After six seasons as Jared Dunn, the kindest and most haunted man to wear a fleece vest on Silicon Valley, the transcendentally mild-mannered Zach Woods is trading out the tech world for two new comedy projects: one set in space, one set in the Austrian alps, both in the midst of other people’s terrible vacations.
First up is Avenue 5, the new HBO series from Veep creator Armando Ianucci that imagines a not-so-distant future where interstellar cruise ships exist. Woods plays Matt, the obsequious, yet ultimately useless, head of Customer Relations tasked with comforting and tending to passengers when their ship gets knocked off course and their eight-week trip is suddenly extended to three excruciating years. Then there’s Downhill, out February 14th, an English-language remake of the Swedish film Force Majeure, in which a family ski trip is turned upside down after the father seemingly abandons his wife and children during a controlled avalanche. (Will Ferrell and Julia Louis Dreyfuss play the leads). Woods is one half of a young, easygoing couple traveling through Europe who meets up with the older, extremely tense pair during this fraught time.
With all this in mind, I asked Woods to tell me about the worst vacation he’s been on. He reflected for a moment, then offered up a hilarious and entirely horrifying account of staying at decrepit yurt in New Hampshire as a kid. “It was as though somebody had found a giant's dirty underwear and put a frame underneath it,” he told me, cheerful as if he were recalling his most beloved childhood memory. “And there were so many spiders. I can't even tell you. It felt like this filthy spider sanctuary.”
Beyond the spider nightmare, Woods also talked about whether or not his Avenue 5 character is a guy who fucks, the very nature of human goodness, and a recent unfortunate incident in Ibiza.
GQ: You were on Silicon Valley for six seasons. How much time did you have time to process that show ending before starting off on Avenue 5?
Woods: They actually overlapped. I was flying between L.A. and London and I was in sort of this bizarre crossfade from one into the other. We shot Avenue 5 before we shot the last season of Silicon Valley. It was strange. On Silicon Valley, it seems so improbable that the people were so spectacular and easy to be around. And I kind of gave myself a pep talk before going to London where I was like, “don't need this to be the same, don't expect it to be the same because it's not going to.”
Also, it was a bigger cast, so I just thought, statistically, there's a high probability that there will be at least two dickheads. Then I got there and nary a dickhead in sight. Everyone was so sweet and nice. I'm kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop because I just feel, what are the chances that I'm on two shows in a row where I feel comfortable?
If, like the people of Avenue 5, you found out that you were stuck in space for three years, how do you think you would take it? What would you do?
I think the sad truth is the first thought I had was “eat whatever I want,” which is the worst possible thing. Isn't that weird that I should think, “oh, I'd just get heavy and enjoy eating whatever?” But that’s the worst thing you could do on a ship with limited resources. That's a terrible idea. So I guess I’d be bad at this. Start a benevolent cult. Or join a benevolent cult, more likely. I'm not saying I'd be the leader of the cult. Like, who am I? What an arrogant thing to say. I'd probably be one of the cult members. I'd be the treasurer of the cult.
With Jared’s character on Silicon Valley, the story of his past would come out through these offhand remarks that would be super dark. We get the same sort of reveals with Matt, but he seems to be kind of a fuckup. What else can you tell us about him and his backstory?
Matt is a friendly nihilist. He’s someone who doesn't really believe in anything except “don't be an asshole, be nice to people.” I think it's like, “if we all have to sort of hurdle through an infinite void together without any kind of meaning or purpose, we may as well not be a dick.” And there's something I find relatable about that, especially as cultural conversations and political conversations are so polarized.
Even though I have my own strong convictions, I do sometimes feel like the thing I want more than anything is just someone to talk in a way that's kind. I feel so much fatigue from how caustic everything is. I think Matt, in some weird way, reflects that feeling where it's like “look, I don't give a shit about anything. All I care about is, let's be friendly.” And I think also because he's a nihilist, he's bad at making people feel good. I think he actually wants people to feel good, but his worldview is so askew that when he tries to be comforting, he just makes things much, much worse. I think he has really good intentions and really horrible execution.
And what made you want to take this role on next?
Well, sort of what I was saying about feeling that this is someone who wants to be nice to people and doesn't really care about the things most people care about. His only value is try to be nice and enjoy the ride. There’s that scene in Toy Story 3 where they're all about to go into the incinerator. Do you know what I'm talking about?
I don’t! I’ve only seen the first one.
Well, spoiler, but there's this great crazy scene where the toys are all stuck in this trash incinerator and there's this fire at the bottom and this hell mouth and the toys are all starting to very slowly be pushed towards this hell mouth. And they struggle for a bit and then they really can't make any headway and they realize “we're going to burn” and they all stop struggling and they join hands. They take each other's hands and they put their heads on each other and they all just wait together for annihilation.
And I always found that scene to be so moving. And I think in a weird way, Matt reminded me of that. Even though you could describe him as a fuckup and he definitely doesn't actually successfully comfort people, but I think he's someone for whom the idea is, “We're all going to go into the fire, so let's try to connect.” And I thought that that was, in a strange sort of a way, a cool life philosophy.
Totally. You worked with Armando Iannucci on In The Loop, then again on Veep, and now on Avenue 5. What are some of your favorite things about working with him?
I think he is incredibly smart, incredibly specific, and so confident in his convictions. He trusts his own instincts and tastes in a way that I think is really unique. Also his patience. There was a really interesting moment where we were rehearsing something and it wasn't quite feeling right and there was a room full of people waiting. So Armando stopped the rehearsal and we just sat there and Armando just quietly thought for a while and no one really said anything.
To have the confidence to not need to immediately and constantly know the answer—I think that's real confidence and Armando has that. He'll just sit and wait and think, as opposed to feeling the sort of pressure of 30 pairs of eyes on him in the rehearsal room and thinking like, “Oh, I have to just bullshit or come up with something.” He will just stay in himself and the answer will reveal itself to him because he's great at what he does.
I just saw Downhill this morning, and something I’ve discussed a lot since first seeing Force Majeure is whether or not the dad did something wrong. Where do you land on that?
I think that one of the charms and horrors of being in a relationship is it reveals you. It reveals parts of you that are more beautiful and worthy of love than you would ever have thought. And it reveals parts of you that are more grotesque and disappointing than you would have hoped. Over the course of a life together—hopefully it's not an avalanche, but people probably have these moments where the version of you that shows up is a really regrettable version.
Obviously fleeing your family in an avalanche is horrific. But I guess, I don't believe in good guys and bad guys. I was having a conversation with somebody about this recently and I was like, “Do you think you're a good person?” Most of the people I know, they’re are lovable people. Are they good people? I don't know. It sort of depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, they might be a great mom and volunteer in their community, but also maybe they're wearing clothes that were made by slaves in Indonesia and don’t donate enough of their money to charity. This is a long rambling answer, but I don't know how to do the calculus to assess whether someone's good or bad. I think usually our lives are composed of a collection of transcendently beautiful moments; really horrifying, disappointing moments; and then probably most of life is somewhere in between those two poles. So I think in that first movie, the father—yeah I guess I do think he did something wrong. [Laughs] He definitely did something wrong. Okay, I finally had a coherent thing to say: I don't think we are our worst moments. I don't think we are our worst act.
I really didn't think this is where the interview was going to go, but where did you end up in that conversation? Do you think you're a good person?
I don't think I'm a bad person. I'm just kind of think I’m a person. I don't think I'm evil. I don't think I'm actively trying to hurt people. But I also feel like there's lots of ways in which I fall short of my own values, let alone, someone on the outside could probably find a zillion more ways in which I'm remiss.
How do you deal with the parts of yourself that are so far from who you wish you were? I think there's something really interesting about that. And how do you deal with the parts of your loved ones that are so far from who you wish they were or who they wish they were? Does that make sense?
Yeah. We’re all constantly disappointing each other.
And surprising each other and delighting each other. I don't think it's just the one thing. I think it's a mix. I don't think most people who watch the movie have been through an avalanche, but most people who go to this movie have probably had that experience of feeling like, “Oh God, I really didn't live up to the person who I love or the people I love.”
"Just seeing this parade of hot Spaniards while I tried to basically disappear into the sand."
Between Downhill and Avenue 5, there's a broader theme in your current projects of people being on really bad vacations. Could you share the worst vacation you've ever been on?
When I was a kid, my parents took us up to this yurt, which is like a tent. It's a permanent tent and it was in New Hampshire. It was white, but dirty. It was as though somebody had found a giant's dirty underwear and put a frame underneath it. And there were so many spiders. I can't even tell you. It felt like this filthy spider sanctuary and I'm frightened of spiders and I don't do well in nature. I feel claustrophobic when I'm in beautiful serene environments. Give me a city any day. I'm trying to remember if anything particularly horrible happened there. I don't know. I just went to Spain and I got 60 mosquito bites on my face and neck.
It was like they gravitated towards the most visible parts of me and I just looked like this pox-ridden … it looked like I was someone dying in a medieval painting. I looked like I had like an old world death disease from these mosquitoes. It was in Ibiza. We mostly were on this peaceful part where there weren't a lot of clubs and stuff, but then when we were driving back to the airport we stopped at this beach where they had a parade of hot … like, hot people.
It was all these people who were, I guess they were promoting a club, and they were holding up these signs. They all had this sun-kissed skin and these beautiful bodies and this perfect hair and these gorgeous eyes. And they're walking in a train down the beach. And I was there with my bug-swollen face, wearing a sweater wrapped around my head because I'd forgotten my sunscreen and I've never felt like such an urchin before. Such a creature. Just seeing this parade of hot Spaniards while I tried to basically disappear into the sand.
I apologize for my forthcoming question, but one recurring joke about Jared throughout Silicon Valley was that he was “a guy who fucks.” Is Matt too?
Yeah, I think so. I think he's the kind of guy who is omnisexual. I feel he would have sex with a sculpture or a very old man or a robot. I feel like he's just DTF in the most profound way. I think his nihilism probably extends to his sexuality and he welcomes all comers, no pun intended.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Originally Appeared on GQ