The hugely popular TV series Ted Lasso is a case study of being nice and decent. As it reaches the final whistle, Tim Lewis meets its creator and star, Jason Sudeikis
Jason Sudeikis felt, weirdly, not that weird when he stepped into the Oval Office of the White House, back in March. Before he was the creator and star of Apple TV+’s feelgood global sensation Ted Lasso, he spent almost a decade writing and performing sketch comedy on the US show Saturday Night Live. One of his beats was impersonating politicians, and Sudeikis made recurring appearances as George W Bush and Joe Biden, when he was vice-president to Barack Obama, in a mocked-up version of the same room. So while his Ted Lasso colleagues were losing their minds – Brett Goldstein, the British actor who plays hard-nut ex-footballer Roy Kent, later admitted he was freaking out about what to do with his hands and spent the whole time trying not to swear – Sudeikis remained calm, somewhat.
“I’d been in a fake Oval Office a number of times,” says Sudeikis today, a few weeks on, “and so there’s a little bit of me that’s nonplussed by it and just holding my shit together. And I’d met the president when he was vice president and he’s a very warm guy. It’s like meeting your good friend’s father or your young friend’s grandfather. He just makes you feel at home and that home just happened to be the White House for that afternoon.”
Still, if Sudeikis had any doubts over how deeply and widely Ted Lasso has resonated, they were definitively answered that day. When the show first aired, in the Covid summer of 2020, it seemed to be a fairly traditional, knockabout sports comedy about a clueless American coach who is head-hunted to take charge of a fictional English Premier League football team, AFC Richmond. But now, three seasons in, Ted Lasso is an altogether more ambitious and outspoken proposition: one recent episode flipped between a slapstick gag where the players did a training drill with long lines of red string tied around their bits and an impassioned critique of the British government’s “stop the boats” campaign.
Meanwhile, in a move no one predicted, Coach Lasso has become a guru for our age: a case study of kindness and decency triumphing in a cynical modern world. Sudeikis and the rest of the cast had been invited to the White House to discuss mental-health strategies. Someone – presumably not President Biden himself, but you never know – had taped up a blue and yellow sign reading “BELIEVE”, the motto of AFC Richmond, above the door to the Oval Office.
“It’s nuts, man,” says Sudeikis, shaking his head. “I haven’t even looked at the pictures of the White House yet because I want it to just live up there for a while” – he taps his forehead – “as this amazing firework show rather than saying, ‘Oh, boy, why did I wear sneakers?’ Haha, on the day I got a text from my mom saying, ‘Make sure you don’t wear sneakers to the White House.’ I was like, ‘Too late, Mom.’”
It is a very Ted Lasso move to turn up at the White House in sneakers and a sweatshirt, but also in keeping with Sudeikis himself. This morning, in a hotel room in London’s Soho, the actor, 47, wears Nike running shoes, faded jeans, a mint-green hoodie and a baseball cap. Lasso’s trademark squirrel’s-tail moustache has been allowed to grow out into a patchier, salt-and-pepper beard. Sudeikis looks a little bleary-eyed after flying in from Los Angeles with his children, Otis and Daisy, aged nine and six, but he is assiduously polite and attentive. His language can be quaintly anachronistic: “I’m pleased as pie!” he exclaims at one point.
Where Lasso begins and Sudeikis ends has become a recurring fascination over the past few years. When the series first aired, Sudeikis would make a joke of the comparison, saying something along the lines of: Lasso was like Jason Sudeikis, but after two beers on an empty stomach. At the White House, Sudeikis referred to Ted Lasso – the show and the man – as “wish-fulfilment”. “You know, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world,’” says Sudeikis now, paraphrasing Mahatma Gandhi. “Well, how about, ‘Write the change you want to see in the world’? Part of the joy of getting to do this neat job I’ve got to do is the wish-fulfilment. Not just getting to play the characters, but also, what do you want to put out there into the world?”
As Ted Lasso approaches the climax of its third – and, Sudeikis insists, final – season, the stakes are higher than ever before. But Sudeikis is clearly thinking beyond that: can his little show about a fish-out-of-water football coach leave a lasting legacy of compassion on those who watched it? “Richmond is, metaphorically, like a form of utopia,” he says. “And yet it has to honour the fact that not everywhere else outside that utopia is utopian. And so, how would you deal with these conflicts? From back in 2015, when we were first thinking: ‘What is this thing?’ I just knew inside that this guy was real. He’s complicated. He’s not perfect. He’s going through stuff. But this is who he is. He actually is nice.”
Niceness is intrinsic to the Sudeikis brand these days and it’s clearly an ideal he believes in. “It’s the way most of us were born,” he says. “I’m lucky, both my kids are naturally kind. They can get a little surly, sure, Otis more than Daisy. But at the end of the day, they’re just nice folks. And I was raised by nice folks.”
Those folks are his parents, Dan, who worked in business development, and Kathryn, a travel agent who happens to be the older sister of Norm from Cheers, George Wendt. Sudeikis was born in Virginia, the eldest of three children, but grew up in Kansas, and Lasso has a sing-song version of his own midwestern accent. They also appear to share the same humility. Sudeikis, who has won two Emmys and a pair of Golden Globes for his performance, still seems a little bemused by the fanaticism the show has inspired. “The reception to it?” he says. “No, I don’t think my midwestern sensibilities would even allow my wildest imagination the opportunity to think the thing would become what it’s become. Never, never in a million years.”
Sudeikis was a talented athlete at school and college – mainly in basketball – but his uncle’s success also made him aware that a career in performing was possible. Eventually, he chose to pursue comedy, working for years in improv groups before Saturday Night Live took him on in 2003. “I didn’t realise my folks were worried about me when I was taking improv classes in my 20s,” says Sudeikis. “But when I got the job writing at SNL, now they could tell their friends, ‘Oh, our son writes on SNL. Now it’s something.’”
After Saturday Night Live, he had a very decent career in Hollywood, landing lead roles as a disenchanted account manager in the 2011 comedy Horrible Bosses and its 2014 sequel, as well as cameos on 30 Rock and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. At 6ft-plus, with soulful, dark eyes and alpha-male vibes, he tended to get cast as handsome, sometimes morally dubious, characters. Off-screen, he married the screenwriter Kay Cannon in 2004; they separated four years later. Afterwards, Sudeikis was routinely linked with A-listers, such as Jennifer Aniston and January Jones, and, in 2011, got together with the actor and director Olivia Wilde. They became engaged two years later and had children.
It was while he was having dinner with Wilde in around 2015 that Sudeikis wondered if he could revisit a character called Ted Lasso that he had created for a comedy skit two years earlier, and maybe take his own career in a different direction. The original Lasso was more broadly comic – “belligerent,” Sudeikis calls him – so why make the new version so warm and fuzzy? “It was the culture we were living in,” explains Sudeikis. “I’m not terribly active online and it even affected me. Then you have Donald Trump coming down the escalator. I was like, ‘OK, this is silly,’ and then what he unlocked in people… I hated how people weren’t listening to one another. Things became very binary and I don’t think that’s the way the world works. And, as a new parent – we had our son Otis in 2014 – it was like, ‘Boy, I don’t want to add to this.’ Yeah, I just didn’t want to portray it.”
Rightly or wrongly – well, probably wrongly, you’d have to say, on balance – the line between Sudeikis and his saintly creation have become blurred over time. In November 2020, he and Wilde split: that the news echoed one of the main storylines from the first season of Ted Lasso, where Lasso separated from his wife, in part because of his time spent in the UK, was a detail that did not go unnoticed by tabloid editors. An initial statement said Sudeikis and Wilde were parting “amicably” but, over time, sustaining the Lasso spirit in real life has not always been straightforward for the pair.
Two months after their break, Wilde was photographed holding hands with the singer Harry Styles, whom she met on the set of her film, Don’t Worry Darling. Then, in April 2022, Wilde was handed a manila envelope while she was onstage giving a speech about Don’t Worry Darling at the CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas. “This is for me?” she asked. “Is this a script?” Nope, it was custody papers from a process server hired by her ex. Sudeikis apologised and made it clear he had not authorised the ambush, but Wilde fired back that it was an “outrageous legal tactic”. New York magazine’s Vulture blog called it, “A messy move for king of kindness Ted Lasso.”
There’s been more: a “bombshell interview” from their former nanny (Sudeikis and Wilde then united to refute her claims as “false and scurrilous”). But reps for Sudeikis request not to go there today, to avoid stirring the pot further.
The end of Ted Lasso is now in sight: if you are watching it as the episodes are released, every Wednesday, there are three left. Sudeikis has not ruled out that there could be spin-offs from the series, but he’s also been adamant that the show, in its current form, ends here. “That was one thing we spoke about on our final day of filming,” he says. “The show may be over, but what we learned here… It’s not like Vegas: what happened here, stays here. No, what happened here, take it, take it to your village, take it to your family, take it to your next project. For real. Aren’t funerals not always to celebrate the dead, but also to remember you’re alive?”
As for what’s next for Sudeikis, he’s not sure. But it’s clear he has options: “One of the great things is that Ted Lasso has granted a tremendous amount of creative autonomy,” he says coyly. The experience has also taught him to pick his projects carefully: “It’s nice it happened later in my career, too. I’ve had the good fortune of working in a bunch of places and having some things go well, some things not go as well and to realise how important the alchemy of the people you work with is.”
For much of the past three years, Sudeikis has lived mostly in west London, and his children went to school here: Otis even developed a Dick Van Dyke twang. Now, they are back in Los Angeles, where Wilde lives (she has since split from Styles), and he joined them after Ted Lasso wrapped in November last year. “I don’t think it’s the ending of something,” says Sudeikis, of his time in the UK, “as much as now we’ve added three or four charms to the bracelet of our lives.”
Sudeikis still follows the Premier League, managing somehow to support both Arsenal and Manchester City: “Well, Man City’s my team, but Arsenal’s my club,” he sort of explains. He has also been tracking the progress of Wrexham AFC, the National League team now co-owned by American actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, who recently won promotion back into the football league. “I haven’t spoken to Rob and Ryan about it directly,” he says. “But when I watched them respond to the final whistle of the match the other day, and I just saw their bodies slump, and then the way they turned to find each other and hug, I get it, 100% get it.”
As for what is coming “down the pike” for Ted Lasso, Sudeikis doesn’t go in for spoilers, but he does drop some clues. “I only did the Boy Scouts for a little bit, but I always loved that notion of: leave the campsite better than you found it,” he says. “So if Ted Lasso is the American Mary Poppins, he wants to leave the Banks kids, and probably most importantly Mr Banks, with the appreciation of flying a kite. And what I would wish for anyone involved with the show is: don’t cry that it’s over, but smile that it happened.”
It’s a very Ted Lasso – and Jason Sudeikis – sentiment. Both of them have had a wild few years, of professional highs and personal lows. Both try to confront adversity with a conviction that decency will prevail. Both are doing OK, right now. “Until I’m faced with being on a plane that’s supposed to go down,” says Sudeikis, “or some biopsy brings back some bad news or some other major shift happens in my life or someone near and dear to me’s life, I have no reason not to be as optimistic as the character I’ve been lucky enough to portray for the last three years.”
Then, with an air of defiance, he adds, “I have no complaints. Leave that to the experts.”