh. Maybe my tastes are a little bit different than certain shows that have been [nominated] in the past X amount of years, but it doesn’t feel like that’s part of the mantra.
I can understand it being part of the mantra of trying to make people laugh, and I just don’t laugh at it because I don’t think it’s funny—that’s actually fine. I’d rather that than a show whose goal isn’t really to make people laugh. I don’t want to get slammed for being a negative nancy. I’m not trying to take away from anything anyone’s ever done.
The first half of Silicon Valley’s third season is dominated by the commanding supporting presence of renowned character actor Stephen Tobolowsky. How was your experience working with him?
It was a treasure—a joy to get to work with him. I think also his character brought yet another force that these guys have to try to overcome. And the interesting part about him, as opposed to Russ Hanneman [played by Chris Diamantopoulos] from the previous season—who was just a straight douchebag that had the reins of their company—Jack Barker, you could argue, is doing the thing that’s better for Pied Piper. But because it goes against what Richard wants, he sabotages it. Jack Barker ends up doing the thing that he was planning to do with Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) over at Hooli, and the show leads off with like, “Oh, they’re going to make some snatch money.”
Reportedly, one of your favorite moments of the season was your laudable pratfall opposite Tobolowsky’s Jack Barker. Considering yourself something of a physical comedian, do you think physical comedy is a lost art?
I think it kind of is, in a sense. That’s why I love Baskets—I love just the premise of it. And there’s some great physical bits in there. One of my favorite physical bits—I guess it was actually quite some time ago—was in Extras, Ricky Gervais’ [series]. Ricky Gervais is talking to a girl and he’s absentmindedly flipping a bottle of water in his hand, trying to get a date with her. ‘OK great, I’ll see you tonight at seven.’ And he opens up the water, and he hasn’t realized it’s seltzer, and it squirts up, and he tries to catch it in his mouth.
I just love that, but it feels like—again, especially in film—you have these big stars where, for insurance reasons or something, it’s cut around. You know that it’s a stunt person, or outright CGI. And to me, that’s not what physical comedy—especially pain-based physical comedy—is. When you see that there’s zero risk involved, and no one’s getting hurt or suffering in any way, then it’s not funny. That’s why I like America’s Funniest Home Videos and the internet—it’s just a library of people getting hurt, genuinely.
You’re working amongst a group of whip-smart comedic talents. Has the rapid-fire exchange of quips and ideas presented on that panel ever been a hindrance to the production of the scripted series?
Only in the sense of the potential that we’ll go long, because we’re dicking around too much. But we’re all fans of the script—we all want to make sure that we get down what’s on the page, or at the very least, the intent of everything, even if we’re restructuring words. Fortunately enough, we have incredible writers, so we don’t really want to throw what they did out the window, especially since they probably worked for months to get it there. So it’s only a nightmare when we all get wound up, and we get pissy that, “Oh, they didn’t like that line!” or, “Well, what do you know?” And we’re like, “Oh, never mind. They have a lot more credits than we do.”
Reportedly, the writers of Silicon Valley have gotten looser with their process as the series has gone on, this season, delivering several scripts shortly before production. Would you say that impacted your work this season?
It would impact my work if I was a more professional actor. [Laughs] But because I mainly just show up and look at the lines, it doesn’t impact me too much—although it is nice to know what’s going on. I mean, we even had a table read of an episode where the whole thing got thrown out.
Was that back when the Skunkworks plot was conceived as a main through line?
Oh no, that’s even another thing. Yeah, they were going to make that the entire season arc, and then they just sort of said, “Screw it. Let’s do something else.” But no, I think it was going to be the eighth episode—well, I don’t know if I can tell because it might end up weaving its way into the fourth season or something. There was a whole adventure that they went on where they were like, “This is nuts!” And we had a table read and everything, and we were like, we’re going to shoot this two weeks from now! And nothing happened. That’s OK—I think that’s just them wanting to get it right. That’s all.
The plot shifts in a radical new direction at season’s end, with Pied Piper’s own Erlich Bachman coming in with the winning bid. What were your initial thoughts on reading the finale script?
I think it’s a little heartwarming that the guys are back together again. They’re finally at the position where it’s just all them; they don’t have some crazy person on the outside controlling them. But at the same time, the actual task is so much harder. They’ve completely pivoted, and they’re not even doing Richard’s platform. I’m sure that’s going to be a sore spot—I’m sure Richard’s not going to wake up in a few days being like, “I’m cool with this!” But it’s an uphill battle; Jack Barker and Gavin Belson have totally beat them to market, as it were, with this black box thing, but also, their platform came and went. So I don’t know—there’s a lot of avenues for the drama element of the show, but it was kind of cute, at the end.
Outside of Silicon Valley, you’ve taken on some interesting projects in the indie arena—including Sunspring, a surreal short film written by an AI bot. Was the experimental, novel element in the project’s inception part of the charm?
Oh, yeah. That s–t was for 48-hour sci-fi film festival. I’m always trying to do weird things—when you have that part of your mission statement as an actor, half of that stuff that ends up being made is probably garbage. [Laughs] I’ve got some stinky, stinky pieces of film in my closet. But that one actually ended up being kind of cool. That was just honestly the director, Oscar Sharp—he just said, “Hey, I always do this film festival. I’ve got this friend who has an AI bot that can write all this stuff; let’s do it.” And I was like, “Yeah. Sure. That’ll be a weird day.” And that’s what we did. We shot it in a day, and they edited it overnight, and they sent it in. But we were just like, “OK. Well if we’ve got this AI bot that’s writing a script, let’s earnestly, earnestly try to execute its vision.” So everything is verbatim. It’s all what the computer wrote. And when you read this s–t, it’s like, what is going on?
What was your approach in mining emotion and character from mostly nonsensical dialogue?
It was pretty Lynchian. We probably did more script analysis on that than anything I’ve ever done. We spent about two hours just going over the script and what the intention is—and just trying to make sense of it. Humphrey [Ker], this very tall British guy—he says something like, “I’m seeing The Great Red One,” or something like that. And we’re like, “OK, so who’s The Great Red One?” I’m butchering the quote, but there are references to things that are outside what you see, so we were like, we’ve got to clarify who and what this is.
What I love is there’s some weird poetry that comes out—like, “I’m just a little boy on the floor. I’m a little boy on the floor.” And it’s like, yeah man! Aren’t we all little boys on the floor? There’s some good stuff in there. And there’s even a song that plays, and that’s AI-written. It’s a bit like GLaDOS from Portal, if you’ve played that game.
You’re continuing your sci-fi kick with the upcoming thriller Replicas, starring Keanu Reeves. Going forward, do you hope to continue to expand into unknown territory?
My goals are just to do stuff that hopefully I’m proud of at the end of the day. At least my impetus going in is—either this will be fun, this will be an experience, or I think this is really cool. And results on some of those things have not been according to plan. But yeah—I would love to do a big movie. Outside of comedy, my big influences growing up as a kid were all like Jean-Claude Van Damme movies and Schwarzenegger s–t—like, big action movies. I’m virtually uncastable in that world, unless I’m like, the damsel that they’re trying to rescue. [Laughs] But still—that would be cool.