‘Silicon Valley’ stars: Some techies are wonderful, some are ‘grandiose’ and ‘slimy’

Silicon valley hbo season 1

The tech industry is mostly white and male, and so is the cast of “Silicon Valley.” Yet, the cast and crew often find themselves in the crosshairs of people concerned that it’s setting a terrible standard.

In an interview with Business Insider, Martin Starr (who plays Gilfoyle) and Zach Woods (who plays Jared) talk about their changing impressions of Silicon Valley, the big gender question, and what apps they’re obsessed with right now.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Biz Carson: Now that you’ve been in the satire world and the real thing for two years, how has your perception of Silicon Valley changed?

Zach Woods: One thing I think that has been borne out by my experience of Silicon Valley — it’s something that exists on the show — it seems to be a mix of people that are creating things and genuinely interested in the work they’re doing, and then sometimes you’ll also meet people who are somewhat grandiose or…

Martin Starr: Slimy.

Woods: Yeah. Which is definitely true of our industry as well. I don’t think that’s unique to Silicon Valley.

Carson: So do you have a more positive or a more negative view of startups now that you’ve been satirizing them for years now?

Woods: I think to me what was most interesting was that the process of making a television show is not dissimilar to a startup in that it’s like you make a pilot, then you hope that people like it and it gets picked up. Then it gets picked up and you hope that people like it and that it gets good reviews and you get to keep doing it. There’s a series of tests and moments of self-evaluation and anxiety and teamwork in the face of that.

And once you have success, trying to preserve the parts of the initial endeavour are more meaningful to you.

I realised as we were making the first season that the journey that Pied Piper is going on is not that different from the journey that we as actors are going on in the experience of making the show. So I find it more relatable now. It’s essentially the same thing. And once you have success, trying to preserve the parts of the initial endeavour are more meaningful to you.

Carson: What’s some of the weirdest encounters you’ve had with the Silicon Valley types here? Do people angry when they see you? Are they excited? Do they pitch you their startups?

Starr: Nobody gets really angry, but you get a whole cast of characters. The ones that stand out are like the Russ Hanneman like people because those interactions are just kind of memorable.

Woods: In the way that trauma is memorable.

Russ hanneman Silicon Valley
The Russ Hanneman type of Silicon Valley is known for being a billionaire with a flashy car. HBO

Carson: So you meet a lot of Russ Hanneman types?

Woods: You’d be surprised!

Starr: You meet some interesting people who make a point to come up and be at an event that’s happening for the show just to like tell you what you’re doing wrong or tell you how you’re not totally representing this whole business, industry in a way that they see is valuable or accurate.

Woods: I mean, by and large, people are lovely. Most people come up and are like “oh it feels like my work.” It’s really validating that the community we’re depicting seems to have embraced it, which is really nice. But once in a while when you meet those guys, it really leaves an impression on you because they’re so funny and so weird. When you meet like an aggro-Silicon Valley person, it’s so interesting because most tech people aren’t that confrontational. But once in a while you’ll meet these type A guys.

Starr: It’s the ones that have the most success! They tend to be driven in a different way than like the coders. But by-and-large, the reaction that I’ve heard from coders who come up to me specifically is that they have worked with someone who is a lot like Gilfoyle, which makes me feel like I’m doing something right. But I feel like in general, we create a pretty accurate atmosphere. Whenever we end up as a group somewhere and a coder comes up to us, they always are talking about how much it feels real to them, that this group of guys really could be coders and they have worked with a lot of people just like us.

Woods: Which is nice for us and sad for them.

Carson: So how do you learn to be that business person character type in Silicon Valley?

Woods: To me, I don’t think of [Jared] predominantly in terms of business. I think of him in terms of all these emotional relationships to the different guys. So in my head, I always think that Jared when he was working at Hooli was Pinocchio and like he met Richard and became a real boy and is just totally enamoured with Richard and the other guys. I think of his total devotion and adoration of all of the other people more than I think of his relationship to business. Business, I think, is the language Jared uses to express his love for the other guys.

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Martin Starr as Gilfoyle (left) with Kumail Nanjiani, who plays Dinesh HBO

Carson: But Gilfoyle is a more technical character. Do you shadow hardware engineers or watch hacker films?

Starr: I wanted to before the second season. The first season I think Zach and I have similar approaches which are human and emotional. Like, I read some of Anton LaVey’s Satanic bible.

Woods: Really? That’s cool.

Starr: It’s dense, but it’s intriguing. I can kind of understand the path, the left-hand path. My approach was more in the underlying direction of him as a human being as opposed to coding. Because Kumail had six months of coding experience, so I knew I could always fall back on him telling me how to do things right. [Laughs] No, we have actual experts, and I think Kumeil maybe has done a little.

Woods: But I don’t think anyone is tuning into the show being like I can’t wait to see what they’re going to code.

Carson: Now that you’ve been in this world, are you more interested in tech on a personal level? Zach, I saw at SXSW that you’ve been super into this massage on-demand app.

Woods: Soothe! Shout-out to Soothe baby!

Starr: I just found an app that I really liked… My girlfriend turned me onto this app. I have trouble keeping my train of thought sometimes, I’m so easily distracted, even in my own head here talking to you. … So you start typing and you set a timer for 5, 15, 30 minutes and once you stop typing if you stop for more than five seconds it starts to evaporate. So then you’re encouraged to keep typing and keep this train of thought going and you’re really freeforming ideas and allowing yourself to be as creative as possible without judging yourself or controlling yourself, you’re just flowing. Oh! I think that’s what it’s called. Flowstate. So I found that to be really valuable. I mean, clearly really smart people are coming up with ideas all the time so it’s finding something that connects with you.

Woods: And as an actor, you have a platform that you can advocate for changes in the world that you want to see and you have to take that responsibility really seriously. So the cause I want to put my whatever amount of influence I have and the thing I think that’s probably most important right now is to get Waze to stop telling me to make dangerous left turns. No I’m just kidding that’s not my cause.

Carson: Although I completely relate to that. In San Francisco it loves recommending left turns.

Woods: That would be so obnoxious if my cause was like Waze. Some people have Unicef, some people have potable water in underdeveloped regions.

Starr: I thought you were going to go back to killing koalas.

Woods: But seriously, if there’s anyone listening from Waze. You guys have done a phenomenal job, but stop making people make dangerous left turns across four lanes of traffic. I beg you, you geniuses.

Carson: Following up with a real cause, there’s a lot of interest in gender problems in tech. Do you think the show needs to be that platform to advocate?

Starr: I think we get heat and there’s a lot of attention put on the show for somehow encouraging it. When really, the satire means we have to show it for what it is otherwise we’re not doing a good job. This isn’t me taking responsibility for [producers] Mike and Alec’s job who make these kinds of decisions. But overall, I think we’d be doing a bigger disservice if we represented a culture that was heavier with female influence and there was more female coders because it’s inaccurate and people wouldn’t be able to really analyse this environment for the way it is. And nobody here is really advocating for the way things are.

We’re not trying to represent it because we think it’s right, but if we’re not honest about it, it certainly wouldn’t give it an opportunity to put it under a microscope and allow the conversation to be opened to a much larger audience.

Woods: I think Mike and Alec have been conscious about putting more women because Silicon Valley is not totally bereft of women. There are women who do coding, there are women in positions of power, and I think they have been conscious especially in the last two seasons about depicting those and including those in the portrait of the world. But as Martin says, the job of satire is not to, who am I to be proclaiming what the job of satire is, but satire is supposed to draw attention to problems and satirize them as opposed to correct them in a fictional world when you’re kind of air-brushing an endemic sexism in the industry. So it’s tricky because you want to depict the reality, which is sexist and there’s certainly exclusion and the lack of encouragement for women to go into coding and have those opportunities. So you want to satirize that and depict it, but you also don’t want to have a show that’s entirely male. The creators are aware of it and we’re certainly aware of it.

Carson: I love that scene with Jared where you’re hiring a women coder and you’re trying not to point out that she’s a woman but it’s also important.

Starr: I think initially the intention was to have her become a bigger part of the show and then I think their train of thought, it’s so fluid and natural the way that their story lines move, it just didn’t end working out in that scenario. And certainly their intention is to represent the world how it is, and there are female coders so no one is trying to say otherwise. But it does feel like there’s a lot of “you guys aren’t doing this right!” and I think we’re really trying to as accurately depict this world as we can.

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