Matt Ross may play a greedy tech titan in ‘Silicon Valley,’ but in Berkeley he’s just a regular guy

Matt Ross
Matt Ross, who lives in Berkeley, plays Gavin Belson on HBO’s “Silicon Valley. Photo: HBO

If you were one of the millions of people who tuned in Sunday to watch the season 2 opener of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” you might have had a chuckle when tech titan Gavin Belson, the CEO of Hooli, delivered a speech about his competitor’s product:  “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.”

The words were delivered with a perfect arrogance. And a straight face. And if the actor who said those lines looks familiar, it may be because you have watched the show “Big Love,” or seen the movie “Good Night and Good Luck.” Or it may be because you saw the actor, Matt Ross, browsing for books at Mrs. Dalloway’s, or at the Claremont branch of the Berkeley Public Library.

Yes, Ross is a Berkeley resident. He lives here with his wife, Phyllis Grant, the writer behind the popular food website Dash and Bella, named after the couple’s two children. Ross is a classically trained actor (he went to Juilliard) who once thought his future lay in theater. But he has become critically acclaimed for numerous roles and the feature films he writes and directs.

Matt Ross playing Gavin Belson on HBO's "Silicon Valley. Photo: Frank Masi/HBO
Matt Ross playing Gavin Belson on HBO’s “Silicon Valley. Photo: Frank Masi/HBO

The Berkeleyside team are big fans of “Silicon Valley,” so we were delighted when Ross, 45, agreed to answer our questions just days after the start of the second season — which, fans will be happy to learn, was just renewed for a third season. (Some of the questions were submitted by Berkeleyside readers via Facebook.)


Berkeleyside: You have had a successful career, directing six short films, two feature films, and acting in numerous films and television shows, yet you live in Berkeley. Why Berkeley? How often are you in Los Angeles? How often do you go back and forth? Do you drive?

Given that I make my living entirely in Los Angeles, I frequently question the sanity of the decision to live anywhere else, but we originally ended up in Berkeley because my wife grew up here and we thought it would be a great place to raise our kids.

Aside from the access to stunning natural beauty, we stayed because we have family and an incredible community of friends here.

The truth is that what I do would force me to be nomadic regardless of where I lived – movies and TV shows are made everywhere – but living here does require that I go back and forth to LA constantly.

I wish there were a high-speed train. I fantasize about that.

I have a Prius, so essentially $80 round-trip.

If one can say one has read a book when one has actually just listened to an audiobook, then that drive has allowed me to say that I’m fantastically, enormously well-read.

Mrs. Dalloway's books
Matt Ross and his family like to browse at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Berkeleyside: You live in the Elmwood. What are some of your favorite things to do around town? How are you treated when people recognize you? Does living here allow you a more normal lifestyle than you might have somewhere else?

Ross: Living in the Elmwood allows us to walk to the post office, the library, the bank. We can walk to get our books from Mrs. Dalloway’s, burritos from Gordo, or ice cream for the kids at Ici (though my wife’s ice cream is just as good and we can customize the flavors).

I also love to take the kids for walks and hikes in Tilden.

There are too many to mention them all, but some favorite things that come to mind that represent what I love about the East Bay and make me feel part of a special community are the Temescal Farmers Market, movies at the Grand Lake Theatre, groceries from Star Grocery, and getting my hair cut by Brad or Joe at Temescal Alley Barbershop.

We almost always eat at home, but if we need quick take-out, Summer Kitchen Bake Shop is our go-to. Highly recommended.

On the rare occasion that we actually do go out for dinner, I’d say that Camino and Pizzaiolo are probably our favorites. Camino’s Russell Moore is a mad genius and the pizza and pasta from Pizzaiolo are intoxicating.

When people recognize me, if they don’t just whisper and point but actually come up to me, they are universally respectful and kind. They are usually surprised to see me out of context, it’s not LA, after all, and are mainly just excited to discuss the show or movie from which they recognize me.

It’s always very kind and flattering.

I’ve had the great good fortune to be on shows that I think are excellent, so I’m more than happy to talk about the shows or the character I play(ed).

But I’m not famous. I’m a semi-recognizable television actor, so I don’t think my life here is more “normal” than it might be somewhere else.

Living here does allow me to escape the one-industry homogeneity of the LA in which I work, however.

But LA also has access to insane natural beauty (the ocean and mountains) and is an enormous place, far too diverse, economically, socially, and racially to say that it’s in any way “better” than the Bay Area.

I just think it’s good for my personal mental health and overall creativity to not exist entirely in the environment of a one-industry town.

The main cast of Silicon Valley. Photo: Frank Masi/HBO
The main cast of Silicon Valley. Photo: Frank Masi/HBO

Berkeleyside: You have played a lot characters with dark sides – like Alby Grant in “Big Love” and now Galvin Belson in “Silicon Valley.” Why do you get cast as a bad guy so often?

I suppose the short answer is that I seem to be able to do it.

The long answer is that I think it’s partly completely random and partly how, over the course of any career, playing one character can change how one is perceived and thus how one is cast.

I’m a character actor. For me, the joy of acting is transformation. And I’m theater trained. You are expected to be versatile, to be able to play comedy and tragedy, the classics and the contemporary.

But generally speaking, this isn’t the case in film and television where, if you’re lucky enough to get work at all, you’re typecast fairly quickly, based on one visible job.

Before Alby, I played a wide variety of characters and only a few were characters with a “dark side.”

And Alby didn’t lead to Gavin, as Mike Judge (the showrunner of “Silicon Valley”) hadn’t even seen “Big Love,” but maybe it was just something I could tap into easily.

Or maybe the deep truth is that I’m a very, very bad man and this is just the most logical manifestation of my inner darkness.

Whatever the case, I’m thankful for it. If all I ever played were antagonists, I’d be a very happy man.

The devil is great fun.

Berkeleyside: You have worked with some of the top directors in the U.S. – Martin Scorsese on “The Aviator,” George Clooney on “Good Luck and Good Night,” Terry Gilliam on “Twelve Monkey,” and more. How did working with them inform your directing?

First off, when I’m acting, no matter the director, I’m mainly concentrating on just trying to not to fail; it’s hard enough just to do my own job well.

But yes, I’ve been so lucky to have worked with the directors you mentioned and, because I’m both an actor and a director, I’m blessed; there’s only one director on set and most directors never get the chance to observe other directors.

It would take too long to detail what I’ve learned from each one of the amazing directors you listed. Everyone steals ways of working that make sense for you, but the truth is that there’s no map. Each story presents its own challenges — every film has a different budget, cast, and schedule — so there’s no one path.

I’ve learning by doing and figuring out my own process as I go along.

Hopefully, I don’t make the same mistakes each time.

I hope I’m making different ones.

Berkeleyside: What is going on with your film “Captain Fantastic” with Viggo Mortensen? How did you get him and other prominent actors to perform in the film?

We’ve just finished editing and are starting the rest of post: color-grading, mixing, music, etc.

The casting happened in the way it always does, either through auditions or offering parts. The film’s leads, aside from Viggo, are all kids, so the vast majority of the time was spent finding them. That was a long and difficult process, guided by the amazing casting director Jeanne McCarthy (and her team).

But Viggo was cast first. He was my first choice for the part and we sent him the script. He read it and we met.

Viggo is highly selective and his dedication to storytelling is unparalleled. He’s a rare artist. He acts, writes, paints, he’s an accomplished musician who makes CDs. The list goes one. So he looks at the big picture, in deep and profound ways. And when he commits, he really commits, not just to the doing, but also to the selling of the film. Which can go on for a long time and is exhausting.

When we first met, he had some other films that he was committed to, so it took some time before his schedule was free.

Matt Ross playing the character of Alby xxx in HBO's "Big Love." Photo: HBO
Matt Ross playing the character of Alby Grant in HBO’s “Big Love.” Photo: HBO

Berkeleyside: “Silicon Valley” is very funny and “Big Love” was often somber. Does the tone of the show affect the mood and culture on the set?

Not the mood on set. “Big Love” was made up of actors whose bread and butter is drama and “Silicon Valley” is largely made up of stand-up and improvisational comedians, but dramatic actors in a somber show can be just as playful as comedians in a funny show.

It really depends on the people involved.

The culture of the actors who are all trained in improvisational comedy is not the same as those trained in “serious drama,” however, so how they go about the work can be different.

But both require precision and concentration. They’re both storytelling.

You are just as likely to discuss character revelation and the mechanics of story and how best to craft that in comedy as you are in drama. With comedy, there also may be time spent identifying what’s funny about the scene and how best to reveal that. There may be that additional layer.

Both only really work when what’s happening is grounded in the real world, in real situations that have stakes and consequences.

Honestly, you can be drunk for either situation.

Berkeleyside: We asked our readers on Facebook for some questions for you. Here is a sampling:

First, your wife, Phyllis Grant wrote to say you were out of milk and could you bring some home (!) Then she said: “In all seriousness, I sense he has really fallen hard for Berkeley. Might be worth asking him why.”

I love Berkeley because my wife lives here.

Oh, and apparently I have children and they also live here.

“I’m curious to know his perspective on how the real Silicon Valley/tech bro culture lines up with the show’s portrayal of it.”

I’m not the best person to answer that, sadly.

It’s not my world, not my culture, though, because I live in the Bay Area, I certainly have friends who work in that world.

Having said that, I’ve met many people from that world who come up to me and tell me that they think the show is spot-on, that even though it’s a comedy, much of what we portray is entirely accurate.

I’ve even had more than a few people say that it doesn’t go far enough.

“He’s managed to play such an evil character in “Big Love” — How does he prepare his family for the way he might appear in a role?”

My kids are still young, so they haven’t seen much of my work.

But when I do show them bits that I think are age-appropriate, they understand without any problem at all that it’s just pretend, that it’s just play.

We all revel in that as kids.

By the time most of us are “grown up,” it’s weaned out of us, sadly.

Honestly, I think they see it for what it is, just playing cops and robbers.

“Since Matt is also a writer and director, I would ask him what is unique about these various pursuits (writer, director and actor) that drives him to do all three?”

Acting is an interpretive art and I came to storytelling through acting.

As a kid, I grew up performing in Shakespeare plays and was completely satisfied with interpreting work that rich, complex, and profound.

It wasn’t until college that I really started to write and direct, and have my own stories to tell.

They’re all related, all a form of simply telling a story around the fire, though, metabolically, they’re vastly different.

Writing is first dreaming, then architecture and structure. It’s not a group activity, and thus takes fantastic discipline, concentration, and dedication. On a daily basis, you grapple with your soul, with your own inadequacies. And must find a way to push through. I think there’s something profound, even spiritual, about writing. Before me, nothing. Because of me, this.

Acting is a group endeavor. It is community, exploration, and play. Great acting is partially self-revelation, so you have to be willing to do go to scary places. That is not for the faint of heart. You just have to be willing to explore and be okay with not knowing whether you’ll fail or not, over and over again. And because it is a craft that everyone thinks they’re qualified to judge, your work is evaluated in a very public forum.

Directing is organization, planning, logistics, patience, stamina, and the constant battle, both literally and creatively, to define and articulate your ideas and galvanize others — in a highly charged and very limited timeframe — to help you manifest them.

Ultimately, directing is, for me, about collaboration. About inviting a group of people together to tell a story and allowing them to push and pull against the fabric of that story. And then you shape it.

Invariable, if you surround yourself with talented artists, the whole thing has the potential to be richer and more complex than any single individual’s ideas.

Phyllis Grant chronicles life cooking with children, pictured here with son Dash in 2012. Photo: Matt Ross
Phyllis Grant chronicles her life cooking with her children, pictured here with son Dash in 2012. Photo: Matt Ross

“What is his favorite dessert from his pastry chef/writer/blogger wife, Phyllis!”

Impossible to decide, so I’ll mention two.

She makes a mean Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream. You can really taste the fresh mint and it perfectly balances with the rich dark chocolate.

And her Blackberry Pie rocks my world.

See here – Blackberry Pie — for details on how to make it.

Related:
Phyllis Grant: Not your average mommy food blogger (01.27.12)

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Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@citysidejournalism.org.