T.J. Miller on 'Silicon Valley': 'I Had to Do Research on Seth Rogen and Wiz Khalifa' (Q&A)

The comedian talks with THR about the HBO show's recent renewal, hopes for season two and the death of castmate Christopher Evan Welch.
Jaimie Trueblood/HBO

Comedian T.J. Miller likes to say he's not familiar with success.

With a résumé that includes a handful of series that didn't make it past half a season, he's still getting comfortable with the late April news that his new show, HBO's Silicon Valley, has garnered stellar reviews and a second season order.

Before heading on stage to discuss the comedy with fellow castmembers at a Tech Crunch Disrupt New York conference -- another telling sign of the series' impact -- Miller caught up with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss plans for season two, the loss of castmate Christopher Evan Welch and the striking similarities between him and his onscreen persona.

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Congrats on the second season renewal. How’d you hear the news?

As I get most of my news, it was Twitter. I think Thomas Middleditch was like, “Hey, this is so great, second season.” I remember that exact moment thinking, how could this have happened when I’m involved? I’m like the Midas of defecation. Everything I do just turns to shit. I can’t get anything renewed or looked at. I’ve been in two television shows that didn’t even do a half a season.… Finally, something I did that people love and the network loves.

Have you had any conversations with the cast and creators about the decision and what's next?

Mostly it’s a lot of fun emails. A lot of “Should we see the finale together? Who’s willing to watch Game of Thrones with other people? Should we have dinner beforehand and watch Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley together like God meant it to be?” Everybody is almost in disbelief, which is nice because that usually means it’s a good show. When you got a group of people that are like, “Oh, well, of course it got renewed; it’s so funny,” it’s probably a shit show.

Any inklings on where the writers are going to take the show from here? 

It’s a David and Goliath story, so that will be the crux of the second season. It’s going to be about what it means to be someone who wants to start and be in charge of a business in America rather than hand it over to a chain that will pay you a bunch of money to relinquish any control or ideology or dreams that you had.… But the funniest person on the show, Christopher Evan Welch, died and he was going to be an integral part of the storyline with the two competing billionaires that are so archetypally representative of what’s weird and deserves to be satirized about Silicon Valley. I miss Christopher Evan Welch so much, both as an actor and a person that my girlfriend, Kate, and I just absolutely adored -- we adored his wife and his daughter too. The series had to take a real turn and everybody had to recognize that. I remember Alec Berg and Mike Judge coming on set and were like, “We’re writing him out of the show right now and it is the hardest thing that we’ve had to do.”

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How do you think the show will change without Christopher Evan Welch?

It can only be different. It has to be. The true story is about Thomas and all of us trying to be our own thing, this thing in this world where corporations like Google are as powerful as an Applebee’s or a f—ing Walmart. Can we pave our own way and pursue the American dream? That’s what the heart of the series is. That being said, without him we lose this pitch-perfect example of what an autistic, Asperger’s, one of the really off-left-of-center billionaires is. All that stuff was so f—ing perfect.… If Christopher Evan Welch was alive and I was dead, then the project would be much, much more enticing to audiences.

What about your character? What is in store for Erlich Bachman in the second season?

I know Alec and Mike have been trying to write my part down as much as possible because I’m abrasive and really, really obnoxious to the public. I support that. I’m more about the success of the show. If the less I can be in it, the more successful the show can be, that’s for me. (Laughs.)

You’ve mentioned that you’re a comedian first and an actor second. How does that influence how you approach your role?

I don’t even know if I’m necessarily an actor. I appreciate you giving me that accolade.… It’s very important to me to just act natural. It’s the comedy that guides me. The acting and all that stuff comes second. It’s equally important, but I just try to do that as best as I can. I know that as a comedian I’ve made great strides because I’ve worked as hard as a person can work at being at least wildly amusing.

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Since the majority of the cast has improv backgrounds, how much of what we see on screen is ad-libbed?

Mike and Alec have written these scripts that are beautiful foundations for us to jump off of, but the reason that the show is what it is, is because while the story structure and the characters are so defined, the writers allow us to act.

You’ve had a relationship with Thomas Middleditch for more than 10 years now. How does your real-life friendship compare to your onscreen one?

We used to do a two-man improv show back in Chicago called “Practice Scaring a Bear.” In Chicago, we were drawn to each other. I said, “You’re the funniest improviser in the city,” and he said, “Yeah, you may be second best. Want to do two-man improvisation?” I was thankful that he was open to it, so we just starting doing that very thing. We were on a house team at IO but we also did two-man, and we ran a show that involved stand-up, which Thomas is now doing a lot more of. The weirdest part is, Mike Judge didn’t know that we had ever worked together, nor did he know that Kumail Nanjiani and I had known each other for 10 years too. We started in 2003.

In the show you play a blowhard incubator owner. How similar are you to your character?

Erlich is a guy who smokes weed nonstop, drinks, chases skirt, will gamble on anything he believes in and eats and lets his body be anything carbohydrates will let it be. I don’t understand why I keep getting typecast as that. I don’t know where they got that from because I’m a really fit, healthy person. I’ve never smoked marijuana. I don’t believe in alcohol. It’s a sort of a medicinal necessity for the human condition, none of that stuff. I’m not a gambling man …

Sarcasm noted. How did you prepare for the role?

If it’s Mike Judge, it requires a real concentrated effort, not because he’s hard but because if you want to work with somebody that you watched do Beavis and Butt-Head growing up, you cannot half-ass it. It wasn’t easy. I gained 30 pounds for the role. I had to really understand what it was to be a serious stoner but also really motivated. I didn’t understand that at all, so I had to do research on Seth Rogan and Wiz Khalifa. I have to change for the role that fits what Mike Judge’s tone is, but I’m close enough to it that it’s really, really fun to play.

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