Think of your standard YouTube character tribute videos. Three seasons of a show like “Silicon Valley” usually get you some classic one-liners, memorable character beats and a few outtakes for good measure, all wrapped up in a few minutes.
This one for Jared, Zach Woods’ character on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” runs the length of an entire episode of the show.
Jared has always been at the center of the “Silicon Valley” story (there he is on the Season 1 poster, in full Steve Jobs pose, literally at the side of Pied Piper co-founder Richard Hendricks), but Woods has grown to be the show’s heart too. In a world of backstabbing and self-interest, Jared has remained the show’s sole, true altruist.
“I sometimes think of it as an archetypical family,” Woods said. “Erlich is the rambunctious father, Kumail is the baby boy, Gilfoyle is the cat and Richard is like the favorite son. And then Jared is the mother. I love all these old Thornton Wilder plays, and in a lot of them, the mother is the quiet keeper of morality, in a weird way. So I kind of think of him as a New England mom, keeping the flame of love alive.”
Matronly or not, Jared has become the platonic ideal of the kind of character that Woods has been playing on TV for years, running through his time as Gabe Lewis on the American version of “The Office” or on USA’s “Playing House.” They’re the reserved observers, often the voice of reason, whose quiet demeanors bely a whole host of interests and experiences underneath.
But there’s something about Jared’s resiliency that has made him Woods’ most endearing character. It’s not that just that Jared has to endure the slings of his start-up co-workers. Every one of his interactions is drenched in the repression of those unspoken past traumas.
“To me, there’s like a hazy toxic fog that’s behind Jared. You don’t really know what happened, but you know it was real bad,” Woods said.
Woods credits the work that the “Silicon Valley” writing staff does to flesh out all of the core Pied Piper players, beyond their initial quirks. (He’s quick to single out Carson Mell for one of his favorite Jared-isms.) But below the surface, Woods has an ever-expanding compendium of potential origin stories.
“If you could see the amount of backstory I have for Jared! I’m constantly trying to shoehorn in Jared’s unbelievably traumatizing history. Because in my head, one of the things that’s funny about Jared is that he’s endured unspeakable, constant tragedy for the first thirty years of his life, but is completely un-self-pitying and resilient,” Woods said. “I think there was one that made it in last year that his father is in a militia in the Ozarks and he has to track him down. In my head, Jared’s been in the foster care system a lot, his parents have some involvement with right-wing militias, he’s had to really scrape by in various compromising ways.”
Beyond his TV work, Woods has played a murderous Quiznos employee, a Vitamix blender enthusiast, an orphanage overlord, a reticent Bible quiz participant and the world’s biggest fan of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Fortunate Son.” And did it all just this month.
Woods is a rotating member of “ASSSSCAT,” one of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater’s highest-profile and longest-running improv shows. Rising through the ranks to his spot on the flagship, Woods has had a front-row seat for the ascension of a collective that he’s known and worked with for years.
“It’s a very strange thing because when I started, UCB was this tiny little theater on 22nd Street next to this bathroom tile shop. Now, when I watch a big commercial comedy, it’s people I know. It’s kind of like if you were playing theremin in a contemporary classical music group or something. Then before you knew it, Top 40 stations were playing your weird dissonant theremin music and you’re like, ‘What the fuck happened?’”
On stage, even in short-form scenes, you can see the wheels turning as he brings that same level of heavy backstory to these fleeting characters that he does with Jared. In one scene opposite Sean Conroy at a UCB Sunset “ASSSSCAT” earlier this month, he turns a tossed-off mention of Harry Potter slashfic into a rich contemplation of domestic frustration, complete with enough terminology to fill a short Psych 101 lecture. In another scene, his football coach character explains that he wants his defensive line “as dense as a Sondheim lyric.”
It’s that kind of performance dexterity that makes him a valuable asset in projects that aren’t exactly comedies. Woods speaks fondly of his time spent working on Chris Kelly’s film “Other People,” the 2016 Sundance opener. He’s wrapped up a genre-straddling script of his own that he hopes to get in production soon. (The path of mixing comedy and drama has worked well for his “Silicon Valley” co-stars — Thomas Middleditch shined in his lead role in last year’s “Joshy” and Kumail Nanjiani’s “The Big Sick” will be a major part of Amazon’s 2017 programming push.) Woods admits that he’s been selective with projects that have come along in recent years. Declining that potential work forced him into a more proactive.
“I can be such a Little Lord Fauntleroy about what I even audition for. So I realized at some point that I can’t be someone who professionally says no. You can’t be a professional rejector of opportunities. So I put my money where my mouth is and started writing more and I really like it. I’m hoping to do some more of my own stuff,” he said.
The UCB world is just one of the many comedy islands Woods has been able to hop across as his career has taken shape. He and Sarah Baker were the highlights of last year’s Christopher Guest Netflix film “Mascots.” A stint on “Veep” and a role in “In the Loop” made him a veteran of the greater Iannucci-verse.
Navigating all of these styles, being asked to fit into these varying ensembles only works by having a solid center. For Woods, even as he’s surrounded by characters who might threaten to pull him to a more cynical place, there’s a constant reminder of what makes Jared (and by extension, the show) something that people keep returning to.
“I think it’s really important that you feel like there’s a human heart underneath or it just becomes nasty. I don’t like comedy that makes me feel worse about the world than I already felt before I turned it on. I kind of feel like the job of actors and writers and people who make television and movies is to keep people company. In whatever modest way I’m able to accomplish that, I want to,” Woods said.
Spoken like a true proud mom.
“Silicon Valley” Season 4 premieres Sunday, April 23 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.