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Team ‘Ted Lasso’ On Why A Mix Of Comedy And Tragedy Makes For Great TV

EXCLUSIVE: For years I sat right by a U.K. national newspaper sports desk. Few things excited me more than when, if I happened to be in the office of an evening, a rare thing, and there was a big soccer game showing on the giant screens located where the sports writers lived, then I’d dive right in and watch.

Understand that I’m not a soccer nutcase but I appreciate a lively match whether it be World Cup, FA Cup, UEFA Cup, Champions League — frankly, whatever.

The energy in the room for a World Cup match, in particular, was often electrifying.

There was very little football on during the pandemic and there were few sports guys (and gals) in the newsroom, which is why Ted Lasso, starring Jason Sudeikis as the eponymous fish-out-of-water American coach hired by new club owner Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) to train AFC Richmond, was such a tonic when it arrived on Apple TV+ in August 2020.

“Football is life,” emerged as one of the show’s key catch-phrases, though the show’s success for me, had more to do with life around the game of football.

Two seasons on, Ted Lasso has become a bona fide success. The cast is shooting the third season, in all likelihood the final one. Sudeikis has made the point several times before that Ted Lasso has a three-season arc.

But, as we were at the same event for Emmy members, I asked for clarification: “Life is long. Who knows,” said Sudeikis, shrugging his shoulders. 

“We’re just trying to tell the story we’re trying to tell here and land the plane as gently as it took off,” Sudeikis told Deadline at a reception hosted by Apple TV+ in London at the May Fair Hotel.

Others in attendance included Nick Mohammed who plays Nathan Shelley, who by season’s end had become, in my mind anyhow,  ‘Notorious Nate’, the dastardly turncoat who stormed out of AFC Richmond to coach rival West Ham United, owned by Rebecca’s ex-husband.

Hannah Waddingham was also there. Since joining Team Ted she has won countless awards for her portrayal of a seemingly tough woman, who happens to be anything but. I enjoy the interaction between Waddingham’s Rebecca and Juno Temple’s seemingly dumb WAG (wives and girlfriends) Keeley Jones. Both women lift each other up — on and off the screen.

Cast members: Brett Goldstein, Brendan Hunt, Jeremy Swift, Phil Dunster, Toheeb Jimoh, Cristo Fernández, Kola Bokinni, James Lance and Mary Roscoe were also at the event. I chatted with Mohammed, Waddingham, Temple and Sarah Niles.

Below is some of the conversation about their characters that they shared with Deadline.

DEADLINE: So, Nick please explain how Nathan “Nate” Shelley goes from being the architect of some of AFC Richmond’s best moves on the pitch to commit this act of betrayal? And, I thought he liked Ted?

NICK MOHAMMED: He’s very knowledgeable, in terms of game play and strategy, he knows it all. It’s just that not many people listen to him. Then when Ted comes along, he feels almost empowered and that’s what gives him his voice. Then it slightly … you know, ego takes over and that’s his downfall. In Season 2, it all becomes a bit toxic.

Ted’s been good to Nate, though there’s one bit in the episode in Season 1 where Nate turns up at Ted’s hotel room and says, ”This is what you should say to the players.” And Ted has a bit of a go at him. It’s one of the few times when Ted is a little bit outspoken, to anyone, really. It feels quite pointed as a result of that because it’s so rare. But still, I don’t think that it then warrants for the ultimate betrayal that Nate then goes on to do in Season 2, when he does betray Ted.

DEADLINE: Did Nate, or you even, see it coming? 

MOHAMMED: I did. I knew from very early on … we were filming the gala episode of Season 1 — and this is before Seasons 2 and 3 had been commissioned. I remember sitting next to Jason for a lot of that filming. And he said: ”Oh, just so you know, the outline for this, if we get picked up, this is effectively the three-season arc for Nate, and he was very clear about Season 2 being like the The Empire Strikes Back and that Nate was going to do this big heel turn, and turn on Jason and leave the club. At first I was like, Oh, OK, wow. that’s quite interesting, that might be quite challenging as in: it felt like there would be less room for jokes whereas I feel Season 1 Nate was quite jokey and the awkward comedy thing was, I felt, almost like my comedy zone, and Season 2 felt like the more dramatic and emotional season. But you relish it as an actor…

DEADLINE: Was there an immediate shift in your mindset because you weren’t going to be tackling those scenes until Season 2?

MOHAMMED: Oh, completely because you would always have it in the back of your head. It’s even in some of the scripts … they were very clear, you know, the reasons this is being written like this is because of seed planting for late on in Season 2. They’re so clever at that. It’s not just Nate: they’ve done it for Sam, Roy and Keeley — for Jamie and his redemption, as well. They were plotting from the off.

DEADLINE: The betrayal felt almost Shakespearean, or am I overthinking this?

MOHAMMED: Maybe a bit Machiavellian. I guess because, and again deliberately, they manipulated the audience in a great way in that we really, in Season 1, as an audience, really invested in Nate’s journey because we love to see an underdog succeed. Not that it’s a trope but it’s almost like a sports movie, we’re really rooting for him, and then it’s great, it’s quite a linear trajectory. But what it means is that there’s further to then fall, because when he does then turn, it’s like: ”Oh, but we loved him and we rooted for him — and, how could you?” The audience felt that betrayal more than, I think, Ted did. They did that very well, very deftly as well — it didn’t come too early.

By the very end, his hair’s all gray, through the stress, and he walks straight to camera with his eyes sort of like just completely smug …

DEADLINE: Is there a reckoning of his soul in Season 3?

MOHAMMED: I’m very aware that we’re in the middle of filming Season 3, so I can’t say too much, but all I’ll say is that we know, because we’re in the middle of the next journey by the end of Season 2, it has obviously taken a turn for the worse; and we wonder whether he can be redeemed? Maybe he’s gone too far, because I do think it felt like the ultimate betrayal. I think that even the kiss with Keeley felt like he’d really overstepped the mark as well. He’s done a lot of things which are like: “Now we’ve lost all faith in you.”

The thing with Nate, and the reason he felt so abandoned, was because Nate became that figure he’s really never had in his life. He’s never really had a network of friendship or a relationship — or even really from his dad, and that relationship is clearly very toxic. He’s had the support of his mum but maybe he’s still a bit molly-coddled; he still lives at home. He’s not very world-wise. He knows tons about football and that is his world. It’s a very insular view, so I think when Keeley just offers him genuine friendship, and then he massively oversteps the mark — and this isn’t to condone it — he just doesn’t know how to deal with relationships or love or sex. He’s just not very streetwise. There are a lot of experiences he hasn’t had.

He has been a victim of bullying, effectively, in Season 1. He gets a little bit of power so he then thinks: ”Oh, I become the bully now.” That’s how he sees it, It feels like the logical next step to him. He doesn’t get the nuance of what normal kind of social discourse would be. It does explain, not to condone, a lot of his actions.

DEADLINE: Have you been able to leave turncoat Nate at the door, and not take him home?

MOHAMMED: Oh, God, yeah. It was weird because, you know, I’ve acted in quite a lot of stuff now. But often it’s been comedy, and it’s been quite light. Absolutely comedy has been my comfort zone. I felt like I got into my groove. Whereas Season 2 did present its challenges because I’ve never really had to do dramatic acting, certainly to that degree; like the confrontation between Ted and Nate in the season finale. I had to rely on a lot of support, directors and creators of the show, who were almost like coaching me through it. But it equally meant that because I knew I’d put in a lot of work to get the performance that they needed, thatknew that it’s not me, because I found it so difficult to kind of almost get to that place that it was quite easy to leave at the door. 

It was a big fall from grace, you know? Also, because the show is often, if not the majority of the time, very hopeful, very optimistic and it tackles slightly darker subject matters. But it does always have that element of hope, whereas that Nate storyline felt like a real bit of grit. It felt like ooh!

DEADLINE: Rebecca’s like the gift that  keeps on giving … 

HANNAH WADDINGHAM: I know this sounds like an actor’s cliché but the greatest gift I could have begged for in my career, and especially as a woman who’s six-foot-two, make that six-foot-three in heels, to show the full gamut of emotions from strong woman to absolutely broken — I don’t know how I’m going to pick myself up off the floor — it never happens. It’s all there.

DEADLINE: You trained as a classical singer and you’re from the theater world. Yet, I think they’ve been smart in not over-exploiting your singing abilities?

WADDINGHAM: They’ve been very clever. So, we had the karaoke moment and I said to Jason: “I don’t want to sing the whole of ”Let It Go” [from Frozen], if you’re going to have me doing it then it needs to be a gesture of it, and out! He said, ”I think you’re the only actor I’ve ever met, you know a like musical theater person, who’s actively discouraging me to use their voice.”

I said, ”Well, first and foremost, she’s a football club owner because she has been usurped by this man who’s the love of her life, so she’s trying to find any way to get back at him.” It’s more about that. And she loves singing. I can deal with that but to me showy-offy: ”Oh, look what I can do in my other [up an octave] life is not for me.” In the funeral episode — I don’t want to sing this at all. In my head, I’m thinking that I want to do it like I did ”Send in the Clowns” in A Little Night Music on stage in London. I want it to be that singspiel, kind of tone.

That was very difficult. During filming all those scenes, my own father was rushed into hospital in an ambulance and he was in there for six weeks. I didn’t know if he was going to live or die from one day to the next. So when we were shooting the wake serene, it was the first time my dad was to be having quintuple open heart surgery. That didn’t happen that day and I didn’t know till I turned my phone on at the end of the day. The next time they were going to do it [her father’s heart surgery], which was a week later, was when I was standing in front of Rebecca’s dad’s hearse and they weren’t going to do it then.

And then the day I finally knew they definitely were going ahead with my dad, I was standing in front of Rebecca’s dad’s coffin doing the eulogy. And this lot on that day! My God. Did I feel I had a group of pals holding me up? It was incredible.

[Her father, 81, is well now]

DEADLINE: Look, I’m asking a million and one people this question: What is happening to this show? 

WADDINGHAM: Well, I don’t know, yet. And that’s true. I don’t know yet. I think they probably don’t tell us because we’ll all probably be a sobbing mess. And I’m not even entirely sure if they know yet. And I do know for one thing that Jason has always maintained that he had in his head: A beginning, a middle and an end. Which means: This is the end, if we’re going by that. Which, I can’t quite think about because I’d quite happily play Rebecca with her teeth falling out.

DEADLINEI’m struck by the performances across the board this season. I’m reminded of what Judi Dench always says — find the comedy in the tragedy and the tragedy in the comedy. How say you?

WADDINGHAM: You have to treat comedy as poignant, real drama. I remember Mike Nichols (The Graduate) saying to me once [Waddingham played The Lady of the Lake in the in the West End transfer of Broadway musical Spamalot] when he came over to kind of bed us in. He called us all onto the stage and he said: ”You never stand on that stage and find yourself funny. You’re not funny. The material is funny. Say it with the truth of a drama and the audience will be rolling in the aisles. And there we go.

He would say, ”Say your lines, don’t bump into the furniture and f-off.” And I think a lot of people should listen to that, and don’t, instead of wallowing in your own humor. And he said, ”And let’s get everybody home on the train they want, not the one they don’t.”

You’ve just got to be truthful, and that’s something Jason always does. He is absolutely brilliant with that, particularly scenes when we’re in the office. If there’s myself and Keeley and Higgins, he’s like: ”No, no, no — don’t enjoy each other, you’re just matter of fact. You know each other so well in this that you don’t find each other funny anymore, you just plough on, and he’s right.

DEADLINE: Are those cookies that Ted bakes any tastier? You have let the world know that while in the show they’re supposed to be delicious but in reality they’re almost inedible? 

WADDINGHAM: They were significantly better in Season 2 because I think they’d heard me so universally complaining about them that they just chucked gallons and gallons more butter in and loads more sugar. I mean, to be fair, an old shoe would taste good with gallons of butter and sugar. I think for Season 3, I can’t tell whether they are better or just like an old friend. I put them in where they’re not even meant to be. They’re like her support system. I bring them out and go, Can I have some biscuits? And can I have have half of one left over in the box like I’ve really been going at them because they’re like her emotional gauge, that she’s having  a sh*tty day, yeah. How many crumbs are on that desk.

DEADLINE: Tell me something I shouldn’t know about what happens to Rebecca in Season 3?

WADDINGHAM: I would say the main thing is, and I’m very pleased to see it, she is very much more about her team and she’s there with the team, because she wants to be, and they’re absolutely her boys and woe betide anyone that comes up against them in whatever form — and I love that.

We know her ex has taken over at West Ham and he’s got Nate working there, which makes it worse. She is absolutely a tigress. But she’s as chaotic in her own life, which I love because you don’t suddenly sort yourself out, do you?

I want the audience to go, ”What are you doing, girl?!”

DEADLINE: Aha, more romance?

WADDINGHAM: There might be or there might not … I’m not telling you [laughs].

DEADLINE: The Rebecca-Sam fling was great telly, and socially alert, too …

WADDINGHAMWe loved it. We were both a bit gutted that it doesn’t continue on … more. I suppose she has other things to focus on. The team is massive for her this year.

DEADLINE: Forgive me for even asking about frocks and stuff but you’re all dressed up to the nines. Have you all been to a wedding or something?

SARAH NILES: It’s true we are all dolled up. I got a memo. I always want to wear trainers. They were like, No not today. Heels please.

DEADLINE: Dr. Sharon Fieldstone doesn’t suffer fools but I think I sensed early on that she has a good side. Was that clear in the early scripts?

NILES: When I first approached the character, one of the first things they said was, she’s very kind, and knows her worth and knows her job so well it can appear many things, many ways. There’s that The British side of it as well, where she can appear strict and hard, when I actually think she’s a lot more softer and fun and quirkier. As time goes on you realize that she’s just human. She’s got her own barriers, and so forth.

I think one of the things is boundaries — it’s something I’ve learnt in my own personal life. She has a wonderful sense of boundaries: She’s not afraid to say she’s good at her job. She’s not afraid to say what she thinks and what she feels. …

It’s funny they [Sharon and Ted] seem polar opposites but there are so many similarities between them.

She’s got boundaries but she’s got barriers, he’s got barriers. How she holds back and protects herself is a different way to how Ted Lasso protects himself and holds back. The meeting of the two and the transformation for both of them is really interesting.”

It’s good to see under the surface of someone who seemingly is on top of it. She totally isn’t in control as much as she thinks she is. You see there’s much vulnerability about her. The opposite is like, Ted can appear quite vulnerable but he’s sharp and intelligent and that’s how they meet on that level.

DEADLINE: I can see hovering which means you’re about to be called away. Are you in Season 3?

NILES: Yes, I’m doing Season 3.

DEADLINE: WAGS are so derided, but something has clicked with the way you’ve taken on Keeley Jones and made people realize she’s nobody’s fool.

JUNO TEMPLE: In society today we’re very quick to make assumptions of somebody maybe, who they are and what they’re like. This show shows you, from all the different characters, it shows you: Don’t judge books by their cover because, actually, there’s an entire novel in between the front and back cover. That’s what makes somebody their own thumbprint and it’s important to read it.

DEADLINE: How did you hone your comic timing?

TEMPLE: When this came into my universe, I genuinely was nervous, because I’m working with top of their game comedians and, let’s be honest, I am not known for that. I think it’s more of the very dramatic arts. So, having such a nurturing group of people on this job as well as being patient with me when I would ask questions about comic timing, because a lot of the time it’s all in the writing. It’s just that I have been given this extraordinary character with these great  lines and then just in speaking them truthfully she becomes funny, you know?

And if I have problems with comic timing, I ask, ”Like, this isn’t working: Help me!”

Sometimes it will about the musical rhythm that goes along and it’s exactly where the comedy is, it’s almost like a dance, but for me, I think, … when it comes to being an actor, for me, it becomes quite feral. I feel about being just as human as possible, and so, if sometimes I haven’t understood a joke they’ve actually kept that in the scenes.

In Season 2, it’s one of the earlier episodes … Higgins says, ”Oh, yes, we’ve been delivered food by the team that we’ve just tied with.” “Oh, that’s so lovely, what kind of food?” “Thai food.” And I genuinely didn’t get the joke. I’m completely sorry but I didn’t understand the joke. It had to be explained to me and they were like, “You know what? Keep it as it is, your reaction, the lot.”

They’ve allowed me shape her. She’s got a journey that she’s got to follow. And she’s had this extraordinary female inspiration and best friend in her life help her find that journey and I think there’s something really exciting  for her with that. She’s had her eyes opened to a brain that she already had, but now she’s been really encouraged to use it in a way that she didn’t think she could do, necessarily. That’s very exciting.

Honestly Hannah is one of my favorite humans on the planet. And I love love her with all my heart and working with her is one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. We’ll work together again and again and again. I would do anything with her — for free.

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