As one of the stars of HBO’s Silicon Valley, Thomas Middleditch has become synonymous with the bumbling Richard Hendricks, awkward king of the Pied Piper universe. But Middleditch is more than that. He’s also a talented improviser, frequent Comedy Bang! Bang! guest, and one of the stars of the new movie The Bronze alongside Melissa Rauch and Gary Cole. In that film, he plays Ben “Twitchy” Lawfort, owner of a struggling gymnastics facility and the much-maligned admirer of Rauch’s Hope Greggory. The A.V. Club talked to him about that role, Silicon Valley, and having the farts.
The A.V. Club: How are you?
Thomas Middleditch: I’m fine, how are you?
AVC: Good, thank you. It’s nice to talk to you.
TM: I’m a little gassy.
AVC: Oh. Well, now I know.
TM: I’ve got to fart but I’m trying to hold them in because there’s other people in the room. But if I were by myself I’d just be really tooting. You know what I mean?
AVC: I do. I work in a big office so I get it.
Anyway, I have some questions for you about The Bronze. Not that I don’t love talking about farts.
TM: Sounds good.
AVC: What draws you to a project?
TM: I don’t do this “will that be revolutionary?” thing—ideally it’s just that there are good people involved. Either people I respect or who are at least attempting to do cool, unique things. As well as the material, you know? It boils down to a script and a director with vision, and some great costars.
I was on some panel with Viggo Mortensen and he said he just wants to tell good stories. And I like that. That’s kind of what it’s all about. I just want to be a part of work that’s good, and that I’m proud of.
AVC: Is he someone you’d model your career after?
TM: I don’t know. For the longest time I wanted to kind of be like Tom Hanks: Start off doing comedy and then eventually stretch my wings into more dramatic stuff, and that’s still something that sounds pretty cool.
There are some people I would just die to work with, like the Wes Andersons and the Paul Thomas Andersons and the Coen brothers of the world. People who are doing more alternative comedy, let’s say, even though that sounds like not important enough of a term. But I’d be willing to do a bit more serious stuff as soon as I’ve chipped away at gaining more confidence in that department.
AVC: How do you do that? Does it help to be in more serious projects?
TM: I don’t know. That’s tricky. I think you get those opportunities because someone sees it in you or wants to try and help you show that to the world, I guess. I don’t know. It’s probably a leap of faith for people to take a communion into their dramatic worth.
It’s really challenging because in comedy when you’re shooting a film or TV show, you know it’s good because they call, “Cut,” and people laugh. Or you’ll even blow a take because someone laughs during it. But with drama, you don’t get that. They’ll call “Cut,” and the director will just very solemnly come over and go, “Eh, it’s good.” You don’t get that immediate reward, so I’ve found that the couple of times that I’ve done that it’s pretty easy for me to get in my head and second-guess everything I do.
AVC: It’s weird though because you can do something in comedy that you think is really great and that everyone seems to love, but then if no one sees it, was it really a success? Or the success you might want?
TM: This is a very neurotic actor kind of thing, but I think comedians, part of why we maybe have—ugh, this is gross—a funny bone or something is because we think everything is so absurd. Like everything is kind of ridiculous. Every facet of life. But the thing is with dramatic acting you have to take it all very seriously, and it’s really hard to not just make fun of yourself all the time.
AVC: Even what you said before about wanting to tell great stories, that might be true, but there’s also got to be some part of you—
TM: You want to do the biggest eye-roll take to yourself. And do a couple minutes just riffing on how big a douchebag you sound like.
But the thing is, in drama, that’s the point of it. You’re not making fun of anything. You actually are getting really serious. There’s no way Leonardo DiCaprio is cracking jokes about him getting eaten by a bear. No, he’s trying to get into the mindset of being eaten by a bear. So, I don’t know. You’ve kind of got to quiet your inner cynic I think.
AVC: You don’t think he made jokes about that on the set?
TM: Maybe he made jokes. He’s a very charming man. But I don’t know. What ended up on screen looks absolutely harrowing… whatever. Now I’m just gushing about Leonardo DiCaprio.
AVC: You play awkward so well. Are you an awkward person in real life, or is that something you developed as an affect for acting?
TM: I definitely can be. But I don’t know. I definitely have gone through some serious awkward phases, of course. I—along with many comedians probably—had my fair share of being teased, and bullied to a degree, which wasn’t fun until I eventually became a class clown and then everyone was on my side. I think through comedy and through acting I’ve probably shaken off a fair amount of that crippling social anxiety. However, I’ve definitely got that in me, for sure. But this has happened to me a few times: People know me either from the show or X, Y, Z role, and they’ll get to know me and they’re like, “You’re nothing like that person.” And I’m like, “Yep. I’m acting.” Acting!
AVC: I’m a Comedy Bang! Bang! fan—
TM: I was just sadly listening to my own episode this morning.
AVC: You listened to your own episode?
TM: I think Lauren Lapkus is one of the funniest human beings on the earth. I think she’s so funny it’s crazy. And especially when she and I do Kid Detectives or something, it’s all improvised, and for almost 100 percent of my improv shows, I never get to watch them. I don’t get to sit there and analyze them or even enjoy them or anything, and Comedy Bang! Bang! is one of those things where I can actually go back and listen to it.
This may sound horribly narcissistic but I actually found myself laughing at it, which is nice. I can actually enjoy something that I did. I’ll let myself do that as opposed to just constantly hating myself.
AVC: Standups record their sets, but you’re not necessarily setting up a camera in the back of UCB or whatever to record your show.
TM: No. And even, honestly, some of the standup stuff, I wouldn’t even want to. Well, I guess I’d want to watch it to analyze it and work on a joke, I suppose, and that’s why standups record their shows. Or for a special. But just goofing around with someone who you think is really funny?
It’s Scott [Aukerman], too, I think he’s hilarious, too, and it’s just fun. What tickles me is you can tell we’re having way too much fun, and that’s what I’m laughing at all the time. It’s me and Lauren and Scott just essentially laughing at each other, which is fun. I don’t know. It’s cute.
AVC: All three of you are really adept at making very specific references, things that pull from such a deep place that it seems like they were pre-decided, but they weren’t… How do you learn that skill?
TM: The difference between improv and standup—and this is not with the conclusion that one is better than the other—is that with improv you have to really act it. Unless you’re a very stand-and-deliver wordsmith improv guy, which there are plenty of. I always have to latch onto a character or point of view or something, and then you have to come up with a bunch of different specifics about that character. You’ll find that I’m not going to be a very quick political reference comedian, because that’s not what I latch onto comedically.
Specifics are important to me and that’s honestly why I liked this movie, The Bronze, because the characters felt very specific and very fleshed out. They all had a hidden sadness to them, and it felt very well thought-out. Which, sad to say, is not the feeling I get from reading most comedy scripts that come my way.
AVC: How much did you know about gymnastics going in? Did you learn anything?
TM: I know as much as everybody else. I know it from every four years catching a little bit on the Olympics. That’s about as much as I know. I played soccer growing up.
I think Canadians know a little bit more about the winter Olympics, because that’s just what we feel like we’re good at. It gets covered a lot more in Canada. And I grew up on a ski hill, though that’s not to say I was glued to the skiing or the slalom or whatever.
AVC: Are you more drawn to realistic projects or would you do something totally ridiculous?
TM: If it’s good, yes, I’m game. I like the weird stuff, though. I thought, honestly, that Anchorman 2 was better than the first one. I was crying. That stuff is so absurd, and they didn’t leave any meat on the bone, like if there was an avenue to go down comedically, they’d keep going down it until there was something else, and I liked that.
I think it’s very rare now to find character comedies like that. I was watching Stepbrothers with my wife recently, and I was trying to analyze it, like why is no one making movies like that anymore? And to be honest, I don’t know. For some reason comedies now are like, “Epic road trip! Aw, man, this one cool thing happened!” It’s all about epicness. I don’t get it. It’s like suddenly the collective sense of humor of America became frat-boy content. At least in terms of features. In TV it’s really flourishing, but for some reason as soon as it gets into 90 minutes, it just devolves into somebody taking their shirt off and then talking about their dick.
AVC: Maybe it’s because if it doesn’t do really well, it’s considered a failure. Like Sisters. That movie was very funny, but because the whole world didn’t see it, I don’t know if they’d make another movie like that anytime soon.
TM: Well, Trainwreck did well. I haven’t seen the whole thing—I’ve seen bits and pieces—and it’s funny, man. But, yeah, I don’t know. It’s a tricky space. I don’t know the answer to it. And Zoolander 2, again, was supposed to be this big crazy character comedy but it didn’t connect. It didn’t really come together. So, I don’t know. I don’t have the answer to comedy in film.
Subjectively speaking, I think The Bronze really speaks to what I’m lamenting. It’s got very specific characters. Again, they all have this hidden sadness. It’s a unique story, there’s darkness to it. They go after all the jokes, but they’re also in the real world where very silly things happen. I’m proud of it and I hope enough people watch it that it can stay in theaters longer and be more successful. I hope people go, “Oh, you actually can do original stuff and have it be successful, financially speaking.”
AVC: Do you want to develop projects, too, or just act?
TM: Developing is definitely on the table. I’ve written a few things that have gotten to certain stages. There’s a couple things now that are on the stove being cooked, but we’ll see if the correct temperatures are achieved to then eat them. If you know what I mean. I don’t count any project as happening until I’m on set shooting it.
AVC: Well, it was nice to talk to you, and good luck with your farts.
TM: Thanks. You have no idea. As we were talking I seriously let out like a full six-second fart. It’s really bad.