Joshy, the latest film from writer-director Jeff Baena, taps into familiar themes: the existential befuddlement, as well as the devastation of lost love, that Zach (Dane DeHaan) confronts dead-on in Baena’s 2014 debut, Life After Beth.
In Joshy, heartbreak strikes early on, creating a dark cloud over what would have been a weekend to remember. At a wild bachelor party that feels more in tune with The Big Chill than The Hangover, bro-motional tragedy and trauma are confronted in an awkward and amusing, albeit honest, way.
For Canadian actor and comedian Thomas Middleditch, the story, structure and weirdness of Joshy was a match made in heaven. Growing up in Nelson, British Columbia, and under the heavy influence of sketch troupe The Kids in the Hall, Middleditch knew early on he wanted to gather his friends together and pursue a career in comedy. In middle-school, he broke out of his shell, studied improv, graduated at the top of his class, and eventually relocated to Chicago, where he furthered his education at The Second City and ImprovOlympic (where notables Tina Fay, Bill Murray, Amy Poehler and Stephen Colbert got their start).
Following a string of appearances in films like Splinterheads (2009), Fun Size (2011), The Campaign (2011) and Someone Marry Barry (2012), Middleditch animated an audio sketch of his own and pitched it to Mike Judge and his production partners, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, who were at MTV at the time. The trio were so impressed that they decided that Middleditch’s animated sketch should be developed into a series following the second incarnation of Beavis & Butt-Head. However, the project fell through. Judge told Middleditch that he would keep him in mind for a future project, as he had another show in development at HBO.
Says Middleditch, “I didn’t have too many huge credits to my name at the time, and so I could feel the Hollywood smoke being blown up my butthole. I didn’t believe it in the slightest.”
As it turns out, Judge’s show became HBO comedy Silicon Valley. With Middleditch cast as Richard Hendricks, the eccentric leader of compression solution startup Pied Piper, the show has blossomed into a huge success and was recently renewed for a fourth season. Utilizing those improvisational and physical comedy skills and collaborating with an ensemble cast of seasoned comedians, Middleditch has arrived, finding comedic truth in the quirky chaos of high-tech incubators and accelerators.
Still, because of the structured script and seasonal arcs required for television, the opportunity for wholesale improv on Silicon Valley remains relatively low—which is precisely where Joshy comes in. With a rough outline from Baena, Joshy relies implicitly on the spontaneity of its comedic cast: Nick Kroll, Brett Gelman, Alex Ross Perry, Adam Pally, Jenny Slate, Aubrey Plaza and many more. A little loose, somewhat chaotic, and cathartic, the improvised Joshy never feels messy or disjointed in its portrayal of male bonding.
Along with the release of Joshy, Middleditch is currently filming the sci-fi thriller Replicas with Keanu Reeves and Alice Eve, while providing the voices for Harold Hutchins in the animated Captain Underpants movie and a new recruit for the Union of Evil in the Canadian-American animated comedy Henchmen.
We caught up with him this week to talk about Joshy, the origins of improv acting, his top geek moments, and how to finding inspiration with a cephalopod.
Mark Sells, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Long before acting, what was your first inclination?
Thomas Middleditch (TM): From the time I was about 2 years old, I knew exactly what I wanted to be. All of it started right around eighth grade, when my drama teacher put me into acting, so I have to give my props and dues to Ken Wilson, my drama teacher. But before that, in sixth grade when I was still a bit of a weirdo and everyone was thinking, “Well, I guess he’s kind of funny,” my teacher did this strange thing where she predicted what everyone would be good at—which I think is really bold for a sixth grade teacher because if you don’t get that right, it’s quite risky. When she got to me, she said I would be a really good life insurance salesman. Her reasoning was that I could make such a dour process fun [laughs]. After that assignment, I felt really bummed.
MM: Well, she was only slightly off. You have a great way of making technology fun.
TM: Thank you. That’s definitely my goal in life!MM: Do you remember your first time being on stage?
TM: I remember that first moment of being on stage and the interaction with the crowd and the feeling of “If I do this, they all laugh,” and “That feels great, let me do it again.” From then on, it was like, “Cool, I’ve found my calling.” It’s helped me socially and in all kinds of ways. Now, it’s my life.
MM: You’re really terrific with physical comedy. I keep thinking of that scene in Silicon Valley where you slip and bang your head on Jack’s desk. How did you develop a knack for physical comedy? Who inspired you?
TM: In all the plays I’ve ever done or my comedy shows, I’m usually the big, hammy weirdo. They see Richard from Silicon Valley on stage. As a kid, Jim Carrey was always important to me, and that spawned out into Peter Sellers, Gene Wilder, Monty Python and The Kids in the Hall—they all have smatterings of very physical comedy, all of which has influenced me. Only later in my years have I sought a balance, seeking to tone it down a bit, because I like a nice, subtle bit followed by something crazy.
For instance, one of my favorite comedy bits was on Extras, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s show. In the second season, Ricky is chatting up this girl and he’s got a bottle of water in his hand and is trying to ask her to go out with him. In the middle of it, he opens up the bottle and takes a sip of it, but doesn’t know its sparkling water. It starts fizzing up like crazy and because he’s embarrassed, he shoves the whole thing into his mouth and then starts choking.
To me, that’s such a great bit. It’s all mixed into this very subtle thing, i.e. the expectation not to be crazy, and it just comes out of nowhere.
MM: Joshy has somewhat of a dark premise; certainly a dark beginning like Life After Beth. What attracted you to the material?
TM: It’s about a man whose fiancé ends her life and in an effort to touch base with all his friends, everyone that was invited to his bachelor’s party for a house retreat is invited, but only four people show up. The ones that show up bring all kinds of baggage and ideas of what the weekend should be with this incredibly, dark elephant in the womb. Wait. Elephant in the womb? Ew, gross! Elephant in the room!
I just thought it was really cool because something similar had happened to Adam Pally. Jeff and Adam’s whole way of going into it was that they were going to beat out the script, but everything is going to be improvised. It’s a totally improvised movie, which I think is pretty sweet. It’s what I’ve wanted to do for a long time. And when you get that cast where everybody knows how to improvise without it being wacky? It was really special and I’m really pleased with how it came out.
I don’t think it’s a film that’s trying to say some big, grandiose statement. That’s part of the beauty of it. It’s just this weekend. There’s a traumatic event and everyone has been brought together for a bachelor party weekend. It’s supposed to be this fun time, but there’s a dark cloud hovering and how is everyone going to deal with it? Not only that, but all of these guys come from all different walks of life that aren’t linked together and have different ideas of what a bachelor party is supposed to be. Nick Kroll wants to do drugs and bring hookers to the party. Alex Ross Perry wants to play board games and chat. If you’ve ever had a bachelor party, that is so what it is.
The beauty of the film is that it ends when the weekend ends. There’s no epilogue, i.e. “Josh went on to remarry…” It feels more cathartic, like we went on this therapy session. I don’t really know exactly what I learned, but I feel better and I’m still chewing on it.
MM: Did Jeff do anything to solicit spontaneity?
TM: He didn’t have to give us do any exercises or anything crazy, because all of the people involved were so knowledgeable about comedy and improv. We could talk about things very technically without having to come in and dissect a scene or how someone needs to feel.
For instance, we would read the breakdown of the scene, i.e. “this needs to happen and it kind of needs to end right around here.” So, you would do it once, find out what works, what doesn’t. We’d keep what works and tweak the things that didn’t.MM: How does Joshy compare to Silicon Valley in terms of structure, direction and ensemble acting?
TM: We shot Joshy for under a million. With Silicon Valley and HBO, you have a bigger budget, you have a season-long narrative versus a contained story, and you have a script from Mike Judge and Alec Berg and an incredible writing staff. Those are the main differences. To be truthful, the majority of people on Silicon Valley are performing comedians and even if they weren’t performing, they could come up with spontaneous dialogue. Everyone is always pitching weird things. So, theoretically, if we had a beat-ed out script for the cast of Silicon Valley, we could come up with something improvised as well.
MM: You were recently at Comic Con, on Conan, and got to try out for Han Solo. What’s been your single geekiest moment?
TM: As you get more established in the business, there are more and more opportunities to meet people that influenced you growing up. Conan O’Brien is one of them. Meeting a guy like that is that weird, geeky thing.
I remember at Comic Con, Bill Paxton came up to me and said “I love Silicon Valley.” And my knee-jerk reaction was: “F5 Tornado!” Then, just recently, Mark McKinney came to one of my improv shows. It cannot be overstated how influential The Kids in the Hall was for me. As a kid growing up in Canada in the ’80s and ’90s who wanted to do comedy, the desire to find a group of funny friends and make a sketch comedy group? That spurned me and got me out of Nelson. Those moments where you get to shake their hand and tell them, “No, you don’t get it! You made this possible for me.” That’s pretty cool.MM: Lastly, what’s the most important advice you would give to young, aspiring actors and filmmakers today?
TM: There is so much stuff that you can’t control, but what you can control is what you do. You have to not only have a passion for it and the talent for it—a lot of people have the passion but not the talent, but how can you tell anyone that?—but the work ethic is such a huge element to the whole thing. So much of it is serendipitous. It feels like people are walking around and they get struck by lightning. It’s the President of Hollywood, Mulholland Drive-style: “That’s the girl!” And that’s just not really how it is. You hear a story about someone getting stopped in the street, but nine times out of 10, it’s people creating opportunities for themselves.
For example, if you’re a young comedian or even a young actor who maybe wants to do comedy, you should be performing regularly, you should be creating content and posting it online. That’s how I got discovered. This is YouTube, but before YouTube was what it is now. I just had shorts posted online so that if a manager or agent or anything was looking for something, they contacted whoever they knew and that person said, “Oh, so and so is creating content, you should take a look his stuff.” And they would say, “Oh wow, I’ll represent them.” And now, suddenly, you have skin in the game. MM
Joshy opens in theaters August 12, 2016, courtesy of Lionsgate Premiere. Top image by Koury Angelo.