Samuel Barnett on the Unique & Bizarre ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’
The wonderfully weird BBC America series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, adapted from the novels by Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), follows the fast-talking, eccentric Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett), who is hired to investigate the case of a murdered millionaire. Dirk’s philosophy hinges on the interconnectedness of all things and, as a result, he believes that he and Todd Brotzman (Elijah Wood), a bellhop at the hotel where the body was found, are destined to untangle the mystery together, even though Todd may not be as willing to embrace that notion.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, British actor Samuel Barnett talked about this unique and bizarre world, why he thought this was such a brilliant script, feeling like he understood how to bring Dirk Gently to life, that show creator Max Landis told him where the entire season would be headed, how other people see Dirk compared to how Dirk sees himself, the experience of working with an acting partner like Elijah Wood, how this show is like an escape room, and that the possibilities for future seasons are wide open.
Collider: This is such a unique and beautifully bizarre TV series!
SAMUEL BARNETT: I had the same reaction. When I was making it, I wasn’t sure how it was going to be to watch it. And then, I watched it and went, “This is completely bizarre! I’ve not seen anything like it before. It feels unique.” Obviously, I know what happens, but I was hooked and wanted to keep on watching. I hope other people feel the same.
Could you get the intention from reading this script, or did you need to have further conversation about it?
BARNETT: It was a bit of both. I read the script and went, “I haven’t read anything this good, in a long time.” I thought it was absolutely brilliant. The dialogue is so sparkling, smart and witty. You also have these insane, crazy characters, like energy sucking vampires and holistic assassins. It’s all completely weird. On the one hand, I got the world that was on the page, but on the other hand, I didn’t recognize it because I’d seen nothing like it before.
How did you come to this show? Did you go through an audition process for the role?
BARNETT: It was pretty regular. Considering how strange, weird and wonderful this show is, the audition process was fairly straightforward. I just had one of those dreamy experiences that you don’t think it going to ever happen to you. I’m a Brit and I just put myself on tape, back in London, for a very distant American project that I thought I didn’t stand a chance of getting. And then, I got a call about a week after I had submitted my tape, just saying, “They really like you and want to screen test you.” So, I flew to L.A. and did the screen test. And then, I met Elijah [Wood] and did a screen test with him. And then, I had a very nerve-wracking few days back home, waiting and waiting and thinking, “This cannot possibly go my way because that would just be too good to be true.” And then, it did.
This must have been one of those characters that you would have been crushed, if you didn’t get to play him.
BARNETT: When I first read the script – and I say script, but I only had 11 pages because they were keeping the script to themselves – I just knew that I understood how to speak Max Landis’ dialogue. Max writes in quite a heightened way, specifically for Dirk. There’s a rhythm and a specific speed to it, and it was very easy to learn because it was so well-written. It just rolled off the tongue. There aren’t many auditions that I go for, where I feel like I could actually do the part. But with this one, even though I was not quite sure how to pin Dirk down, I thought I could do it.
Once you signed on for this, did they make you more aware of the arc this season, or did you have to put your trust in where things were headed?
BARNETT: I have to say that I had complete trust. As soon as I got the part, Max basically told me the entire first season. At that point, I think I’d seen scripts for Episodes 1 and 2. The rest had either mostly been written or at least fully outlined, so he told me the entire season and I could not retain everything that he said. The whole nature of the show is that everything is connected, and everything is interconnected. You have all of these strands with all of these characters, and you watch the characters interact and you wonder, “What do they have to do with each other? How does any of this link?” One of the joys of this show is that each of those characters could be starring in their own show. It’s only as the show goes on that you realize how they interconnect. They’re all moving towards one another inexorably, to meet at a certain point.
Max Landis has said that he went “full weird” with this show, which is clearly a great description, but it also makes it pretty impossible to describe to people. When people ask you what this show is about, what do you tell them?
BARNETT: You’re right, I have had to think about this a lot because a one-line description for this show is difficult to come up with. It’s about a holistic detective, which means he has this power to see connections between things that other people cannot see, and he’s trying to solve the mystery of a billionaire who gets murdered. He needs a sidekick, as all good detectives do, and he gets this message from the universe that this guy, Todd Brotzman, played by Elijah Wood, is the guy to help him through this mystery. But of course, that doesn’t really explain the breadth of it.
How do you think other people would describe Dirk, compared to how he seems himself?
BARNETT: That’s such a good question. Because I’m playing him, I’m so fond of Dirk. I really see Dirk’s vulnerability, and you get that, more and more. You’ll start to see a little bit more of Dirk’s backstory, why he behaves the way he does, and why he’s doing what he’s doing. I see a lot of his vulnerability, his sensitivity and his insecurity. All of the execs on this show lovingly keep describing him as obnoxious and annoying, but I think Dirk’s a wonderful, wide-eyed, innocent character. I can see, from all of the other characters’ points of view, that Dirk is quite crazy making, but he’s just a mass of feeling, intuition and gut reaction. Inevitably, we’re going to get compared to things like Sherlock, and I would say that, if Sherlock has his mind palace, than Dirk has his emotional neuroses cottage. He’s completely at the other end of the spectrum from Sherlock.
Dirk is not exactly a good detective. He doesn’t really do much detecting and he isn’t very good at actually finding clues. Things just happen. Do you think Dirk thinks he’s a good detective?
BARNETT: Yes, I think Dirk thinks that he’s a brilliant detective, but he’s the worst detective, ever. He does have this particular skill, which I suppose you might call a really bad superpower because it’s just not very helpful. He is able to sense the connections between things and he’s nearly always right, but the problem is that he never knows what to do with any of those messages that he receives from the universe, so he just acts on things and gets himself into terrible trouble, all the time. If it weren’t for him meeting Todd, he’s probably be dead within the first episode. Todd saves him so often while Dirk is like, “I have a feeling about this. Let’s act on it!” It’s constant almost suicide. He is a terrible detective because he doesn’t know what to do with any of the clues that he’s got. Dirk needs people around him. He might be one of the driving forces, but he has no people skills and no detecting skills. He needs people around him to do all of that.
What does Dirk thinks of Todd, and what do you think Todd thinks of Dirk?
BARNETT: The thing about Dirk is that he’s very lonely. The great irony to Dirk is that he sees connections in everything, but the one thing he fails and struggles with most is connecting with other people. He just doesn’t understand social cues. But the universe has told him that Todd is the guy, so he’s just going for Todd. He thinks Todd is his best friend. He really likes Todd and thinks Todd is brilliant, but he’s also quite savvy about Todd. He can see that Todd isn’t a very together person. He can see that Todd’s life isn’t actually going very well. I think that Dirk drives Todd absolutely insane. I think if Todd could walk away from Dirk and have nothing to do with him, he would, but the universe keeps leading him back to Dirk. In the end, Todd has no choice but to trust and accept that there is something to Dirk’s methods that’s not complete insanity. But, I think he just drives him completely crazy. It must be like dealing with a six-year-old child in a grown man’s body. The great thing about the show is that there is so much more to be revealed. There are questions about what each of these characters actually know, and nothing is what it seems.
How have you found the experience of working with Elijah Wood? Your character dynamic is very odd, but what is your dynamic like, as actors?
BARNETT: I couldn’t have asked for a better acting partner and a better human being to work with. We have to work very closely together, and I felt, in our screen test, that we had really good chemistry, but I wasn’t sure if I was just making that up. Max has written a really finely wrought bromance. I have complete trust in Elijah. To me, he is one of the best actors of my generation. He’s so incredibly present and in the moment, when you’re working with him, and then we just chat away about anything off camera because he’s a lovely guy. He’s interested in people, in life and in music. He’s got such a broad outlook. It’s so much bigger than just the acting industry. He’s a really fully-rounded, amazing human being, and I feel incredibly lucky, especially given how closely we have to work together.
We did every scene together, every day for four months, and it could have been a disaster, if we didn’t get on, but we clicked straight away. He’s just the nicest guy. I’d seen Elijah, when I was a little boy, in The Good Son. And then, I was a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings. It took awhile to get over that whole, “That’s Elijah Wood – Frodo, from The Lord of the Rings.” I was a mega fan of that. I went to the all-day screenings of the director’s cut, where you could see the really long versions of all three movies, in one day. I’m a huge fan of his work and a huge fan of him, as a person. What’s great about getting to know him is that he’s just a really lovely, regular guy.
There’s a machete-wielding woman who claims to be a holistic assassin, and she wants to kill Dirk. What is her deal?
BARNETT: Max likes to say that, if Dirk is the search key of the universe than Bart is the delete key. They’re two sides of the same coin, really. Neither of them know it yet and neither of them know how, but they are linked. It’s what I love about Max’s writing. You get drip-fed bits of information with each episode, which I think keeps you hooked in, as a viewer.
This show has been described as an “escape room-esque mystery.” What exactly does that mean?
BARNETT: I think Hannah Marks, who plays Todd’s sister, came up with that. She described it as that at San Diego Comic-Con. We were in Vancouver and we’d all just met for filming, and we decided to go do an escape room together to see what we’d be like as detectives. We failed miserably. We realized that there is a key to unlocking each bit of the mystery, in this first season and with each episode. Especially when you get to Episode 4, you will see why it’s like an escape room. I can’t say any more than that. I think it’s also that, emotionally, each of these characters is stuck in their own escape room. They all are looking for a way out of the trouble that they’re in, the lives that they’re in, or the emotional mess that they’ve gotten into. All of them are looking for that key. By working together and working on this mystery, they find themselves and find their way out.
Because you’re not really sticking to what’s in the Douglas Adams books, and instead are just using them for inspiration, does that mean things are totally wide open for where things could go in future seasons?
BARNETT: Yes, totally! Although, there are so many little Easter eggs littered across the whole first season, for people who are fans of the books. It’s not so odd that we’ve ended up with Dirk in America because that’s where the final third unfinished book went, that Douglas Adams started to write. He ended it with Dirk traveling to America to solve a mystery, so we’ve picked up from there. Max has use a lot of devices that were used in the book, but he’s changed them slightly, given them to different characters, and put them in different scenarios. People who are mega fans will spot all of that stuff, but it does leave it wide open. In fact, Max was telling me some of where Season 2 goes and I was like, “That’s the craziest, most brilliant, most unexpected thing I’ve ever heard.” The great thing about Max’s writing is that you won’t, by the end of the season, be left going, “I don’t get it. I’m completely lost.” Max really does take care of what the audience is supposed to understand and where they’re supposed to be, in terms of following the story, at any given moment. He especially does that through Todd. Our way into the world is through Todd’s eyes ‘cause Todd is this regular guy who’s thrown into extraordinary, bizarre circumstances. So, as an audience, I think you will feel taken care of, as you go through the season.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency airs on Saturday nights on BBC America.