Existential Nightmare: Richard Ayoade on The Double

Richard Ayoade doesn't like himself very much. That's OK, though, ‘cause we think he's great. Here he is trying to downplay his considerable talents ahead of the release of his new film, The Double

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 01 Apr 2014
  • The Double

A cacophony of laughter echoes around the downstairs bar of a flash Glasgow hotel. It’s early evening, but it seems a girls’ night is in full swing as a dreamy mixologist fashions cocktail shots for a party of ten who are falling about at the drinks’ saucy titles and the barman’s saucier banter. Watching on incredulously is filmmaker and comedian Richard Ayoade. If this were an episode of The IT Crowd and Ayoade was in character as the sitcom’s most potent comedic weapon, Moss, a geeky IT consultant with chronic asthma and a hot ear, one can imagine the hilarity that would ensue. Perhaps he’d bound over there and join the women on their hen night, or push the wannabe Tom Cruise to one side to take over the cocktail making – Moss can, after all, detect the ingredients for any drink using his sense of smell alone. If only Ayoade was as suave and confident as his onscreen alter ego.

Wearing a brown corduroy suit and thick-rimmed glasses, the 36-year-old’s default mode is bashful self-deprecation. If – or should that be when – Ayoade starts winning major awards for his filmmaking, you can imagine him shuffling on stage and bashfully declining the prize: “Thank you, Academy, but you’ve clearly made a mistake,” you’d hear him say before handing the Oscar back to Meryl Streep. It’s hard to believe that this is the same man who can hold his own in the extroverts stakes on TV shows like The Big Fat Quiz of the Year with professional show-offs like Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross. It’s tempting, therefore, to see The Double, the feature he’s in town to present at the Glasgow Film Festival, as a very personal film. 

It concerns a shy and unassuming young man who comes face to face with his confident, ladies’ man doppelgänger. Ayoade must feel some affinity with a character with dual personas. He has, after all, spent the 00s beloved by the British public for playing Moss, and other hair-brained characters in comedies like Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (which Ayoade co-wrote and directed), Nathan Barley and The Mighty Boosh, only to emerge this decade as one of the UK's smartest and most cineliterate filmmakers with his coming-of-age film Submarine.

“I think everyone has multiple personas,” the filmmaker says when The Skinny asks if people are ever surprised he’s so different from the Ayoade that appears on our TV screens. “I remember a friend at school saying that his idea of a nightmare was having loudspeakers attached to his head that broadcast his thoughts, and that would be the worst thing that could ever happen.” Ayoade has a habit of answering personal questions with other people’s anecdotes. “Wallace Shawn [who has a small role in The Double] said an interesting thing,” he says, deflecting another inquiry about public vs. private personas, “he knows Noam Chomsky, and he says that Chomsky is amazingly consistent, that he’s the same with everyone. The same when speaking to the President of the United States or one of his students, he has the exact same address.”

Ayoade is far more comfortable discussing The Double. It’s a nightmarish adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name, which Ayoade co-wrote with Avi Korine (brother of Harmony), and centres on Jesse Eisenberg’s Simon James, a low-level bureaucrat who’s desperately in love with his co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), but he's so shy and unassuming (“a nothing-person”) that he can barely bring himself to talk to her. Simon’s life changes, however, when the suave, mischievous James Simon (also played by Eisenberg) starts work at his firm.

Doubles have been a cinema staple since the invention of split screen, and everyone from Hayley Mills (The Parent Trap) to Nicolas Cage (Adaptation) via Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (Double Impact) have shared the screen with themselves. The Double’s twist on the genre, however, is that no one notices that Simon and James look exactly alike, down to their identical boxy grey suits. “It just felt like a very unusual way to deal with that occurrence,” he says of The Double’s central premise. “I mean, ordinarily you feel everyone would notice, it would be very remarkable, it would be of enormous interest to everyone. But the fact that no one cares is such an illogically strange nightmarish reaction that I just thought it was a really interesting idea.” And it’s also darkly hilarious, thanks predominately to the exasperation Simon feels when Hannah, who hardly notices he exists, starts to swoon for his exact double. It’s hard to think of a better Eisenberg performance.

“He’s unique, I think,” Ayoade says of his lead. “I can’t think of any actors his age with his range and someone who would be able to play a very shy person and also a very confident person completely convincingly without resorting to the use of goatee beards or caricature.” This comment is one in the eye to the chief criticism that has been aimed at Eisenberg over the years: that he always plays the same nebbish character in all of his movies. Ayoade sees this as an unintentional compliment: “I think all good actors are charged with that, unless they make a massive show of physical transformation. James Stewart is not considered an actor with enormous range, but of course his range is amazing, from Anthony Mann westerns to Vertigo to It’s aWonderful Life to Philadelphia Story – this incredible range, but he has this ability that you just feel it’s him. I think Jesse has that. You never feel that it’s a big performance, he’s very natural, but he is doing these very different things. The difference between The Squid and the Whale and The Social Network I think is enormous.”

Eisenberg isn’t the only actor for whom Ayoade has deep admiration. Practically every speaking player from Submarine (as well as chums like Chris Morris and Chris O’Dowd from The IT Crowd) show up in The Double in small roles. Two films in and Ayoade seems to have built himself an extensive repertory troupe. “I just liked everyone on Submarine a great deal,” he says. “And they are all great actors and actresses, so any part that Yasmin [Page] or Craig [Roberts] can play – and they can play many different kinds of parts – I’ll cast them. And why wouldn’t you cast Paddy Considine whenever you could? The same with Noah Taylor and Sally [Hawkins], of course. There’s no thought required to it. You just go, ‘Yasmin’s great.’”

There’s one actor, however, who Ayoade is convinced is not much cop: Richard Ayoade. “I’m not really an actor at all, so it’s never come up,” he says when I ask why he’s never been tempted to appear in one of his films. The self-laceration continues: “I just wouldn’t be suitable for anything – at all,” he insists. “Just in terms of doing the things I’ve done, the actors are so good that I’m not even doing the same kind of thing as them. I’m not at the same level at all.”

For Ayoade, the process of acting is just too exposing. “Yeah, it’s essentially just showing everyone your arse, but it’s really personal and humiliating and based on your physiognomy and all sorts of things,” he explains. “Not even Angelina Jolie wants to be an actor – she’d rather be a director.”

Isn’t being a director even more revealing, though? Doesn't your personality end up being channelled into the film’s DNA?

“It doesn’t feel like that so much,” he says. “It’s not your face, which is a thin membrane. You are making something with a hundred other people, so it feels very shared.” It goes without saying that Ayoade doesn’t conform to the egotistical, megaphone-wielding cliché of maniacal director. In fact, he’d have you believe his role on set was as a glorified cheerleader. “What I like about being a director is that you essentially get to be a fan of a bunch of other people’s work who you are specifically interested in, and that doesn’t happen to you as an actor, you can’t just enjoy anything about it. You can’t enjoy your own performance, it’s a weird and narcissistic thing. The actors I know don’t like watching themselves and their favourite thing isn’t watching their own films.”

“The thing that I find genuinely depressing is if something is boring or just rubbish” – Richard Ayoade

While acting may not be his forte, directing is something he does do well (although he would no doubt disagree). Submarine, his debut feature, was an oddball coming-of-age comedy that owed much to Wes Anderson and François Truffaut, but had such a lucid atmosphere and witty performances that it was easy to overlook its rough edges and over-familiar teenage angst scenario. With confidence and verve Ayoade bypassed many of the pitfalls associated with low budget British filmmaking by subverting the stock boy-meets-girl traditions and embracing very un-British formal experimentation. 

His new film is even stronger: if Submarine was Ayoade’s billet-doux to the nouvelle vague, The Double pays tribute to the filmmaking from the less chic corners of Europe. Its tone is that of tongue in cheek bleakness that suggests Roy Andersson, blended with the genuine existential dread of Kieślowski and the bittersweet romance of Miloš Forman. “The ideal was that it was hopefully not rooted in one culture precisely,” he explains, “but that it felt like a place that doesn’t quite exist and never has historically and never will in the future. So it would be a slightly off world, like you feel a bit in Aki Kaurismäki films, when you know that isn’t what Helsinki is like.”

This hazy attitude to time and place is very much Ayoade’s MO. Although Submarine was rooted in a recognisable middle-class Swansea suburbia, its cultural references and production design put its period setting on a sliding scale between the early 70s and the late 90s. The Double, meanwhile, doesn’t even have a fixed geography – the crepuscular city in which it is set is uncanny, a kind of absurd purgatory out of place and time that would have given Kafka nightmares. 

“I do like that,” says Ayoade. “It felt like it suited [Submarine and The Double] because they are very subjective films: they are from one character’s point of view. So they are slightly in their own fantasy worlds, in the same way that I think Taxi Driver is quite a fantasy for all the kind of realism and hard-edged elements of it – it’s quite an unrealistic film.” Does he have some sort of aversion to realism, then? Perhaps he’s trying to disassociate himself from the British social-realist tradition. “It’s not to say I don’t like those films, but I don’t know whether I would be able to make one of them or not.”

Though ostensibly comedies, Submarine and The Double are far from fluffy – The Double especially. Ayoade milks the comic potential from the situation at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s story, but he also looks into its abyss: the crippling loneliness of introversion is palpably communicated in the early scenes and the psychic turmoil of being continually ignored is thrillingly realised in the latter. These are prickly films, and Ayoade wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The thing that I find genuinely depressing is if something is boring or just rubbish,” he says. “I kind of find Charlie’s Angels 2 to be pretty depressing,” and not, Ayoade adds, because Charlie’s Angels was so good that Full Throttle really let him down. “I’m not depressed at the end of watching an Ingmar Bergman film. The Godfather is not a happy ending for a film, but if you like something, it doesn’t really enter into it. Catcher in the Rye is incredibly sad but incredibly funny and I just really like it. There’s nothing worse than something that is emptily cheerful.”

The Double is released 4 Apr by StudioCanal