UVic’s most famous dropout

Culture Film Theatre

An unauthorized biography of Thomas Middleditch

The list of famous UVic alumni is a long and illustrious one, containing some of the most well-known names in Canada. Ryan Cochrane, Andrew Weaver, Rona Ambrose, and Nathan Fielder (to name but a few) have all earned degrees in Victoria.

Usually, the names of the students who didn’t graduate are far less recognizable, but in UVic’s case, one student who dropped out in 2003 has suddenly risen to prominence in Hollywood: Thomas Middleditch. The Nelson, B.C. native currently stars in the award-winning HBO series Silicon Valley and has been racking up roles in blockbuster films such as Kong: Skull Island, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, and the soon-to-be-released Replicas.

If this is the first you’ve heard of the Middleditch-UVic connection, you’re not alone. His lack of a degree has left him off alumni lists and limited his presence on campus to a couple of photos in the Phoenix Theatre building. In fact, the only mention of Middleditch’s acting experience on the UVic Theatre Website (apart from being listed in the casts of a few Phoenix productions) is as a heritage interpreter in Nelson. It doesn’t help that Middleditch rarely mentions his time at UVic, and when he does, it’s usually as a brief factoid.

Middleditch acts in the UVic production of 'The Imaginary Invalid'. Photos by Stewart Wood via Phoenix Theatre
Middleditch acts in the UVic production of ‘The Imaginary Invalid’. Photos by Stewart Wood via Phoenix Theatre

Middleditch at UVic

Despite his seemingly threadbare connection to UVic, his theatre professors remember him fondly. “He was a brilliant young actor when he was here,” said Linda Hardy, who both taught Middleditch in classes and directed him in a 2003 production of Rappaccini’s Daughter. “I think one can say that he is a born comedian. He can play strong straight roles but has a natural bent for comedy. As an actor he’s intelligent and imaginative, has a tremendous amount of flair, but is also generous and understands what it is to be generous to his fellow actors onstage.”

Jan Wood, who performed alongside Middleditch in a production of Peer Gynt in 2002 and then taught him in 2003, also praised the now-famous actor. One performance stood out to her in particular.

“He played the lead in The Imaginary Invalid . . . and Tom was outstanding,” said Wood. “It was a professional calibre [production] and this was a student who was probably 19 years old . . . he hadn’t had a lot of acting training but just really strong comedic instincts. Loved exploring comedy and loved performing in front of a live audience.”

“[UVic’s acting program] is an audition-based course, so I already knew that he was definitely of professional material at that young age,” said Wood. “And he was very interested in comedy. He quit the program after second year. I like to think it wasn’t because of me. But I just think he realized that this wasn’t the route that was going to satisfy his needs. He talked about soon moving to Toronto and pursuing Second City  [an improv company] in Chicago and Toronto. He knew that comedy was where he wanted to be.”

Now, it seems that Middleditch has found the steady comedic acting work he was looking for. For the decade or so between the end of his time at UVic and the start of HBO’s Silicon Valley, things didn’t always look so optimistic. As Middleditch explained in an enthralling 2016 interview on Off Camera With Sam Jones, his road to success was as indirect as they come.

By Middleditch’s account, his decision to enroll in UVic’s theatre program was based on the advice of a high school guidance counselor. “I told him I wanted to do comedy, and he was like, ‘I guess you go to theatre school and get a degree.’ So, I was like, ‘oh, OK. I guess I’ve got to trust Mr. Whoever,’” Middleditch told Jones. “[I] went there for a couple years and did pretty well. By my second year I was the lead of a bunch of plays and that was usually reserved for fourth years . . . So I dropped out of there to go to a hoity toity theatre/acting school [George Brown] in Toronto. But the summer between being accepted and starting, I met all these people doing comedy . . . I was like, ‘Oh, you can just do it? You don’t have to go to school? I don’t have to come up with my classical and contemporary monologues? So I blew theatre school off and started doing [comedy].”

Middleditch acts alongside Jeff Stubbs in the UVic production of 'The Imaginary Invalid'. Photos by Stewart Wood via Phoenix Theatre
Middleditch acts alongside Jeff Stubbs in the UVic production of ‘The Imaginary Invalid’. Photos by Stewart Wood via Phoenix Theatre

Transition to improv

In Toronto, Middleditch auditioned for the Second City conservatory program. After being rejected, he worked in a New Balance store and tried his hand in the sketch comedy scene. Two years later, he auditioned for Second City Chicago — this time Middleditch was accepted.

But even his immigration process didn’t follow a simple route.

“Me and a girlfriend at the time went across [the border] as visitors and stayed there for ages,” Middleditch revealed on the Box Angeles Podcast. “I did cash jobs. I walked dogs for the time I was in Chicago, and it was crazy. You’re supposed to have a car [to] drive to the dog place and walk them around. I didn’t. I had a bike and I rode my bike in the fucking winter. In the Chicago winter . . . It’s so cold it feels like my face is going to split open, but I was dead set.”

Despite dealing with financial hardship and an illegal immigrant status, Middleditch quickly began to establish himself in the Chicago improv scene, eventually going on tour with the group Baby Wants Candy. In fact, it was ImprovOlympic (iO) co-founder Sharna Halpern who ended up sponsoring him for his first work visa. It was also during this improv-heavy segment of his career that Middleditch made a viral McNuggets rap video with his friend Fernando Sosa.

Middleditch (right) performs his improvised McNuggets rap video with friend Fernando Sosa.

Despite millions of views on the rap video — and a McDonald’s commercial that resulted from it — his minor improv and YouTube successes didn’t lead to any substantial comedy or acting work. In the regimented format of Second City, Middleditch figured it would take him close to a decade to even get on the mainstage. So, while pondering whether or not to give up on his dream and move back to Canada, he took a job doing improv on Norwegian Cruise Lines. Initially, he envisioned regular improv shows and a chance to write in his spare time, but the actual experience was drastically different.

“I was doing max six hours of work a week,” said Middleditch. “I thought I was going to come back with four written scripts . . . but when you’re just sitting there you’re like, ‘I’ve got to waste time somehow. I’m going to drink myself to death, I’m going to fuck whatever I can, I’m going to get away with as much bullshit as I humanly possibly can.”

But just a few days into the start of his tenure on the ship, Middleditch got word that Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live’s Executive Producer) and Seth Meyers (an SNL cast member at the time) were coming to Chicago to take a look at improvisors. After throwing what Middleditch calls a “full-blown temper tantrum”, he managed to fly back to Chicago from Bermuda, perform in the showcase, and meet up with the boat to continue working at sea. Despite getting a callback and having encouraging conversations with producers, Middleditch ultimately wasn’t cast on SNL. Over the course of the auditioning process, however, Middleditch found a new manager, had meetings with networks, and eventually landed a holding deal with ABC.

Middleditch performing as Kevin Evans — the character he would use in his (unsuccessful) SNL audition

That deal brought him to New York. But with few connections there and the 2007-2008 writers strike in full swing, auditions were few and far between. “I just had this money and then nothing to do, which was cool . . . but in New York that [money] goes away like a fart,” said Middleditch. “That [period of time] was a mental battle. I kind of lost my mind for a bit. I’d call my parents in hysterics, crying.”

Success at last

Middleditch acts alongside Jeff Stubbs (right) and Katie Siney (centre) in the UVic production of 'The Imaginary Invalid'. Photos by Stewart Wood via Phoenix Theatre
Middleditch acts alongside Jeff Stubbs (right) and Katie Siney (centre) in the UVic production of ‘The Imaginary Invalid’. Photos by Stewart Wood via Phoenix Theatre

He eventually found his feet doing stand-up comedy and acting in commercials. But it was a strange audio sketch that planted the seeds of Middleditch’s current success. That audio sketch, which initially bombed on stage but was liked by his manager, was developed into a pitch for an animated show, which was approved for an MTV pilot by John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, who worked with Mike Judge, the creator of Beavis and Butthead.

Middleditch’s series wasn’t picked up, but during the pilot-writing process Altschuler, Krinsky, and Judge mentioned that they were writing a pilot for HBO with him in mind. “I was like, ‘yeah, right,’” Middleditch told Sam Jones. “You hear that shit and you’re like, ‘Me? They’re never going to buy it. HBO will never let that happen.’”

So, while those three producers went away to create what would later become Silicon Valley, Middleditch toiled away in the acting trenches of Los Angeles, landing an eclectic selection of acting gigs such as the role of Dwight Schrute’s brother in The Farm, an ill-fated spinoff of The Office, and in a series of successful YouTube videos for CollegeHumor.

A couple of years later, Altschuler, Krinsky, and Judge’s idea became a reality. Middleditch was cast in Silicon Valley and his career really began to take off. The series has since been nominated for and won multiple awards, including a 2016 Emmy nomination for Middleditch as an Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.

To his credit, Middleditch seems to view his strange road to success in a positive light. Rather than bemoan the wrong turns and dead ends he faced, Middleditch speaks of his brief UVic experience, rough stints in Toronto, Chicago, and New York, and work on the cruise ship as what shaped him into the successful person he is today.

“I feel really happy and fortunate that I took what I perceive to be a pretty roundabout way,” Middleditch told Jones. “I’ve had plenty of odd jobs to pay the bills, did weird, shitty tours of improv at colleges or corporate events where no one’s paying attention . . . I like that, that’s character-building. All the work now draws on that in some way.”

Middleditch appearing on the Jimmy Kimmel Show.