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 Gad and Suzy Nakamura — who plays Herman Judd’s right-hand-woman, Iris Kimura — talked about why they love Iannucci’s approach to comedy, finding their characters, the incredible scale and scope of these sets how they keep it together during some of the crazier moments, and much more.
COLLIDER: : When Avenue 5 came your way, what was your reaction? Does it help knowing who the creator of a show like this is, so that you know what to expect from the humor of it?
JOSH GAD: I could literally have gotten, “We’re doing an adaptation of the Yellow Pages, and Armando Iannucci is writing it,” and I would have been in, by the end of the word Armando. I count myself as very blessed to have worked with three of the greatest living satirists alive, in Jon Stewart, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but Armando is really working at a level, especially in the geopolitical landscape, that is in a class all by itself, right now. To be able to be a part of his next vision for television, I just couldn’t pass up that opportunity.
SUZY NAKAMURA: I think anyone in comedy would just follow him anywhere. He has such a unique perspective, and it’s a privilege to be a voice for that perspective. I think everyone would just jump at the chance.
You get told the show is set on a spaceship and everybody plays these characters that are pretty wild. How did you approach finding who they would be, how big to go, and how much to hold back? Was there a balance to figuring out who these people were?
GAD: For sure. It was a process that involved a lot of conversations. For Judd, I went straight to trying to find similar archetypes. Luckily for me, it seems like there’s too many to pick from, but the two that I gravitated towards were Elizabeth Holmes, who created Theranos, and Billy McFarland, the mind behind Fyre Festival. Some of these entrepreneurs lend themselves to great salesmanship, but don’t necessarily have a product that they’re selling, and I really found the desire to show what that might look like, 40 years from now, if we keep going down that path. With Elizabeth Holmes, in the podcast about her, called Dropout, there was this great little thing where they talked about the fact that she got the person who designed Steve Jobs’ turtlenecks to design a turtleneck for her. So, for example, I thought it would be really fun, if similarly Judd decided to literally take a copy of Richard Branson’s hair and try to put out to the world that he essentially is cut from the same cloth, by virtue of the fact that he has similar hair follicles to this man that he looks up to.
Suzy, with Iris, how do you approach finding somebody who is along for the ride with this guy that a lot of other people wouldn’t listen to or take seriously?
NAKAMURA: I approached it by knowing what I didn’t want to do. I definitely didn’t want to be his assistant, and I didn’t want it to be his yes man. But I loved the idea of the conflict that she would have, to do her job, and also manage this Judd personality and make the company look its best. She’s motivated by success, but on a personal level, she also believes in him, and that’s why she’s there. I didn’t want Iris to be this one-note character, which she could easily be because she’s so type-A and capable. I approached the relationship regarding him as almost like a little brother.
Does she have a limit with him? Is there a point where she gets fed up with him?
NAKAMURA: Yes. She works best, in her comfort zone, when she’s in control. There are a couple of points where she either loses control, or feels like she loses control, and that’s when you get glimpses of who the person is, as opposed to who the professional is.
Josh, there’s been reference to this guy being the never-needs-to-know guy. Is there an ignorance is bliss with him, as long as he can just be happy and think that everything is great?
GAD: I think so. I ask myself that, every day, with regards to Donald Trump. I think he’s cut from similar cloth, where ignorance is bliss. He makes a decision and doesn’t question how it will affect millions of others, and then lets other people put the fires out. I think that there’s something really fun in playing that, especially as the series progresses and you start to see Armando’s long game. The show is many things, but primarily, to me, at least, it starts to reveal itself, throughout the course of the season, as a reflection of society in a bubble, and what happens when you take away all of the norms that constitute our understanding of relationships, our understanding of hierarchy, our understanding of class systems and social structure. So, when all of that starts to come undone, what is the value of a CEO on a ship with passengers, where currency no longer matters? What is the value of anything? It becomes an existential crisis, not to mention an actual physical crisis, as well. That is where the fun is. If our show is after the Titanic, where do you go from there?
What is the coolest thing about these sets? Are there aspects of the sets that we likely wouldn’t know, just from watching the show at home?
GAD: The scale and scope of the set is unprecedented.
NAKAMURA: I’ve never seen anything like that. And it’s real. It’s practical. They might’ve digitized a couple extra floors, but the first two floors were real. The span of that observation area, that was all real. The elevator, restaurant, and all of that was on the stage.
GAD: I don’t think the camera does the scale any justice because it is one giant big set, and it can’t be contained in a single frame.
NAKAMURA: You would have to take a steadicam, and it would take minutes to walk from one end to the other. Even just the conference room, when we first walked into that room, I felt dwarfed, but I also understood who the characters were, just by witnessing that room.
The setting of this show allows for things, like zero-gravity gags, two-minute lag time for phone calls, and other funny moments that you wouldn’t have on a show that wasn’t set in space. What’s the craziest or most fun thing that you got to do, over the course of the season?
GAD: Well, without giving anything away, there is a clinically insane sequence of events that happens, later on in the series, involving an airlock and many passengers, that I think is one of the most laugh-out-loud, bleak sequences that I’ve ever been a part of. There are just so many moments in store that are gonna surprise and, dare I say, shock the audience, in a great way. Getting to do sequences that, in that case, took three days to shoot, and that are really hard and difficult to pull off, but when you see the pay-off, it makes it all beyond worth it.
NAKAMURA: I’m looking forward to the VR game. There’s a VR game on the ship, and the characters all play a game, where they get to pick their own avatar. We haven’t really seen the finished product yet, and I’m looking forward to that.
This is a show where funny things happen and you have conversations about literal shitstorms. How difficult is it to get through some of those moments without cracking up? Are you guys pretty good at not cracking up, or do you crack other people up?
NAKAMURA: I thought we were pretty good.
GAD: Suzy kicks ass. She never breaks. There was a day where we were all punch drunk, when Suzy had to scream at Andy [Buckley]. We were all in the foyer, and it was a very long day and an ensemble scene, and we just kept making each other laugh. Suzy was the one to whip us all back into shape.
NAKAMURA: I learned to reset other actors from someone in theater, and I want people to do it for me. Once you start to go, you can’t recover. An actor helped me reset once, and I never forgot it.
GAD: It was so funny. I was laughing so hard at Andy laughing.
It certainly sounds like a show that’s a lot of fun to make.
NAKAMURA: Oh, for sure.
GAD: It really is. It’s also one of the greatest ensembles that I’ve ever had the opportunity to work alongside. Everybody has their own unique approach, starting with Hugh Laurie, who’s such a brilliant leader on the show, but also on set. Obviously, getting to do all of my banter with Suzy, the two of us have this very strange dynamic. It’s such a joy to come to set, every day, on a project like this one, where everybody wants to bring their A-game because they all want to please not only Armando, but we all want to show each other our best work.
NAKAMURA: Everyone is so professional, prepared and collaborative. We have fun, but it’s not Laurie and the fuck-around gang.
Have you guys had conversations about where things could continue to go? With these folks trapped in space, do you know what could be next for your characters, if you get to do more seasons?
GAD: We’ve had preliminary conversations about it, but you have to understand that we didn’t even know where Season 1 was headed.
NAKAMURA: Yeah, Armando didn’t tell us. We love making this show together, so I’d be happy to be stuck in space with these guys, for 10 years.
GAD: There are a lot of unexpected twists and turns that this show takes in Season 1 that will present themselves shortly to everybody. When you see that, you’ll come to understand that there’s no level of expectation for what the future has in store because anything can happen on this show.
Avenue 5 airs on Sunday nights on HBO.