By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
With all the problems plaguing humankind, one might be tempted to get away from it all by taking a cruise through the solar system.
Suzy Nakamura, as a cast member of the HBO comedy series “Avenue 5,” has been there and done that — and found that space isn’t much better than Earth when the passengers and crew bring all of their human failings with them.
Created by Armando Iannucci (“Veep”) and set 40 years in the future, the show is about a massive space luxury liner that is supposed to take its passengers on an eight-week cruise to Saturn and back. An accident throws the ship off course and the return trip to Earth is expected to take three years.
Nakamura plays Iris Kimura, described as the glue that holds Avenue 5 together. Iris is right-hand woman to Herman Judd (Josh Gad, “Frozen”), a billionaire and the mastermind behind Avenue 5. The captain is Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie, “House MD”), who appears suave and confident but is actually an actor who doesn’t know how the ship works.
Iris and Herman are stunned when they learn that Clark isn’t the real captain and the only man who can pilot the ship is dead. On top of that, Clark has been using a fake American accent when talking to the passengers and is actually English.
After the accident sends everyone flying from one side of the ship to the other, Iris radios a subordinate: “I need to know what just happened and who’s to blame. (pause) And if you’re okay.”
The British and American cast also includes Zach Woods (“Silicon Valley”), Rebecca Front (“The Thick of It”), Lenora Crichlow (“Black Mirror”), Himesh Patel (“Yesterday”), Nikki Amuka-Bird (“Luther”), Jessica St. Clair (“Parks and Recreation”) and Kyle Bornheimer (“Westworld”).
A veteran of several TV series, Nakamura has most recently had regular or recurring roles on “Dead to Me,” “Tacoma PD,” “Veep,” “The Goldbergs” and “Dr. Ken,” in which she played Ken Jeong’s wife.
“‘Men of a Certain Age’ (starring Scott Bakula, Ray Romano and Andre Braugher) is definitely one of my favorite experiences because it was just such a good show,” she reflected. “Very rarely do we get to work on a show that we’re a fan of, but this was one of them. I got to play a character that would normally go to a ‘dumb blonde’ type, so that made it extra fun for me.
“My other favorite was ‘Go On’ (which starred, among others, Matthew Perry, Laura Benanti and John Cho) because of that unbelievable cast, and the fact that it dealt with a subject rarely approached in comedy — grief.”
The role of Iris was not created with her in mind. “I auditioned for the role along with who knows how many other people,” she said.
Of Iris’ relationship with Judd, Nakamura says, “I’d like to think that Iris doesn’t just tolerate Judd, but truly believes in him. I mean, why else would she stick around for so long? Yes, he can be an idiot, and annoying, and rash, and self-involved — boy, he really sounds intolerable, doesn’t he?
“In addition to all his awful qualities, I think Iris sees him as a true visionary. I’m sure part of her motivation is a little self-serving as well. She climbed all the way up this corporate ladder and there’s no way she’s gonna throw that all away.”
Nakamura worked with Gad on a sitcom, “Back to You,” which was about two news anchors played by Patricia Heaton and Kelsey Grammer. “It also starred Ty Burrell and the effervescent Fred Willard, who passed away this week (on May 15). What a huge loss to comedy that is.”
Since “Avenue 5” is on premium cable, there is frequent use of the f-bomb and other four-letter words. “It’s always liberating to swear!” Nakamura observes. “Not just because we can, but because that’s how a lot of people talk in stressful situations. When actors aren’t allowed to do it, it always seems less real.”
“Avenue 5” marks Nakamura’s first science fiction show. “I’m not avoiding them, but comedy and science fiction rarely meet except for maybe ‘Galaxy Quest,’ which is one of my favorite movies. ‘Aliens’ is another favorite.”
One of her castmates, Ethan Phillips, who plays former astronaut Spike Martin, was a regular on “Star Trek: Voyager,” which was also about a lost spaceship. Has he shared any of his experiences from that show? “Sadly, no. I haven’t seen ‘Voyager,’ but I think actors are like most people and don’t like to talk about work when they don’t have to.”
Nakamura’s performance isn’t informed by any real-life experiences on a ship. “I’ve never been on a cruise. I’ve always been curious, but I like to travel alone and cruises aren’t really compatible for single female travelers. I don’t know anyone who has been on one either. Cruises seem to attract a type of traveler, and maybe my friends and I aren’t that type.”
Although it’s meant to be funny, Nakamura feels “Avenue 5” also provides food for thought. “I think this show says a lot about human nature, especially when you think about what we’re experiencing now. The ‘Avenue 5’ premise is a very real situation now, isn’t it? There are people who panic, there are people who question their roles, there are people who turn to spirituality, there are people who doubt, there are leaders who are unqualified — I mean. the parallels go on and on. We just didn’t know how prescient the show was gonna be when we made it.“
Nakamura lived in London all through production. “There might have been a few stretches where I could have flown home, but why would I? I was in London! If anyone wanted to see me, I made them fly over and we ate and drank and shopped all over that wonderful city. Oh boy, now I’m missing it just talking about it.”
The show has been renewed for a second season, but in a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, Laurie said that the set was destroyed in a fire. So production will be delayed in addition to the hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nakamura was one of the last guests on Colbert’s CBS talk show before it left the Ed Sullivan Theater and moved production to his house. “Stephen and I worked at The Second City in Chicago together. In the interview, we talked about him leaving me onstage when he couldn’t stop laughing. It was really great to see him again. Three more of our friends from Second City write and produce that show, so it was great to see all of them.”
The two spent so much time reminiscing that they never got around to talking about “Avenue 5.”
Regarding future projects, Nakamura announced, “I’m doing a movie called ‘Sumo’ about a female sumo wrestler. It’s being produced by Armando Iannucci and should start shooting as soon as this virus gives us the green light.”
Surprisingly, she will play the sumo wrestler. But that is a story for another time.
On the Web: https://www.hbo.com/avenue-5