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, actor Zach Woods (who plays Matt Spencer, the head of customer relations on the stranded spaceship that’s indefinitely orbiting space) talked about having faith in showrunner Armando Iannucci, going from the ensemble of Silicon Valley to the ensemble of Avenue 5, why he loves being a part of ensemble comedies, what it means to be the head of customer relations on a spaceship, what he thinks of his character, the incredible sets, and how the events of Season 1 will likely affect his character, if the show continues for a second season.
Collider: This show is a ton of fun, but it also seems like it would be difficult to explain the tone. Does it help to know that Armando Iannucci is the one responsible?
ZACH WOODS: You just have to have faith in those guys. If you’ve watched the things that they’ve made in the past, you know that you’re in good hands. The way Armando works is that he’s incredibly collaborative, but also incredibly specific about what he likes and doesn’t like. So, your job, more than having a clear picture of what it’s gonna be, is to be generative and create stuff, and then trust that he’s going to cherry pick the stuff that feels right to him.
When you come off of a show like Silicon Valley, where you’ve spent six seasons with that ensemble of actors, does it feel a little scary to try to find a dynamic with another ensemble and finding the groove of this comedy, in comparison to that comedy?
WOODS: Totally. It’s very weird. I gave myself a little pep talk, before I went to England because the odds of ever being on a show where you feel the level of comfort that I felt with the guys on Silicon Valley is so unlikely, and the odds of it happening more than once are even more unlikely. And so, I was just talking to myself and being like, “You don’t need it to be the same.” Especially because it’s a larger ensemble, just mathematically, there’s a higher probability that there’s gonna be dickheads in the cast, but the truth is that everyone was so sweet. That’s another thing about Armando. He’s just completely unwilling to hire people who are insufferable. It’s a very sweet, soft-spoken group of people. It was really nice. That transition from the culture of one show to the culture of another show is anxiety-producing, but this one turned out to be pretty smooth.
Was there ever any hesitation about doing another TV comedy with another ensemble cast? Did you ever say like, “No, don’t send me any of those scripts,” or were you still open to whatever might have come your way, even if it sounded like it could be something similar to your last show?
WOODS: I had said publicly and repeatedly that the only thing I was gonna do was a Broadway adaptation, in which I got to play one of the female protagonists. I think the narrow-mindedness of Hollywood really prevented me from actualizing that dream. So, shame on you all for not letting me do that. And so, I thought, “Well, if I can’t play one of them, I have to go back to the old factory of ensemble comedy.” No. It’s the dream. I love ensemble shows. You learn so much from the other people, and it’s so exciting. The thing about production that I love the most is that it’s this little village of experts where every department is hopefully very good at what they do, and the communal experience is really so fun. I just like being around a big cast and a big crew. Also, at the risk of sounding like a Malcolm Gladwell wannabe, or something, but our lives are so analyzed and isolated now, and sets are one of the few situations available to somebody like me. They feel almost like a small town that people might’ve lived in, before everyone was glued to their iPad.
What exactly does it mean to be the head of customer relations on a spaceship, and how good is this guy at being the go between for the crew and the passengers?
WOODS: He is phenomenally bad at it. The way I think of Matt is that he’s a friendly nihilist, where he just figures, since we’re all floating through an infinite void together with no direction or guide, it’s important not to be an asshole. I think his intentions are good. I think he really wants people to feel good, but his philosophical bent is so askew and what he believes is so off-kilter that when he offers what he feels would be reassuring, it’s actually extremely disturbing to people. For most of the passengers, when the ship get knocked off course, it’s a catastrophe. For him, it’s like, “Wow, what a thrill!” There’s this RuPaul quote that I really love, where he said, “Everyone is born naked. The rest is just drag.” I think Matt has always known that. He knows that the trappings of civilization are paper thin and prone to crumbling and not to be believed. So then, when they start to crumble, it’s freeing for him. He likes the wild ride of the whole thing and the dissolution of artifice, and it freaks people out, how much he likes it. And the head of customer relations on a spaceship is basically like the concierge in a hotel.
This show is fun because there are wild things that happen and crazy conversations, including talking about a literal shitstorm in space. Are there ever times when it’s difficult to talk about that stuff, in such a serious manner, without cracking up, or are you someone who’s good at not breaking, even if things are insane?
WOODS: Yeah, I’m generally pretty good at it because, the truth is, if one of your castmates is doing something that’s really funny, as was often the case on this, you don’t wanna blow it for them. If somebody is being brilliant, even if you’re at war with your own body not to laugh, you don’t wanna laugh because then they can’t use that take, if you’re on camera. It can sometimes make it feel even more urgent to laugh and even more challenging. It’s like that trying not to laugh in church feeling. I try not to laugh, but it’s ludicrous. As a 35-year-old man, to have my job involve daily discussion of an orbital of shit, it’s not the life that my immigrant great-grandparents would have imagined for me. I don’t think they left Russia thinking, “We’re carving out a life, in which our progeny will be able to discuss imaginary space shit.” What’s nice is that my father has always loved space. That’s something he’s always been so interested in. When I was a kid, he built this spaceship for me in the attic, where he set up this little switchboard and if I flipped switches, lights would go on and off, and he put glow in the dark stars on the ceiling. And then he hooked up headphones, so that I could wear them and he could talk to me through a microphone. It was so sweet. And then, he came out to visit me in London and I got to show him around this gigantic play spaceship. There’s a pleasing symmetry because he created this space-based playground for me, and I could show him the one I got the play on, as an adult. He really enjoyed it, so that was a treat.
The set looks incredible, just watching it, and there must be so much detail that we don’t even get to see. What do you think would surprise the audience about the set, that we wouldn’t know, just from watching it at home?
WOODS: Well, one thing they wouldn’t know is that it burned down. That spaceship burnt, which is so crazy to me. And for the firefighters, I can’t even imagine getting a call and being like, “Oh, my god, there’s a three alarm fire,” and then you’re trying to put out a fire on a spaceship, which just seems so crazy. The set was designed by the production designer named Simon Bowles, who’s a genius. What’s so brilliant about that set is that it’s so grand and opulent and glamorous and glitzy, and having such a majestic backdrop for such bad human behavior, makes both things stand out more. When people are being petty and reactive and mean, in front of like a giant ivory arch, there’s a fun tension between the two. And there was just so much Judd stuff. The idea that this ego-maniacal had just, like a dog pissing everywhere, marked every inch of that ship as his own, to the extent that, even in the funeral scene, they had armbands and even those had the Judd logo on them, was just so funny. Because of the way Armando shoots, the set is connected. A lot of times, you’ll shoot shows and everything is broken up. With that spaceship, there are a couple of parts that are off on their own, but the vast majority of it is just one gigantic ship in a soundstage. I really liked that ‘cause you can suspend your disbelief easier.
Were there things that you grew to appreciate about this character, playing him over the course of the season, that you didn’t necessarily know about him, when you started?
WOODS: Yeah. I’m someone who sometimes, in the face of uncertainty, becomes quite anxious, or tries to control things, or anticipate the future. The character of Matt, as frustrating as he may be to the passengers, is so ready to tango with the terrifying nothingness of our lives, I admire those people who can just belly flop into uncertainty. And so, getting to play a character like that, it was almost like, “I should try to imitate some of this, in my own life.” Even when I was a kid, I got the sense that there aren’t really adults. It’s just a bunch of folks, kicking around and trying their best. And as I’ve gotten older, that suspicion has been confirmed, again and again, in more and more different ways. And I feel like that’s something that Matt knows. He’s someone that never believed in adults and knows that everyone is just pretending, and since we’re all just kids underneath our titles or uniforms, then we may as well play and treat our lives like a jungle gym. It’s a weird thing, sometimes you can like learn from the characters that you’re playing.
Do you think he’s optimistic enough that he’s sure these people will eventually be able to return to earth in one piece, or is he just trying to focus on one day at a time and not think about the fact that they may just float in space, forever?
WOODS: For him, neither outcome is better. For him, as long as no one is mean to each other, he just doesn’t like it when people are mean. That’s the one thing he doesn’t like. When people are nasty to each other or violent with each other, he doesn’t like that. But dying in space, how novel. What an interesting thing. It’s like summer camp, but maybe you’re never coming home. I think that’s his feeling about the whole ordeal. He doesn’t need to be optimistic because any outcome is okay with him, as long as people are nice while they’re asphyxiating in the far reaches of the galaxy.
Have you had conversations about where things could go, if this series continues? Do you know what would come next for this guy?
WOODS: I have no idea. There’s a pretty big shift, at the end of the season. I don’t wanna spoil it, but Matt undergoes a traumatic experience that has a big impact on him, so I think that would definitely play out, in a second season. But one of the things that drew me to the show, in the first place, is that when I was looking through a preliminary script, they move so fast and so crazy in the story that stuff happens in the third episode that most shows would take four seasons to get to. A few episodes in, there’s a dead body orbiting a spaceship. So, I have no idea where they’re going ‘cause they’re just burning through the story, so fast. That’s one of the exciting things about being on the show.
Avenue 5 airs on Sunday nights on HBO.