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No one quite knew what to expect when Ted Lasso dropped on Apple TV+ in August — and, it turns out, the cast is continually kept on its toes, too. With a three-season arc in mind for the character spawned from an NBC Sports promo series, creator-star Jason Sudeikis admits he drops “seedlings” in the scripts that even the show’s key actors don’t notice right away. He and Hannah Waddingham — who plays Rebecca Welton, the scheming but sympathetic owner of AFC Richmond, the English football team Lasso coaches — talked virtually with THR ahead of the second season about exploring why good people do bad things, on-the-fly script edits and the art of not giving too much away.
When did you meet, and what were your first impressions?
JASON SUDEIKIS Wait, is this a dating show? (Laughs.) Funny you should ask … No, it was at Warner Bros. You were flown out.
HANNAH WADDINGHAM The night before, I got fractionally drunk because I was nervous. I thought, “What the hell, I might as well. I’m going to probably be up most of the night. So I’m just going to have some booze to relax myself.”
SUDEIKIS Had you sent in an audition tape at that point?
WADDINGHAM Yeah, but like 10 days prior. I was just a bit like, “Get it done,” and I ripped it up as I always do with scripts. My manager said, “Oh, they want you to come out to L.A.” And I went, “For?” (Laughs.) Genuinely. I think it’s healthier to just park things. If they come back to you, then that’s great. Then I was given, like, a travel brochure amount of sides to sit on the plane with.
SUDEIKIS Which was not our policy. That was Apple’s policy. That was surprising to me when we did finally meet. I was like, “Did you read the script?” And you’re like, “No, I only read this.” I was like, “Oh, well, here’s what’s going on.”
WADDINGHAM I had no clue at all. I was literally trying to be a very calm rabbit caught in the headlights.
SUDEIKIS You guys say “rabbit caught in the headlights” over there?
WADDINGHAM Why, what do you say? Deer?
SUDEIKIS Deer, yeah. Do you guys call rabbits deers, or are we just talking about two different things?
WADDINGHAM Yeah, sometimes.
SUDEIKIS You never know. Keeps us guessing. And yeah, first impressions were, uh …
WADDINGHAM Awful. No. (Laughs.)
SUDEIKIS Awful. Awful. Both of us started in a giant hole and we just had to dig out. I’m sure there was some element of like, “Oh, Hannah’s very tall.”
WADDINGHAM I was just gonna say. Were you thinking, “She’s a giant!”
SUDEIKIS No, I didn’t think that. I mean, we talked about it that day. I remember you being sort of surprised that I didn’t comment on it. I think I said, “It wouldn’t bother Ted. It doesn’t bother me.”
WADDINGHAM I was like, “How is this not an issue? It’s been an issue for 20 years of my career.” (Laughs.) It was kind of chilled out and strangely pleasurable. For five or 10 minutes, I was thinking, “Ooh, this is a big deal.” After that, it did just feel like two theater players just knocking about together.
SUDEIKIS Yeah, like doing a mutual audition. I think chemistry reads are really, really important. I always want the person to feel comfortable working with me, too. I remember talking to Hannah through some of the things that weren’t necessarily on the page, and I remember you being a little bit like, “Wait, what?” And feeling like, “I know this story.” I think one of the reasons people like the show is they have gone through versions of these stories. They’re not all jilted lovers of bad-boy billionaires.
WADDINGHAM It’s continued like that, what you’re saying about the things that I connected to very quickly, from you and me getting together for that all the way through season one, all the way through season two, me going, “Oh, yeah. I’ve lived a version of that.”
What kinds of things are you drawing from when you are building these characters? Is it real life? Is it other people you’ve known?
SUDEIKIS The idea of season one, something early on we spoke about, is it’s like a 300-minute sports comedy, and two huge influences were baseball movies. One being Bull Durham and one being Major League. I believe [the Cleveland Indians owner played by Margaret Whitton] was widowed in [Major League], and she wants to move the team from Cleveland to Miami, I think just because she didn’t like living in Cleveland. But she was just a villain, you know? The Rebecca storyline, when the initial idea was coming up, was kind of like, “What’s the story there? Why do good people do bad things?” It was really about showing how the wrong situation can make a very loving person make the wrong choices.
I don’t know if that was about anything personal. It wasn’t completely just taking Major League and then turning it on its ear or going a little bit deeper. Because, I mean, it’s the same plot as The Producers. I’m sure there’s a Greek myth, too, that I’m not well-versed in that’s the same idea of hiring someone to fail. Then, in other storylines, there are definitely things that are just metaphors.
WADDINGHAM It’s finding out about the sting of people. What’s that sting about? When you say, “Oh, she’s got some fences to jump over.” I think that’s so telling. When I first read that, I was like, “Oh, that is a brilliant way of putting it.” It’s finding the way in.
SUDEIKIS Yeah, and knowing everybody is fighting their own battle and you rarely know what it is. Don Scardino, who directed me in several episodes of 30 Rock when I would guest-star on that, he would say, “You know, every person’s fighting their own battle. You never know what someone’s going through.” Here we had the opportunity to share that battle with people, and make seemingly unsympathetic characters sympathetic. Which I think is, again, something that people have done on television to great success. I mean, we cared about mob men and meth creators and dodgy advertising executives. Why couldn’t that also be a football club owner?
This show does that extremely well. These characters are all very layered. As actors, how do you hint at what’s bubbling underneath Ted’s unrelenting positivity and Rebecca’s seemingly unbending strength without giving too much away?
WADDINGHAM For me, it’s the luxury of having the time to play it out and just pepper it in here and there rather than hitting anyone over the head with it. You get little glimpses or an eye flutter of it as early as episode one. When Ted says to her, “Oh, yeah, I heard about that. How are you doing?” — knowing that this was going to be a longer-running thing — it allowed me to give a smile, but an acknowledgment of somebody being so direct to her. In my head, that is literally the first moment anybody had checked in with her. I was glad that, in the edit, that came across. That slight startle. So it’s things like that, being allowed the playing time and the quality of the script, that allowed me to layer her up.
SUDEIKIS A lot of it was very intentional to give these little seedlings. We were really trying to use every part of the buffalo in the pilot. When people go back and watch it, there’s things that are being set up even for season three. I just had a strong belief in storytelling with intention as opposed to finding it out as you go. I knew when playing that scene we’d go to Rebecca’s face after Ted asked to have to sit with it. Sometimes you put that in the script and other times you don’t, but you just know it editorially. There’s also a lot of times you’ll write the intention a little bit more bald-faced, and then get rid of it because you don’t need it. Like, it almost gives too much away. There was a time where, literally, Rebecca says to Ted, “You’re the first person to ask me that.” And then Ted just sort of explains it away as like, “Oh, well, it’s because you’re the boss.”
SUDEIKIS Yeah. “People get nervous around the boss.” I know there’s a version of the original pilot script floating around online. I used to joke that with scripts, coming from an improv sketch background, 85 percent of the paper is white, meaning there’s a lot of room to improvise. You have all the words and the action lines and the parentheticals and everything, but you also have all that space of just watching things land on people.
WADDINGHAM There’s one thing I’ve said to Jason since we started this, and even more so in season two: I haven’t realized how much of an effing puppeteer he is, and the writers, how much we don’t even realize. Like, myself and one particular other character in season two, we’re just like, “You mofo” for placing little things here and there — like, little bread crumbs everywhere that we hadn’t even noticed. And he’s like, “Oh yeah, but you know, there’s that moment in season one.” You’re like, “Well, I do now!”
It’s so much fun, once I stopped wanting to have control of that. I just thought to myself, “Well, you don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow in your own life. So, chill your beans, lady.”
SUDEIKIS There’s a little bit of that, too. Playing things without giving the plot away [because] they don’t know the plot.
WADDINGHAM In any part of their lives. (Laughs.)
Obviously, you’ve thought through the story from beginning to end. When something that on paper seems perfect isn’t landing, what do you do?
SUDEIKIS I’m trying to think of an instance where that occurred, and I’m not saying that didn’t happen. Things always get better. Normally, you would find what the heat of the moment is and you just follow that. You sort of sense that within a scene. I think, again, that comes from having a background in improvisation, but then also working in a place like Saturday Night Live where you are changing things between 10:30 and 11:30 to be put on live television. In like a Karate Kid way, you don’t realize you get better at doing that until you’re put in the position to do it. It got easier on the second season because the invisible was now visible. Everybody knew what it was. The actors know these characters better than me, at this point. Somewhere in the second season, probably around episode seven, it’s kind of like “Here. Go. Take it.” I think when you allow that opportunity for people to lean in, they just give a damn more.
WADDINGHAM I’m used to how Jason and the guys work now, us stopping and changing and tweaking and adjusting, even while we’re in Rebecca’s office. When we have people come in that are day players or coming in for two eps, and they suddenly get sidled over a little piece of paper or the back of an envelope, and you see the blind fear, I feel like going, “I know. I know. It’ll get better.” I never thought I would get used to it. I used to berate Jason a lot in season one. “Really? You’re tweaking this monologue, like, 12 seconds before they put the camera on their shoulders?” But you do get used to it, and it does bring about a more exciting, more guttural response on camera.
SUDEIKIS I try to be careful of never asking anyone to do something I wouldn’t do to myself, as a guy who has to say a butt-load of words that sort of get rewritten between takes. I think ensemble art is the shit. We are all a little bit better together than we are when we’re left to our own baggage. But if we’re on some sort of harmonious intuition vibe, you can do all sorts of stuff.
WADDINGHAM All just gently shitting ourselves together that we’re gonna get the words wrong. (Laughs.)
SUDEIKIS If you create enough shit, though, it’ll rise.
Rising shit lifts all boats, or whatever that saying is.
WADDINGHAM There you go. There’s the quote.
SUDEIKIS Rising tides lift all shits? Yeah, something like that, you know.
Before this show aired, I don’t think anybody really knew what to expect. And I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times that this was a bright spot for a lot of people during a very, very dark year. How was season two different knowing that?
SUDEIKIS Zero. Proudly, zero. Nothing changed. I mean, nothing. Things come into view, but no, nothing changed. A lot of the story was broken before the season had finished, [and we knew] where a good chunk of it was headed as far as the big plot lines and the character shifts. We’ll see how people respond to it, but we didn’t use the internet or the reception as like a testing ground for, as I was saying earlier, what heat to follow. It came from within the hive mind of the writers’ room and the producers.
WADDINGHAM I was thinking about the first few days. Apple and Warner Brothers have been so on the whole COVID thing of keeping us all safe that it’s like tested to the nth degree and all the masks and then us women would have the visors. When we were first on set, I was like, this is gonna suck the funny out like a bastard, and it just didn’t. I think because we were all so used to each other. It was so comfortable immediately. We were just right back into it. Apart from, I think, Jason and I were a bit shocked at first because we had our first scene together. We were sitting on my Rebecca couch and both of us were like, “Oh!” It’s a shock to the system because you just hadn’t had that because of lockdown.
SUDEIKIS The first time we shot in The Crown & Anchor, the pub, people were like, “It’s crazy to be in a pub again!”
WADDINGHAM Yeah, so weird.
When the first season ended, Rebecca had confessed to Ted and the team had been relegated. How can we expect things to change after those two huge events?
SUDEIKIS The same way we as human beings change when we hit a certain moment in our life, usually something within us needs to shift. In moments of stillness or loss or whatever, that’s the opportunity for us to grow. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but at least a shedding of one’s skin. That’s one of major the themes of the second act, which again we’re not inventing. It’s a tale as old as time. I’ve been cheeky about it from day one, even in the writers’ room, being like “Okay, this is Empire Strikes Back. That’s what we’re doing this season.” There’s people that know a lot more about Star Wars than I do, so I don’t want to misrepresent myself, but that’s oblique enough and yet sincere enough …
WADDINGHAM You’ve been a Storm Trooper. You’re not allowed to say that.
SUDEIKIS Yeah, that’s true. (Laughs.) Scout Trooper, technically.
WADDINGHAM Sorry, sorry. Scout Trooper.
SUDEIKIS I’m the one who’ll get shit if I don’t correct myself. But that’s where it happens, when you think, “Oh, I’ve got it all figured out” and the universe is like “ah ah ah ah.”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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