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A Minute With: Thomas Middleditch on nerding out in life and on TV

By Mary Milliken

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As the star of the new HBO tech-world comedy "Silicon Valley," Thomas Middleditch might be channeling an early version of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, with his hoodie, ginger hair, social awkwardness and twitchy nervousness.

"But it's not a one-to-one Zuckerberg," says show director Mike Judge (of "Beavis and Butt-head" fame), while Judge's collaborator Alec Berg says "there was never a moment in any of this that was like 'Do it more Zuckerberg.'"

Until he landed the lead role of Richard, a computer programmer with a coveted compression algorithm, the 32-year-old Middleditch had played mostly smaller, "crazy guy" parts. Now, the comedy writer and actor gets a second season after HBO renewed "Silicon Valley" based on good reviews and ratings for the first few episodes of season one.

Middleditch talked to Reuters about his own nerdy back story, his big step up to an HBO show and the challenge of replicating his director's panic-induced vomiting.

Q: Mike Judge says you've done some programming.

A: I've made HTML, built some websites, figured out some Flash stuff ... little computer programs like that, on my own, but I wouldn't call myself a coder.

Q: How has that experience working with technology helped your development of your character, Richard?

A: I know nowadays I come across as a very social, really cool person. But in elementary, junior high, high school, I had a very nerdy background, not only in computer programming, but also in videogames and nerdy stuff. That all definitely helped connect with the world.

I definitely have had experiences in life that draw on the sort of guy that is just focused on the one thing and not much else. Richard is one of those guys ... he's like a little hamster on a wheel going away, trying to figure out the next thing.

Q: What's with Richard retching after he gets two competing offers for his start-up?

A: That panic attack-vomity stuff is something that has happened to Mike Judge, actually. He goes and puts it in the script and explains to me what it's like and I try to recreate it as best I can.

Q: How would you describe Richard's evolution in season one?

A: Every day he kind of gets confidence in certain areas and learns how to delegate. That's the big thing, not only for Richard but a lot of these guys in Silicon Valley that strike it rich in the tech gold mine: they suddenly have gone from normal coder guy to CEO or position of authority.

You also see the mounting pressure that is on his shoulders as he tries to get things done for deadline and as you see these two billionaires play God over him.

Q: Did you do research, meeting guys in incubators, start-ups and even the more successful people in the Valley?

A: You know, I haven't met too many people, and if I had, I probably wouldn't know it. Most of them are normal guys.

This is where I have got to give props to Mike and Alec and all those guys. They did a ton of research and I just walked in and saw it was covered and thought, 'OK, good.' Call me a lazy actor, but hopefully I haven't outed myself.

Q: Does Richard have an element of Mark Zuckerberg?

A: I think probably all these guys have a sprinkling of Zuckerberg, but is that a sprinkling of Zuckerberg or just some other quality that Zuckerberg shares with all these guys? In my approach to the role, I had to be very aware of "The Social Network" and the portrayal of him, so I definitely tried my best not to do a copy.

Q: What one thing in the show makes you laugh hardest?

A: Dang it. It is in an episode to come. And it is such a good bit that I don't want to tell you about it.

But I can answer in a sadly generic way. What's cool about this show is that you have all these great writers, but they allow us to improvise these little moments. And in all these episodes you will find a handful of these, just these little nuggets, these little exchanges, looks that are like quiet awkwardness.

Q: What does this role represent in your career?

A: Oh man. For me, up to this point, I do comedy and a lot of my opportunities have been the crazy guy or the walk-on guy or just like the silly character. So for me to play this lead character is very fortunate. I definitely recognize the chance that it is. It is a dream to be on HBO.

I would go around Hollywood trying to peddle my TV show idea and I would always say 'HBO, well that's impossible, so what else can we do?' But here I am on HBO, directed by Mike Judge of all people. And a lot of these guys in the show are my friends.

Q: It will be interesting to see where your career goes.

A: I am sure it is a meteoric plunge from here.

(Reporting By Mary Milliken; Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Mohammad Zargham)

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