Oliver’s sinking feeling
Coming of age comedy Submarine, is, er, going down a storm, but there’s just one hitch ...its director Richard Ayoade hates being in the limelight, as Kate Whiting discovers
Bashful doesn't even begin to describe Richard Ayoade. Known for his Afro and thick-framed glasses as computer geek Moss in The IT Crowd, the actor-turned-director sports that look in real life — and is just as timid.
Immensely talented (he was president of the Footlights drama society at Cambridge University), he seems socially awkward, perching on the edge of the sofa with his arms tightly folded across his chest.
When he opens his mouth he sounds like a slightly more clipped version of Moss, softly spoken and old professor-like, although he's only 33. He seems slightly reluctant to be talking about his feature film directorial debut, coming-of-age comedy Submarine, which went down a storm at the Toronto and London film festivals, as though he's not used to all the attention.
“Why would anyone want to talk to me anyway?” he asks at one point, when speaking about rubbing shoulders with other celebrities. “I need about three years to build up the courage to approach someone.”
Whether he knows it or not, his status is set to rocket with the release of Submarine, a film set in Wales and told through the eyes of self-conscious teen Oliver. Armed with a wide vocabulary and near-total self-belief, he fights to save his parent's marriage and win over classmate Jordana Bevan. As well as directing, Ayoade also adapted the screenplay from Joe Dunthorne's book.
“In films where you have a young hero, they're often portrayed as blameless. I liked that Oliver wasn't flawless. He's quite mean-spirited but also has a strange ideology about how he would justify it.”
In a roundabout way he has the Arctic Monkeys to thank for the direction his career's now taken. A few years ago he met with film company Warp to discuss ideas for scripts and let it slip that he'd like to direct a music video. He was soon meeting Alex Turner and co in Sheffield and creating the video for Fluorescent Adolescent. And he's since directed videos for Super Furry Animals and Kasabian.
But the way Ayoade tells it, there was no masterplan.
“I think luck is a massive governing force... I always find it very odd when people go, ‘I worked very hard for this and I deserved it', because lots of people work very hard and deserve things, so to not say you're very fortunate seems somewhat self-aggrandising, as though you have complete command over your destiny.
“I really like this [Wes Anderson] film Bottle Rocket where Owen Wilson has a 75-year plan. Obviously it's funny because it's ridiculous — who knows what's going to happen? So yeah, it's not planned... otherwise you start sounding like Charlie Sheen.”
Ayoade, who lives in London with his actress wife Lydia Fox, was born to a Norwegian mother and Nigerian father and grew up an only child in Suffolk.
While studying law at Cambridge, he became president of the Footlights in 1997 and three years later was nominated for a Perrier Award for stage show Garth Marenghi's Fright Night at the Edinburgh Fringe, an accolade he and co-writer Matthew Holness won the following year.
“A lot of comedians I know have got into it by accident. There's a cliche that all comedians want to be rock stars or serious actors but everyone laughed at them so they went, ‘Oh okay, maybe I should do comedy'.
“It tends not to be the first thing people reach for. If you're incredibly handsome like Brad Pitt, you don't go, ‘Oh I fancy doing comedy'. You see how this handsome, charismatic thing pans out.”
The director can now list Alex Turner among his friends but he finds it odd to talk about the Arctic Monkeys behind their backs, as he usually feels the need to stick up for them.
“They're somewhat shy and shyness in media terms translates itself as being wilful and difficult,” he says with sincerity.
For a second, it's almost as though he's talking about himself. Shyness among those in the public eye can be a paradox.
“Yeah, but to me it seems completely natural. I don't know anyone who isn't contradictory. If you meet someone that's single-minded, they're probably a serial killer.
“Also, I think the impulse to write comes out of shyness. If you're always at parties and really popular, you probably wouldn't end up being a writer, because you'd be enjoying yourself too much.
“The irony of it is that shyness — that wanting to get away from the crowd and write stuff — can bring you attention, and you end up back in the awkward party where you weren’t comfortable.”
More uneasy social events are sure to be on the way as Ayoade is currently working on his next script, although he thinks talking about it might jinx it.
“It's like with Alex [Turner], I'd never ask him how he wrote the songs because it felt like a really private thing. When you're writing, you just feel that the more you talk about it, the less likely you are to write it.”
And with that, the shy guy writer, actor and director squares up his glasses and shuffles off to more awkward questions.
Submarine is in cinemas now