Brit indie cinema’s very reticent brave new hope can talk all you want about Hollywood and well-mannered rock’n’rollers. Just don’t ask him to sell himself, finds Emily Phillips
Richard Ayoade is feeling awkward. You sense the Cambridge-educated, entirely handsome, dapper and unfeasibly self-deprecating writer-director-actor-comedian finds discussing his achievements (the latest: successfully adapting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s darkly funny novella into a timelessly dystopian film) the social equivalent of being strapped to the well-upholstered armchair, thick glasses removed, and eyelids prised open, ready for some drops of conversational acid. Which may explain him trying to ease the way with light-hearted chat about procrastination cleaning – our shared favourite pastime. “I’m more or less opposed to squalor,” he deadpans, “but I wouldn’t advertise my services as being world-beating…”
Aside from regular dusting breaks, the 36-year-old star has been part of our comedy consciousness since the early Noughties. Fresh from Footlights, he was stealing scenes in The Mighty Boosh and Nathan Barley, when Channel 4 picked up Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, the insta-cult show-within-a-show created by Ayoade and university friend Matthew Holness. His character, shonky Eighties publisher Dean Learner, caught the eye of grand fecker of sitcoms, Graham Linehan, who promptly bagged him as pristinely tucked, monotone techy Maurice Moss in The IT Crowd.
Off-screen he was busy building a case for his big-screen move, by creating music videos for Vampire Weekend, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Arctic Monkeys. The pre-quiff Alex Turner promptly returned the favour by sound-tracking his directorial debut, the New Wave-infused (yet completely Welsh) coming-of-age tale Submarine in 2010.
With Submarine and his role in The Watch (a brief foray into Hollywood studio films), the stage was set for an LA move – a big budget, perhaps even a dash of CGI. So when The Double premiered – with its oppressive gloom and black wit (the identity theft of a painfully lonely, cripplingly uncharismatic wan-faced worker bee) – he threw a Brazil-shaped curveball at the mainstream predictors. Richard Ayoade, clearly, is taking his own non-conformist and brutally stylish path. But he’s damned if he’s going to make it sound like he’s doing something good…
The Double is based on a lesser-known Dostoevsky novella. What drew you in?
I hadn’t read the book, I’ve only read Crime And Punishment, so I was no buff of any sorts. It was [producer] Avi Korine’s idea to adapt the novel, and he did the first draft. I just liked the idea that I saw in Avi’s script; someone so invisible, lonely and scornful that an exact replica of them could turn up and no one would notice. It seemed a very funny and interesting idea to me.
You’ve had Ben Stiller co-produce Submarine, and Michael Caine do the same for The Double – ridiculously big names. How do you pull that off?
I don’t really know. The people who produced this, Robin Fox and Amina Dasmal, they’re the people who are hands-on. I mean, Michael Caine acted as a grip for a week.
Did he come on set?
Yeah, he did come a few times. You notice him, it’s good. He didn’t impose. He’s gracious and nice. He’s been on enough sets to know that there’s quite a lot going on and you don’t want people banging on about stuff. He’s not trying to draw attention to himself or anything.
And yet he didn’t get a cameo?
No. He was always in a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops, so he wouldn’t have fitted in.
You’ve gone from doing things such as Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace with a bunch of your university mates, to dealing with some of the biggest Hollywood stars. How does it work?
Jesse [Eisenberg] is great, there’s nothing I could say other than irritating hyperbole. He is a very good actor and very clever, interested and tireless, so that’s great. The worst thing is if someone isn’t very good, that’s the only times when it’s awkward. With Jesse, Mia [Wasikowska] and Wallace Shawn, you just go, “I’m really grateful that you’re in it.” There’s no sense of having to corral them, it’s a pleasure when people are good.
And you’ve got J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr in a couple of scenes. How did you get him involved? Did he find it easy?
Literally, he did three takes, all perfect. I met him at All Tomorrow’s Parties and I just asked him [to be in the film]. We more or less re-arranged the whole filming schedule around his one day so he could come.
Have you ever had any musical aspirations? You’ve directed quite a few music videos now...
Well, no. Obviously everyone wants to be in a band. That’s the main, preferable route, but that was not possible. I can play guitar to a low level, but no. I was briefly in EMF…
Have you ever had any tough experiences with rebel bands throwing their toys out of the pram?
No. I’ve not worked on a video with tough rock’n’rollers of that nature. Maybe if I worked with Bush that might have happened, but no. I didn’t even meet Super Furry Animals until after the video. Yeah Yeah Yeahs are very polite, nice chaps. Arctic Monkeys, very nice. Vampire Weekend, very nice. They’re well-behaved.
Your relationship with Alex Turner has burgeoned into a great creative pairing…
He is really lucky to have met me.
Do you go on man-dates?
He’s LA-based now and I’m still London-based. The time difference is an enemy. But generally spring at Center Parcs is the time we get together the most. We just try to make sure we work out together, because you do something you have to do, but you’re doing it with someone you like.
Would you ever completely overhaul your look like Arctic Monkeys have?
O’Malley looks exactly the same as he always looks. I think their various looks are all appropriate. I don’t know that I even look at myself enough to try to decide on a look. No, I can’t…
Obviously, The IT Crowd – and Moss’s wedge haircut – is one of the things people most know you for. Does that haunt you when you’re out and about?
There are inappropriate levels of attention and appropriate, it depends. In the middle of a road of fast-moving traffic, someone calling your name is something, perhaps for that moment, to be ignored until the hazard is safely overcome. But I am able to live relatively unimpeded by mob excitement.
Now that show’s over, and The Double is out of the way, what are you working on next?
I’m just writing. I’m just thinking about some stuff that would sound rubbish if I said it out loud. There’s really nothing to say about it that wouldn’t make you sink into depression. You always slightly feel that until it’s a thing, it isn’t anything.
Is there anyone you look at career-wise and think, “I wish I was like that”?
In some ways, but the thing I feel is that whenever you read about someone, it’s a very odd, distorted sense of their lives, as though they’re some “thing”. I feel that anyone I admired, I wouldn’t want to know what their actual life was like. The danger is you’re just making these people into mythic heroes, which I’m prone to do.
Are you consciously taking your career in an alternative direction, or is there any sense that you could move to Los Angeles and go mainstream?
No. I don’t think so much. I literally couldn’t answer that question without speaking to my wife. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I think I’ll go to LA.” It’s difficult to have a career plan. There’s some idea that you’re meant to entice people, which I can’t do. I am not a good salesman of anything I’m involved with. I feel torn between the idea of wanting in no way to ever talk about anything that would be important to me, because it would bring it into an arena of commerce and therefore debase things I love. But also, by missing it, it seems you have no regard for them. So that is why it is always odd talking about your life.
Which directors shaped your career?
I didn’t think I‘d ever be a director until I started writing for television and felt somehow, it was important to have another source of jokes, another source of working out how it could turn out – the making of it seemed as important as the writing. The directors I like most are numerous, but I guess, Ingmar Bergman I like a lot: Fellini, Scorsese and Louis Malle, Eric Rohmer, Orson Welles, Buster Keaton. Tons…
Not many of those are of this time. Are you in the wrong era?
Well, sometimes it’s just about the pleasure of being able to see a lot of people’s stuff in a row that you get from old directors. You can really get a full hit of Ingmar Bergman if you want. Paul Thomas Anderson is great, and Wes Anderson, and Roy Andersson. All the Andersons… I don’t see a lot of new films, partially because I don’t enjoy the hoopla of stuff coming out and being the first in line to see something. David Lynch, I guess he’s contemporary. I’m not very knowledgeable about what’s current.
Do you have any interesting directorial techniques specific to you, or that you’ve picked up along the way? Or tricks to get the best out of actors?
Not really. Everyone’s different and all actors have different things that would help them, so to have a blanket approach would be bad. I don’t think my decibel level is unendurable. I don’t know that anyone has really done anything new since Orson Welles, I mean really new. Stanley Kubrick saidthat a really innovative person probably couldn’t work in film because it’s a classical medium, there’s a certain grammar to it and it’s been done. You might see some CGI thing and go, “Oh wow!” but is it anything new? In some ways it might just be the way it’s done,but has anything different happened that’s different to 2001? I don’t know.
Did The Watch make you feel like you want to do more big Hollywood studio films?
I haven’t seen it due to a variety of reasons. One being that the press for it was in the middle of filming The Double, so they had to fly me out. But they could only pay for a certain amount, so I could only go a third of the way up the red carpet – a third too long for me – and then I had to just leave and go back to the set. So I didn’t see it then. And now it’s partially become a thing. I wouldn’t want to go to see it in the cinema. That would have seemed monstrous…
So could you ever see yourself taking on a massive franchise after your work on Submarine and The Double?
I can’t see that happening. They’ve already got someone for Thor 3, and I’m not interested in anything else, so I guess my heart is broken. I think they may have taken Thor as far as it can go. Are they still doing Thor 3? There’s still time for me to put my hat in the ring.
The Double is at cinemas nationwide from 4 April