Peter Serafinowicz: Ticking the boxes

The Liverpool actor and comedian talks about a career that’s included voiceovers, directing music videos – and trying to get a sitcom commissioned for 10 years

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You’ve almost certainly seen Peter Serafinowicz before. Since the mid-1990s he’s been one of those “hey, it’s that guy!” performers who keeps turning up in the least likely places. For those who have followed his career, the Liverpool-born comic actor has been a common thread through a staggering number of TV shows and movies over the last few decades.

“Yes, I was the voice of Darth Maul. I’d be surprised if it was much more than 12 words.”

Some may know him for his small but memorable roles in classic British sitcoms such as I’m Alan Partridge, in which he played America-obsessed Tex, and Black Books, in which his soothing shipping forecast on Radio 4 drove Tamsin Grieg to distraction. Maybe you remember the numerous times he appeared as Simon Pegg’s nemesis: as love rival Duane in Spaced, as an overbearing am-dram beatnik in Hippies, as the infuriated housemate in Shaun of the Dead.

Then there are the shows that are entirely his own: surreal spoof schools programme Look Around You and a self-titled sketch show. Sci-fi fans will almost certainly know him as the man who dubbed the voice of Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I, but in recent years he’s also appeared on the big screen in American blockbusters with sizeable supporting roles as a weary space cop in Guardians of the Galaxy, a lusty Italian agent in Spy, and a suave hitman tailor in John Wick Chapter 2. He’s voiced video games, hosted his own 6 Music radio show and directed pop videos for bands like Hot Chip.

Peter Serafinowicz (above) is The Tick (main image)

It’s a ridiculously stuffed career, and one that could easily fill the rest of this feature. “Yes, I was the voice of Darth Maul,” he says, clearly used to that particular nugget of trivia popping up in conversation. “I don’t know how many words I said. I’d be surprised if it was much more than 12. I also voiced some other characters. I voiced one character and then the very next scene it cuts to a different location and I’m voicing that next character. That’s just an example of my incredible talent,” he laughs.

He’s talking to us today, however, to celebrate his first starring role in a US TV show. More than that, it’s a big budget comedy superhero show for Amazon called The Tick.

Created by Ben Edlund, originally as a doodled mascot for a comic shop newsletter in the mid-1980s, The Tick is an affectionate parody of the Superman archetype. Clad in a bright blue costume, and with the proportionate strength and resilience of the bug that shares his name, The Tick is both innately noble and utterly dim-witted, often oblivious to the carnage his super-strength leaves in his wake. Partnered with Arthur, a mild-mannered accountant who wears a high-tech moth costume, he protects The City from the schemes of various bizarre supervillains.

It’s a character with a lot of adoring cult fans, thanks to a popular animated series in the 1990s and a short-lived live action show that ran for just nine episodes in 2001, with Patrick Warburton filling the blue muscle suit. For this latest version, creator Edlund didn’t even audition anyone else.

“It came to me,” says Serafinowicz, somewhat incredulously. “I didn’t have to audition, which is quite unusual for me. I end up auditioning for everything. When the script came to me it came with a very sweet, touching letter from Ben Edlund saying extremely eloquently – as Ben is the most erudite man that I think I’ve ever met – saying: ‘Look, I’ve seen your work and I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have play this character than you.’

“It’s immensely flattering. It’s his baby. Not his literal baby but he’s had this for 30 years so there’s a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility. When my wife [fellow comedy actor Sarah Alexander] read the script she said: ‘This is the most you role that I’ve ever seen. You must do it.’ Even though it meant me being away for months and months. Perhaps that was why. Maybe she just wanted to get shot of me but I’m so glad I did it. It was very hard to make and very hard to be away from my family but it worked. I’m so pleased with the result.”

As with most shows commissioned for Amazon’s online video service, The Tick went through a rather unusual route to screen, with a pilot episode released to subscribers almost exactly a year ago. Viewers could then rate and review the episode, with the show’s fate resting on whether or not audiences gave it the thumbs-up. Although it sounds nerve-racking, Serafinowicz admits he found the process strangely liberating – especially since together with his brother James he’s been trying to get a sitcom based on his inept businessman character Brian Butterfield through the arcane labyrinth of British television commissioning since 2008.

“If somebody had the confidence in it for us to make even a pilot I just know that people would like it. I just know. That’s why I love this Amazon system, this meritocratic system that they have – particularly the way that people write reviews. They’re not doing them for any reason. They’re not being paid to do it. They’re just doing it out of pure love for, or hate in some cases, your show.”

Viewer feedback on the pilot not only got The Tick commissioned but also helped to improve the show. “Most people really loved it. I think there were things they didn’t like about it and most of them I agreed with. It’s an amazingly efficient way of making TV. Amazon have been brilliant as well. They haven’t interfered with Ben’s vision at all.

“The big thing is they wanted it to be cinematic. We’re not making Casualty now. That’s not anything against Casualty but I’d imagine it’s a quite a straightforward show to shoot. This has got to stand up against all of the Marvel shows that are on TV, Breaking Bad. Game of Thrones. It’s better than most movies I’ve ever seen.”

If the show looks cinematic, that’s probably because it’s far from being some cheap comic-based sitcom. After all, Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister, whose credits include all of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, directed the pilot. After a lifetime of supporting roles and cult success,
The Tick really feels like a step into a larger global spotlight for an actor who certainly deserves the word “veteran”.

“There’s no ‘Oh, yes, I’ve made it. I’m a star!’” he chuckles. “I’m 45 and I can do lots of different things and on the whole I’m very happy doing that. I always work and I like to do things that I enjoy doing. I’m The Tick in a show called The Tick and that’s great but I don’t think I’m the star of the show. I think if there is a star it’s Griffin, who plays Arthur. Like a lot of shows it’s an ensemble show and I don’t think there’s one star of the show. It’s all of them – every performance, every actor in this show. I’m in good company.”

The Tick launches on Amazon Prime Video on 25 August

Serafinowicz miscellany

Even the most obsessive Serafinowicz completist might have missed these obscure cameos, appearances and projects.

Pudsey the Dog: The Movie
The voice of Edward the Horse in this timeless British cinema classic about a dog that can do tricks.

Dark Souls II
This famously tough fantasy video game features Serafinowicz, a big fan of the first game, as Mild-Mannered Pate.

Children’s Hospital
Serafinowicz put his uncanny Michael Caine impersonation to good use in the British Hospital episode of this cult US comedy.

Driver Dan’s Story Train
Voices a train-driving lion who can fix any machine in this cheerful CBeebies pre-school show.

Can be briefly seen as Screaming Man in a spoof horror trailer within Tarantino’s tribute to B-movie schlock.

Spitting Image
Serafinowicz got his big break working as an impressionist on the last ever series of Fluck and Law’s satirical puppet show. His voices included Kenneth Clarke and Gerry Adams.

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