Thomas Middleditch may be gaining some new fans with his Verizon ads - "I'm going to be all over your TV for the foreseeable future," he jokes - but it's still his role as the socially inept tech genius in HBO's Silicon Valley that's garnered him the most attention.
Richard and the gang are back at it again in the fourth season of Mike Judge and Alec Berg's Emmy-nominated comedy, which returns on Sunday, April 23. This time, however, he's after some lofty goals that may drive a wedge between him and Bachman (T. J. Miller), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Jared (Zach Woods).
"The first bit is, are they even going to be together again? That gets challenged," says Middleditch. "The question is, in order to push this massive boulder up the hill, how much black hat/dark path is Richard willing to do?"
The Hollywood Reporter chatted with Middleditch ahead of the season premiere about whether Richard will ditch his strong moral compass this season, the "unending grabassery" that takes place on set and the perks of being a celebrity spokesperson ("It's actually been one of the most lucrative films by proxy," he jokes.)
You've been doing this show for four years now. What's different about this season?
In previous seasons, the first couple of episodes have taken a bit to set up what's happening. Not that they necessarily drag their heels - but this one really hits the ground running. In the first episode, Richard throw a grenade into the mix. He's like, "I'm leaving." And that sets in motion what's going on for the rest of the season and probably until the end of the show.
And what is that, exactly?
That we figure out through all these iterations of Richard's precious compression algorithm that it's not going to be a music copyright thing, it's not going to be a black box, it's not going to be storage or cloud-based compression, it's not going to be video chat. No, it's going to be one of the loftiest ambitions of all to create a new internet - and that speaks to a ton of things about Richard. It speaks to his dreamer attitude and his ego, too. At the end of the day, what doesn't work about video chat is that even if that's super successful, his name isn't going to be synonymous with all the other greats in the industry. In that respect, if he's successful at the Internet 2.0, he'll win in some way. He'll win notoriety, which I think is what he'll probably value more than billions of dollars.
We often see the gang achieve a bit of success, only to get knocked down again. Is that the structure of this season, too?
What ends up happening is that you do this big thing, you go way out on a limb where very few people are willing to support those loftier ideas - and so for better or worse, they're on own again. But the first bit is, are they even going to be together again? That gets challenged. But I think the question is that in order to get to this next level and push this massive boulder up the hill, how much black hat/dark path is Richard willing to do? Because his whole thing up until this point, even to the detriment of the company and his friends, is that he has this super strong moral compass and he wants to do it the right way. He'll even blow something up in order to make sure it's right. There's a door cracking open for a Breaking Bad of season five.
Is there a live horse sex moment this season? In other words, is there a standout moment you can tease?
There's no horse sex. [Laughs.] There's real sex - off-camera, that is. I won't spoil who. But someone gets a little action. Is there a big, crazy moment? I mean, there's no monkey jacking themselves off, there's no MIT robot mule getting hit. But there's some stuff in there.
The show had some new writers on staff this year. Did you feel a difference in the scripts?
Yeah, what's been a big get for us is this guy Graham Wagner, who writes on Baskets and Portlandia. And it just so happens that I've known him for a very long time. We were in the same sketch improve comedy world in Toronto 14 years ago when I was living there. He's a super funny guy and I have an ear for his jokes. I can even detect them on Baskets. I was watching that show and I was like, "What that yours?" And he was like, "Yeah." You can tell. So there's been some good gets, and he'll be around next season as well.
Do you know how long the creators want the show to run?
I don't. Those conversations have been both of us asking each other, "Hey, do you still want to do the show?" And both parties have been like, "Yeah." I think HBO is pleased with it so we'll see where it goes.
The trailer revealed that Haley Joel Osment joined the cast this year. What was it like working with him?
He's great in it. He really is. You'll probably see him next season, too, I'd imagine. Silicon Valley one of those shows where there's always room for guest stars, and what I like about Mike is that he's got a nose for either finding people or reintroducing people who may not be at the tip of your tongue at the moment. That's kind of what Mike's all about.
Did you know Osment beforehand?
Yeah, actually he and I met at some Hollywood thing. We bonded over Kings hockey. So yeah, we'd hung out before. He's an incredibly nice guy, and it was just a totally random surprise that he got involved.
Any memories from set this year worth sharing?
I mean, it's a fun one to do. We keep a lot of bits going in between takes. There's an unending grabassery that happens, and the sheer volume of inappropriate behavior… anyone from HR would just shut us down if they got a clue as to the kind of things we're doing and saying.
Did T.J. Miller do anything particularly insane?
Yes, every day. Next question. [Laughs.] I'm going to walk the line on that one.
You guys have been wrapped since February. Are you shooting other projects during the break?
I've been busy but it's the most boring actor shit. [Laughs.] I'm shooting more Verizon spots. I'm going to be all over your TV for the foreseeable future.
You did pop up multiple times during the Super Bowl.
Oh yeah, that mic drop spot is playing a lot so we got to come up with additional content. That's the only thing I'm shooting, at least for now. But it's funny because when you're on set, you just say to everybody, "Sorry, I'm busy for 12 hours. No new stuff." And now it's just a ton of little things coming from all different angles. I'm helping rewrite a script.
And you have some of your own scripts, too, right?
There are a few of those. [Laughs.] Varying degrees of success, I'd say. But this one is a script that came to me that I was maybe just going to be an actor in, and I thought, "Oh man, it's got great potential - but can me and my writing partner take a pass?" So that's what we've been doing. Hopefully, we'll shoot in June. We'll see.
Is it a film?
Yeah, it'd be an indie. That's the level I'm at.
Though you did just shoot a movie with Keanu Reeves, correct?
Yeah, Replicas. But Marvel's not knocking on my door. It might be tricky, though, because many times publicly I've been like, "I don't like superheroes." [Laughs.] So I don't think I'm on their radar.
Back to being a Verizon spokesperson for a second. How did you land that gig?
It's funny, the director of those is the head of this group called Hungry Man. They're one of the biggest commercial creatives in North America. And I had worked with him on a feature called The Bronze that went to Sundance, a very raunchy comedy that sadly was, let's say, polarizing with critics. But it's super funny. I think we got a bad rap. Anyway, through that tiny little indie I did Amex spots with Tina Fey and now this whole Verizon thing. It's actually been one of the most lucrative films by proxy. [Laughs.] It's crazy.
It seems like there's been more and more actors signing celebrity spokesperson-type deals these days. AT&T just landed a big one with Mark Wahlberg.
Yeah, celebrity spokesman seems to be the current fashion. I think whatever it was before where if you were doing film and TV and you did a commercial spot that was looked down upon, I think that's gone. If anything, it's a positive. It says to studios, "Look, this big corporation is willing to put money behind this person." It's kind of bizarre how that's changed, but it only benefits the actor to be honest because now we don't have to say no to an obscene amount of money to keep our career.
Last question: do you actually watch Silicon Valley?
I watch, but only with a straight face critiquing every single possible thing [I do]. But I do watch it and I actually like the show.