Six years ago, Thomas Middleditch was chasing laughs on a Caribbean-bound cruise ship, by way of Chicago’s Second City troupe, in a last-ditch effort to make something of this comedy thing — his income from walking dogs just wasn’t cutting it.
These days, Middleditch is trudging up a winding road near his fully paid-for Hollywood Hills condo, now a bona-fide player in the game as head nerd in HBO’s techie comedy “Silicon Valley.” In this particular moment, the 33-year-old actor was chattering about a new gaming app he’d tried the night before when he had to stop mid-detail to yank out a plastic bag.
Yes, Middleditch is still walking dogs. Only in this case they’re his own: Meatloaf, a miniature pinscher, and Potter, a pint-size stray he nurtured back to health. “I feel like I should fess up to it now that Potter is, indeed, named after Harry Potter,” he said. “Let’s get all the embarrassing moments and geekery out now.”
He cops to other possible signifiers: his excitement for the coming Renaissance Pleasure Faire (he has his knight-inspired costume ready), his deep interest in military history, his fond feelings for the Commodore 64 computer his family once owned, his skills at “Dungeons & Dragons” and his penchant for watching videos of TED talks. But don’t peg him: He also builds furniture in his spare time and is an ice hockey fan.
“I think the modern nerdy person is a little more multifaceted and less ‘er, more comics, please,’” he declares, channeling a nerd-like voice.
In “Silicon Valley,” the first TV show to really home in on the culture of the valley, Middleditch’s Richard Hendriks plays on stereotypes with his mousy, socially awkward demeanor. He has a knack for vomiting when under pressure and is unaware when he’s the butt of a joke.
And this nerdy guy has a quiet romantic appeal. “We needed someone who can be a little on the spectrum and still come across as datable,” said co-producer John Altschuler. “He has to have a vulnerability about him and this off-center quality — kind of like Hugh Grant.”
But Richard is also kind of a genius who’s upping the stakes as the creator of a revolutionary new compression algorithm that has the fictional tech world buzzing. Oh, and he isn’t afraid to say he thinks Steve Jobs is a poser because “he didn’t even write code.”
So it’s only fitting that Season 2 of the half-hour comedy lands April 12 on HBO just as the real tech world (and TV world too) is buzzing about the premium channel’s new purely online service, HBO Now. The app, which is available to users of Apple products and customers of Cablevision Systems Corp.'s Optimum Online, launched last week to satiate the cord-cutting crowd. The series’ return also follows the recent hubbub over Ellen Pao’s high-profile gender-discrimination case against one of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious venture capital firms, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
“It’s become this hot spot of activity,” Middleditch said of San Francisco and Silicon Valley’s increasing prominence in the media. The tech world has been dramatized elsewhere in recent years — in movies like 2010’s “The Social Network” and last year’s soft-performing drama “Halt and Catch Fire” on AMC, but not with so much barbed affection.
That’s not to say that the actor fully understands this world. “There’s stuff that goes way over my head,” he said. “Like, I know about Oculus Rift and when it’s going to come out. But it’s a world where once you feel you have a handle on what’s going on, things change. The parts are always moving.
The first season of “Silicon Valley,” HBO’s biggest comedy launch in five years, dealt with Richard trying to get his start-up idea off the ground and into the right hands. The second season has Richard continuing his battle with Google-like Hooli over rights to his idea as well as choosing investors for his company — including fictitious venture capital firm Raviga Capital, which has a new managing partner, Laurie Beam (Suzanne Cryer). (She’s one of two female additions after the comedy came under fire for its lack of female representation.)
All in all, Richard is having to put his “big boy pants on” while trying to keep in line his fellow misfits — Erlich (played by T.J. Miller), Jared (Zach Woods), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Big Head (Josh Brener).
The slow path to success is one Middleditch says he self-identifies with on many levels.
“I spent many, many years with my hand out waiting to get picked,” he said. “And I have to stay on top of it just like Richard, because, who knows?, maybe it will all evaporate and I’ll be the crazy McNulty type.”
The British Columbia native was born to expat parents from England — his father was a school principal and his mom was a special education teacher; both are now retired. “They’re very intrepid and sort of hippie-like, so they’ve never been too conservative about my weird career goals.”
Middleditch’s post-high school years included dabbling with theater school on Vancouver Island. But a move to Toronto had him feeling that getting his feet wet with improv would prove more useful than studying acting.
“When you grow up in Canada, you want to be in ‘Kids in the Hall,’” Middleditch said, referring to the Canadian sketch comedy show that aired in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, amid the roaring sound of a street sweeper and a helicopter overhead. “That’s what I was trying to make happen. But it wasn’t happening quick enough. I felt like I had to be out there.”
He got his improv start in Chicago after failed attempts in his home base. “I thought, ‘I’ll be in Second City main stage in like a year, probably. And then I’ll be on ‘SNL’ in about two years. No big deal. It will totally happen.’” He paused to emphasize his naivete.
But it almost did happen.
It was during his tour with the original Second City troupe on that cruise ship that Middleditch learned that head “Saturday Night Live” writer Seth Meyers and executive producer Mike Shoemaker were heading to Chicago to scout talent. He had to beg and plead to get permission to flee the cruise ship and fly from Bermuda to Chicago.
His eventual audition consisted of an impression of Chris Martin from Coldplay, a spoof of Kyra Sedgwick from TNT’s “The Closer” and an impersonation of Meyers. It was enough to land him a meeting with “SNL” mastermind Lorne Michaels. But nothing came of it.
Middleditch, despite a seemingly laid-back demeanor, wasn’t ready to fold it up and move back to Canada. He set his sights on New York, then Los Angeles. Along the way, he’s starred in various online shorts on Funny or Die and College Humor and has had a number of sidekick bit parts on TV shows.
But it was a failed 2011 pilot for MTV, “Worst Friends Forever,” born out of a bombed sketch, that would help lead to his career-making role. “Beavis and Butthead” producers Mike Judge, Dave Krinsky and Altschuler were set to produce the series before it got scrapped.
When Altschuler and Krinsky were developing the idea for “Silicon Valley,” Middleditch would turn out to be their nerdy source of inspiration. The original blueprint for the characters was based on Altschuler’s electrical engineer brother and brother-in-law — but they were too old.
The duo, though, remembered how much Middleditch yammered on about gaming, which they felt was an important component to Silicon Valley. “He was the guy for this role,” Altschuler recalled by phone.
Not that casting a relative unknown didn’t take convincing at HBO. But when “Silicon Valley” co-creator Judge championed Middleditch, things happened.
“It’s all on the screen,” Judge recounted. “He has this way about him. There’s a scene in the first season where he’s trying to get Jared [Woods] not to cry. He does this thing with his face — his way with facial expressions is just unparalleled. It was just really funny to me.”
Others have taken notice too. Middleditch has a supporting role in this year’s Sundance breakout comedy “The Bronze,” bought by Relativity and expected to be released this year. And he appears in indie horror film “The Final Girls.” He also moonlights as a voice actor on Disney XD’s animated series “Penn Zero: Part Time Hero.”
It’s the sort of busy work schedule that Richard Hendriks might try to code his way out of. Middleditch, though, doesn’t mind it — not that he wouldn’t be OK with some down time.
“A day off means I get to spend hours playing video games,” he said, right on cue.