ENTERTAINMENT
05/13/2018 22:30 EDT | Updated 05/13/2018 22:30 EDT

Zach Woods Is Officially The MVP Of 'Silicon Valley'

A conversation with the comedy mastermind about playing Jared, the heart of the HBO tech satire's fifth season.

Illustration: Gabriela Landazuri/HuffPost Photos: HBO Getty Images

Over the course of five years on “Silicon Valley,” Zach Woods has gone from That Guy From “The Office” to a venerated comedy powerhouse. 

Throughout the most recent season of HBO’s hit tech satire, which ended Sunday with a refreshing optimistic flurry, Woods confirmed his position as the show’s heart and soul. Jared Dunn, his ever-earnest footman, rose up to become Pied Piper’s chief operating officer, right as the internet company finally found a much-needed stride. With his gangly physique and humble blue eyes, Woods walked off with the season’s best zingers and most moving plots, including a tender connection with a semi-sentient artificial intelligence creation named Fiona.

It’s been a journey for the 33-year-old Woods, who trained at Upright Citizens Brigade in New York before steadily working his way through Hollywood’s comedy tapestry. “The Office” led him to “Veep,” “The League,” “The Good Wife,” “Playing House” and small parts in movies like “Spy,” “Ghostbusters,” “Mascots” and “Other People.” Through it all, he’s maintained a perpetual nice-guy image, which carried over to our half-hour phone call last week. Some of Jared’s self-effacing affability seems to come straight from Woods’ bloodstream. We talked about Season 5 of “Silicon Valley,” Jared’s development over the course of the series, Steven Spielberg’s love for the show, and Woods’ love for “Call Me by Your Name.”

It feels like the show benefited from a renewed sense of spirit this year, largely because Pied Piper has finally found consistent success. For so long, the plot revolved around the guys’ constant setbacks. 

Right, it was popping the balloon of their self-esteem at the end of every episode.

Are you relieved to see some forward momentum?

I’m really excited. I do think it’s different and new. Obviously, just the geography of the show is different, in that we’re in these offices now. I think a challenge with every sitcom is, how do you maintain things that people are attached to without becoming so reiterative that it just feels like you’re sort of watching a reenactment of previous episodes? They did a really good job this season of moving it forward in a way that hopefully doesn’t feel like it violates any of the core qualities of the show but does make it feel new.

Also, just personally, it’s interesting. Your body — or my body — is just kind of stupid. Like, your body doesn’t know whether you’re acting something because it’s happening or whether you’re acting it because it’s in the script. In the first season at TechCrunch, there’s a scene where we go onstage and everyone is cheering for us. And there was a room full of background actors who had literally been paid to be there and cheer. But, take after take, when you go onstage, because your body is so dumb — or because my body is so dumb — and everyone is cheering, you feel kind of cheerful. And conversely, if you’re doing episodes where every episode something shitty happens or disappointing happens, you sort of feel dejected at the end of the day, even though it’s not real.

This is an incredibly long-winded and rambling way of saying that, yes, it’s nicer to have good news.

So, maybe there’s been a bit more internalized cheer on the set as a result.

Yes, you just said in eight words what I said in over 300.

HBO
Zach Woods, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr and Thomas Middleditch in Season 5 of "Silicon Valley."

Heading into Season 5, did you know this would be Jared’s moment to rise up? Or is that something you learned script by script?

It’s hard for me to decipher because I don’t watch the show. It makes me self-conscious. I often don’t know what ends up being included in the cuts. Sometimes people will be like, “Oh, this was a big Jared episode,” and I’ll be like, “I have no idea.” I think what ends up on the screen versus what’s in the script can be really different.

I was really excited that he got promoted to COO. I loved doing that episode. I really feel fondly towards Jared. I guess maybe it sounds insufferable and pretentious when actors talk about their characters like they’re real people, but I do feel very fondly. So when he got that promotion, that was really fun to get to act. I just like that he’s unflaggingly decent except when he periodically loses his mind.

Like when Holden is around?

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. I really love that. I thought the casting of that was amazing. That guy [Aaron Sanders] is so good. He really does sort of seem like a mini-Jared, which obviously Jared would be unable to tolerate.

Since you don’t watch the show, I don’t know if you’re familiar with how your interactions with Holden are edited. Jared is sometimes treated like a horror-movie figure, sort of stalker-esque. Did you see the relationship with Holden as Jared becoming a little villainous?

I don’t think he’s villainous. The thing I like about that is, there’s a danger when you have a character like Jared who is generally so sweet. It’s sort of like what I was thinking about earlier: You don’t want to just reiterate the same thing again and again ― A) because it’s boring, but B) because I don’t think that’s how people actually are. And especially someone like Jared, who is so unendingly positive. No one is really like that, so your more aggressive or dark impulses have to leak out in some way if you’re not expressing them in your waking life. They come out in these weird ways, like when he yells in German in his sleep. I don’t know if it made it in the cut, but there’s a scene where a camper said something mean to Dinesh, and I threaten to kill him in the finale.

There are people like that who I’ve met who are genuinely kind people, but because they don’t necessarily have a healthy outlet for their aggression, it comes out in these weird fits and starts. I feel like Jared is like that. I don’t think he’s a “Single White Female”-like killer.

HBO
Zach Woods and Thomas Middleditch in Season 5 of "Silicon Valley."

The line you’re referring to did make the finale, and it’s amazing. It’s “how would you like to die today, motherfucker?” Given your deep improv background, when you’re performing a line like that, or when you’re reacting emotionally to Richard promoting Jared to COO, do you explicitly prepare your delivery?

Oh wow, that’s such an interesting question. No one’s ever asked me that. Well, the “I’m going to kill you,” or whatever it is, that was improvised. So I didn’t prepare for that. I feel like Jared is so protective of the Pied Piper guys that when that guy said, [“Will you shut the fuck up?”] in the scene, it made me mad. I was like, “You motherfucker! You don’t talk to Dinesh that way!”

In the scene when I become COO, I don’t think I prepared specifically what my reaction would be. I remember thinking about it and saying, “Try not to cry, try not to cry, try not to cry,” because I feel like Jared wouldn’t want to make a scene. He wouldn’t want to take up too much room in that moment. If you’re trying to cry, it looks creepy on camera. It’s like watching somebody jerk off or something. It’s masturbatory and weird. But if you try to resist it, usually that conveys the same thing.

So I guess in that way I prepared, like, “When he says that, I’ll just try not to cry.” Does that make sense? I feel like I’m talking about this in such an obnoxiously self-aggrandizing way, like I’m playing Richard III or something. I don’t want to lose track of the fact that it’s a half-hour comedy.

Hey, there’s an art to comedy. Those of us who don’t do improv and aren’t comedians of any stripe are perplexed by the foreign nature of how to react to these sorts of moments. Which leads to a broader question: By now, Jared is seen as the heart of this show. Are you conscious of that?

One of the benefits of not googling yourself ever and not watching the show is that the only real feedback you get is from people on the street. And the people who hate you don’t come up to you, so you only meet the people who have nice things to say. From the start, people have been so sweet. It’s funny; I think I’m at a level of recognizability — is that even a word? — where it’s just really nice. I think when people are really famous, it can be hard for them because they feel like it’s an invasion. But for me, it’s just a few times every day when someone will say something sweet and validating, and it’s just the best. I really love it.

I think with a show like this, any comedic or creative success any of us has on the show is due directly to what the other people on the show are doing. We’ll be on set and I’ll be doing a scene, and Kumail [Nanjiani] will be like, “Try this joke.” Or Martin [Starr] will be like, “Try it this way.” Or I’ll pitch something to Thomas [Middleditch]. It’s so collaborative, and also we try to set each other up all the time. It’s one of the best environments I’ve ever been in. In terms of non-competitive collaboration, it feels like everyone is rooting for each other, and that makes it so much easier for all of us to be funny. I realize that sounds like a pat press answer, but that’s really true. There’s a genuine affection underlying, even when the characters are hostile. I love Gilfoyle and Dinesh because I feel like that’s such a great love story expressed through petty hostility. 

Which the writers certainly leaned into in a major way this season. It’s always been there, but it’s reached a new zenith.

Well, good. All love stories have to grow, right?

To your point about the ensemble, you did lose a major cast member this year in T.J. Miller. Everyone knows what it’s like to lose a colleague. Things feel different. How would you say this season of the show felt or operated differently than in previous years?

It’s funny; that change coincided with so many other changes in the show, like the fact that Pied Piper was now more successful, and we were in a different office. The story changed so much, separate from T.J. leaving, that it’s hard to identify what’s due to him leaving and what’s due to the new version of the show. But he’s such a specific energy. He’s such a wild id, or whatever. He’s a voracious presence in the fictional world of the show, and also just in person. I think it felt, in some ways, maybe a little calmer. But aside from that, not drastically different.

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Martin Starr, Zach Woods and Kumail Nanjiani in Season 2 of "Silicon Valley."

What was it like to act opposite Fiona, the robot Jared falls in love with?

That was so fun. I loved that so much. I don’t think [Suzanne Lenz, the actress who played Fiona] had ever done a big TV part, and she was amazing. I thought she was so incredible. It was sort of a thankless job. She had to keep her arms pinned behind her, and it was cold and she couldn’t wear long sleeves for some reason. She was a trooper.

What was the setup?

They had her in this green bald cap, and they would put her in all these bizarro rigs and stuff. Then they also had a robot on set that they would photograph. I know so little about digital effects that I have no insight into how they actually pulled it off. But I love that story so much. I thought it was a sad story. This woman — I mean, she’s not a woman; she’s a robot — gets preyed upon by her creepy overlord, and then she escapes and is ripped to pieces. I love that little love story when we’re out on the pool deck drinking Zinfandel together and talking about campfires. I felt like, in a weird way, she’s sort of like Jared. She’s relentlessly positive, kind of trying to be helpful, maybe a little cut off from certain parts of herself. There’s a lot of overlap between the two characters. I loved shooting that.

In real life, I’m terrified of those things, though.

In keeping with that sad storyline, do you have an active philosophy about grounding Jared’s tragic backstory with a sense of lightness?

Did you ever have those toys when you were a kid that were those blowup clowns with sand in the bottom? It’s like an inflatable clown and you can punch it, and it goes back for a second and springs forward. And it would always have a smile on its face. I feel like Jared is one of those clowns with the sand on the bottom. No matter how hard or how many times he gets hit, he just gently resurfaces with a benign smile.

I mean, my favorite stuff to improvise — and some of my favorite stuff that they write — is just Jared’s tortured mosaic of a past. Before playing Jared, I played a lot of characters who are sort of ego-driven. They wanted to be in control, or they wanted to be powerful or they wanted to be respected. They were people who wanted to be dominating or at least have their ego massaged. I think Jared is the absolute opposite. He almost has a dangerous lack of ego, where for him it’s just about how much he loves Richard, how much he loves the company.

I truly believe he would walk into traffic if he thought it would help Pied Piper. To me, that’s a fun thing to play. It’s fun to be able to try to find comedy from a character’s excess kindness or excess love. There’s a lot of comedy that can feel mean, and I’ve done a lot of that, where characters are being shitty to one another. I think that can be really funny, but I guess I like playing a character where the comedy comes from his self-sacrificial impulses instead of his ego.

That goes back to what we were saying at the start of this chat. When characters are up against constant failure, it can be punishing for the viewer. You need someone like Jared who operates with a different internal compass to contradict everyone who’s responding to the depressive reality of the tech industry and everything going on in their lives.

Totally, and that also goes back to what I was saying about the ensemble thing. That’s why I think the writing is so great, and the other guys are so wonderful. Because, without Gilfoyle in the show, Jared would probably seem saccharine and annoying. Without Jared, Gilfoyle might seem too cynical. The flavors are well balanced by Alec Berg and Mike Judge, and the fact that those guys are so specific creates room for you to do your own specific thing. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. One of the best lines from this season is “I know what it’s like to only be able to rescue half of your family.” Going back to the origins of the show, who brought to the table the idea that Jared would slowly reveal these heinous tidbits about his life? And at this point, how much of that is improv?

That line was actually improvised. I’m glad that made it in. That was a fun line. I was wondering if they were going to use that.

It’s this five-year conversation, I think, between writers and actors, in a nice way. There’s this great writer on the show named Carson Mell, who wrote the second episode of the show. He put in this line. I show up at the house, and I want to work for Pied Piper, and I say, “I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t frighten you. I know I have a somewhat ghostlike appearance.” Just from that little line, I was like, oh, OK, I see what they’re doing: Jared is self-critical, doesn’t want to bother anyone. Then, after I heard that line, when we were shooting the episode, I would try to improvise stuff that reflected that. If I have a ghostlike appearance, what other shitty things have I heard about myself? What else have I been through? I would improvise that stuff, and they would write it into the episode. It was back and forth. 

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Kumail Nanjiani, T.J. Miller, Zach Woods, Thomas Middleditch and Martin Starr in Season 3 of "Silicon Valley."

You also appeared in “The Post” last year. Tell me what it was like to make a Steven Spielberg movie.

That was really interesting. I have a pretty small part in that movie, but he’s such an institution. There’s so many people I admire in that movie. It was sort of surreal. People use Spielberg almost as a synonym for the film industry. He’s such an iconic guy, obviously. I’m trying to think if I have any good stories. Oh, you know what I thought was interesting from that? A lot of famous people are so remote when you talk to them, understandably. They’re so withdrawn or recessed, or they’re giving you some version of themselves that they cultivated to protect their privacy.

And I was so excited to meet Meryl Streep, obviously. I genuinely don’t understand how this was possible, but she was so open. She was so receptive to people. She would talk to anyone. She would answer questions. I was sort of asking her nosy questions, and she would answer them. She was the most accessible famous person, and probably the most famous person I’ve ever met. I was thinking, “Is that the reason she’s such an incredible actor, that she somehow found a way to stay emotionally present, even in spite of the ludicrous amount of international attention she gets?”

And then Spielberg told me he liked the show a lot, which I thought was exciting. Maybe he was just being nice, but I was asking him what he related to in the show, and he was talking about the entrepreneurial spirit. I think when he was coming up, he felt like the underdog, maybe, and he relates to the scrappiness of the Pied Piper guys. That was really cool to hear from Steven Spielberg.

That’s what you want to hear about the people we exalt so much, like Meryl Streep and Steven Spielberg: that they deserve the pedestal we’ve put them on.

That was the nice thing. With Meryl Streep, it seemed like she was whatever the female version of a mensch is. Maybe that’s still just a mensch.

But I also don’t know. I talked to her for a few days. Maybe if I got to know her more, it would turn out she was actually a sadistic psychopath. I realize as I say this that this sounds like the most name-droppy interview. “Well, Meryl and Steven!”

But the cast of that movie is stacked. You can’t not name-drop. Everywhere you look, it’s someone impressive.

You know what drives me crazy is, Michael Stuhlbarg was in that movie. You know, the father from “Call Me by Your Name”? And he’s in “The Shape of Water.”

Yes! I love Michael Stuhlbarg.

I hadn’t seen “The Shape of Water” or “Call Me by Your Name” yet. I met him, and I didn’t know who he was. And then I saw those movies and I was like, “Fuck!” It’s very lucky for him that I hadn’t seen those movies yet, because I would have just cornered him and asked him 1,000 acting questions. I thought that monologue at the end of “Call Me by Your Name” was one of the most beautiful monologues.

When you see that monologue on the page, it’s so professorial and literary. You almost think, well, nobody speaks that poetically. But in his mouth, it turns to gold. It’s beautiful.

Yeah! That’s a really good point, that it’s so soulful. It reads as very intellectualized and abstract. And when he delivers it, you feel it in your heart. I admire that guy so much. He’s incredible.

Final question: What have you seen lately that you love?

Oh, that’s fun. These are fun questions. I really love “Fleabag.” I’ve been harassing my agents, like, “Can you please get me a meeting with Phoebe Waller-Bridge?” I just want to talk to her.

Have you seen her other show, “Killing Eve”?

No, I want to see it so bad. I’ve been bouncing around for a few weeks, but as soon as I have time to watch television, that is at the top of my list. I think she’s so brilliant. And “Fleabag” is a show that, when it starts out, feels so caustic and dark. It’s really funny, but it’s kind of harsh at the beginning. And then, by the end, it is the most heartbreaking. It’s such a deep show, and I think she’s just incredible. I have a major talent crush on Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

I love “Broad City.” I love “High Maintenance.” That’s a show with people on it. It’s not these bleach-toothed, perfect creatures. I like that they’re recognizable human beings on that show. It’s so funny and surprising.

What else? Let me think. Oh, I loved “The Death of Stalin.”

Made by your former “Veep” collaborator.

Yeah! I love him, Armando Iannucci. I thought that was really incredible.

And then there’s this playwright I love named Samuel Hunter. This is going to sound so hoity-toity, but I’ve been devouring his plays. I’ve seen a few of them, and I’m reading a bunch. But if anyone reads this interview, I strongly encourage them to check out Samuel Hunter. He has these beautiful, humane plays.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.