[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Season 2 of Intelligence.]
Actor, creator and former magician Nick Mohammed is on quite a roll. On Season 2 of Intelligence, his workplace comedy set in the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters where they tackle international and domestic cyber crime, he pays Joseph, an inept computer analyst and sidekick to pompous American NSA Agent Jerry Bernstein (David Schwimmer) and whose fate is currently up in the air, and to balance that, his Ted Lasso character Nate is the former kit man turned assistant coach for AFC Richmond who’s finally learned how to speak up for himself.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Mohammed talked about what he learned from making the first season of Intelligence that he applied to the second season, how the positivity and optimism of Ted Lasso has affected him, how the collaborative relationship with Schwimmer differs from the one he has with Jason Sudeikis, his love of magic, what Season 3 of Intelligence could be, and what he most enjoys about playing these two characters.
Collider: What do you feel you learned from making the first season of Intelligence that you carried over to the second season, and did it help make things easier for you at all?
NICK MOHAMMED: Generally speaking, yes. Obviously, what we couldn’t have planned for was that when we were filming Season 2, and same with Ted Lasso, was that there would be a global pandemic. So, the practicalities of that was a lot more difficult. But in terms of the process, and particularly the writing process with Intelligence, it did feel a bit easier because I knew who the cast were. Apart from David [Schwimmer] and Jane Stanness, who plays Mary – I’d written that part for her because I’d worked with her before – everyone else, we cast for Season 1. And so, you learn to play to everyone’s strengths a lot better and as a writer, you just improve. You end up realizing which sequences work better in the edit, which relationships and dynamics between particular characters work best, and what audiences are responding to. You just have a lot better feel for what your show is.
From a tone point of view, it’s always been a very silly show, but just trying to get the balance right, of some of the more slapstick stuff, some of the slightly more sensitive material, and all of the silly character stuff and gag jokes. So, I did feel a lot more comfortable, as a writer, going into Season 2, just because it felt like there were a lot more things on site and I knew what works a lot better. We never had a pilot, actually, which is a slightly double-edged sword. It was wonderful to go straight into a first series without a pilot, but you learn so much from a pilot because you can work out, a lot quicker, what your show is, from having that half-hour. In a weird way, Season 1 was like a testing ground for quite a lot of stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I’m super proud of Season 1, but I definitely felt like we were able to hit the ground running a lot more with Season 2.
When do you feel that the show really hit its sweet spot and found its groove, and where you knew what the best version of it could be? Was it at some point in Season 1, or was it during Season 2, when you saw how you were able to build on things?
MOHAMMED: There were loads of elements in Season 1 that I adore and were super fun to film, and we were all falling about laughing when we were making them. But in terms of episode to episode, Season 2 just felt more confident maybe. We all knew, as a company of actors who spent a lot of time together, the rhythm of the show. Intelligence is quite specific, tonally, and we could find that groove a lot quicker. It definitely felt like, in terms of making the show, that we hit a sweet spot, as soon as we started Season 2. Even just writing the scripts for Season 2, that whole process was a lot more straightforward because we knew what the show was and we already had an example of what it could be.
Because you’re weaving in and out between doing Intelligence and doing Ted Lasso, did any of the optimism of Ted Lasso rub off on some of the cynicism and edginess in Intelligence?
MOHAMMED: Well, they’re very different shows, aren’t they? I’ve been asked this question before, actually. We shot Season 1 of Intelligence, and then within a week or two, I went straight into doing Ted Lasso Season 1, as an actor and not having any involvement with the production side of it. That, in itself, was quite nice, to be able to not worry about that kind of stuff. But then, it was interesting coming back into writing and then filming Season 2 of Intelligence and thinking about, “What have I learned from Ted Lasso?” The shows are so different, and David’s character and Jason’s character couldn’t be more different, really, other than being fish out of water, and that’s the only similarity they share. The thing I did take, not that the Intelligence set was anything but convivial and friendly and supportive and we had so much fun, particularly on Ted Lasso, and I think it’s because it’s just a bigger show with a bigger cast, you really felt that there’s so much of Ted in Jason, as a person, and all of that positivity and optimism really infects the whole set and creates a lovely atmosphere. I remember thinking, “I’m just gonna have to always remember that, if I’m involved in a production, that’s how every single set has to be run because it creates such an open and fun atmosphere and just means that everyone’s having fun. You end up creating your best work, as a result of that, when the other actors are feeling relaxed. Not that I thought we felt failed on that in Season 1, but it was definitely something that I felt even more on Season 1 of Ted Lasso. I’m really gonna learn from that, as a showrunner, to take that lesson across.
What’s it been like for you to go back and forth between the shows and to do something like Ted Lasso, where Jason Sudeikis is really the you of that show? How does your collaborative relationship with him compare to what you and David Schwimmer have on Intelligence?
MOHAMMED: It’s funny because the character relationships share some similarities, in that I think Nate does idolize Ted. As soon as Ted shows up and he’s not judging him in any way, that’s never happened to Nate at all. Particularly at the start of Season 1, he absolutely idolizes this guy who’s come in to shake things up and he finds it tremendously exciting. The outcome of that is brilliant for Nate. He ends up building in confidence and getting promoted, at the end of that season. With Joseph and Jerry, there’s an immediate idolization. Joseph is just looking for a distraction because he’s so bad at his job that he needs any distractions. So, when this exotic, exciting figure of Jerry comes into the office to shake things up, he loves that. Jerry is like the older brother that he never had. From Jerry’s point of view, Joseph is someone who buys his bullshit, so they’re co-dependent. But in terms of our working relationship, with me as Nick, with Intelligence with David, it’s so collaborative. Even though I write the scripts, we text and chat pretty much every day, and David is an exec on the show as well. We work really heavily together, and that’s been true, right from when I sent him the first outline and then he was attached to the project. He’s been so involved and he’s so brilliant that it would be so remiss of me not to lean on his huge wealth of experience. He’s one of the great sitcom actors of his generation. I just was pinching myself. I was so lucky to have David by my side, and not just through writing, filming, and through the edit, but even the things that you’re never really prepared for, or certainly I wasn’t, like the marketing and promotion, particularly when shows end up doing well. That’s a whole different side of it that you’re not always privy to. And so, just being able to handle a lot of that and see how David deals with that because we were paired up, particularly for Season 1, that was just really useful to see, with how humble he is and how gentle. Also, it helped to know what to say no to and not suddenly just have to become part of a PR machine. You can be a bit choosier as well. And then, with Jason, he’s just such a lovely guy. We struck up a good friendship, partly because we’re both big magic fans. He had a deck of cards with him for the first read-through and he knew that I did magic, so we bonded over that, initially. He’s so knowledgeable. As the creator of that show, we all stopped to listen to him, always. With every single beat of that show, there is a personal reason why it’s been written in a particular way, or an evocative reason it resonates with Jason. It’s the other writers too, but Jason is just such a good spokesperson for it, in terms of the reason why it’s been written like that and how he wants us to feel when doing those lines, or playing a particularly emotional or dramatic beat.
Now I’m curious, how did you get into magic?
MOHAMMED: It’s what started off doing, really. As a kid, I loved it. I got a magic set and I joined the junior section of the Magic Circle, which I guess is the equivalent of the Magic Castle in the States. I was a professional magician for awhile. As soon as I turned 16, it was how I paid my way through university, doing gigs at hotels and weddings and university events. It’s only when comedy and acting took over that I became more of a hobbyist. Occasionally, I’ll try to weave it into some of my live stuff. I adore it and still read about magic every day. I have a magic book by my bedside. I’m hoping to write something about magic, at some point. It’s just a fascinating world. There’s so much history to it as well.
Nate is finding his voice in a way that it doesn’t feel like Joseph has been able to do yet. What advice do you think Nate would give Joseph, to help him find his voice?
MOHAMMED: The problem with Joseph is that he’s just absolutely bulletproof. You could fire anything at him, and it just bounces off him, whether it’s positive or negative. Let’s face it, Nate has got a lot more layers than Joseph, but that was deliberate. Nate’s growth in confidence is a result of his interaction with Ted, but he still has some insecurities and inner demons, which are coming to the surface. As far as what Nate would say to Joseph, I don’t know whether Joseph should necessarily pay attention because I don’t that Nate has had the life experience or the experience of being a confident individual enough to know truly what he wants and how to go about getting it. His interaction with Ted has absolutely given him a voice and allowed him to shine a little bit. I think it’s gonna be interesting to see where that goes. But if I were Joseph, I would take what Nate says with a pinch of salt.
I love that Intelligence has a Valentine’s Day episode. What made you want to do that?
MOHAMMED: I just found it really funny, the idea that at intelligence organizations, like GCHQ and the NSA, it will be Valentine’s Day for people working at those organizations every year, and that they might use some of their resources to send someone a card. I just found that a funny idea. Would it be in massive abuse of power and resources? Obviously, the answer is yes. But it just felt like a fun place to put these people, and of course, for Jerry to try to hold it over everyone. I remember when we first talked about the idea and it was David who was really keen on the idea of having this massive bouquet there that’s almost too big and it becomes ridiculous to have to keep carrying it around with you. It is very Jerry to be very in your face like that.
When we spoke about Season 1, you said that the early Season 2 pick-up meant that you could end things on a bit of a cliffhanger because you knew you’d be coming back. How did you approach the way you wanted to end Season 2?
MOHAMMED: At the moment, we don’t know if we’re doing a third season. I think and hope we will, or we’ll do something, whether it’s a feature length film version of it and it becomes a bit more actiony. Spoiler alert, but the way it ends with Jerry, he’s bundled into the back of a van, so we don’t know his fate. I have started writing. There are two episodes now written of Season 3 because we had some scripts commission, so I know where it’s heading. In some respects, you could end it there, but it would be a bit anti-climactic. It feels like you’d want it to come back, maybe even in 10 years time, to see if Jerry has shown up again. I think we wanted to slightly have our cake and eat it too. Obviously, we want to continue with the show, so we have a really fun way of bringing Jerry back in Season 3, if it gets a green light. But equally, it felt like a real surprise. We thought, “An audience is gonna want to know what happens next, so surely they have to give us a third season. So, let’s plunk that in there.” I can’t remember the reasons why, but we were gonna have Jerry being bundled into the van, and then the post credits tag be Mary, back in the toilet, having pretended to have been sick and being back on the phone, speaking Chinese rather than speaking Russian. I thought it was a really fun running gag as a carry over, but they were like, “No, we’re just gonna get so wrapped in knots for a potential Season 3, trying to explain that, that it’s probably not worth it.
This show is a bit tricky, when it comes to the humor, so were you ever concerned that audiences wouldn’t understand that David Schwimmer’s character is supposed to be made fun of and not praised? Did you hear from people that really got that, from the beginning?
MOHAMMED: Yeah. One of the small benefits of social media is that people can reach out. Every single day, people get in contact about it. With Season 1, when it was a completely new show, I knew it was gonna get some attention, largely due to David’s involvement with it. I remember thinking that I had to gear up for a few people, if not lots of people, contacting me like, “We hate this. You can’t say that. How could you do this?” Honestly, the negative comments that I’ve received on Twitter, I can probably count on one hand, or maybe I’m just not searching far and wide enough. I hope that’s the way of the world as well, or that it’s getting that way, where people directly get in contact when they’ve enjoyed something, but if they don’t think it’s for them, they just walk on by and it doesn’t necessarily require an interaction, unless they feel they’ve been personally offended by something. Obviously, I’d be sorry if that was the case, but there’s nothing I could do about it, by that point. But as soon as it came out and the first press came out, there was a slight sense of relief that tonally people got it.
There was also a general concern because recently there has been a move towards more comedy-drama with traditional half-hour sitcoms. A lot of them deal with mental health or addiction or sexuality. There are quite heavy themes in some shows recently, not that pose as comedies because I don’t want to take anything away from those shows that are brilliant, but they’re almost a sub-genre within comedy. Intelligence, particularly, is such an out-and-out farce. There was a slight concern with how we’re slightly going against the general trend, but I was delighted that it found an audience. It absolutely brings a smile to my face. You can only ever do what you find funny. We can test out the scripts, and we can send them to the other producers, and the channel weighs in, and the other cast weighs in, to a degree, but you can only ever do what you think is the funniest and hope that you’ve managed to communicate that, so that other people find it funny. Fortunately, people are getting it, so that’s a good thing.
How have you found this whole experience of being the creator, the writer, the executive producer, and the star of this series? Do you feel like you strike a good balance between all of that, or was it challenging to figure out how to maintain all of that while actually also trying to act on the show?
MOHAMMED: Particularly with this season, because we were delayed by about three months from the pandemic, we were able to spend a little longer on the scripts. That just meant that side of it was slightly less pressured. I really enjoy every element of it. You’re not always trying to be all three of those things at once. When you’re filming the show, yes, that’s quite an intense period of time. Often, we would really try to get the scripts to a point that there was minimal rewriting on set. There were times in a scene, here or there, where I was required to suddenly run off and spend a half-hour or an hour trying to rewrite a scene because XYZ practically wasn’t gonna work out, or we decided that we wanted to write an alternative version because before it was too close to the bone. Sometimes when you’re on set and reading it out loud with the cast, you realize that you can probably go funnier. So, that feels a bit more pressured than if you’re just acting in the show. I like flexing those different muscles, and often you’re flexing them at different times, which is useful. When you have time away from one, like for example, having not written on the show for awhile, I’m itching to start writing again. And then, once you’ve done quite a long spell of writing, then you’re itching to start acting again. That’s what was quite nice, going from Intelligence to Ted Lasso. After quite a heavy, intense period of writing, producing, and acting in a show, to go into a show where you’re part of a company and all you have to worry about is the acting side, it was quite nice to have that freedom again.
If you’re going to do two shows at the same time, it must be fun to play these two characters, who are so different from each other, on shows that are so different.
MOHAMMED: Definitely, yeah. Particularly with Nate, and particularly with Season 2 of Ted Lasso, Nate goes into some really fun and different territory than even Season 1 of Ted Lasso. That’s been really fun, and sometimes challenging to play. I feel very lucky to have these two silly guys to fall into.
Intelligence is available to stream at Peacock TV. Ted Lasso is available to stream at Apple TV+.
The Apple TV+ series starring Jason Sudeikis remains as essential as it was when Season 1 premiered.
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