He has followed the path of the great American comedians, fulfilling every step required, from his formation in improv groups to his rise to stardom thanks to Saturday Night Live, where he began as a screenwriter and later earned a place in the cast of the legendary comedy space. So it’s no surprise that his hit series Ted Lasso (Apple TV +) grew out of an ad he made seven years ago commissioned by a sports network to try to spark a love of soccer in Americans. This man of Lithuanian origin has taken advantage of his well-earned star position to tell the story of an American football coach who accepts a curious proposal to manage a Premier League team without having much idea of what a corner or an off point is. I play and it ends up showing that good will is the most important thing in any sport.
How much did you know about soccer before becoming Ted Lasso?
Not much. I had played it as a child, because in the United States you practice it when you are little. I played from kindergarten through third grade and then fell in love with basketball. But I rediscovered that world by playing video games with my friend Brendan Hunt, who is one of the producers and writers of the series and who plays Coach Beard. Back in 2000 we were working in a theater in Amsterdam and between shows we played on the PlayStation. When it came time to do the commercials the series is based on for NBC Sports in 2013, I had to learn quite a bit about soccer, and so my appreciation of the sport changed. And while we were filming the series, we went to watch the games every two weeks because it helped us find new ideas. During the confinement we played with several of the scriptwriters and actors of the series. We created the Richmond team in EA Sports FIFA with all the characters and we all played on the same team. That has helped us to keep in touch while we maintain social distance and develop ideas for the second installment.
Did you always know that one day you were going to do a series with the character from the commercials?
No. The truth is that we made an announcement in 2013 when NBC Sports got the contract to broadcast the Premier League, which was very successful, primarily among American football fans. That allowed us to make a second announcement a year later, which generated even more excitement. His innocence, ignorance and certain idiocy were clearly in that first ad, but in the second we added his eternal optimism and that ability to wonder that children have. Then, with the same team that we had made those shorts with, we sat down to work to see if we could create a complete episode, and to think about what a first season would consist of. It took a few years until we could find where to do it. It’s been a long road.
Fear of the unknown leads us to put people in boxes, which allows us to deal with the chaos of the everyday world. The series is about how we deal with the way others see us.
Did knowing the character so well help you in the development of the series?
Of course. But I have to clarify that although the series is called Ted Lasso and I play that character, it is not just about him. The first season also revolves around Rebecca, the character of Hannah Waddingham, and also that of Jamie Tartt. I was a huge fan of the British version of The Office, and what I liked was that it gave you the opportunity to get to know everyone. And here my intention has been the same.
Ted may seem a bit silly at first glance, but he’s not …
No, but it comes from a region of the United States that has different customs. I remember when I moved to New York from Virginia. I opened the door for people and they didn’t understand why I was doing it. But that was what I was used to, saying “please” and “thank you”, things my parents taught me. I think fear of the unknown leads us to put people in boxes, which allows us to deal with the chaos of the everyday world. The series is about that a bit, about the boxes that others put us in and how we deal with the way others see us. A good coach can see things in players that they don’t. Someone who comes from these places that have other customs may be able to pay more attention. That’s what Ted does well. He pays attention and even though he may not look like it, he is cunning as a fox.
In these times of cynicism, how important is it to make a series about a character who has an optimistic outlook on life?
I do not know how important it is, but if it serves as an example, for me it is enough. Certainly the series tries to reflect on the human experience from my own philosophy, but without forgetting that there also has to be a place for humor. I hope the audience finds it fun and interesting, but at the same time I feel like we are living in a time full of divisiveness and negativity. We have an opportunity to correct our mistakes and learn from mistakes, and the way to do this is by listening to others, maintaining an open attitude emotionally and intellectually, as Ted does. Also, what I like about him is that he has no ego, which is intentional. That makes writing the series an interesting experience because film and television often present us with characters whose egos are huge.