Welcome to “Remote Controlled,” a podcast from Variety featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front of and behind the camera.
In this week’s episode, Variety‘s executive editor of TV Debra Birnbaum talks with Thomas Middleditch, the actor, comedian, and screenwriter best known for his starring role as quirky tech savant Richard Hendricks in HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” for which he earned an Emmy nomination in 2016.
Very much in keeping with his character’s charming eccentricity, Middleditch let the wacky quips fly, right from the get-go. Following Birnbaum’s introduction, he chimed in: “It’s me, Corpus Mortlemorch,” he said, chasing the peculiar alias with an offhand explanation. “It changes every time.”
This season finds his character, Richard, striking on his own, which Middleditch says he enjoys. “Anything new, as long as it doesn’t break what the characters are, is always welcome,” he says. “It always give us new things to play with and new places to go. And by God, if it puts everyone of my castmates in the shadow and me in the spotlight, I’ll do whatever it takes. I need this.”
And while Middleditch admitted that bona fide scientific rationales might be better suited for his character — the brainiac software engineer — he also said that, in many ways, their respective personas do not necessarily divert all that much.
“To be honest, there’s a lot of spillover,” he said of the metaphorical Venn diagram differentiating Richard’s personality characteristics from his own. “I mean, I’d like to think I’m not as snazzy and strange as Richard. I’d like to think that.”
But Middleditch has found similarities — however tenuous — in their livelihoods. “While he’s a savant programmer, I’m, like, a gamer. There’s an overlap,” he explains. “I know a few things about the internet. There’s an overlap there. I’ve swapped out a few motherboards in my time.”
He added that perhaps the greatest source of this purported overlap is actually in their comparable steadfastness with regard to their opinions and standing up for what they believe is the “right thing.”
“In that way, I agree with a lot of his choices,” Middleditch said. “There have been plenty of times where I’m like, ‘I actually fully side with Richard on this.’ That is to say, I’m kind of like a modern-day knight.”
And ultimately, he says, Richard will never get out of his own way. Says the actor, “I’ll always argue in comedy, failure is funnier than winning.”
Suffice it to say, “Silicon Valley” has certainly lent Middleditch his breakout acting role. He fondly deemed the experience “the single most defining element” of his career.
“It definitely has opened up some doors. I mean, I am doing independent films that no one will see left and right. I am having first-time directors pleading for me to do their films,” he deadpanned. “I’m doing goddamn podcasts. Sadly, Christopher Nolan hasn’t been calling me.”
Middleditch jokes working with Mike Judge is a “constant struggle.” “On the set when we get to laugh,” he says, “it’s like we got our dad to finally bust a gut.” As for Alec Berg, he’s like a “comedy mathematician,” says Middleditch. “He’s an incredible worksmith, but very hard on himself.”
Four seasons in, the producers have started writing more toward the actors’ skillset. They’ve learned, for example, that “Richard’s not the type of person to come on and say some zinger,” but “but he’s this unassuming physical comedian. He spazzes out. He puts his foot in his mouth saying the wrong thing.” Like last season’s face plant, this season’s physical bit has him kicking down a door.
But despite his strides toward television’s A-list, Middleditch has still managed to stay grounded in time-old traditions.
On his process of getting into character, he said: “I spend 20 minutes looking in the mirror, recreating that last scene from ‘Boogie Nights,’” he said, referencing the infamous scene in which a young Mark Wahlberg gives a pep talk to his genitalia in the reflection of a dressing room mirror. “Just got my weiner out, and I’m saying, ‘You’re a star. You’re a star.’ It’s pretty different from what you see on-screen, but I’m telling you, it gets me there.”
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New episodes of Remote Controlled are available every Friday.