The Tick: Stars Peter Serafinowicz & Griffin Newman Talk Superhero Backstories And Gut Punches

Aaron Neuwrith sat down to talk with the stars of The Tick, Peter Serafinowicz and Griffin Newman, about what it means to play a superhero and all that comes with this journey.

August 2017 saw the debut of the first half of season one of The Tick, an Amazon Studios production based on the popular satirical comic book superhero of the same name. Starting February 23, 2018, audiences will be able to see the second half of the season and learn more about the adventures of The Tick (Peter Serafinowicz) and Arthur (Griffin Newman), as they attempt to save The City from the supervillain known as The Terror (Jackie Earle Haley).

As a big fan of The Tick, I was a big fan of the first half of the season, featuring a new take on the character and I’m looking forward to the second half. Here is an interview full of Laughs and insight, as I spoke with stars Peter Serafinowicz and Griffin Newman about getting the chance to be a superhero, the incorporation of mental illness into the series, and how filming in Harlem led to getting a punch in the gut. But first, we start with some geeky references to Griffin’s Podcast, Blank Check with Griffin & David, and the Edgar Wright-directed TV series Spaced, which featured Serafinowicz.

Aaron: Hello. First I need you to wish a happy hello fennel to Ben Hosely.

Griffin: Wow. Yes, I can do that. He’s referring to Producer Ben, whom you met. He produces my podcast. The one time couldn’t decide on-mic between saying hello fellas and hello gentlemen, so it came out as “Hello Fennel.” And he asked us to delete it from the podcast, but instead, we insist that everyone says it to him all the time.

Peter: [Sighs]…because they’re the worst.

Griffin [Laughs] Hello Fennel!

Aaron: Yeah, so we can talk about The Tick, I want to get to that, but I’m also down to make a lot of Blank Check Podcast and Spaced jokes. 

Griffin: I’m into that.

Aaron: [Laughs] Peter, one of my favorite things in Spaced is a flashback to you and Simon Pegg playing miniature golf, and you make a put and say, “Was there ever any doubt!” And it just kills me. It’s one of my favorite bits from that whole show.

Peter: What was funny about that is that I’m fucking terrible at mini-golf.

[Laughs]

Peter: And this very simple 8-inch putt, well, I think it’s on the DVD, I just didn’t get it. So there was actually a lot of doubt [Laughs]. The time was running. I had like a little grab bag of these quips that I was going to say. And I sometimes said them out, after not achieving the very simple objective of getting the ball in the hole. I don’t know what I was thinking. CG was not advanced enough in 1999. [Laughs]

Aaron: I can hear the clicks coming in on a post about Tick interviews, by the way, where you’re describing notes about a show from a cult series from almost 20 years ago. 

Griffin: So into it. So into it.

Aaron: But yes, I’m very excited to talk with you guys. I was at Comic-Con at the last part of the big junket you were all doing and didn’t get a chance to speak with you.

Griffin: At New York or San Diego?

Aaron: San Diego, last summer. So I’ll say right now I have not been able to see the second half of the first season yet.

Griffin: Okay, so we’ll just spoil all of it here.

Aaron: Yeah, I was gonna ask, just spoil the whole thing for me.

Griffin: Sure, so The Tick and Arthur get married. As a tax dodge.

[Laughs]

Griffin: That’s the big twist at the end of the season. For tax purposes.

Aaron: And The Terror officiates the wedding, I would assume.

Griffin: Yep.

Aaron: But yeah, my girlfriend and I binged the first half of the season. I really love this show. I was just talking with Ben [Edlund] and Barry [Josephson] about it and how I grew up watching The Tick. I watch the animated series. I had the Sega Genesis video game. I watched the previous live-action TV show, and now we have this one. I really like the changes, as I’m not beholden to how a comic book once was. 

Griffin: Yeah.

Aaron: You can’t keep doing the same exact version every time. It’s more fun to explore different options. And you’ve done that, guys. You star in a version that has this unique tone to it that’s in this time where we have all these superhero movies. Lots of them are very fun; others are sorta different. What brought you to this show? What do you see in this that makes it such a unique presence in a world full of these kinds of heroes?

Griffin: I mean it’s a two-pronged answer. First thing that brought me to the show was that it was The Tick. Not unlike you, I’m a lifelong fan, and I wanted to be part of The Tick. I didn’t think that was something that was obtainable, but the second that was brought up as even a vague possibility, I put in whatever work I could to try and make that happen. But then looking at this specific version, Arthur felt like the kind of character that I had always prayed I would get to play someday. Removing Arthur from the history of The Tick, the Arthur that’s written in this… a) I felt this was a very atypical leading man in a way that really excited me. But not to get too lofty about it but there are very few ways that I think masculinity is portrayed in media if you are supposed to be the hero, and…

Peter: [In a tough guy voice] What the fuck you talkin’ about?!

[Laughs]

Griffin: Right, every guy has to sound like that. But no, it’s also like if you don’t behave a certain way, you’re usually the butt of the joke. Or a character in service of the guy who is the hero, who will make him look cooler or whatever it is. And also, I found that the way Ben wrote this character’s struggles with mental illness really exciting. Because of how humane it was and how much he wasn’t writing an issue show. He was writing a show about a person struggling with mental illness, but it wasn’t a mental illness series if that makes sense.

Aaron: It does, and I want to hear Peter, what you have to say as well, but that…

Peter: You clearly don’t.

[Laughs]

Aaron: I do, but that’s such an interesting point because Legion came out last year too. 

Peter: Well, I have interesting points!

Griffin: [Laughs]

Aaron: It deals with mental illness as well, and I never thought of bringing those two shows together, but yeah, as far as seeing shows that tackle masculinity and what have you, in various ways and bringing various issues to light, but putting it…

Griffin: Difficult things, but sort of just treating them as casually…not flippantly, but…well, I read a Tumblr post from a fan when the pilot came out who said, “I’ve never seen a show where the “crazy” character is the straight man,” which hit me really hard – that Arthur’s the normal one on the show in terms of the dynamics of the story and comedically, even though he is someone who has been diagnosed and medicated and institutionalized. And I think those things are mutually exclusive or…well, do you know what I’m saying? There’s a thought that everything has to fit through that one prism. If that’s a condition that every character has then everything is in response to that. But also, his taste in clothing is separate from that. People are complicated and multi-faceted. Now if you thought that answer was great, wait until you hear from Peter.

Aaron: Yeah, shut up Griffin, let’s hear from Peter and what brought you to The Tick!

Peter: Well I love blue.

[Laughs]

Peter: Yes, it was interesting what you were saying, how do you manage to come up with new things to think about?

Griffin: I get a script that I memorize before I do the interviews.

Peter: As we’ve been talking about today, the whole subject of how the show deals with mental illness and you can sort of look at it and think every character has some form of mental illness. And then I was thinking before I got to the end of that thought process, you could say that about any TV show, really. [Laughs]. Certainly, the ones that I’ve been watching recently. And yeah, that isn’t what the show professes to be about, but…

Griffin: There was also this weird thing when we were at San Diego Comic-Con panel, and I guess they thought they asked a general, almost softball question of like, “Well, what do you think the core of your character is?” And none of us ever said this to each other, but everyone in the cast, individually, said loneliness.

Peter: Loneliness, yeah.

Griffin: That it was like all of us like our main driving force is trying to find a way to connect with someone and struggling to do so. And these are all people who are weird or balancing different personas. And not just literally just superhero identities vs. this and that, I mean Tick doesn’t have an alter-ego, and Dot doesn’t have a superhero persona, but they’re different faces that we all have to put on all in this attempt to try and find a place where we feel comfortable and other people we connect with.

Peter: Yeah, that connecting of lonely people with people that they would normally not be connecting with.

Aaron: Well what I find fascinating about your version of The Tick is how you’re playing a character who has no real backstory, as of now. We have various superheroes who have clear backstories, but you’re playing a character that doesn’t know where he comes from. Again, I haven’t seen the second half yet, and maybe there’s some crazy thing that happens right away. Still, it’s also the way you play it, the sense of innocence to it that I really enjoyed. This earnest sensibility where you’re like, “I wanna get these guys because I can, but where do I come from? Whole different story that I’m happy to try and answer that question, but I don’t have that answer.” How is that for you to play? A role that doesn’t have much backstory to go with.

Peter: Y’know, if you think about it, you’re stuck starting to create problems for yourself. As a person, your backstory certainly matters, but it matters to different degrees, and sometimes I think I guess everything that’s happened to me has made me who I am now, but there’s a kind of limit to that. So there are parts of me that’s just me…

Griffin: I feel like sometimes, both from writers and actors, there’s too much value put on the backstory in a very literal way where it’s like every scene has to relate back to the inciting incident. “This is what made me a person, and everything is a response to that.

Aaron: And that’s hampered films. I’ve seen that in the past few years.

Griffin: Yeah, and we have many inciting incidents that incite different parts of our personality that continue to morph and change. Tick is just like…well rather than being beholden to a thousand things, he’s beholden to nothing [Laughs] other than his own direction.

Peter: I always found The Dark Knight…that’s the one with Heath Ledger, right?

Aaron: Yes.

Peter. Right. So I enjoyed that mostly, but I find those Christopher Nolan films…the way they get so heavy with the mythology of Batman and I find it just way too much for me. And sure, they are stunning movies, but I was thinking about this today, the whole weight given to Batman’s backstory in that film, which is nearly three hours of reinforcing it…I don’t give a fuck about that, right? And then, what I realized is how Heath Ledger as the Joker in that, he spins off like three or four versions of his own backstory in that film.

Griffin: And they all contradict each other.

Peter: Yes, but they are all powerful in their own way, and they also illustrate the meaninglessness of backstory. So I think that’s like a really clever thing that he did.

Griffin: I think it’s really smart. I dropped out of college to pursue acting. And at different times, depending on what benefits fitting of that circumstance when I tell people this story after they ask what led to me dropping out, I can list four different inciting incidents. And depending on how I tell it, I can say this one thing happened, and I said, “That’s it!” And I was gone from college forever. But there isn’t one thing, ever, you know? It’s never that tight, so it’s like in a certain way, having that many different things be the origin of your personality is the same as having nothing. [Laughs] The origin of your personality the way The Tick is. He’s just a superhero. Also, there were times where, as a fan, it’s just surreal getting to do scenes with The Tick. Because there are moments where Peter is so in the zone that I just feel like I’m meeting Mickey Mouse at Disneyworld. You’re just with a character that you grew up loving.

Peter: That’s if I do the voice a bit too high.

Griffin: Yes and wearing the foam mouse hat.

[Laughs]

Griffin: But yes, there were moments when Peter would just totally blow me away. He would do a move that’s so specific and within the roots of what the character was, but unexpected. And I would be like, “Where did that come from, like that look you gave or that thing you did with your hands.” And every time he would go, “That’s just a thing that my son does when he’s angry about like not being able to figure out a math problem.” It would always be something that Peter took from his kids, and I thought that was really telling about his interpretation of the character because kids are so pure and so incapable of masking in that kind of way. They are very objective based. Whether they are doing something right or they’re doing something wrong, or they’re bored, there’s no sort of performative aspect there. They’re performing for the sake of performing. And so these moments that I found so emotionally affecting for the character were always Peter brilliantly going to some core of, “Well how does my son express himself when he is struggling to make his point or when my daughter is tired?” These little…

Peter: Theft.

[Laughs]

Peter: Like stealing candy from a baby.

[Laughs]

Aaron: For my last question I wanted to talk about the costumes and the sort of physical demands when it comes to being in a comedy-drama that does have a good amount of action in it. There’s a variety of things I’m sure you can tell me about that, but is there an overall sense of what that’s like? Is that great to be in a very form-fitting costume at times and putting that on, and being involved in things?

Peter: Well, short answer – no.

[Laughs]

Griffin: I think about this a lot – my main guy Michael Keaton. My favorite living actor. He is like extremely claustrophobic, and he’s talked about the first time that he put on the Bat-suit and how he nearly lost his mind. And he would, on set, punch himself as hard as he could in the thigh to sort of distract from that pain, relocating the pain somewhere else.

Aaron: He wanted to get nuts.

Griffin: Right. He wanted to get nuts. [Laughs] And I directly steal that line reading at least once in this season of The Tick. I applied that line reading to a different line, which I won’t say, but people will probably figure it out. But, Keaton said that he was talking to one of the other actors who played Batman later, wondering if he had any advice and he said to just work that suit. And they’d reply, “Well, what do you mean?” And he’d say, “At first I was so stressed out by how uncomfortable I was. How much I hated the limitations.” But you start to realize, and it’s a real double-edged sword. It makes your performance very difficult to execute in certain ways. But it also gives everything you do an added power. So you have to work a lot harder just to do basic things, but there’s also a weight and sort of iconography that’s provided to everything that you do. I mean, do you remember when we were filming in Harlem, and kids would come up to you. And they didn’t know that you were The Tick. They didn’t know what The Tick was, but they saw a very tall man with a booming voice and a bright costume standing in the street. So they would get the look of like, “Oh my god, that’s a superhero.” They were starstruck by what he represented as a piece of iconography.

Peter: Yes.

Griffin: But also, the suits were really uncomfortable. [Laughs]

Peter: Yeah, it was a double-edged sword, and it was as painful as a double-edged sword would be. [Laughs] But yeah, there was that time a kid punched me in the stomach. He was getting angry with us because we were filming on his block and it’s like lightning. When film crews just think they can show up in people’s neighborhoods and be like, “Well we override every rule of the country because we’re here, we can do what we want, because we’re making a TV show and whatever.” So we tried to pacify this kid by letting him sit in one of the chairs and give him some headphones so he could listen to the scene.

Griffin: And we were all playing along, like, “Hey, if you want to give us any notes you can.” And when the shoot ended he gave us a lot of notes. He took it very seriously. He was not super impressed with the season. [Laughs]

Aaron: He’s an associate producer for the next season, I’m sure.

Peter: I was talking in character the entire time, so at the end of the shoot I was like, “[American accent] Well sir, thank you for letting us film in your neighborhood and can we shake on it.” And so I held up my hand, and he held up his hand and just punched me in the stomach. I mean, he’s only little, but I was reminded of Houdini.

Griffin: This might be the way I die! [Laughs]

Peter: This might be the way, yeah.

Aaron: Oh the headlines I could come up with from all of this. 

Griffin: You’re gonna get a lot of hits with all this.

[Laughs]

Aaron: Really though, this has been great. I’m very happy to have met you guys. I look forward to the rest of the season.

Griffin: Thank you.

Peter: I hope you enjoy it!

Aaron: I’m very happy there’s a second season coming as well.

Griffin: Yes, yes. I very much look forward to paying my rent.

Aaron: Thanks guys.

[Interview edited for clarity]

The Tick Season 1b Premieres On Amazon Prime February 23, 2018.

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