When we last saw Richard Hendricks, the socially awkward and frequently hoodied hero of Silicon Valley, he was barfing into a dumpster after his triumph at TechCrunch Disrupt. On April 12, the HBO comedy set in the startup world returns for the premiere of its second season, where Hendricks and his partners in Pied Piper move past the development stage to now contend with fickle venture capitalists and valuation mind games. Though creator Mike Judge and co. have populated their achingly authentic satire with everyone from deadpan Satanists to guru-toting megalomaniac billionaires, the show’s fidgeting center is Hendricks, played to soft-spoken perfection by actor Thomas Middleditch.
Middleditch’s portrayal of Hendricks, a gifted programmer and creator of a universal compression algorithm who has to learn on the fly how to also be a businessman and a boss, grounds Silicon Valley as an underdog story about learning to deal with seemingly insurmountable challenges, despite being totally unprepared. The show also taps into the nebulous nature of the tech world, where, despite the abundance of expert opinions, no one really knows anything. It’s a frightening reality to deal with when you’re suddenly pulled into the center of it and when there’s potentially millions of dollars in play.
Middleditch has earned raves for capturing every awkward nuance of the show’s lovably lost genius. In making it all look effortless, the actor is drawing on serious comedy training, and an existing predilection for nerdy pursuits. Raised in the small hippie haven of Nelson, British Columbia, Middleditch suffered his share bullying growing up, but after a drama teacher put him a school play when he was in the 8th grade, his adolescent life began to change. “I went from being the shy weirdo to the class clown in a couple of years,” he says.
He went on to learn and perform improv comedy around Chicago before moving to New York and then Los Angeles. It was there that the now 33-year-old Middleditch was asked by Silicon Valley’s co-creators to audition for the show’s starring role, but he never thought he’d get it. He was cast despite the few credits to name, and Middleditch says he got a handle on the anxious character right from the start. “With Richard, me personally, and maybe other people would disagree, but I don’t think I’ve really shifted at least my understanding of him. I was fortunate enough that when I got the role, the creators, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, were like, ‘Hey, we’ve got this role that we’re thinking of you for in this HBO show,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah right.’ But then I had a fairly substantial audition process and in that you’ve really got to come in with specificity. I feel like I had a good grasp on him. Not that I am him, but I identify with certain element of him for sure. Like the tunnel vision focus where you get into something and then everything else fades away, and then you wake up out of it and it’s like 12 hours later.”
His character’s surreal circumstances are a reality that Middleditch has seen in his own industry. “It’s a lot like entertainment,” he says. “You could be great on stage or in front of the camera or at writing, then suddenly the President of Hollywood says, ‘I want to buy your script’ or ‘I want to put you in a movie.’ Now you have all this money and don’t know how to negotiate and they’re agents and lawyers and managers and they’re coming at you and you don’t know what to do. It’s completely overwhelming and it’s kind of akin to the tech world in how fast it can happen and how it can create a tsunami in your life.”
Middleditch is clear that his own life hasn’t gotten too crazy since landing the role, but there are some things that take time getting used to, like strangers approaching him to talk. He says that so far people have only had nice things to say about him and Silicon Valley, especially those who work in the tech industry. But it’s not a huge surprise these folks are fans of the show, considering the amount of attention that is put into making sure all the details are accurate. “We have a guy on set who literally has to make sure all the technical sounding stuff is right, because a lot of the stuff we’re dealing with is all, at this point, theoretical,” says Middleditch. “There is no groundbreaking compression algorithm that has changed everything we know, that’s fictional, but we have to make it seem like it’s authentic.”
The show’s most famous joke about how long it would take for one of the characters to jerk off a convention room full of guys even used a mathematical equation devised by MIT graduate and Stanford PhD student, Vinith Misra. The scene was also a favorite of Middleditch’s, even though he couldn’t get any jokes in. “It was so well-orchestrated and I was so jealous. I had to sit there because I’m having my eureka moment when all I wanted to do was chime in,” he says.
The makers of Silicon Valley are clearly fluent in and insightful on the world they’re lampooning, but, surprisingly, the cast never received any kind of boot camp about startup culture before filming began, Middletditch replies, “That would have been cool. We didn’t get that.”
Middleditch did bring an interest in tech culture that pre-dates his being cast on the show. He says he watches his share of TED talks and visits gadget websites. He describes himself as a big gamer, admitting to having hosted LAN parties in the past and that he’s just starting to do Twitch streams of him playing Total War (“It’s niche, man, it’s deep cuts,” he jokes of his preferred game). Still, he says, he’s nowhere near the level of geekery of the characters on the show. “They have set decoration of coding books around and I’ve flipped through them,” he says. “It’s like another language that I would certainly fall asleep reading.”
And lest he be typecast, Middleditch adds, perhaps with an eye to his next unexpected role: “I just want to let you know that I do other things. I’m not only a nerd. I watch sports and do manly things. I play soccer.”