‘Silicon Valley’ stars: It’s hard to be ‘more ridiculous’ than the real thing

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Thomas Middelditch plays Richard, CEO of Pied Piper on Silicon Valley. ‘Silicon Valley’/HBO

“Silicon Valley” is great for making a mockery for the best and worst of tech.

But for the show’s writers, it can actually be hard to keep ahead of what could be considered ridiculous in Silicon Valley versus what’s just the reality.

Ahead of the debut of season 3, Business Insider sat down with Thomas Middleditch, who plays Richard, the CEO of Pied Piper, and Amanda Crew, who plays Monica, the business associate that just fired him from that role.

The following Q&A is lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Biz Carson: You were ringing the bell at the NYSE this week, and you’re the first person from Silicon Valley to make it there this year.

Thomas Middleditch: Is that true?

Carson: No companies have IPO’ed.

Middleditch: Is that what happens when a company IPOs? They get to ring the bell?

Carson: Yeah, you’re actually the first person from Silicon Valley to actually make it.

Middleditch: Well, the significance of the whole thing was pretty lost on me because I’m not really into Wall Street. I think it’s like a double-edged sword of this is great and it makes everybody money but it’s also the symbol ogy of greed. [Laughs] But it was fun. I got a nice little medallion, and it’s a very loud bell. And it was all pretty ridiculous.

Amanda Crew: And you looked great.

Middleditch: Oh yeah. Double-breasted suit. I had a cane. I wanted to look like a yacht villain.

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Carson: So you’ve had a couple years with the show now, how has satirizing the industry but also visiting Silicon Valley changed your perception of it?

Crew: I think before the show I had no perception of the industry. I didn’t know much about it, I didn’t know that there was this whole kind of culture around it. Even reading the pilot, I was like what is this place they have created? As we started filming and then the reaction to the show, meeting people up here, you’re like “oh, this is a real thing.”

And I think that’s why people like the show, like general audience people who aren’t in tech, because it’s kind of pulling open the curtain on an industry that you know most people have never seen before. So it’s just kind of like a new environment for people to see.

Carson: What about your own personal interests? A lot of actors and celebrities have started investing in the industry or are launching their own startups. Are you building the next startup yourself?

Crew: Oh you didn’t hear? That’s why he was at the closing bell.

Middleditch: I was the IPO. [Laughs] Maybe that might happen one day. I wish I was more industrious but I don’t necessarily have that drive.

Crew: If I were to get involved it would definitely be along the lines as my character does, as like, from the entrepreneurship side. I’m not going to be creating an app or doing the code or anything for it.

Middleditch: It’s definitely interesting. When you’re an actor who just got his first big chunk of change and you’re like ‘what do I do with it?’, you try to look at Silicon Valley and the learning curve is so huge. Especially on the investor side. I don’t want to say it’s like Vegas in a sense, but you do kinda roll the dice on some companies. It’s like educated dice rolling. You’re looking at it and you’re thinking, OK this has a chance, this has a chance, this is like a 13x, or whatever the heck idea. But in the end, you’re still putting money down and you still have to be OK with money going away and you never seeing it again. That’s challenging.

Crew: I watch Shark Tank a lot.

[Middleditch starts laughing]

Crew: But I do! They’re investing in companies and it’s a similar thing. They have shown the where are you now, and there’s this one company that made $15 million in two years and the two guys that had started it still hadn’t taken a single salary out of that. And so you see that on paper, and it’s like “Holy f***, they’re making $15 million. They must be rolling in it!” and they’re in a one bedroom apartment that’s also their office because their margins or whatever. So I find that really interesting.

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Thomas Middleditch with Amanda Crew (left) and Suzanne Cryer HBO

Carson: Where do you draw your inspiration then?

Crew: Thomas draws it from himself, from high school.

Middleditch: That’s actually not that far off. I’m a bit nerdy myself. I grew up in a hippy town so I did my playing outdoors and skiing and all that, but then I also had my nerd friends that I went and hosted LAN parties with, get my Counterstrike on. So I definitely had a gateway to indoor kid behaviour, but it was always too mathematical for me to pursue.

But in terms of drawing inspiration from people inside the industry, that’s too much credit as an actor for me. I kinda just make it up.

Carson: Do you find people approach you with startup pitches all the time now?

Middleditch: Sometimes. Not really though.

Crew: It’s more like to follow them on social media. They will take a photo and then say “this is my handle if you can follow me.”

Middleditch: I did get pitched on a new breast pump. That’s the 100% truth.

Carson: Did you invest?

Middleditch: No. It seemed like a good idea…

Crew: He just wasn’t passionate enough.

Middleditch: It’s the truth! It was supposed to be a revolutionary breast pump. Sleek, modern.

Crew: Did you pitch it to Mollie [Middleditch’s wife]?

Middleditch: I did a little bit of questioning, a bit of probing, which was disgusting, to her sister, who has two kids and is about to have a third. And I was like “What would you say if I told you there’s a breast pump that is sleek, attractive, quiet, easy on the nips? Is that something that’s important to you?” And she was like yeah, it would be. And I guess the conversation fizzled out. Like I said, I’m not very industrious.

Carson: Is there anything that you’ve seen coming out of Silicon Valley that’s just ridiculous? Like a headline that should really just be a plot line for your show?

Middleditch: Well you know, the weird thing is, I’m always like amazed that sometimes our thing just isn’t enough. This isn’t spoiling anything because it’s in trailers, but in Season 3 at one point Richard gets hired to do 3D mustaches on people, that’s what he wants to program. And obviously on the show, that’s perceived to be really silly. But in the last three months, face swap is out and it’s like a massive hit.

We can never go far enough because there’s something that mirrors the show in real life that’s equally if not more ridiculous

Crew: And all the filters on Snapchat do that.

Middelditch: It’s like, OK, that’s not actually that silly. I remember in the first episode Gavin Belson, when we wrote the pilot, Gavin offers Richard initially $100 million for Pied Piper and he turned it down. And everyone was like, that’s too much, I don’t think anyone is going to buy Richard turning down $100 million so let’s make it 10. And then in between shooting the pilot and shooting the first season, all that story about Snapchat turning down $3 billion, $4 billion, $45 billion, we’re like $100 million is nothing to turn down.

It’s actually a hard balancing act to keep it realistic and it seems like we can never go far enough because there’s something that mirrors the show in real life that’s equally if not more ridiculous.

Crew: I remember Mike saying at one point that part of the struggle too is when they’re figuring out these things, like the mustache thing, they have to think of things that by the time the show comes out it won’t have already come and gone. Someone was like why can’t we go on Hoverboards? And he was like, by the time show comes out, that will be like been there done that.

Middleditch: And it already kind of is! No one is talking about hoverboards anymore.

Crew: It’s credit to them too again. They’re constantly thinking about that where right now this idea sounds like it would be funny and absurd, but by the time the show comes out, it will probably be a reality.

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