Created by Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Thick of It), the HBO comedy series Avenue 5 is set 40 years in the future, at a time when space tourism is no longer the stuff of sci-fi fantasy, and for spaceship owner Herman Judd (Josh Gad), it’s a multi-billion dollar business. But when the ship experiences an epic malfunction that affects the crew and passengers, it’s up to Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) to keep up appearances and calm everyone onboard the ship, even though he’s got secrets of his own.
During this phone interview with Collider, co-stars Lenora Crichlow (who plays the ship’s confident engineer, Billie McEvoy) and Ethan Phillips (who plays former astronaut Spike Williams, a man among the first 30 astronauts to visit Mars) talked about wanting to work with Armando Iannucci, what most appealed to them about this show and their characters, the challenge in having completely absurd conversations about serious topics, crazy moments during the season, the incredible sets, and the experience of shooting with multiple cameras at once.
LENORA CRICHLOW: Yeah, hands down. I don’t know how much I would have entertained it, if it wasn’t him. It’s one of those things that you can’t necessarily envision, before you say yes or no, so having him at the head of the ship, as it were, sold it to me.
ETHAN PHILLIPS: There was great hospitality from Armando.
When you realized what this show would be, what were the aspects of this project and your character, specifically, that most appealed to you about it?
PHILLIPS: Of the 32 projects that I was offered, the same week, I chose this one. Having watched Veep and been on Veep, having watched The Death of Stalin, and having watched what this guy does, how funny he is, and how dark he goes, the thought of being in that world and being able to make a contribution to it, was just such an appealing idea. I was so grateful to be asked to be part of it. He is the most welcoming man, as the whole writing staff is. There’s just an extraordinary sense that you’re valued. There was a great deal of improvisation that went on, and everything that you threw, it didn’t matter if it was good or bad, you never felt like you were anything but important to the whole process.
CRICHLOW: For me, the team behind it was incredible. Even before I knew the cast, it was one of those projects that just kept getting more and more interesting and appealing, the more that I found out about it. And then, the cast list came out, it was shot in London, and we saw the set. It was just the gift that kept on giving. What attracted me to the character of Billie is that she’s bad-ass. She’s got a lot of things that are not like me, but there was enough of a crossover, that I felt I could bring something to her. And then, to work alongside someone like Hugh [Laurie] is a dream. It’s an intimidating one, but a dream. The actual experience far outweighed my expectations.
The comedy of this show is crazy, especially when you’re talking about a literal shitstorm in space. Does it ever become difficult to have conversations in such a serious manner without cracking up, or are you good at holding it together?
PHILLIPS: We rehearse it all, so all of the laughs come out, then and there, for the most part. But then, when you’re on the set, you have such nuts, like Zach Woods, Josh [Gad] and Hugh [Laurie], that you just never know what’s gonna come out of their mouth, so again, you start laughing. But you never felt rushed. It was all welcome. You just try to approach it, given the reality of everything, and try not to think of it as comedy because there are great things at stake, in all those discussions, like life-and-death and how long we’re gonna be [on this ship]. Because it’s circulated through Armando’s head, it’s pretty funny.
CRICHLOW: We made each other laugh on set, but I think that also translates to the atmosphere that you see, on screen. We were very tight bunch, as a cast, and that bond just grew, having that levity in the air. It’s a comedy, so it’s a good sign, if you’re laughing on the set of a comedy. It’s very absurd. There was a shitstorm in space, and we had very, very serious conversations about that.
The setting of this show really does allow for things that you wouldn’t get to do or talk about on another show, whether it’s zero-gravity gags. or weird phone conversation lag times. Is there a particularly crazy moment or wild conversation you got to have this season, that really stood out for you?
PHILLIPS: It was all pretty weird. I remember saying, “This is a real thing, that shit keeps away radiation?” You’re sitting there discussing this seriously and, if you really stop to think about what you’re doing, you might have a breakdown.
CRICHLOW: I think the shit was an absurd thing to talk about, but I also really enjoyed, both on camera and off camera, trying to work out how conversations would work with the 20-second delay because we never knew where we were in the conversation. Having very serious conversations with very fat, heavy pieces of information, whilst trying to leave space for the delay, or that awkward pause where people don’t know if they should chime in or not, was fun and quite comical.
Lenora, with a character like Billie, who’s the one in between both of these worlds, of the real crew and the fake crew, what’s it like to be the one in the middle of all that and to really know what’s going on?
CRICHLOW: It’s amazing. I really loved that. I love having a character that has such importance, and yet such little ability to assert herself and really command authority. It gave me a lot to play with. It really made the character so important to Hugh’s character, and because of her shortcomings, she relies on Hugh’s character. There are a lot of conflicts within Billie that allows her to really make her have to connect with people, and connections that are born out of necessity or a lot of fun to play.
With both of your characters, do they fully understand the seriousness of what’s going on, or does it become more and more serious, as it really becomes more real that they’re not getting off this ship, anytime soon?
CRICHLOW: Spike and Billie are two of the members of the ship who actually do really understand the gravity of the situation. For some of the other characters, there is that glimmer of hope because they don’t really understand the science of it and hope it works itself out. But Spike and Billie are very clear about what’s at stake and what the implications of coming off course just that little bit are.
PHILLIPS: I don’t think it’s gonna become more serious, though. It’s gonna stay just as silly as it is, if not more.
CRICHLOW: It’s a real roller coaster. It’s quite funny, but it’s quite serious. There is always the silly tone, but there are little problems, like not being able to sleep, and then there are huge problems, like people deciding that they’re gonna call it a day.
These sets are so incredible to look at, just watching the show, but there must be so much detail there that we don’t get to see. What would you say about the sets, that we can’t tell, just from watching them on TV?
PHILLIPS: Everything has the word Judd on it. I remember sitting in the restaurant and realizing that the straw had Judd on it, and the napkins had Judd on it. You’re never gonna see that. Even the stuff you don’t see has his damn name on it. The detail is pretty phenomenal. It was the size of an airplane hangar, and the first time that we walked onto it, we couldn’t believe our eyes, how massive it was. It would take you six or seven minutes, to walk from one end to the other. It had all of these nooks and crannies, and everything. And then, there were other soundstages with different sets, too. It was a very big enterprise.
This show is shot with four cameras at once. What’s it like to work in that kind of like multi-camera environment, where so many things are going on, at the same time?
CRICHLOW: It’s great. It’s very efficient, to be honest. You get so much more coverage because there are less takes with less set up time. The way that Armando shoots is almost documentary style. It gives you a lot of freedom. They’re very clever, in the way that they set up the cameras. You, as an actor, have a lot of freedom, and there’s less pressure to hit certain marks ‘cause you’re covered from certain angles. When you’ve got multiple cameras, you can do different things.
PHILLIPS: You can turn, or do this or that, and you know that you’re covered. It’s great.
Avenue 5 airs on Sunday nights on HBO.