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Richard Ayoade on directing his surreal second film


Richard Ayoade
Richard Ayoade describes himself as “an underwhelming man in his 30s”

To fans of hit comedy The IT Crowd, Richard Ayoade will probably always be known as super-geek Moss, but his second film The Double sees him carving out a name as a talented director.

Richard Ayoade is definitely not one to blow his own trumpet. Despite a jam-packed CV, the comedian, actor, writer, TV presenter and director starts our interview by describing himself in simple terms, as “an underwhelming man in his 30s”.

Perhaps he is just identifying with the protagonist in his new film The Double – a surreal reworking of Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name.

It sees socially awkward office worker Simon James – played by The Social Network’s Jesse Eisenberg – struggling to get noticed by anyone.

Ayoade however, has done plenty to get noticed. He shunned a career in law (after studying at Cambridge) to grace our TV screens in cult comedies such as The IT Crowd, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and The Mighty Boosh.

He is also a regular on comedy panel shows such as Channel 4’s 8 Out of 10 Cats, an experience he likens to “being in a controlled fire”.

Jesse Eisenberg in The Double
Jesse Eisenberg was the only actor considered for the part of Simon James and James Simon

He is quick to play down any comic talent required, insisting: “I just think if people drivel on for a certain length of time, something that has the same shape as a joke tends to appear.”

Ayoade cut his directing teeth on music videos for bands including Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend, before moving on to his 2010 film debut Submarine – a sweet coming-of-age story which was given a warm reception from critics.

He told us a bit more about his second film The Double, which was co-written with Avi Korim…

So Richard, The Double is quite a dark tale, isn’t it?

Well, to me it’s kind of a comedy and a love story, but it’s set in a very unforgiving environment. The world it’s in, it mainly takes place at night. But you know, so does sleepless in Seattle.

The main story is really about this lowly office worker who is romantically obsessed with someone he works with (played by Mia Wasikowska). But he’s so put upon and unimpressive that no one notices he exists, least of all his romantic ideal.

One day this doppelganger appears and everyone loves him and finds him fascinating and interesting. And there’s no reason – the person looks exactly the same, has the same voice, he’s dressed the same. And so it ends up becoming this nightmare love triangle between two sides of one person’s personality and a woman.

Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska in The Double
The Double also features Mia Wasikowska as Hannah, the object of Simon James’ affection

Did you intend to make people watching it think about the two sides of their own personality?

I think that’s just inherent in the book. The idea that no one would notice that this other person exists is a stroke of genius, because it shows how your concerns and your obsessions are not those of others, and that you can’t control how other people see you, despite your attempts to do so.

This sounds ‘lofty’, but I think Carl Jung said Dostoevsky was the best psychoanalytical writer he’d ever read. He has this ability to completely get inside how you feel, but he manages to do all that without it being a lecture. It’s just purely entertaining and engaging and you’re gripped, like a thriller.

Why was Jesse Eisenberg the right actor to take on Simon James and his super-confident doppelganger James Simon?

He was the only person we asked and it would be inconceivable for us without him. He’s a really extraordinary actor, but who’s also a film star. He has that charisma.

Jesse has the ability from the Squid and the Whale to play these vulnerable, intelligent characters you feel for, but in The Social Network showed he can also be quite frightening and strong and sociopathic. He combines that without ever resorting to a massive physical transformation, like gaining lots of weight or moustaches or the bag of tricks people often use. Actors like Jack Lemon and Dustin Hoffman also have this ability to always look like themselves, but play this vast range of characters.

So did you make him audition in any way or literally just say, “We want you to do this”?

Oh no. It was just, “We’ll all wait till you’re free.” And that was it.

Richard Ayoade as a guest presenter on Never Mind the Buzzcocks
Ayoade has guest presented Never Mind the Buzzcocks, as well as appearing regularly on 8 out of 10 Cats

And filming took place during the Olympics in 2012?

It was strange. I didn’t watch a single event. We were in an abandoned business estate, underground for three months, mainly shooting nights and working 18-20 hours a day. Any time people are shooting nights they all go slightly… odd. You just end up not really sleeping, so everyone becomes quite febrile fairly early on. You are not connected to the real world in any sense.

Did that help with this particular film, as it takes place in an alternate world?

In some ways it did. You had easy access to the feelings of paranoia and strangeness that are in the film. But also, everyone becomes more of a gang because there’s nothing else going on. It’s the middle of the night in a business estate, what else are you going to do?

Jesse Eisenberg and Richard Ayoade
Eisenberg and Ayoade on the red carpet after showing the film at Toronto Film Festival

The film features lots of familiar faces from your career – actors from Submarine including Paddy Considine and Sally Hawkins, and The IT Crowd co-star Chris O’Dowd. It must be a bonus that you can hire people you enjoy working with?

The fact that I like them is a definite plus, and I’m unable to work with people I don’t like. But they’re also brilliant. There’s no element of condescension to ask Paddy Considine to be in your film because, why wouldn’t you want to have him? He’s always brilliant, and the same with Chris and Tim Key (who played Alan Partridge’s Sidekick Simon in the film Alpha Papa). If I didn’t know him, he would be the person I would be trying to persuade to be in it.

I’ve never understood this kind of two-tier idea that there are leading roles and supporting roles. You want every single character to be played by the best actor you could get. Sally Hawkins for example is happy to play a small part, she doesn’t have that kind of vanity, none of them do.

That was one of the great things when I got to direct music videos, that you could do something in a short period of time. When you start you’re not thinking, “this isn’t going to end for five years.” I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in The Hobbit when you start in one decade and finish in the next.

Actors just want to do something interesting and often it’s a bonus to say, “well, it’s going to take you two days and you can be back at home.” Rather than, “it’s 47 days, in Beirut.”

The Double is in cinemas now.

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