Created by Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Thick of It), the HBO comedy series Avenue 5 is set 40 years in the future, at a time when space tourism is no longer the stuff of sci-fi fantasy, and for spaceship owner Herman Judd (Josh Gad), it’s a multi-billion dollar business. But when the ship experiences an epic malfunction that affects the crew and passengers, it’s up to Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) to keep up appearances and calm everyone onboard the ship, even though he’s got secrets of his own.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Rebecca Front (who plays relentlessly persistent passenger Karen Kelly) talked about the comedy style of Armando Ianucci, why she feels safe in the hands of him and his team, how she views Karen, the qualities in her character that she wishes she had, how far ahead they’d learn about the crazy shenanigans that were coming next, loving her character’s wardrobe, whether she’d ever be interested in space tourism herself, and her hopes for Season 2.
Collider: It seems like a show like this would be almost impossible to describe to actors, unless you’re familiar with the style of Armando Iannucci, so that you could get a sense for what the tone and humor of the show would be. When something like this comes your way, does it help to know what he’s previously done, so that you can trust in the outcome?
REBECCA FRONT: Yeah, absolutely. Every time I’m asked the question, “What drew you to this show?,” the answer is Armando. I’ve worked with Armando before. If Armando said, “I’m doing a show set in a plastic bag, do you wanna be in it?,” I’d go “Yeah,” ‘cause it’s gonna be good ‘cause it’s Armando. Obviously, I’d say yes. So, the fact that it’s Armando and it’s the same writing team who did Veep, those things, in and of themselves, made me think that I was in safe hands. And then, on top of that, to come in and work with a team of actors who are just the most unbelievable cast of people, and who are all wonderful and all brilliant at what they do, really makes you feel supported and safe. You just think, “Yeah, okay, it’s all gonna be fine,” because we’ve got some brilliant people around us.
Watching these episodes, you can easily see how, in somebody else’s hands, it could have been a disaster.
FRONT: Yeah, because it’s so extreme. The situation is so extreme, and there’s a confidence and an audacity about the way Armando and the team have handled this. The fact that the disaster happens within about five minutes of the show starting, and then there are three major plot reveals, all in the first episode, that are the kind of thing where, if you saw that on paper, you’d be like, “No, what are you doing? You save these. That should be the end of the season finale.” But of course, they do that because they’re absolutely confident that they’ve got loads more crazy ideas coming up. As an actor, you think, “This is all good. They’ve got this. They’re in control.”
There are varying degrees to the information that the people on the ship are actually aware of, and your character is one of those persistent people who just keeps sticking her nose in, but at the same time, does end up getting some information that other people don’t have.
FRONT: And she’s right to do that. In fact, there’s nobody, at any point, who knows everything. Even Iris, who appears to know most things, didn’t know that the captain wasn’t a captain, and she didn’t know that he was English. So, actually, nobody knows everything. It becomes quite obvious that nobody really knows anything, let alone everything. A British newspaper referred to my character as nosy, and I don’t see her as nosy. I think she’s rightfully terrified, and she’s absolutely right. Nobody knows anything and that could be very chaotic, so somebody needs to get some information and get it sorted quickly, so I think she just quite sensical. She is, of course, incredibly nosy and entitled, but that’s not the way that I saw her. I just saw her as somebody who instinctively understands that this is a chaotic mess and somebody needs to take control of it.
Is it tricky to play a character who is a bit pushy, but is still the person that everyone is looking to because she’s getting the information that they don’t even know they don’t have?
FRONT: I loved playing her because she has qualities that I wish I had. She’s one of these people who is brilliant in a crisis because she won’t take no for an answer. She thinks she has every right to know everything, and she does have a right to know. And she’s not apologetic about it. So, I loved playing her. I found her energy, and her sense of entitlement and determination, really inspiring. I’m terribly English. I apologize for everything. I don’t like to complain in restaurants. My family, after awhile, would start to say to me, in certain situation, “You need to be a bit more Karen.” Being more Karen has become a bit of a thing in our house. They’ll say, “Come on, mom. Be more Karen. Go in there and complain and get the refund.”
This is a crazy show with serious conversations about things like a literal shitstorm in space. When you’re talking about things that seem insane, but you’re doing so in such a serious manner, is it ever difficult not to crack up, or are you pretty good with not breaking, when it comes to the crazy stuff?
FRONT: Usually the laughter happens more in rehearsals than when you’re on set ‘cause when you’re on set, it all gets suddenly quite serious. Although inevitably, with a big group of people like this, there is a lot of giggling on set. But the absurdity of it, of course, rubs off on us. Armando and the team would come in and talk us through what was gonna happen in the next few episodes and we’d all just sit there with our mouths open and go, “Oh, my god, how are we gonna do this? How is that gonna play?” I love the fact that it’s, as the characters are on a wild, crazy, unpredictable ride, so are we, as actors. We didn’t know how it was gonna end. We didn’t know what was gonna happen, beyond the next one or two episodes, and that’s actually really exciting. You just have a sense that it’s all under control and it’s all gonna be fine, but who knows what’s gonna happen.
This setting really allows for things that you wouldn’t get to do on another show, that wasn’t set in space. Has there been a particularly crazy or most fun thing that you’ve gotten to do, being a part of this show?
FRONT: One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about this is Karen’s look. Wearing Karen’s costumes was just such a delight for me. I love the whole Kris Jenner look that she’s got with jumpsuits and designer leisure wear. That was an absolute thrill for me. We have lots and lots of different costume fittings, but I remember, for the very first costume fitting, I went to this hotel room in London and they had huge suitcases full of costumes. I was like a kid in a sweet shop. I’d try on these costumes and go, “Can we take a picture and send it to my daughter ‘cause I just love this? This is so brilliant.” I was just beside myself with happiness, at every costume that I tried on.
The dynamics on this show are so different between all of the characters and there are so many fun relationships to play with, and Karen is the go-between, between the crew and the passengers on the ship. What was that like to get to explore?
FRONT: That helped me to define Karen’s consistency. Karen is one of those people who actually is broadly similar with everybody. She behaves much the same way, whether she’s with Frank, or whether she’s with one of her teenage kids back on Earth, or whether she’s with Captain Ryan, or whoever she’s with. She’s no respecter of status, or anything like that. Most of us would be slightly more polite, if we were with somebody who is more powerful than us or socially superior to us. I don’t think Karen is like that. She’s the same person, whoever she’s with. And if she’s talking to a group of 500 people, she’s going to talk to them in exactly the same way as she would talk to one person. So, there are all of those different dynamics, but it doesn’t change Karen.
When Karen is faced with the reality of what is going on and how long they might be trapped on a spaceship, what goes through her head? Is she someone who thinks that they’re going to get back eventually, or does she just internally panic?
FRONT: The only point where she actually panicked is when she finds out the Captain Ryan isn’t actually a captain. I think she fundamentally believes they will get back, but I think she thinks they’ll only get back if Karen makes it happen, so somehow or other she has to take control of this whole thing. There is a positivity about her. She’s not a panicker or a worrier. She thinks, “These are our circumstances. How can we make this work?”
Obviously, this show is set a bit in the future and we don’t have space tourism, at the moment. But if you were someone who had the opportunity to board a spaceship and set off on an adventure and money was no issue, do you think you would do it? How would you feel about the opportunity?
FRONT: I would never do it, in a million years. It would be the very, very last thing that I would consider doing, going on a space cruise. I wouldn’t even go on a normal cruise. I’m not very adventurous, anyway. I’m frightened of everything. I’m claustrophobic. I don’t even like long haul flights. So, the thought of going up into space for eight weeks, and not being able to get off or open a window and get some fresh air, just fills me with absolute horror. I can’t sleep on a flight. I have to stay awake, just in case in they have an actor-related emergency on the plane. So, I’m not that person. I would not be a good person to be on the cruise with.
This show is shot with four cameras at once. What’s that like, as an actor?
FRONT: A lot of actors are more technical than I am. I’m not terribly camera aware, but I also try not to let that get into my head, anyway. I’d rather not know. Obviously, you can see where the cameras are, so when you’re rehearsing the scene, you know, broadly, what their movements are gonna be. But there are lots of times that I’d honestly rather not know. I’d rather just do my scene because my character isn’t aware of where the cameras are. So, as far as it’s safe for me not to know, I would rather not know. I just want to get on with it and respond to what’s happening, and not be sidetracked by it. I know lots of actors are different and will actually ask what lens size you’re on and where the best lighting is, and all of that stuff. It just happens that, for me, it works best, if I don’t know.
Will we see more sides of Karen the longer the series goes on?
FRONT: What you see, as the series goes on, is a bit more of her humanity. She genuinely loves her husband, albeit they’ve been married a long time and she’s very patronizing and dismissive of him. They genuinely love each other and care about each other, and we tried to put in little bits, here and there, that show that they are happy being together. They still fancy each other and they flirt with each other. So, I was quite excited to show that side of it. In comedy terms, it’s actually quite unusual to see happily married couples. I think they really are, and it gives Karen a lot more humanity, when you realize there’s this lovely guy who everybody likes, and he loves Karen. That speaks about what a good person she is. So, you get a bit more of a sense of her humanity, as the thing goes on. Whether that would continue in Season 2, who knows? Your guess is as good as mine.
Are there things that you still want to know about this character, or that you still feel like there are to explore with her, in Season 2?
FRONT: She goes on quite a journey, as the thing goes on. Without spoiling anything, she slightly over stretches herself. She thinks that she’s infallible, and actually she very definitely is not. So, I’m very keen to see what happens, as a result of that. When she’s faced with her own fallibility, that will be a whole new experience for Karen, to realize that she screwed up. That’s genuinely not something that she’s ever done before or ever been aware of before, so I’m really keen to know how she deals with that.
Avenue 5 airs on Sunday nights on HBO.