If you really want to get Thomas Middleditch fired up, ask him about GURPS. The 32-year-old Canadian actor and comedian, who plays the lead in Mike Judge’s tech-world-skewering TV show Silicon Valley, will hem and haw a bit before describing a role-playing game so deeply geeky it makes Dungeons & Dragons seem like varsity lacrosse. “It stands for ‘Generic Universal RolePlaying System,'” Middleditch explains. “In D&D, you’re only in that fantasy world. But with GURPS you can, like, play a game that’s Los Angeles film noir, or a game where the premise is you are world-jumpers, and you can go to different worlds.” He laughs and adds, “I really just unloaded on you!”
Point being, it would have been hard for Judge (the comic mind behind Beavis and Butt-Head and Office Space) to find a lead actor with stiffer geek bona fides than Middleditch. In Silicon Valley, he plays Richard Hendricks – creator of a revolutionary new compression algorithm and leader of a startup crew that lives and codes together in a dork-frat house.
But while Hendricks is bumbling and socially phobic, Middleditch is witty and self-deprecating – unsurprising given his 15 years of heavy-duty improv experience, which includes a near-miss audition for Saturday Night Live. “It went pretty well, but I look too much like Seth Meyers,” he says. “I had in my mind how you could address it on a ‘Weekend Update,’ but Lorne Michaels didn’t see it that way.”
Silicon Valley, which lampoons everyone from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel to Google, has struck a chord with actual denizens of the tech world. “It’s basically a documentary,” Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel tells Rolling Stone. But Middleditch is more interested in the comedic possibilities of the Valley than in social criticism. “It’s an absurd world – you know, billionaires in Birkenstocks,” he says. “But I’d rather have nerdy tech guys as the next Carnegie than oil tycoons.”
As his star rises, Middleditch has developed some less geeky obsessions – like woodworking and following hockey. “[Parks and Recreation‘s] Nick Offerman let me into his shop, and I helped make some canoe paddles,” says Middleditch, who now has a shop of his own in his garage. “I’m undeniably very nerdy, but I’m trying to recognize and pursue more masculine pursuits.”
This story is from the May 22nd, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.