Richard Ayoade talks directing with Donald Clarke – and reveals his inner Moss,
Richard Ayoade, who shares some of the shyness of the lovable eccentric he plays in has turned his hand to feature directing with a coming-of-age tale set in Wales. The burning question: how Moss-like is he? Donald Clarke pries
WHAT’S WRONG with those people who think Hugh Laurie is really a doctor or Sarah Michelle Gellar genuinely kills vampires? These lunatics do seem to exist. Whenever such stars appear on chat shows, they invariably drag out anecdotes about being mistaken for the characters they play. It’s all very worrying.
That said, Maurice Moss, the eccentric given flesh by Richard Ayoade in The IT Crowd, Graham Linehan’s first-class sitcom, is so fully realised you can’t help but suspect that shards of the actor’s inner being are on display. Moss, one half of a harassed IT department, is the hilarious, lovable embodiment of contemporary geek culture. Adopting rectilinear hair-parting and rigid posture, Ayoade offers us a sitcom character as precisely defined as Norm from Cheers, Manuel from Fawlty Towers or Cartman from South Park.
“It’s all Graham,” Ayoade says in his quiet, polite voice. “I can take slim credit for the character. There were people I knew who had qualities of that character. Though originally, Graham thought I was more like Moss than I myself thought. I suppose I have always been in that nerd camp. I wasn’t coming in as this suave person.”
Do people really expect him to be able to fix their modem? “Not really. Aside from anything else, if you did have a problem I don’t think you’d really want to call that particular department. Would you?”
Like Moss, Ayoade appears to be a shy fellow. Whereas the character exhibits an aggressive enthusiasm for his various obsessions, the actor comes across like a wellmannered pupil who – for reasons he cannot fathom – has been summoned to the headmaster’s office for unprecedented chastisement.
“I do feel a bit awkward in interviews,” he says with an actual foot shuffle. “I have a difficult time taking an objective view of myself and commenting on that.”
He’ll have to get used to it. After a decade appearing in such shows as The Mighty Boosh, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and Nathan Barley, Ayoade has just directed his first film. Submarine, based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne, is a delightful, sad coming-of-age story set in a damp corner of Wales. Craig Roberts stars as a teenager who, convinced he is some sort of literary genius, sets out to woo the most popular girl in school. An unhappy series of reversals soon follows.
Ayoade has directed for television and was behind the camera for several Arctic Monkeys videos – Alex Turner of that band provides songs for Submarine – but directing features is an entirely different job. Or is it? “The technical requirements are minimal,” he says. “Orson Welles said something to the effect that all he knew about directing Gregg Tolland [cinematographer of Citizen Kane] taught him in an afternoon. That sounds a bit hubristic. But it’s like chess. It’s easy to learn the game. It’s difficult to get good at it.”
Getting back in to autobiographical mode, one can’t help but assume there is something of the director in the young protagonist. The child of a Norwegian mother and a Nigerian father, Ayoade spent his early years in downat-heel Elephant and Castle, an unlovely corner of south London. He must have been the sort of character who kept Jean-Paul Sartre tomes in his blazer pocket, surely. I certainly can’t imagine him as the class bully.
“My first school was quite tough. I lost two teeth on the very first day. I think that’s just because I was new. That was the prime insult.
“What I liked about Joe Dunthorne’s book was the way it talked about that thing where you keep quiet at school about reading books and so forth. Otherwise, you might be