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Hugh Laurie (centre) plays the suave captain of a luxury cruise ship in space that encounters technical difficulty on the way to Saturn in the sci-fi comedy, Avenue 5. (Picture courtesy of HBO)

IT’S 40 years in the future when traveling the solar system is no longer the stuff of sci-fi fantasy, but a booming, multibillion-dollar business.

People embark on luxury cruises through the cosmos and one such space cruise ship, Avenue 5, pampers its occupants with amenities such as gourmet buffets, a spa treatment, an observation deck and yoga classes.

This is the story of HBO’s new sci-fi comedy series, simply titled Avenue 5, which follows the adventures of the vessel’s confident and suave captain, Ryan Clark (played by Hugh Laurie), together with his crew and the passengers as they go on an eight-week journey around Saturn.

Things become interesting when the ship suddenly encounters technical difficulties along the way.

Now it’s up to Ryan and his crew, which includes second engineer Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow) and former astronaut-turned-womanising alcoholic Spike Williams (Ethan Phillips), to calm the disgruntled passengers and find a way to deal with unexpected events onboard.

The rest of the cast are Josh Gad, Zach Woods, Rebecca Front, Suzy Nakamura and Nikki Amuka-Bird.

Avenue 5 is created by Armando Iannucci, who also wrote the story and co-executive produced the show. Iannucci is the man behind the award-winning US political satire comedy series Veep.

Below Crichlow (of Being Human, Sugar Rush and Fast Girls fame) and Phillips (Star Trek: Voyager and Benson) talk about the series and their oncreen characters.

What appealed to you about Avenue 5?

EP: When I read the script, I started laughing out loud and that's rare. I was howling and falling off my chair and I remember my wife asking, ‘What is so funny?’ I'd done a couple of episodes of Veep, so Armando knew me when I auditioned. I was just so thrilled.

LC: The thing that attracted me to it was Armando. I didn't need to know anything else. I would have made coffee on set! Everything he touches is so smart and funny and feels organic and original. I don't remember ever wanting something so much. I didn't know how Billie would play out, I just wanted to be part of it.

What was it like working with Armando Iannucci?

LC: Part of his brilliance is everyone gets to bring themselves to the table. I couldn't get over how collaborative it was. Because he's got such a body of work behind him, you could totally understand him coming in and saying, ‘Listen, I know, and this is the way to go’, but he's collaborative. Everyone felt very valued, important and heard, and we would workshop our scenes and rehearse. He sets the tone and it's really creative. We very rarely did two takes the same. The cast is full of such genius improvisers; you have to be on your toes every time. I don't know what it's like for the editors but for us it was hilarious.

EP: You never know what's going to happen. He lets everyone do the scene and then you're allowed to improvise or come up with anything that happens in your head. Everyone just starts throwing in stuff and some of it sticks. He makes you feel like Robin Williams, like you can do anything you want, without any pressure. It was a very relaxed place to work.

Lenora Crichlow (left) and Ethan Phillips play two of a motley crew of quirky characters that are onboard the ill-fated Avenue 5. (Picture courtesy of HBO)

How does Avenue 5 differ from his previous work?

EP: The similarity is that massive stuff is at stake, but people are arguing over passwords. But he's never done anything in space before and there's a whole bunch to satirise here that's not political. I couldn't get my lines out because I was laughing so much. Even the stuff that wasn't used was priceless.

LC: You can tell it's his work. It's a peep behind the curtain, or the veneer of something. When I'm watching something by Armando Iannucci, I always feel like, ‘I shouldn't be watching this.’ There's that element to Avenue 5, only it's set in the future, which is new for him. He gets to project his idea of the world and that's exciting, because who knows what it'll be like.

What can you tell us about your character?

EP: Spike Williams has a lot of issues, but he doesn't know he has issues. He thinks he's really important. He was the fifth Canadian to walk on Mars but nobody else could give a damn. He's a guy who likes to get high; a really messed up dude who thinks he's the life of the party. He's on the ship as a celebrity. It's like they tried to get one of the great astronauts but they had to go down the D-list. They think, ‘Well there's this guy who walked on Mars 30 years ago and he's totally available and he's cheap,’ and that's how he ends up on the ship. He does know a little bit about space sailing, so he comes in handy a few times. But this ship is way beyond him. I think he's genuinely happy that the journey's going to go on for a while because he's been in space and he likes space, and I don't get the feeling he has a lot going on back on earth. Plus, he has plenty of drugs with him and there's a lot of single women; he's in Disneyland!

LC: Billie is a bridge between the different worlds because she is an actual engineer, but she transitions to being front of house because Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) is so unable. He needs her for the technical stuff and she needs him for the interpersonal skills so they balance each other out. She'd be quite happy on her laptop but she's had to step up and take more of a leadership role. Billie has to learn the difference between when to be real and honest and when to be helpful. If it were up to her, she'd just tell everyone, ‘Look this is it, we're probably going to die up here’. Not helpful!

Did you base your characters on anyone?

EP: Armando mentioned (former astronaut) Buzz Aldrin who is a pretty cocky guy I think, as a guideline, so I watched some stuff with him.

LC: My partner's sisters are both scientists, and when I met them at a Thanksgiving dinner they talked about the world and humankind from such a scientific, principled and disciplined place; I just thought, ‘Wow’. They'd talk about the amount of time they think we have left on Earth and it was so emotionally unattached and factual. That really helped me set the tone for Billie. Often when we were rehearsing, the writers were there with us taking down ideas. I got so much inspiration for Billie from how the other characters would see her. It was brilliant because preparing for a role on TV when you haven't got all the episodes is really tough because you don't know where your character is going. When you rehearse as a cast, you're informed by what the other characters are saying about your character behind their back!

Courtesy of HBO

Avenue 5 airs every Monday at 11am on HBO GO and HBO (Astro Ch. 411/431 HD) till 16 March 2020. The episode encores on the same day at 11pm on HBO.

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