Interview with SUBMARINE director IT CROWD star Richard Ayoade

Unlike his IT Crowd character Moss, Richard Ayoade is a quiet one. Paul Byrne tries switching him off and on again.

Given his highly distinctive look – thanks largely to a Nigerian father and a Norwegian mother – when you meet Richard Ayoade, you can’t help but think of Moss, the tech support ubergeek from Graham Linehan’s often sublime sitcom The IT Crowd.

The guy looks just like him. But that’s where the similarities end. Well, except maybe for the geek part.

“I am something of a geek, yeah,” nods the 33-year old, London-born Ayoade, “and proud of it. I wouldn’t have done half the things I’ve done with my life if I hadn’t been a geek. We’re very creative, you know.”

He ain’t lying. Having co-written, directed and starred in a series of Garth Marenghi outings (think Alan Partridge crossed with Stephen King), Ayoade found fame as Maurice Moss in The IT Crowd. Having also directed a series of shorts and pop videos (for the likes of The Artic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend), Ayoade now makes his feature film debut with the quirky first-love tale Submarine.

A film that appears to have been shot entirely using Polaroids, Submarine follows the Welsh teenage miserablist Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) as he falls for school femme fatale Jordana (Yasmin Paige), whilst also trying to save the stagnant marriage of his quietly-desperate parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor) from local New Age life coach and pony-tailed lothario, Graham (Paddy Considine).

Based on Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 novel, Ayoade’s lo-fi outing is part Rushmore, part Harold & Maude, part Gregory’s Girl, and part Vampire Weekend sleeve. Either way, it’s sweet if a tad overkooked.

PAUL BYRNE: It’s your seventh outing as a director, but your first feature. A joyous experience, or a nerve-wracking one?

RICHARD AYOADE: You have both. You’re very pleased that you’re getting the chance to make something, but you also have a trepidation as to whether you’re going to be able to do it well, and do it in a manner that isn’t too horrific. Yeah, high hopes like that – that it won’t be too horrific.

Now that the film is made, and it’s out there, has the joy kicked in?

I don’t know. It’s almost as if I’ve taken a policy decision about not enjoying myself, which I feel has become… If it started out as an affectation, has engrained itself so deeply in me now that… and it might just be a method of trying not to get too over-excited about things. Maybe it’s a thing from your parents, when they say, ‘Don’t get a big head’, and you really… Not that I was in the habit of moonwalking about the place, em, but it just seems really unpleasant, people being really happy with what they’ve done, and being very pleased with themselves. I guess I’m failing to strike a balance between that and feeling gracious, which is the other thing of looking incredibly ungrateful, and moany and whiney. But it’s simply isn’t something that really occurs to you, whether you’re pleased with it. You just hope that it’s right.

Are you just engaging in some pre-emptive striking, in case the reception isn’t positive?

I’m sure there’s an element of that, and the kind of person who says they haven’t revised for their exams at all, but also, I really like Ingmar Bergman and Kurosawa. It’s not difficult to be modest if you’ve ever seen a film by Kurosawa. I think you can more or less shut up.

Nonetheless, you’re going to need an ego to make a feature film…

Initially, it’s much more childish than that. When you start writing things, or trying to make people laugh, you’re not going, ‘Okay, let’s start the first building block of my legacy’. That just isn’t a thought. It comes, probably, from being a fan of things, and really liking how certain things affect you, and enjoying that. And through that, attempting to do these things yourself. It really becomes something that’s so all-consuming that your thought of how you will be regarded just isn’t that helpful. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It’s the most depressing, onerous and crushing thought ever. And thinking about how you are thought of can never really end well. I also partly think that people who spend time thinking about how people think of them are probably not thought of well. So, whatever tack you take, thinking about yourself a great deal rarely ends well.

You remind me of IT creator Graham Linehan somewhat, a shy person who seems to live through his work, as opposed to high-fiving people on the red carpet. The fact that you’re a famous face, has that changed the dynamics?

It’s a somewhat tautological, or somewhat ironic position, in that often – and I don’t speak for Graham here – but a lot of people start writing, or doing that kind of thing, perhaps because they are uncomfortable, or they are uncertain, in certain social situations. Look, it tends not to be people’s first recourse.

I don’t think the first thing Brad Pitt tried was writing. He went, ‘Maybe I’ll try this handsome thing for my entire life’. If you’re really handsome, or charismatic, or personable, you’ll probably see how that rides out. And for the people who are not so personable or handsome, or socially adroit, you turn to other things. And other things interest you, and you have an area that you’re somewhat in control of, and that you can go into. The ironic thing – and I’m sure there’s a large measure of unconscious desire in this – is that it might bring you more attention than the handsome person. And you find yourself thrust back to the nightmare of being in the party that you were trying to avoid initially. And it’s not as ungrateful as that sounds. It’s simply that some people are really cut out for being generally at ease, and other people aren’t. And generally I find the people I know that are very shy or somewhat reserved perhaps, they come across as very arrogant or sort of willful, or difficult, in interviews simply because it’s impossible to forget the fact that you’re being recorded. And that makes you incredibly uncomfortable, and it’s a very strange situation.

The next time you’re having a normal conversation with someone, start the Dictaphone, and observe the change in candour. For someone who’s naturally self-conscious, being in a watched position obviously will exacerbate that. Equally though, I can completely understand someone going, ‘well, why do it?’. For me, I’ve never found that a problematic notion to grasp. The fact that Woody Allen is clearly very uncomfortable with certain kinds of publicity, and yet is one of the most famous people in the world, an incredibly brilliant performer, incredibly charismatic, when he chooses to be, but also, he doesn’t want that. It doesn’t seem to me in any way confusing; that seems to me normal.

Spinal Tap and Simpsons regular Harry Shearer reckons that getting into comedy is a way of controlling when people laugh at you. True for you…?

There’s an element of that, but there’s also an element of just playing in your sandpit, and just… The main reason isn’t for your parents to come along and say, ‘Wow, look at that castle!’. A lot of it is just for the joy of building that castle. People do DIY, and it’s incredibly satisfying thing to make something. And it’s not simply a desire to have people come round and say, ‘These shelves, Bob, are perhaps the best shelves I’ve ever seen’. By the time you put the shelf up, you’re happy. That’s what I find. I’ve rarely been happier than when I’m making a bookcase. Sure, I’ll show people the bookcase, and I’ll mention that I made it, but the majority of the satisfaction comes when the final screw has been safely put in, the putty has been applied, and sanded, and it’s been varnished.

Sounds like a sweet professional finish…

Yes, it is a professional finish. I like to hide the screw within the wood. But, yeah, that’s the thing. There’s a great joy in making a shelf.

You get a helping hand from Ben Stiller here, who exec-produces and makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. Did it feel like another day at the office when he got in touch?

No, it was a big deal, a very big deal. I think a lot of American comedians, I guess, like everyone, they’re fans of things, and English shows are something they quickly become experts in, because there are so few of them. Unlike, you know, us having to master Seinfeld, which will take you two months, they can watch most of the things I’ve done over one wet weekend. If there ever is a wet weekend in LA. So, it was incredibly flattering, and unexpected.

Was it a call out of the blue?

It was really. They had read the script, and they were aware of the show, Gareth Marengi, that I had been involved with. Yes, so, it was very much out of the blue, and unexpected.

There’s a cult following in the US for your Gareth Marenghi and Dean Lerner outings. Have you been aware of that?

No, I wasn’t. When you do TV shows, you don’t feel like anyone’s watching them. You feel much more connected doing a live show in front of 400 people than when 400,000 are watching something on TV. It doesn’t mean anything, and you can’t conceptualise it. Well, I’m not saying you can’t deal with the concept of 400,000 people watching a show, but it doesn’t really register somehow. So, no, I didn’t have any expectation of a following abroad. I think it’s different for the likes of Ricky Gervais and Simon Pegg, who are very well-known, and I think it would be very odd for them not to know how well-known they are over there.

The Weinstein Company are going to release Submarine in the US, but I’ve heard that supremo Harvey Weinstein has plans to re-cut you film. Shocked? Putting up a fight?

No, I don’t think there’s… I think Harvey Weinstein is a very adroit publicity man – wow, that was a pretty mangled sentence. Yeah, let’s record that for all time. That really tripped off the tongue. That was almost like freestyle rap, that’s how rhythmically pleasing it was. ‘An adroit publicity man, Harvey Weinstein’, a phrase coined by me. But he has a flair for that, and the stories aren’t true in many cases, and I’m sure they’re more true in other cases. I have no worries about the film being touched. That’s the film, and that’s it.

You won’t allow an edit?

The film’s finished. There’s no George Lucas revisiting of it. For better or worse, it’s finished.

You directed an episode of the American sitcom Community too – have you got a gameplan for America?

Well, Community was because I knew Joel [McHale, The Soup presenter, and star of the American pilot adaptation of The IT Crowd], and that was through his charity. There’s no particular campaign afoot. Mostly, I’m trying to write things. Not that I don’t enjoy directing – I really do – but I think plans are relatively laughable. For me to state that in five years ‘this will have occured’, is fairly likely to end in disgrace.

Graham said another season of The IT Crowd was commissioned the day the last season debuted. Is there ever a worry about the show going a series too far?

I’ve never really had to worry about the series faltering, because there’s only been one. But that’s something maybe Graham has to worry about more. He keeps getting commissioned, mainly because he’s so good. Mercifully, that’s not a worry I have, because Graham writes it. So, Graham comes up with it, and we’re just in the position of coming in, doing some rehearsals, and seeing some good scripts, and being in it.

You’re invested in it too, because it is a very public part of your work…

Yeah, but we don’t bear the burden of creating it, and so in terms of worrying about whether it’s still creative, or whether it’s time to stop, that isn’t a thing that I have to bear personally, very much.

Hopefully you can now plant that seed of worry in Graham’s head…

Yeah, I’ll undermine Graham’s confidence the next time I see it. It’s strange, because it’s the only thing I’ve been involved in where I didn’t do any of the writing. It’s not as though Graham tries to quash any suggestion, or addition, it’s just simply Graham’s scripts. And so, to me it’s quite a speciality thing that I do. Which is mainly to please him. That’s sort of the task for me.

Your character Dean Lerner has popped up online again, having a distinct Alan Partridge potential to run and run…

It’s not something that I’ve really thought about. You become quite fixated about whatever it is that you’re doing now. I think some people are very good at having a wide portfolio of options, and I have a single egg in the basket at a time.

Words – Paul Byrne

Submarine hits Irish cinemas Mar 18th