In The Watch, Ben Stiller plays a dorky do-gooder who forms a group of suburban crime fighters with Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and … Richard Ayoade. If you don’t recognize that last name, you’re not alone. Ayoade starred in the geektastic TV show The IT Crowd, a cult favorite here, but a bona-fide hit in his native England. After NBC aborted its own IT Crowd pilot, costarring Ayoade and Joel McHale, the Brit instead focused on directing music videos (Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend), while helming his very-indie feature debut, Submarine. Now, with his role in The Watch, the actor has another shot at cracking the States. Vulture asked him to explain his unlikely career in comedy and to size up his famous costars.
There’s been some curiosity about your ethnicity. Your mother is Norwegian and your father is Nigerian?
Yes. Now people can apply the precise racial [formula] to me, which is good.
Did that lead to any racial-identity issues growing up?
I tend to stick to Norwegian-Nigerians. I don’t go outside that group.
How did you go from studying law at Cambridge to going into comedy?
When I was at university, they had a club that does comedy that I became involved in. I was in a very privileged position in that they got to put on shows because a number of great comedians came from there, like John Cleese and Stephen Fry. I just had an opportunity as a result of that. It was never brilliantly disposed at all. I’m so not a funny person. I’m as funny as I’ve ever been, which is not funny.
The Watch, like The IT Crowd, is about social underdogs. What is it with you and playing nerds?
Um, oh wow. My physiognomy is not best fit for action, I guess.
Or maybe you instead give off an air of intelligence?
Oh, I doubt that. I think I’m a bit scrawny. Well, I used to be scrawny, but now I manage to be both scrawny and kind of wide.
Are you disappointed the American IT Crowd didn’t make it on the air, thus breaking you into U.S. audiences?
I haven’t really made any effort — that wasn’t a concerted campaign. I think they couldn’t find anyone else who would do it.
What did it feel like filming The Watch with three big comedians?
They’re all kind of great. How hard [Stiller] works is impressive. But what I think is particularly impressive about him is, if you count the films that he’s been in and directed, how funny everyone else is in them, as well. Many actors don’t want anyone else to be funny other than them.
Your director, Akiva Schaffer, said that there was a fair bit of ad-libbing.
I did some. But it’s definitely daunting. They are incredible — I just tried to keep up. But in a way being surrounded by people who are so good is also a relief, because it’s not really on you.
Are their neighborhood watches in the U.K.?
I really wouldn’t know much about them. Not so much in London, I don’t think. I’m quite aware of American culture through TV and films, so I guess I knew about them.
Were you aware of the Trayvon Martin murder in the U.K. when it happened?
I don’t think it was as widely known in Britain as it was here. But I am aware of it. Its bearing on your film [The Watch] is not your first thought at all. It’s a horrible thing that happened, that’s the thought, really.
And this Dark Knight shooting …
Bringing a conversation about that into the realm of entertainment … it’s something so serious and awful. That would be my only reluctance to discuss it, in this context of this comedy — considering the gravity of what happened. This terrible impulse seems to exist for these people to gain notoriety. It seems utterly unfathomable that these things happen.