Richard Ayoade on acting: "My range is so ridiculously narrow I don’t know if it counts"

The IT Crowd star is back in the director's chair for The Double, but auditioning for his own film made him shudder

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Richard Ayoade on acting: "My range is so ridiculously narrow I don’t know if it counts"
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Richard Ayoade is often recognised when he’s out. “People say, ‘Oh – you sound exactly like Moss.’ And I think ‘Ah. OK. I don’t feel that I sound like that’.” He looks perturbed. “It’s a strange sight, I guess – this thing that was contained in a rectangle in their living room, now floating freely is Asda. They look at you as if there’s been a spillage.

The confusion of his fans is understandable. For seven years and four series of The IT Crowd, Ayoade played socially inept computer techie Maurice Moss in one of TV’s most beloved shows. But in fact, he doesn’t sound like him at all, though he could be his worldly older brother. Dapper in a modish suit, he considers each question, littering his answers with self-deprecating asides and references to Kubrick and Kafka.

However, he’s not here as a sitcom star, but as a film director. His second movie, The Double, is about to be released in cinemas (from today Friday 4 April). It’s another story of office life – but one that’s a long way from The IT Crowd. Rather, The Double is a loose adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novella about a timid clerk (Simon) befriended by his arrogant doppelganger. Both parts are played by Jesse Eisenberg, who’s the face of a nightmarish but very funny film infused with the surrealist spirit of David Lynch.

Ayoade’s first film was the coming-of-age comedy Submarine, the story of a precocious 15-year-old schoolboy doing battle with the world in Swansea. Now, he’s moved on to working life – but his two protagonists still have plenty in common. “Each of them may seem sweet or vulnerable, but ultimately they’re really not that nice. In The Double, Simon isn’t actually interested in other people. He just wants to collect them.”

If Ayoade isn’t Moss, he also isn’t Simon. In a certain light he can pass for awkward – photos of him routinely capture an expression somewhere between confused and terrified. But his manner is wryly self-aware, and while his characters exist in un-splendid isolation, he is a husband and father (his wife is actress Lydia Fox who appears with her father James in the new film).

It’s just that he doesn’t like films about heroes. “The stories I’m drawn to, start with there being something about the person that needs to change. In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, there’s something wrong with the character. Whereas in Hollywood stories, there’s never anything wrong with you – everyone else just has to realise how great you are.” These, he says in words that will horrify fans of Moss, are “nerd fantasies”.

Now 36, the son of a Nigerian father and Norwegian mother, he’s a longtime Londoner, though he grew up in Ipswich. Eventually, there was a law degree at Cambridge. But the real work was taking place elsewhere, in the comic training ground of the Footlights. Friendships were made, characters honed. Soon after university, Ayoade stole the show as rogueish Dean Learner in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, the spoof horror series he co-wrote for Channel 4. He also directed this glorious pastiche of bad writing and worse production values, realising the importance of how to present a script.

Recently there have been trips to the US, including a role in Ben Stiller romp The Watch (Tuesday Sky Sci-Fi/Horror). But the thought of more time there makes him uneasy. “I just never want to be away from my wife or children for longer than eight hours. And we live in England. I mean, we made The Double in Wokingham, and even that felt like joining the navy.”

Professionally, he says, there’s never been a grand plan. And it’s strange but true that, for all his success, he has ended up famous for some- thing he’s not interested in – acting. “I’m grateful to have been in Graham’s show, it was very nice to do, but that side of things is odd.”

“Graham’s show” is The IT Crowd, created by Graham Linehan. His entire career has involved being roped in by friends. So it was with Moss. Ayoade was making music videos for the Arctic Monkeys and hoping to move into films. Then the show took off. “I never expected that. I was just there to say Graham’s words. The pleasure of it was rehearsing with others. I never about when it was going to be broadcast.”

He winces when I ask if he watches himself on TV? “Not willingly. The thought of staring at myself with nachos in my lap… no. Just no. That’s the bit where you hide.” On paper, his relentless modesty might look contrived. He knows that himself: “This will sound disingenuous...” he says more than once. But he does seem genuinely to dislike his acting. “My range is so ridiculously narrow I don’t know if it counts. It’s just every couple of years someone I know has been stupid enough to put me in something.”

At first, directing seems even more unlikely – few men could be further from the stereotype of a maniac with a loudspeaker. But in a job that’s chiefly about making endless tiny decisions amid bedlam, he’s nothing if not quietly forceful – witness the cut of the suit, his shudder when I suggest he could have starred in The Double, the curatorial knowledge of film. He says his love for movies started in the 90s, when Quentin Tarantino briefly made it cool to check out the French New Wave.

At the same time as he was falling for film, he was smitten with bands like Nirvana. He learned guitar. Inevitably, he formed a band. “We were loose,” he recalls. “We were not a tight outfit.” After some badgering, he tells me their name was Dave. Sadly, Dave didn’t last. What stopped them, I ask? “Talent,” he says. “Well, I could play with relative competence, but I realised [Stone Roses guitarist] John Squire was better than me. So I stopped.” You can’t stop playing music just because you’re not as good as John Squire. “Oh, you have to be,” he smiles, with absolute certainty. “If you can be as good as John Squire at something, then it may actually be worth doing.” His films don’t share Tarantino’s bloody swagger, but maybe the pair aren’t so different – both are film nerds channelling their passion on screen, driven to match, or outdo, their idols.

See Richard Ayoade on tonight's The Graham Norton Show, 10:35pm, BBC One