Zach Woods On Ruining David Bowie And Playing A Friendly Nihilist On ‘Avenue 5’

What if The Love Boat, but everything goes to hell and also it’s in space? That’s my crude elevator pitch describing HBO’s Avenue 5 (which debuts Sunday), but because it’s all filtered through Veep creator Armando Iannucci’s specific sensibilities, it’s also a reflection on our instinctive lurch toward anger, entitlement, and chaos when things don’t go according to plan. And it’s also presented with biting wit and a linguistic flourish. Another Iannucci staple? The complete absence of adults in the room when that chaos busts loose on-screen.

That’s according to Zach Woods, the former Silicon Valley stand-out who nimbly steals scenes in this show as a nihilistic customer experience manager opposite Hugh Laurie’s ship captain, Lenora Crichlow’s chief engineer, Josh Gad’s space magnate, and a host of other characters on this seemingly doinked space voyage.

We spoke with Woods about that recurring Iannucci theme, the similarities and dissimilarities between his Avenue 5 character and Jared on Silicon Valley, impotent rage at Disney World, defiling the memory of David Bowie through song, and whether there’s beef between him, Veep actor Tim Simons, and Succession‘s Nicholas Braun. We had ourselves a wide-ranging conversation, in other words.

I want to commend you. Because, when I talked with you last time for Silicon Valley, it was before the finale and I kind of nailed what that was going to happen. I was like, “It would be great if they did like a Six Feet Under kind of thing.” And you’re like…

I know. I know.

You didn’t give it up. And when I saw that episode, I was like, “This man is this generation’s greatest actor.”

[Laughs] I didn’t want to spoil it! I don’t know, because if you watch the show… But it was sort of uncanny when you said that. I was like, “What? How did he know that?”

Psychic tendencies.

That’s what it is. The universe whispered through you.

[Laughs] Absolutely. You guys really finished strong. There’s a thing that I’m trying to work out, though. The way the show ended, is it possible that it’s a prequel to Idiocracy?

That’s funny.

Did I get it again? I got it again, didn’t I?

That’s it. You nailed it. I suppose that’s interesting. Yeah, maybe it is. Maybe they finally used that compression, and the world falls apart and it leads to the Terry Crews administration.

I think so. I really like what you all are doing with Avenue 5. What most stood out for you when you found out about this: the chance to work with Armando Iannucci again? Is it the story? What’s the biggest draw?

My first job ever was from Armando Iannucci. He gave me a part in the movie, In The Loop, and it was one of the most ecstatically happy experiences of my life. I just remember, we were staying in this old Victorian hotel in London, and we were allowed to fly a visitor out, so I flew my father out. You know, I was very young, and it was just so insane to be in this gorgeous city in this gorgeous old building, shooting with James Gandolfini, and improvising like crazy. And it was just one of those times where I thought to myself, “Well, enjoy this because this is a once in a lifetime thing.” And then 10 years later, I was proven wrong, because once again, I was back in London with the same crew of people, feeling the same sort of elated feeling. I mean, a lot of it’s working with Armando. I worked with him on In The Loop. I worked with him on Veep. I’m just a massive, massive fan of his work.

And also, it’s not just Armando. There’s a team of writers. Tony Roche, Simon Blackwell, Peter Fellows, Georgia Pritchett, Will Smith — all these people who work with him. When you work Armando, you’re working with this whole sort of British comedy mafia, who’s responsible for so many of the shows that people seem to love. Jesse Armstrong used to work with Armando. He wrote the movie Downhill that I just did and he created Succession.

And the other thing was, I just really loved the premise of the show. I feel like if there’s a sort of a unifying point of view for Armando’s stuff, at least from my perspective as an audience member, it’s that there really are no adults. Behind every title, behind every uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re in 19th century London for David Copperfield, or Stalinist Russia, or the White House, or space 40 years in the future — people are just as shabby and imperfect and striving as they are anywhere else. You know? And I think that’s a sort of a comedic world view that I can subscribe to.

How much influence do you think you had on the voice of the character?

Well, one of the things that’s so wonderful about those guys is they’re incredibly collaborative in the process, and also incredibly decisive about what they like. So Armando has a really atypical way of working, where you rehearse for a long time. First you rehearse, then they go back and write episodes, then you rehearse again. There’s a lot of rehearsal. And during the rehearsal, there’s a lot of experimentation, and it’s really a sort of a non or a semi-hierarchical process, where people are pitching ideas for other people’s characters. Writers are chiming in. Actors are chiming in. The way he describes it is like cooking a chicken stock, where you put in all these ingredients, then you boil it down, and then you put in all these other ingredients, and then you boil it down. So it’s this kind of like an expansion-contraction thing. So during that process, I was able to sort of introduce things that were interesting to me. It was a nice sort of mutual creation.

Was your rendition of “Star Man” pre-written?

That is not from me. I would never volunteer to sing. I don’t even sing karaoke in a private room.

Has that changed now?

Oh, nightmare. Nightmare. The only way I could ever do that is in character. Oh my god, how excruciating. Also, David Bowie, who has made some of the most beautiful music… to defile his creations after his recent death, it’s just really walking right up to the lip of sacrilege.

So close to the anniversary, too. I like how you all timed that. Really weird tribute.

[Laughs] David Bowie will listen from heaven and be like, “Wait a second!” He’ll hear that playing from somebody’s TV, all the way from heaven, and he’ll be like, “Maybe I’m in hell, actually.”

[Laughs] He gave his art to the world, and that’s what you did with it.

Exactly. But after playing Jared [on Silicon Valley], who was so sort of fastidious, and vigilant, and by the book… to play a character who is philosophically on the other end of the spectrum was so fun. I loved playing Jared. At the end of a day playing Jared, your heartfelt kind of big, but your shoulders were tight because you’ve just been trying to manage things and keep it together. And at the end of the day of playing Matt, I just felt loose as a dang goose because you’re playing a character who has such an appetite for chaos, where the universe is just this giant all you can eat buffet. And he doesn’t really care what the individual dishes are, he just wants to gobble down whatever’s on tap. He’s just fun. But I do think there’s a unifying thing between Jared and Matt. I think Matt is like a friendly nihilist, someone who feels that since we’re all just cartwheeling through a void together with no discernible meaning or guide, the most important thing is just not to be a dick, and to be nice to people. And I think he tries to be nice to people, but I just think his whole worldview is so askew that what is comforting from his perspective is horrifying to the perspective of the people he’s trying to comfort. So I think he’s really, really bad at his job. But I guess I do think that’s the one similarity — they both basically want people to feel good.

I mean, I feel like the friendly nihilist thing is also maybe a side effect of having worked in the service industry. Do you have any experience in service industry, yourself?

Not too much. I worked in retail.

That’s my experience too, so I know that bends you in a certain way.

Yeah. We were improvising in one of the rehearsals and I said something like, “I think you’re having an existential crisis masquerading as a customer service issue” to one of the customers. And I think that that happens a lot, where people are sort of transposing their larger dread on to sort of petty customer service things.

Oh, totally.

You’ll hear it all the time, you know? Like if you go to Disney World, there will be at least one person who is like, “What do you mean the Hall of the President is closed?” And they’re freaking out, or whatever. And it’s never about the Hall of the Presidents, right? It’s about the vague gnawing emptiness at the center of their chest. It’s like, “I can’t get God on the telephone line, so I guess this customer service person will have to do.”

Exactly. Are you a sci-fi guy?

No, I’m not a huge sci-fi guy. I mean, I’ve seen sci-fi that I’ve liked. But I would never claim to be a real space head.

That’s not what they’re called.

Everyone knows that sci-fi fans call themselves space heads. [Laughs]. You know what it is, sometimes I feel a degree of alienation because sci-fi can sometimes feel like it’s sort of putting you in an unfamiliar future. That’s why I like Star Wars because it’s so analog and everything, and it appears sort of crusty and realistic in a weird way. It feels sort of terrestrial, even though it’s obviously in a galaxy far, far away.

The production designer [for Avenue 5] is this guy, Simon Bowles. And I thought one thing that was really smart is rather than making it this sort of bizarro future, it actually just looks kind of like… someone described the spaceship as looking like the first class lounge at United Arab Emirates airport. It’s just sort of slightly tacky (or actually very tacky), like glossy kind of ostentatious wealth. We’re not floating in a plasma orb or something. And the wardrobe is all sort of mid-century. Armando made the point that often these things cycle back around. It’s like, if you look back 40 years, sure, no one had smartphones, but the texture of daily life was largely the same. We still wore sweaters and drove in cars. You know what I mean? It’s like it hasn’t changed that much.

It’s easier for the audience to fit comfortably into this story when it’s not something that seems so foreign and so far out.

Totally! I think having human behavior that is so petty and small in such a grand theater… The sort of very unglamorous behavior of the passengers and crew under these circumstances that’s framed by this incredibly glitzy background — it’s kind of funny, and I think it makes it stand.

You know, there’s this RuPaul quote that I keep talking to people about, which is that “everybody is born naked, the rest is just drag.” I think the show basically agrees with RuPaul. All the fancy paneling in the world can’t protect you from the basic unpredictability and chaos of our lives.

It feels like if this goes in a certain direction, there could be a complete and total breakdown of the little micro-society that they have there. Was that part of the appeal of this as well and how realistic do you think that is?

Yeah, I love that. I mean, when they were telling me their ideas for the episodes, one thing that I found so exciting was the speed with which the show moves. In other words, stuff happens in episode three that in other shows would take like three seasons to get to. The rate at which things fall apart and reform and fall apart is so rapid. And so I found myself thinking, “I really don’t know where this is going.” I heard an interview with Phoebe Waller-Bridge recently where she said, “All we ever really want from entertainment is to be surprised in a credible way.” You know? Where it’s like an earned surprise is the greatest thing as a viewer. And I felt like that when I was getting the scripts. I was like, “Oh my god, this is bananas.”

In terms of its resemblance to reality, yeah, I mean, I don’t know, I think… Someone told me this quote once, which is that “any society is three meals away from a revolution.” Like, if people can’t get breakfast, lunch, and dinner, then they’re ready to topple the government. I’ve never lived through that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that were true.

I mean, Fyre Fest.

Fyre Fest, yeah. That’s a really good example.

So, I’m doing research and I noticed the top questions Google has about you. Number one is if you’re related to James Woods. So, are you related to James Woods?

James Woods, Tiger Woods, and me are all first cousins.

So that answers that. What about height? You’re a tall guy. So obviously people want to know your height.

I’m 6’4″ but when I was taking an acting class the woman who was teaching the class was like, “You don’t own your height.” She was like, “You need to own your height.” So I think, according to her, I was sort of dispositionally 5’8″, and physically 6’4″.

Is there an HBO tall boy rivalry with you, Tim Simons, and Nicholas Braun from Succession?

I’m not entirely sure we’re not all the same person. You’ll never see us in the same room. It might just be a costume, two different costumes that the HBO people put on.

Probable. Again, from my experience with the whole Silicon Valley finale thing, you are our generation’s greatest actor, so it would not surprise me at all if you had the range.

[Laughs] Yeah.

‘Avenue 5’ premieres on HBO Sunday January 19 at 10pm ET