We catch Thomas Middleditch on the phone (hands-free, duh, because he’s as responsible as he is talented) navigating through mid-day LA traffic, which is already as unproductive as it is soul-crushing. It is, quite literally, the perfect representation of what we imagine the seventh ring of hell might feel like. Our conversation therefore is peppered with unexpected exclamations of “Fuck!” and “Oh come ONNN! GO!!” We like it. It’s a fun little reminder that even our most favorite celebrities have to deal with the same kind of mind-numbing crap we ALL have to deal with every… single… day.
Middleditch isn’t the kind of celebrity you’d find on a yacht in Saint Barths, anyway—cruising into a sherbet sky, Champagne on ice, caviar on the tongue, waving to throngs of fans left behind on shore (ha! plebians!)— unless, perhaps, there were some kind of irony involved. The Canadian born actor and comedian had a very normal upbringing and gradually rose to stardom after years of paying his dues.
“It’s interesting. I’ve come from, essentially, a small mountain town in British Columbia to Hollywood. Many actors come from small towns, that’s not in and of itself ‘crazy.’ Occasionally some starry-eyed youngster asks me, ‘How did you do that? How did you get [to Hollywood]?’ There’s no real algorithm. What I’ve been taught, just through life experience, is that you’ve got to have (hopefully) a little bit of talent and a lot of moxy. Then there’s just an element of serendipity.”
Like some scene out of a 1940’s film, we love hearing Middleditch muse on the importance of moxy. Indeed, “moxy” might as well be Middleditch’s middle name listening to him recount the persistence it took to land his first big break.
“I was in Chicago doing improv with IO. I was very involved in that scene but I was maybe too ambitious for my own good; all my dreams weren’t happening the next day like how I wanted them to. I took a job with The Second City on a Norwegian cruise line ship because they were one of the entertainment acts on the bigger NCL show. It’s a four-month contract where you’re an entertainer at sea, but literally my first week on the boat I hear that Seth Meyers and a couple of SNL producers are coming to Chicago and they’re seeing people and I was like, ‘are you kidding me?!’ I made such a stink that they let me get off at Bermuda and fly myself back to Chicago to do my silly little improv shows for those guys. Then I flew back to New York then back to the boat. And they were like, ‘oh that’s great, let’s bring you on to test for SNL.’ So again, I’m still working on the cruise ship and I’m coming up with my three characters and my three impressions. I get off the boat and go test for SNL. This is all happening after years of stagnation by the way. Of course the second I go and work on a goddamn cruise ship everything happens! So, low and behold, while I was on that cruise ship I got new representation, a new agent, a new manager, and I tested for SNL. I honestly thought I was gonna get [SNL] because the producers were like, ‘hey, stay by the phone,’ and I was like ‘ooh daddy, here we go!’” We laugh at his use of the word ‘daddy’ while he takes a long, thoughtful pause and continues with: “It didn’t happen.”
Middleditch did, however, through determination (and a whole lotta moxy), land a holding deal with ABC. “So I moved my ass to New York for this deal... and then the writer’s strike happened. So I just sat in New York and took a babysitting job.”
We take a moment to imagine Middleditch as a babysitter—we let that visual sink in and it’s really, really funny and, also, painfully relatable. As any artist knows, there is no job security in our line of work. One day you have a holding deal with a big network and the next, well, you’re cleaning tables and changing dirty diapers.
Middleditch continues, “Here’s my lesson: have the talent, have the moxy and never stop creating your own work. At that time, I was also making short films with, actually, Jordan Vogt-Roberts - now the well known director of Kong: Skull Island. We just made a bunch of stuff so that when someone said, ‘hey, is there anyone out there making a ton of stuff’ that our names would be on that list and we would be ready.”
It paid off. Those years creating his own work alongside talented friends led to selling an animated show to MTV, where he eventually met Mike Judge. “There I am working with these guys on my own animated show (spoiler alert: it didn’t get on air). As we were developing it, John [Altschuler] and Dave [Krinsky] were like ‘you know we’re writing this comedy for HBO and it’s about tech and Silicon Valley and we just think you’d be great for the lead so we’re writing it with you in mind.’ At that point, I had just done a lot of commercial work. I had a couple of big parts in tiny movies and then a couple of small parts in big movies, I didn’t have a lot. So they tell me that and I’m like ‘okay sure yeah right.’ Then sure enough, it happened. Even in the original script, Richard’s name was Thomas Pickering. (I had told them Pickering was my mother’s maiden name.) They were like, ‘What’s up with Middleditch? Don’t you want to change it?’ and I was like, ‘Honestly, I don’t even know what I could change it to because my mom’s maiden name, Pickering, is equally bizarre.’ I still had to audition for HBO and all that, but I had a leg up which was nice.”
‘Nice’ is putting it, well, nicely. Extraordinary is more like it. The role of Richard Hendricks in Silicon Valley has earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series and has launched the small-town-actor into Hollywood stardom. He takes a minute to reflect on this character who has brought him so much notoriety.
“There’s a piece of you in every character you play. A lot of people think I’m a lot like Richard.” Middleditch takes on a playful, wink-wink nudge-nudge tone as he continues, “Heh.. it’s great. It just goes to show you how incredible of an actor I am!” His laughter spills out over his bluetooth headset. “No... to be honest, it wasn’t like ‘oh, I see a lot of myself in him,’ other than the fact that I also like computers. There were a lot of discussions about my character and I was super nervous [it wouldn’t happen]. I never believe anything good happens to me so when it did I was like, ‘wow I can’t believe that actually worked out.’”
It worked out so well, in fact, that Silicon Valley is now moving into its fifth season and shows no signs of slowing down. Its success is due, in large part, to the ensemble of incredible actors, comedians, and comedic writers found within what is now a very closely knit, behind-the-scenes family.
“I’m not trying to throw anyone under the bus here or anything, but a lot of times comedies will get cast with actors who have comedic timing. They can say the lines, but they’re not currently performing or touring as a comedian or they haven’t been doing [comedy] for a while. With [Silicon Valley], a good chunk of the cast has been doing comedy for a very, very long time. I’ve been doing improv now for 20 years. No, wait, over 20 years. Ah, fuck it, 21. 21 years of doing stand-up. You could also argue that can be a detriment, you know? You just get people trying to throw funny lines in and it seems weird. But with [Silicon Valley] it just works. You can’t really orchestrate it — it’s like a viral video— you can’t really try for it, but you can increase your odds and then hope that it all sticks. The show is also incredibly well written. Alec Berg, who is the show’s showrunner and writer, doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Mike Judge and all the other elements are a key part, but Alec is like the unsung hero of the show.”
Suddenly horns are blaring and Middleditch can be heard uttering frustrated declarations at nearby drivers. We laugh and agree we’re all just a bunch of assholes on the road, especially in a city like LA. It is, however, the perfect segue into a discussion about the unusual temper tantrums his character, Richard, often succumbs to on the show.
“I was always concerned with the Richard character. It’s an ensemble piece, but a lot of the journey is through him. I wanted to make sure this “straight man” wasn’t going to be just white bread toast. Richard’s not the guy who says pithy things, he’s the one who’s awkward in social situations and says the wrong thing and we figured out that Richard’s big flaw is hubris. He’s petty and he has an ego. I think his unfiltered temper is something really fun to play with. People get angry at Richard, ‘he’s not fit to run a company!’ and I love that to be honest.”
In the same way he has imbued the character of Richard with layered emotions found far below his nerdy surface, Middleditch craves more layers and challenges in his own life and work. It’s clear he has more to offer and talent that extends well beyond the comedic roles he has become known for—there’s a depth to his thought process which suggests he’s ready to tackle dramatic roles as well.
“I’d love to sink my teeth into something. I really would love to [play more dramatic roles]. In terms of the future, in terms of what I want to do, I just wanna do stuff that I’m proud of. I’d love to work with the filmmakers I’ve seen who make me excited about this work. If I could ever be part of a Paul Thomas Anderson, a Wes Anderson, a Quentin Tarantino or a Spielberg... or any one of these films that I see and I’m kind of like, oh wow! I mean I want to say Christopher Nolan but...” he offers a self-deprecating laugh here before continuing, “why would they ever cast the skinny goof from the tech show?!” He pauses and offers one last bit of thoughtful advice, “But then I think—this whole business is about dreaming big, right?! And that’s the kind of stuff I would kill to be a part of. So, why not?”
Why not indeed. If he can tackle LA traffic, it seems Middleditch might be able to conquer just about anything.
Photography by Sela Shiloni
Written by Katie McGehee