a long talk

‘Poor, Odd Nate’

Nick Mohammed ends three seasons of Ted Lasso with a friendly debate about his character.

“I feel like there’s a little bit of work to be done sometimes on the viewer’s part.” Photo: Colin Hutton/Apple TV+
“I feel like there’s a little bit of work to be done sometimes on the viewer’s part.” Photo: Colin Hutton/Apple TV+

Nathan Shelley has always been a bit of an outlier in the Ted Lasso universe, or at least a character who always seemed to be worth dissecting. Beginning the series as a quietly astute kitman for A.C. Richmond, he proved those “wunderkind” (no, not Wonder Kid) chops with his prowess on the side of the pitch: Nate knew how to weaponize just about every tactical play in the book, so much so that a promotion from laundry duty was inevitable. But then the daddy issues, Empire Strikes Back parallels, and random spitting set in. The end of the second season found him seceding to rival club West Ham United, and the third spun a web of villainy around him almost by creative necessity. Of course this guy was going to return from the dark side. But what took him so long? And why was he even there in the first place? “I think people can change,” Nate says in the finale, reunited with his Diamond Dogs. “They can. Sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better.”

Nick Mohammed, who’s been nominated for two Emmys for his portrayal of Nate, is still reckoning with the divisive reception of that evolution. He views Nate’s story as one of deep catharsis that’s perhaps best served by viewers’ imaginations, although he admits he wouldn’t have minded certain scenes to be further fleshed out. “Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people are on the side of Nate. I think it’s important to talk about where he comes from as a character and to not necessarily condone some of his behavior, because, undoubtedly, some of his behavior is atrocious,” says Mohammed in a post-finale discussion with Vulture. “But knowing the details, the backstory, and where he’s come from, I’ve been surprised at how people have reacted to him compared to their reactions to other characters. So it’s good to talk about it.”

Nate’s journey back to Richmond and his redemption arc have been scrutinized this season. What have you observed about people’s response to Nate’s story, and did those reactions come as a surprise?
I think our capacity to forgive is a lot less seductive than our desire to judge. If the show teaches us anything, it’s to be curious and not judgmental. I feel the reason why it’s very difficult for some people to reconcile with Nate is because of the way he left. It felt very cruel. For some people it’s quite out of the blue, but also because we really rooted for him in season one. If we’re introduced to a character who we start off questioning their behavior — like we did with Rebecca, like we did with Jamie, and like we did with Roy — it’s a lot easier to redeem them because we’re still being introduced to them at that point. When someone starts off there and you grow to root for them and like them, it’s brilliant. But when you take that all away and then try and get them to really ingratiate themselves, it’s definitely a harder sell. I get it. I get that it’s difficult for people. But I would question why people find it so difficult, because he just made mistakes.

Listen, Nate is so insecure and still is to a degree. He’s not completely fixed. He clearly struggles with his mental health. He’s never had a supporting family. His dad has always put him down. That relationship was really quite toxic and defined a lot of his life. And, look, he was bullied by the place. He was bullied by Colin, he was bullied by Jamie. Rebecca didn’t even know his name. It’s funny because people are very quick to forget that about Nate and say, “Oh yeah, but he backstabbed Ted.” I’m not condoning it, but he felt he had good reason to do such a thing. He felt that Ted was the wrong person to manage that team. He’s loved Richmond for all his life and he wants to see them succeed. And he thinks Ted is a phony. Now, of course, it’s wrapped up in a load of other toxic thoughts, because Nate is kind of confused and abandoned.

I was really surprised that people weren’t willing to forgive him as much as I hoped they were. Don’t get me wrong — there’s definitely people who I think got it. Our capacity to forgive is really tested in season three. Poor, odd Nate.

Did you personally scrutinize any decisions that related to Nate this season?
There was one. The scene where he’s playing violin and his dad interrupts him, I remember checking in with Jason Sudeikis about that. What I was really keen about was for the dad’s speech not to be like, “Oh, great, that’s fixed and sorted now,” because I thought, “Nate’s had 30 years of been put down by this guy, we can’t solve that with a vaguely heartfelt moment between the two of them off the back of him playing the violin for a bit.” And Jason was like, “Oh God, yeah, we won’t do that. It’s just to represent the start of hope.” Of course that’s true because thematically the show is all about hope.

There’s a reason why they don’t hug in that scene. There are no tears. There’s still a bit of a disconnect. There’s so much more that these two need to talk about that’s not fixed at all. It’s no surprise that the tears, hugs, and a physical embrace are reserved for Nate and Ted in the finale. So I remember questioning that, but no, pretty much everything else I understood. They had been so clear from season one as to where Nate’s story was headed. I felt lucky to be privy to a lot of their thought processes behind the decisions. People can interpret it however they choose, obviously. But it made sense to me.

Nate’s father, in their moment of reckoning, calls him a lifelong genius. Do you agree with that characterization?
I was nervous about the use of the word. Genius is an overused word. I don’t know if there’s a scientific or psychological definition of what a genius is. I feel like Nate definitely does have precocious talent. He, undoubtedly, can see things that others can’t see, especially in football. We’re revealing that he’s professional on the violin with a high IQ. I don’t think the show was necessarily saying, “Oh, because he’s got that, he lacks emotional intelligence.” I tried to balance those two things. It’s almost like he’s so caught up in his head. He’s just constantly self-analyzing and over-analyzing. He’s never really found time to pause, reflect, and be truly happy with things that don’t require a high brain function. I think he’s pointing towards that more.

What’s nice is that we actually see Nate developing emotional intelligence this season. He’s shown that the stuff he found to be quite alluring and important — being with a fancy football club, managing them and coaching them to the best of his ability, driving a fancy car, or dating a supermodel girlfriend — doesn’t matter anymore. No one can teach that. He has to learn that himself. And he does. It’s slow and it’s paced out over the 12 episodes, but he does go on that journey. It’s lovely. I love that they’ve done that to him.

Again, I’m not saying that by the end of the finale he’s completely fixed. I’m sure he’ll have these inner demons. He needs to sit down with Dr. Sharon to a degree. He’s going to need that support network. But he has one now and he’s making decisions for himself that aren’t at the expense of damaging others. He’s so fallible as a character. That’s why I struggle with people not being able to forgive him. It’s like, “What do you want him to do? What’s the pound of flesh? What is it?”

I think the source of that struggle is that so much of Nate’s growth this season has occurred offscreen, most prominently with him quitting West Ham during the peak of his success. Why do you think it was a more effective decision to relegate these choices to something viewers couldn’t see?
It was a really smart choice. We did talk about it quite a lot. While an audience might have enjoyed watching Nate square up against Rupert, it was never going to be a revenge scene. It would almost introduce a bit of a toxicity to it. Kind of like, “Haha, I’m leaving and I’m getting back at you.” We also don’t need to see it because I think we can predict what the fallout of that scene would be. Rupert would scream obscenities at him. Nate would probably break down in some way, but he would still leave. I remember thinking, It’s so refreshing that we cut to that point, because not only are we now questioning what the characters in the show are questioning, but also why? We can see Rupert trying to spin that into inappropriate behavior, which I think reflects the way things are sometimes in real life. Something like that happens and everyone dives onto social media. There’s all this speculation and theory. There was a real kind of innocence to the fallout, with Nate going into quite a deep depression. He returns home, which is clearly the place where he needs to be to do his deepest thinking and where his reckoning has to occur.

So I think it was smart that they managed those beats by instead doing the scene where Nate is on the violin, but it intercuts in the script with Rebecca doing her speech to Rupert and the billionaires. Nate and Rebecca deliberately don’t have any scenes at all this season, but they’re connected by Ted and Rupert, who were the two forces in both of their lives, for better or worse. It was an intricate and artistic move that they could collide those two storylines without it feeling predictable. There are other scenes like that. You don’t see Roy and Keeley kiss. We don’t see the moment when Nate rejoins Richmond. We don’t see him walk through the door. I think it’s because we know what that is. The scene at the end of episode 11, between Beard and Nate, was so powerful when he forgave him. We don’t need to see stuff to know what happens. We can go to more original storytelling.

Do you wish you had more time to explore Nate’s interiority?
That’s interesting. I didn’t feel like I needed it. It was great that Jason and Brendan Hunt were always present on set for all of the scenes. We would always do a bit of a deep dive into what had gotten us to that point. With Nate, I agree that there are quite a few offscreen moments. From an acting point of view, I love working with Anthony Head. If we’d have got to do that “I’m quitting” scene, I’m sure we would’ve had a lot of fun with it. But you have to respect the fact that there’s also an efficiency to the storytelling in the way that they do it. It means that you can then save time for more unexpected moments like the footballers singing “So Long, Farewell.” You don’t need to see that scene, but it feels fun and it creates its own energy. If there was ever a point when I felt like I just needed to know a little more about Nate, they had it all in their heads. It was all there. It wasn’t that no one hadn’t thought of it or we were just skipping ahead for practical reasons. It was very much deliberate creative choices that they had made. I really trusted them, partly because they trusted me with the performance.

I’m thinking of that scene in the penultimate episode where the trio of Richmond men come to Nate’s restaurant and beg him to return. I kept debating if this outreach was earned, especially after how we saw the players react to the sign footage earlier in the season. Where do you land on that?
I feel like there’s a little bit of work to be done sometimes on the viewer’s part.

Photo: Colin Hutton/Apple TV+

Okay, how so?
I agree that when they had seen the footage of Nate ripping down the sign … they might be furious and they played dreadfully as a result. But then they learn from it. The message behind that is, you can’t use anger as a tool to learn and to move forward in a positive way. If you think of the journey that Colin and Isaac have been on between episode four and 11, it’s huge. Colin has come out. He’s been accepted for who he is. They actively bullied Nate in the first season. People have forgotten that. They have this shared history, so they might have been angry with him, but Nate was angry with them back in season one. We can almost call it a draw. These characters are always learning. Whether they’re showing scenes or not is a whole different thing. They’re accepting who they are and what’s going to make them a better person. Ted is a catalyst for that, which is wonderful.

When they come to the restaurant and say, “Look, we’ve all talked as a group and we’d like to have you back,” that makes complete sense to me. Because the opposite is, “No, we’re never going to ask Nate back because we bear a grudge for what he did and there’s nothing he can do that will ever allow us to forgive him.” What message is that sending out? I don’t get it. I feel like viewers who don’t see that are watching a different show. Of course it’s open to interpretation and I get it. I just ask them to look at the story. Look at the journeys the characters are all going on, so that when those four men are brought together, it’s like, “Yeah, it makes sense that they would ask him because they’ve all found their place of calm and catharsis.” They’re in a good place.

What was the biggest lesson Nate learned this season?
He’s learned to be happy with who he is. He’s stopped putting on a front. For so long he’s struggled to be himself. It’s all bravado because he feels he has to overcompensate or alter his behavior. When he talks to Rupert, he alters his behavior. There’s even a difference in how he speaks to two members of his family. He’s finally realized that he can be comfortable with who he is. It’s no surprise that he’s happiest when he’s back to being assistant to the kitman in the finale. He doesn’t have to pretend anymore. He hasn’t got any points to prove. He became so self-obsessed in season two — so vain. It’s the realization that those things aren’t important anymore and self-worth counts for a lot more. You don’t need to shit on people to get ahead.

What blanks did you find yourself needing to fill in for Nate? What do you think caused his dissolution at West Ham?
The straw that broke the camel’s back is in episode nine. Nate is still quite enamored by Rupert. He’s really excited to introduce Jade to Rupert and he’s like a little puppy in that scene — and Jade sees right through it. She sees Rupert for exactly who he is and Nate doesn’t register that. There’s that moment where he thinks he and Rupert are going out for guys’ night, and clearly it becomes cheating-on-girlfriends night. I’m not saying Nate should be praised for not cheating on his girlfriend. But it’s in that moment of, “Who is this guy? What am I becoming? Where are my loyalties? What is my heart saying?” I think it’s then where knows he has to leave the club. But also he thinks, God, What have I done? I’ve quit my job. Where am I going to go? Will anyone accept me again? I don’t think he’s necessarily thinking, Oh, I’ve got to go back to Richmond. It’s not on his agenda. It’s more of the shock of he’s been in the clutches of a narcissist and was probably becoming him. It’s a real turning point. And, yes, his walk to Jade is unseen and the moment between him and Jade in the doorway is dialogue free. A long hug is all Nate really needs to realize what he decided to do is correct.

Nate and Ted’s locker-room reconciliation is also a quiet one and devoid of long speeches or proclamations. Can you tell me what it was like filming that scene and how you wanted to approach it with Jason?
There’s a lot of art imitating life on Ted Lasso. That scene was filmed on the very last day of the whole shoot — possibly ever. We don’t know if we’re coming back or not. It was the last scene I shot. We’d overrun the shooting schedule a bit, so we were all quite tired and exhausted, but happy with where we got to. I had been aiming for this scene since the end of season two. I had to keep it away from my head, because the reconciliation with Ted is the epitome of the redemption story. I had possibly worked myself up a little bit about this scene. I knew it wouldn’t be lots of words. It’s so much nicer when it’s a quieter scene. It’s a bit more powerful that way. But when we filmed it, I accidentally … it was maybe because I was a bit tired, but I just burst into tears. It was quite embarrassing. Because there weren’t many scenes between Nate and Ted this season, there’s a particular energy between those two characters. It’s captivating. I was an absolute mess to the point where I was kind of consciously thinking, Oh God, it might look like I’m too overactive.

It was partly because I was trying to get into that zone, but I found it almost too overwhelming. Everyone had come in for the last day. We’ve been together for several years and been through this huge ride of a show. We’re so lucky that the show has done well, but it comes with a certain pressure. We’re so privileged to be in that position. So we were like, “Oh God, we hope we’ve done it justice and that the audience still comes on this ride.”

We leave Nate as the assistant to the kitman back at Richmond, and then an assistant coach, and he appears to have found a nice slice of happiness again. What does he want at this point in his life now? What are his aspirations?
They’re probably not professional aspirations. He knows what he can do on the field. What a delight for him to be Roy’s new wingman. That’s a lovely dynamic and I think he’s completely content with that. He knows he can help, but it’s not all about him. He’s not trying to prove himself anymore. I love the fact that he and Jade will hopefully have a lasting and happy relationship. But, look, you know what Ted Lasso is like. If we were to go again, Nate will have times when he’s down, depressed, and struggling. Is Jade the one for him? I’d like to think so, but it might be that the relationship becomes quite tough for him, for Jade even, because he’s still got his daddy issues. More needs to be done on that front. But we’re definitely on a path for healing, which is a good start. I like to think that the gray hair is a constant reminder of, he’ll never be ever fixed. He’ll always have the trauma of what he did. He has to live with that. But if he can live and be content with that, it’s a good thing.

We get to see Nate’s mindset about why he likes Jade. Can you help me understand what she sees in him?
He’s been going to that restaurant forever. She’s seen him on and off for quite a long time. I think what she realizes is that he’s this guy who’s clearly riddled with insecurity and presents different ways to try to impress people. When Nate’s model date leaves him in episode five, she asks where she went. He responds truthfully and says, “Oh, she actually said something really mean and left.” It’s not that she then feels sorry for him. I think Jade just sees him at that moment as a normal guy. She sits down with him, they have a chat, and they have some food. It’s not like they’re suddenly married. They sleep together at the start of episode eight, but even then weeks have gone by. I feel like it’s difficult because it’s not a constant timeline with Ted Lasso. Months have come and gone in terms of the development of their relationship — they’re not living together, they’re not engaged. It’s just the start of a positive and nice couple. I don’t think she needs to see the world in him from the start.

I think there’s possibly a slight hangover of people being like, “What would she see in Nate? He’s just this guy.” I get it. I get why people think that. But it’s like, “Well, why can’t she? Why can’t she like him?” She’s not entering into some contract. We hope that we’ll see some real positives to their relationship. They make each other laugh. Even in the montage at the end, they’re still together, which is lovely. But, again, I struggled with people questioning that. Why can’t he date? Why can’t someone fancy him? He changes and he works on himself. That’s worth noting. I read one thing online — and I try to stay offline — saying, “She only likes him because he was dating a supermodel.” But it’s the opposite. She doesn’t give a shit about any of that stuff. It’s a shame that people haven’t seen that. But they’re going to rewatch. They will.

Nate's evolution from season one (left) to season two. Apple TV+.
Nate's evolution from season one (left) to season two. Apple TV+.

When Nate leaves for West Ham at season two’s end, his hair transforms into heavy streaks of gray. Were there other deliberate choices about his appearance while the final season evolved?
Completely. There’s a reason why Nate chose a black suit at the end of season two after the inappropriate move on Keeley. It’s to emulate Roy to a degree. He carries that same suit with him a lot in season three. I tried to affect my posture a bit more to exaggerate those outfits, but they were already so uptight. The turtlenecks, the gilet — he’s literally uptight in the West Ham stuff. When you see him in his own clothes, and particularly when he starts dating Jade, he’s so much more relaxed.

I was always asking whether we were going to see the gray suit again, which Ted gave him back in the first season. The writers had such a smart answer to it. They told me, “We don’t want it to be too twee,” so what they did in the montage is he’s wearing the jacket but with different trousers. It meant to me, “We don’t want Nate to be beholden to Ted because we’ve shown the moment where they’ve had that catharsis.” But as a token of thanks, he still wears the jacket. It’s a nice gesture that Ted is still part of him, but he’s his own self now. Nate has learned and grown and he can now be set free.

With Nate’s hair, one wig was used throughout season three, but we changed wigs in episode ten, which is when he goes back home and has that big moment with his dad. We changed it to be softer. At that point he says no to Rupert and rejects him, and that’s a huge turning point in his story. So the first time we see Nate after that, it’s a softer wig — slightly longer with no products in it. It’s a sign of him returning to his own self. It’s also a lot comfier in that wig.

You and all of the other cast members are being constantly asked about the potential of a fourth season or a spinoff. But I think the better question is: Would you even want to return? Do you feel the need to return to this character?
I’m really torn. First of all, I genuinely don’t know. I think it’s up to Jason. If this is indeed the end, I feel Nate’s journey has been a proper three-season arc and it’s like nothing I’ve ever gotten to play before. There’s a sense of satisfaction with that. So if it does end, I’d be like, “Yeah, great, lovely.” I feel like there are so many stories still to tell. You could watch a lot of these characters. I would love to see how their stories continue. Given the way that the finale played out, it feels like it couldn’t be a show without Ted. But I struggle to work out why Ted would ever come back, because his story has always been pointing towards going back to his family. There’s a sense of finality there. I don’t know. I would just love to hang out with all those guys and girls again because we’re such a family.

Whatever happens, there will definitely be a break. We won’t be going straight into anything else for a good year or so. Whether there’s a special, a film, another season, a spinoff — I’m open to it all. Given the amount of thought they put into Nate, it would have to be an interesting story.

‘Poor, Odd Nate’