Zach Woods Has a Lot of Beefs (Not Really)

Season 2 of the Golden Globe and Emmy nominated HBO series Silicon Valley premieres this Sunday night. As a primer, I talked to actor and improviser Zach Woods, who plays Donald “Jared” Dunn on the series. Woods, who started improv at UCB at the age of 16, has had standout roles as Gabe Lewis on The Office and more recently, as Zach Harper on the USA series Playing House. We talked about the dynamic of the Silicon Valley cast both on and off the set, the expert craftsmanship of Mike Judge and the intricacies of playing awkward characters.

Silicon Valley Season 2 premieres April 12th at 10 PM on HBO. How would you describe your experience working on the show so far?

It’s one of the best – if not the best – experiences I’ve had, professional or otherwise. I love the people that I work with. I think the show is really smart. I like the writing. I was thinking about it the other day and I’ve never had a group of – I’ve had lots of individual male friends – but I’ve never had a group of male friends that I consistently want to hang out with. Maybe that’s psychologically telling, or something. This is the first time I’ve had a gang of guys who are similarly feeble and tender enough that I can mesh with any one of them.

Before working on the show, how many of the guys did you know that you would have considered good friends?

I wouldn’t have considered any of them good friends. I knew TJ [Miller], Thomas [Middleditch], and Kumail [Nanjiani]. I didn’t know Martin at all. I was friendly with those three, but not good friends. Now I do consider them good friends.

I think it shows.

That’s awesome. Sometimes you have shows and it seems like… I think I’ve been fooled before. You see an onscreen dynamic and you’re like, “Oh, man, what chemistry,” and then you find out that they were hoping that each other would die in car accidents.

Everybody on the show takes shots at each other. I think it takes people who, at the very least, get along with each other reasonably well to pull of that kind of vibe. You’re the butt of a lot of jokes on the show. I can only imagine how hard it would be if you guys hated each other and had to play scenes where you’re taking it out on each other.

That would be so weird, if the fictional dynamic was hostile and the personal dynamic was also hostile.  That would be so uncomfortable. There’s an underlying sense of affection among the guys that actually gives you a longer leash on how shitty you can be to each other. If it feels like characters genuinely hate each other and they’re just being cruel, that can be funny, but I also think it can be a little tiring.

If it’s a little warmer, I think you can be meaner without it feeling like you’re getting cruelty fatigue from the comedy.

I think if it’s going to be mean, it has to be smart. There have to be clear lines about which characters you’re supposed to like and not like. You can have a villain, or a mean spirited character, in a cast and that person can be fine, as long as the other characters agree that this is the mean person.

Also, you want the moral universe of the show to be intact to some extent. You want the person who is being shit on to have done something to justify it. You don’t want it to be arbitrary cruelty. It usually has to be, in some way, earned. It’s nice that we get along too because when you’re improvising stuff that’s a little bit sharp, you can go… those guys can say anything to me and I can be confident that they’re not exercising some deep hatred toward me.

So it’s safe to say that, at this point, you don’t have any celebrity beefs yet.

Oh, I’ve got a lot of celebrity beefs, just not with anyone on the show. Me and Terry Gross have been in a cold war for four or five years now. Who else? Who else have I trained my laser sights on? Tiesto. The DJ Tiesto. It’s really just those two.

What’s the daily atmosphere like on set?

Sometimes in interviews people will be like, “It’s a comedy show with a lot of standups and improvisers. Do you guys just constantly make jokes and crack each other up?” The truth is, it’s really fun and funny, but it’s so stupid. I think people think it’s a lot of zingers and stuff, but it’s really just dumb, overgrown toddlers playing: a lot of making stupid sounds and talking in nonsense. This year we kept doing this thing where we would lift Thomas. We would just pick him up and hold him aloft. If you went to the show thinking, “Ooh, this is really smartly written. I can’t wait to hear the repartee,” you would be sorely disappointed to discover that it’s a bunch of fucking idiots.

What does Mike Judge bring to the set?

Mike is very soft spoken. He brings his sensibility to it and his experience in Silicon Valley. He worked as an engineer, so he’s very familiar with the world. He also – going back to what we were talking about on being mean – is the best person to do satire. I feel like his perspective is – and I don’t want to speak for him – but it’s like, people are ridiculous, but not hateful. It’s not sneering at people. It’s just making fun of them in a way that doesn’t dehumanize them. I also think that Mike and Alec (Berg), who both do the edits, have such incredible taste, such a good barometer for what’s too much, or what’s cheesy, or what’s too big. You can take big risks because you can trust their taste so much. You know that in the edit, they will protect the character and the story. Also, as an actor, they’re not going to let something cheesy go by, or something too small. It’s the safest I’ve felt. I’ve worked with a lot of people who I think are amazing, but those guys in the edits are so, so, so brilliant.

The show has been received well by critics and fans alike. Do you pay attention to the reviews?

No, I don’t read any of it. It’s distracting. It’s hard enough, when you’re performing, to not watch yourself. The challenge, for me at least, is that you want to get lost in it. You want to be involved in what you’re doing, not how you’re doing. But when you have reviewers’ language in your head, it’s hard to not experience your own performance in terms of that, for me. Someone more confident, less of a delicate flower, would be able to withstand that better. It’s nice to hear it, but I haven’t read it. It’s also interesting how feedback has been so democratized. The guy in the Ozarks tweeting at you from his quad racing rental place has the same weight. His font is the same size as the New York Times review. You could just go totally apeshit crazy trying to calibrate and absorb which feedback is reliable and blah, blah blah. I think it’s just better to get your feedback from directors, other actors, producers, that kind of thing.

During the shooting of the first season in 2013, Christopher Evan Welch, who played Peter Gregory, passed away. He had done five episodes up to that point. In Season 1, there wasn’t anything in the story that dealt with his death. Without giving anything away, Season 2 provides some closure on that. Are you able to shed any light on how the cast, crew and writers handled a delicate subject like that?

I heard from on high that I’m not supposed to talk about the particular way, story-wise, that it was handled. But I will say that they handled it very, very well. It’s a very difficult challenge to pay tribute to and be respectful of someone who… it’s kind of astounding how in five episodes he made such a presence on the show. He was one of my favorite people to watch. They handled it well. They were respectful while still moving forward from it without just kicking it under the rug. As for the cast and crew, there were a variety of experiences. I hadn’t got to work with him very much. We had done table reads and I was always intimidated by and admiring of him. We were supposed to shoot our first big story together the week he died. Amanda Crew, for example, shot a lot of stuff with him and had a pretty meaningful relationship. I think there was a spectrum where, for some people, it was hard to move on and for others, it was just terribly sad and regrettable.

Your character, Jared, much like Gabe from The Office, has this incredible awkwardness that makes it hard for his peers to respect him. That seems to be a running theme in many of the characters that you play. Are you pulling from your own experience in any way?

Sure. I think everyone feels awkward, except for sociopaths. At some point in everyone’s life they feel uncomfortable or ill at ease. I feel like Gabe was an ego-driven character who wanted so much to be respected and maybe even feared. He was constantly being foiled and really felt his failure. I think it really cost him. Jared is kind of egoless. I don’t think he really cares. Gabe cared about climbing the ladder, which he was totally ill-equipped to do. All Jared really cares about is the success of the company and his friends and being close to these guys that he likes. I think his standards for what constitutes closeness is much lower than yours or mine. The crumbs of attention are more than he had ever hoped for. So when people shit on him, I don’t think it really bothers him as long as the company is okay and the guys are okay. I don’t think Jared experiences himself as awkward. Gabe is like, “Fuck. Why can’t I be a king?” Jared is like, “I’m delighted to be a serf.”

You started improv when you were 16, right? I don’t know a lot of kids who decide to narrow their field to improv comedy, but you did and really stuck with it. What drew you to the form in the first place?

When I was kid, I wanted to be a jazz musician. I used to play trumpet. I practiced for hours and hours because I was really obsessed with it. Then I got braces and couldn’t play anymore. I lived in Pennsylvania, but my brother went to Columbia University and had seen ASSSSCAT and told me about it. So I went to New York and took a standup comedy class and an improv class. Part of what brought me to it was that I had free time from when I was obsessively pursuing music and now I had all this free time and that was interesting to me. My parents, astonishingly, were cool with me going to New York to do that. The other thing was, I wanted to be a jazz musician, going to basement clubs, improvising with my friends, maybe not getting paid that much. The leap was not that big from my fantasy jazz life to my improv life.

Zach Woods Has a Lot of Beefs (Not Really)