Ted Lasso: An oral history on the rise of Jason Sudeikis’s feel-good comedy for the ages

As the series returns for a second season, Jacob Stolworthy talks to the cast about how the hit series became a word-of-mouth sensation, and gave respite to many, during a global pandemic

Thursday 22 July 2021 12:16
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<p>‘People don’t think you can be interesting when you’re a nice person:’ The cast of ‘Ted Lasso’ on the appeal of the feel-good comedy hit </p>

‘People don’t think you can be interesting when you’re a nice person:’ The cast of ‘Ted Lasso’ on the appeal of the feel-good comedy hit

Is there a series more charming than Ted Lasso? Not that I’ve seen.

The Apple TV+ comedy, a paragon of positivity, follows a college-level American soccer coach (Jason Sudeikis) hired to oversee AFC Richmond, a flailing football team in England, despite knowing nothing about the sport.

Unbeknown to Ted, he’s become mired in a revenge plot cooked up by owner Rebeccca Welton (Hannah Waddingham), who’s intent on letting the club sink to get back at her cheating ex-husband.

However, Ted’s unwavering optimism shines through and, slowly but surely, the American’s irreverent ways begin chipping away at everyone’s hearts, from Rebecca to the players and the locals. It’s this celebration of kindness as a cherished trait, and not a boring one, that lassos you in. The irony that the show we most needed in a pandemic arrived five months into one is not lost on its cast.

The world agreed: having exhausted everything on Netflix and Amazon Prime, people were convinced by Ted Lasso’s burgeoning following to give Apple TV+ a go. Less than a year on, the show has become the streaming service’s most-watched series, helped in part by its record 20 Emmy nominations earlier this month (the most for any comedy this year).

To mark the arrival of season two, we spoke to the show’s cast members about their involvement with the show and their stunned yet grateful response to its lightning-in-a-bottle success. “We all got nervous when they said we had a guy from The Independent,” says writer Brett Goldstein, who plays grizzled footballer Roy Kent, in reference to Ted Crimm, the sniffy Indy journalist featured in the show. (Fortunately, at the end of the interview, he concedes: “You were much less scary than Trent and we are grateful for that.”)

In 2013, Jason Sudeikis makes his debut as Ted Lasso, a character created for a series of NBC Sports spoof commercials promoting the network’s coverage of the Premier League. He preps a season of TV based around the character alongside Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence in 2017 and, two years later, they write a pilot.

In October 2019, Ted Lasso receives a full-season commission by Apple TV+, and Sudeikis and Lawrence enlist the services of Brendan Hunt, Brett Goldstein (who both star in the show) and Joe Kelly to map it out. Before too long, the casting begins.

Brett Goldstein [writer, Roy Kent]: I’ve been working very hard in this business for a very long time, and I’d given up on the idea of a magical phone call. Then, one day, the phone rings, and it’s Bill. He goes, “Hey, what are you doing next week?” I told him I had a stand-up show and he was like, “You need to cancel it; I think you should come and write on this show.” I said, “No, I can’t ’cause I’ve got this stand-up show.”

Hannah Waddingham [Rebecca Welton]: I didn’t think for a second it would go my way. I thought they would go for one of the “famouses”, as I like to call them. So when I auditioned for Rebecca, I was very relaxed. They flew me over to meet Jason for an old-school chemistry read. I remember saying to him, “It’s been really lovely meeting you – whoever gets it, all power to them. I wish it was me, but let’s see.” I just hung up my boots with it, ’cause I’m quite fatalistic about these things. Cut to me getting the role and thinking, “Phew!’ because if anyone else had got it, I would have been really pissed off. I knew who she was and, given the chance to get my teeth into it, I knew who she needed to be.

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Brett Goldstein: I had a FaceTime with Jason at 1.30am for about an hour and a half. When it finished, I was so invested in this thing. Then Bill told me to pack my bags because they’d bought me a flight. I had to let down the 15 people who bought tickets to my stand-up. I wrote them a letter at Soho Theatre saying, “I still owe you a gig.”

‘They couldn’t be bothered to look for anybody else so I got the part’: Brett Goldstein on convincing Jason Sudeikis to cast him in ‘Ted Lasso’

Jeremy Swift [Higgins]: I’d wanted to be in an American comedy for a long time. I go up for a lot of things so I didn’t think about it too much because it was going to be so upsetting when I didn’t get it. But then I heard I was in the running along with a couple of other people. Then the possibility of upset became even higher. I just thought it looked tremendous fun. Getting it was amazing.

Nick Mohammed [Nate Shelley]: I actually went up for Higgins.

Jeremy Swift: Loads of people went up for Higgins – including Phil Dunster, who plays Jamie Tartt!

Nick Mohammed: I can’t believe Phil went up for Higgins.

Phil Dunster [Jamie Tartt]: I first came to it not knowing a huge amount about the show other than I’d watched the commercials. I wasn’t sure how it would work. I love, love, love football. It’s what I spend my life doing. I auditioned for it a few times. Jamie was originally called Dani Rojas [who eventually became a character played by Cristo Fernández] and it was a very open casting bracket in terms of who they were looking for. I tried different accents and something stuck. I was overjoyed because I got to be a footballer.

Brett Goldstein: I think I remember the exact moment I wanted to play Roy. It was around the time we were writing episode five. It was the scene in the car park where Roy scares Keeley [Jones] and she goes, “You snuck up on a girl in in the middle of the night, well done.” I thought, “I really get Roy; I understand him.” But I also knew no one was thinking of me for the part.

‘I was overjoyed because I got to be a footballer’: Phil Dunster on playing the cocky Jamie Tartt

Nick Mohammed: I went up for Ted Lasso and Lord of the Rings [a new Amazon Prime Video series], but I didn’t get either. I then got asked to tape for Nate. I only submitted one when they asked me to do three, which must have come across as very arrogant at the time. I count my lucky stars it was enough to get the part.

Brett Goldstein: I’ve played sweet, nice people a lot so, if anything, they had me in mind for Higgins. I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, ’cause if I’d asked to audition and I was s***, it would’ve been really embarrassing. I made a self tape the night before the last day in the writers’ room, and emailed it the next day and said, “Look, I think I could play Roy. If this tape is s***, you can pretend you never got this email and we’ll never need to speak about it. If, however, you like it…” They couldn’t be bothered to look for anybody else so I got the part.

Juno Temple [Keeley Jones]: My story is not anywhere as brilliantly feisty and brave as Brett’s. I got a text from Jason, who I knew loosely. He said he was reaching out personally about a project that he’d written with his best friends and there was a part he thought I’d be right for. We share an agent, so he really didn’t have to do that, but it meant such a lot to him. I am not known for comedy work; I normally get asked to play a girl who is struggling with her existence and somehow takes her clothes off. I was a bit panicked that he maybe thought I was a different person.

Brett Goldstein: If I hadn’t got the part, I don’t think I’d be writing on season two, ’cause none of us would be able to look each other in the eye!

‘I am not known for comedy work’: Juno Temple as Keeley in ‘Ted Lasso’

Phil Dunster: When I read the script, I thought I understood it – Jamie’s the bad guy; he’s a nasty piece of work. But as we went on through the season, and speaking to Jason quite a lot, I realised all of his negative aspects don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s a reason why he’s so guarded and mean and selfish, and that was one of the biggest joys for me.

Hannah Waddingham: Rebecca’s story wasn’t mapped out [for me]. I was very much left to my own devices about her backstory. I love that, very early on, you see the cracks and you don’t just see “tough ice bitch”. Everyone thinks they’ve got the measure of her: “Oh yeah, they’ve got this actress because she’s really tall, so she can play strong.” Then, in the first episode, you see the fact that she’s not knowing what she’s doing, but doing a damn good impression of showing she does.

Juno Temple: I had to go to a friend’s 30th birthday and Jason asked me to come and meet him for a drink late that evening, so I was really dressed up. Like, really dressed up fancy. I went to meet him in a local bar in an outfit that, actually, now I look at it, is an outfit Keeley would wear, so I may have done myself a favour. He was in board shorts, sneakers and a T-shirt. I suddenly thought, “He’s gonna think I’m trying really hard!” and we had a real giggle about that.

The character that changed the most in the writing was Keeley because of Juno

Brett Goldstein

Phil Dunster: It was a real joy for me as somebody who, while they’re not watching football, spends a lot of time reading self-help books, tussling with the nuances of the less shiny elements of ourselves. So we have a TV show about that while also being a really good laugh that uses a lot of puns. I love a good pun.

Juno Temple: I was so nervous to walk into the read-through. The room was filled with such brilliant actors, but also really brilliant comedians. It was a moment I’ll never forget. I’m eternally grateful that Jason thought of me for this part because I don’t think I’ve ever loved a character more.

Brett Goldstein: Let me say this about Juno, because she would never say it about herself: when we did that first read-through, not only was she f***ing funny, but us – the writers – were like, “Oh, she’s funnier than we’ve written.” The character that changed the most in the writing was Keeley because of Juno. She was so much more fun than what we had written.

Juno Temple: I need them to come with me everywhere throughout my life! “Hey, I’ve got a date in two hours – can you quickly write something?”

‘I count my lucky stars it was enough to get the part’: Nick Mohammed on starring opposite Jason Sudeikis in ‘Ted Lasso’

Jeremy Swift: Jason is very funny. He’s very detailed. He’ll be quite hard on himself about getting something completely right. He’s such a grafter. In season one, when he has that big speech in the locker room, he did that about seven times and the high-level of content changed every time. That was, like, seven different drafts in his brain. How does he fit all that in?

Nick Mohammed: He doesn’t just have his eye on Ted; he’s got his eye on every single other character and every single detail of what’s on set – even the position of props. It’s a very open atmosphere. When something doesn’t work or there’s a new idea, or a slightly more nuanced one, he’s just brilliant at being a soundboard and making decisions when they need to be made.

Hannah Waddingham: I’d purposely made a point of shutting everything that didn’t involve Rebecca out – certainly all the stuff with Ted, his wife and his son. Even in the read-throughs, I’d be like: [puts her fingers in her ears] “La, la, la, la.” I didn’t want to know the human. All I knew was he’s a disaster at what he does and he’s going to be the root to getting back at Rupert [Rebecca’s ex-husband, played by Anthony Head]. If I’d let Ted in as a human, I’d notice flickers in Jason’s eyes and think, “Oh, he’s doing that thing to show this to the audience.” Case in point – because I was ignoring Ted’s scenes, when I watched the musical montage for the bit where he makes Rebecca the biscuits, I went “awww!” as much as the next person.

I realised I’d shot the whole season not knowing what the vibe was

Hannah Waddingham

Nick Mohammed: The machine of the show feels very American but it does have a lot of British sensibilities. So, you get to have those but play around with them in the scope of an American show and budget.

Phil Dunster: The melding of the two is where the hilarity comes from, and also the drama. Jason said he vaguely wanted the show to be a mix between Friday Night Lights and the British Office. I think I remember him saying that.

Jeremy Swift: Brett, being British, knows lots about football, as well as the best swear words. So crucial.

Phil Dunster: I think there are quite a few footballers in Jamie Tartt. He’s watched Cantona and Ronaldo; those players that show they think they’re the best. But, affectionately, I modelled some of Jamie on Jack Grealish, a bit of Jamie Vardy. And Olivier Giroud, ’cause the man loves his hair.

Hannah Waddingham: When I did Game of Thrones, I didn’t watch a backlog of scenes with Cersei [Leana Headey’s character], because I thought my character [nun Septa Unella] wouldn’t give a s***. You have to inform yourself to the level of which your character would be informed in any given situation, so I didn’t want that detail. I think it makes you better at playing who you’re meant to be playing if you don’t know any more than you’re meant to. Maybe that’s unusual. But when Ted Lasso came out, I had an epiphany: I realised I’d shot the whole season not knowing what the vibe was.

‘I didn’t want to know Ted the human:’ Hannah Waddingham on her approach to playing Rebecca in ‘Ted Lasso’

Juno Temple: We all knew it was special but that it might go nowhere. This industry can be wickedly cruel, but you have to exist and let it be. When we were saying goodbye, it was quite heartbreaking because we might not have come back. We didn’t know where it was going. But we did all know that we’d treasured every second of what we’d done, because we walked away having a positive attitude and wanting to be kinder.

August 2020: Ted Lasso makes its debut on Apple TV+. Slowly, but surely, it becomes a word-of-mouth hit.

Jeremy Swift: There were a couple of sniffy reviews. I went, “Oh no, they’re not getting it.” And then the public’s response was something completely different. In a year, I’ve seen three negative comments on Twitter. Not that I look at it all the time.

Phil Dunster: It was a slow burn to begin with. We were very lucky to go to the FA Cup final to watch Leicester vs Chelsea. All of us cast who are in the team got to the bottom of the Wembley steps, and there was a camera crew there. I think Toheeb [Jimoh, who plays Sam Obisanya] said to Cristo, “Get interviewed as Dani Rojas” – and he did! He was like, “I’m from Mexico, I play football over here.” I don’t know if this guy knew, but he was interviewing AFC Richmond.

Nick Mohammed: It started generating awards attention – getting nominated and winning some – quite early into the filming of season two, which was quite surreal. There was also obviously a pandemic to contend with and that presented its own challenges. We were trying to focus on work, but the show was doing very well, and (not in a “poor me” kind of way) we couldn’t celebrate or demonstrate our appreciation for it ’cause we were all in masks and couldn’t socialise.

Jeremy Swift: The positive tone was decided before the pandemic, but with it happening at the same time, there was a resonating thing going on. It was released in a period where people were reassessing how they live life. Kindness is a way of beginning again.

‘In a year, I’ve seen three negative comments on Twitter’: Higgins actor Jeremy Swift on the success of ‘Ted Lasso’

Phil Dunster: You never know when you start a show what the response is gonna be. It’s so brilliant that it’s hitting that chord.

Nick Mohammed: I think we’ve maybe reached our saturation point in terms of of snarky comedies. It bucked the trend by doing something that had an openly positive message. It didn’t try and be cynical. I think that’s a reason why it stood out for all the right reasons.

Juno Temple: It was a weird thing to experience it becoming a hit when you’re stuck in your house during a lockdown. It was like, “Really? What do I do now?” It’s a weird juxtaposition to have something be successful in a time when the world is f***ing falling apart and in need of care and love. Then we found out we got to do another season.

Hannah Waddingham: TV shows have forgotten how to show that it’s OK to be loving and kind and understanding – almost like it’s a boring thing. But all of us need it in our lives. I think with the first few episodes, people were like, “He can’t really be that nice,” because we are all universally conditioned to be cynical. People don’t think you can be interesting when you’re a nice person.

It’s weird to have something be successful in a time when the world is f***ing falling apart

Juno Temple

Jeremy Swift: Ted has a resilience about his confidence, and a humility. He’s quite a special character for that. You couldn’t help but be bowled over by a real-life Ted. I’m always rooting for the underdog myself. I think I myself have often been in positions where I’ve not been recognised or maybe not valued. We’ve all been there, I suppose.

Nick Mohammed: I like that he’s quite bulletproof. You can throw a lot at him, but he’s not fazed by things that everyone else would be fazed by. That’s a quality to admire.

Hannah Waddingham: I always say that the greatest acting job of my life so far was to make everyone think those biscuits tasted good in season one. They are really nice and buttery and sugary now, but that’s because I’ve had such a global tantrum about their flavour every time I’ve been asked about it.

‘If I hadn’t got the part, I don’t think I’d be writing on season two, ’cause none of us would be able to look each other in the eye!’: Brett Goldstein on ‘Ted Lasso’

Phil Dunster: I don’t feel quite so much of the pressure as the writers, but I think they rose to the occasion. I think season two is better.

Nick Mohammed: The ante was upped. We felt a duty of care to deliver another season that’ll live up to everything everyone hopes it will be.

Juno Temple: When you have people who enjoy what you did, all you want to do is make sure you make them proud. The immediate response when I found out we were doing a second season was: “I want to make sure I do it justice again.”

Brett Goldstein: I still owe them a gig at Soho Theatre.

‘Ted Lasso’ is available to stream on Apple TV+

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