If you are one of the 8.5 million viewers that watches CBS’s Scorpion every week, than you are, without a doubt, a fan of Ari Stidham. He plays the new hit’s numerical savant, a human calculator and member of an eccentric team of super-geniuses that helps the government solve complicated threats against society. Stidham is Sylvester Dodd, a sweet, OCD-stricken numbers phenomenon, who fans root for week after week. Prior to playing Dodd, Stidham turned heads on ABC Family’s sweet, well-liked fat-camp show, Huge, in which he played the lovable musician Ian Schonfeld.
But acting is just one of Ari’s talents. He is a fantastic musician (as displayed on Huge) and has been writing and recording fun, refreshing, candy-coated, Cali-inspired pop under the name Dr. Television, found on SoundCloud. (Check out “Julia,” “Killer,” and “Run for the Hills” to turn into a fan instantly). In an exclusive interview, Hot2Molly spoke with Ari about his music, the success of Scorpion, Sylvester’s style and video game savvy, and Ari’s passion for alternative comedy.
H2M: Congratulations on the huge success of the show, one of the highest rated new programs among adults. Was there a moment when you were filming when you first thought to yourself, ‘People are really going to dig this’?
AS: When we were shooting the pilot, there was a moment when I thought, ‘This show has legs.’ It was when I saw all the green screen stuff. I was watching (Katharine) McPhee plug the computer and hand the computer plug to the co-pilot on this airport tarmac on this gigantic green screen. We’re seeing footage of it and we’re like ‘This is going to be on TV. This isn’t a movie. This is for TV.’ And i thought to myself ‘They are doing an amazing job with this. It’s definitely got legs. People want to see stuff like this.’ I’m practical so I didn’t let myself get too hopeful from that point on but the proof is in the pudding thus far, which is our numbers, which keep on showing success. Also, the viewers who overwhelmingly respond positively to it, which is crazy and doesn’t happen everyday. I consider myself very lucky. Yes, that pilot episode, pun intended, was so exciting – the action sequences. It was such a big burst on to the scene for the show. High octane for sure.
H2M: Your character Sylvester Dodd is a human calculator and statistical guru. How good is Ari Stidham at math?
AS: (Laughing) I’m not good at math at all. If there is a computer question coming up, I’ll just say I’m also bad at computers. I am not ashamed to tell you I don’t have Wi-Fi in my apartment. I have an iPhone 4 and I’m talking to it on speaker phone because it’s completely shattered and I don’t have time to fix the screen.
H2M: That makes all the memorizing of the numbers and the calculations that you have to do and discuss on screen even that more impressive. What is that memorization process like?
AS: It’s different for everybody. For me, personally, I just drill it home until I get it and then hopefully I don’t forget it on set. It’s a lot more basic once I got into it. I had a process before and then I just started reading it and learning it. You don’t have to dress it up with anything else.
H2M: Sylvester suffers from extreme OCD and high anxiety. He has to do things in his own way and has lots of Sylvester “isms.” Do you have any funny or interesting quirks, you’re own ism’s, you would be willing to share with fans?
AS: I also suffer from high anxiety. I do this weird thing called muscle testing. I say it’s weird, I don’t believe it’s weird. I say it’s weird so people don’t get weirded out. It’s really hard to explain without showing it. I do it as Sylvester on the show – what I do with my hands. A part of my nervous tension on the show is I play with my fingers and pull the ring finger on the left hand because when you are having a heart attack, your ring finger on your left hand goes numb. There’s also pulling right on your chest, right beneath it. When it’s burning up that means there is something wrong with your heart. So there are plenty of times on screen when I am holding my left ring finger because it’s a really intense moment, like ‘someone’s going to die’ or planes are falling from the sky or whatever it is, something like that. I do the muscle testing.
H2M: That’s so cool that you can do it on screen, you don’t have to worry about catching it! Instead it actually adds more to the character.
AS: Yeah, the showrunners like it.
H2M: How does Sylvester’s back story and the fact that he is alienated from his family impact the creative choices you make?
AS: That’s a great question. Mainly it informs the lack of definition of emotions. Whatever episode you are watching, say you’re talking about episode 12, the Christmas episode where the kid is stuck lying by the beach. All of those issues are things that Sylvester was never taught to deal with. HIs parents thought ‘This guy is too messed up, we’re shipping him off to his uncles house’ and then his uncle doesn’t really know what to do with him. It taught him that you have to cope with things however you can. And for a lot of the issues, that means running away and white knuckling it. It’s instrumental, the fact that his parents kind of dumped him is the reason why so many of his issues aren’t handled. His folks didn’t understand how important it was to make sure that he was okay. So he is still kind of like a little boy because he never really grew up. No one ever taught him how to live his life. He is so intense, he’s got exposed nerve endings.
H2M: El Guapo, Sylvester’s famous online gaming persona, gave viewers a whole new side of Sylvester to love. Did you always know that part of his backstory or did you first learn about it when reading that (Episode 13’s) script?
AS: One of our show runners (he’s credited as a developer, I’ve always call him one of the creators), Nick Santora, when we were shooting Episode 11, he came up to me and said, ‘I have this awesome story line.’ He pitched the El Guapo thing to me so I knew it was coming. He was so excited when they broke this whole thing in the writers room and the writers were all stoked to hear about it. All these secrets that our characters have, when they’re revealed in the episodes, they don’t have a book of things that the characters have done in the past. They have a basic concept of where they want to take them. They know a lot about the characters when they start writing but all that stuff is susceptible to change and if they have a really good idea for an episode, like if they want to add some father-son relationship stuff, then they’ll lean into the Sylvester and his dad. They extrapolate and tighten where they need to. I don’t know if we’re going to get there in the first season, or even second season, but I’d like to see his backstory more clearly defined and tie up some loose ends in that area.
H2M: It’s fun for fans to see Sylvester in a situation of control, where he is the bad-ass. He is in other ways too but his video game talent is playful and cool.
H2M: Sylvester’s go-to looks is a button-down shirt and sweater vest. Were you involved with that decision? And what is your own go-to look in real life?
AS: The sweater vest, button-down shirt combo – the costume designer had a couple ideas going in to it. I said that I really liked the layered look and I like wearing sweater vests. But the original look was a little more “homeless” because when I got cast, I didn’t know how clean cut they want him to be. I know kids who have OCD, who have extreme forms, but it’s interesting because they are filthy. My initial pitch was a ratty sweatshirt and an even rattier sweater vest over it, like ‘this dude hasn’t showered in a couple days.’ But that got shot down almost immediately. But we fell in love with the sweater vest and they had me try on these shirts and I buttoned them all the way to the top and it just felt right, like ‘Yeah, he would do that.’ All the shirts have cool patterns because they’re stimulating but still symmetrical, which is important. There’s a lot of thought that goes into all the costumes and wardrobes. They definitely like to work with us so I always get to tell them what I like as far as the choices.
Personally, in real life, I love a good button-up. I’ve been cuffing my jeans lately, at the bottom, like halfway up so they land like capris but they look like rugby pants. I guess the look is in. I started doing it because I saw a couple dudes do it and I did it one day when it started raining one day. I like a good button up with a sweater over it. I’ll do a sweater vest every now and then. When it’s summer, I wear these black tank tops and these open Hawaiian shirts. I love patterns. I have a lot of long-sleeve button-up patterns shirts that I”ll wear open, that I’ll rock with a gold chain. I have a headband that I wear to keep my hair out of my face and sweat out of my eyes. I like to think that I have an eclectic fashion sense, that I put myself together all right. I feel like I express myself through what I wear. I have a lot of cool graphic tees. I have one of a black Bart Simpson, called 2 Chainz Simpson, Bart Simpson but he looks really ‘hood. I love that. I have a Biggie Smalls shirt I wear a lot. I have shirts of things that I like. I have a pretty eclectic fashion sense I guess.
(Photo Credit: Bobby Quillard)
H2M: A really positive and interestive aspect of the role is that of a translator of sorts between Paige and her son, Ralph. Sylvester helps teach Paige how she can connect and communicate as a parent with her genius son (who lies on the autism spectrum). What are your thoughts on this aspect of the role?
AS: I wish we spent more time there. It’s hard because we have a story each week and the character duo of Paige and Sylvester is never as juicy as say, Paige and Walter. And especially now with Drew (Ralph’s father) in the mix, it’s kind of hard to get somebody in there to represent the geniuses with Ralph. But I think Paige and Sylvester have a really cool dynamic where he was kind of the first person ever to go to Paige and be like, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ The characters definitely love each other, that’s for sure. They care about each other. Sylvester doesn’t have a lot of people who give him the time of day. It’s pretty much just the geniuses and Paige, so for Paige to help him out the way she does means a lot to him. Everybody loves Ralph. All the geniuses see themselves in Ralph so they all want to help take care of them.
(Photo Credit: CBS Photo Archive / Contributor)
H2M: Scorpion has such a great ensemble cast. It must be a blast to work with them. Any fun or funny on-set moments you can share?
AS: Oh yeah! We have so much fun on set. There’s a lot of jokes. There’s a lot of roasts and riffing that goes on. Once when we were shooting, there’s a moment where Elyes (Gabel, who plays Walter O’Brien) makes a phone call. I don’t know why but this shot we were shooting was kind of dead in the water. After he turns around to make a phone call, it shows our backs on him. So he turned around and the only reason the camera’s were roling was to capture us walking out of the room after the phone call and he would turn around and was on the phone and was doing this really thick Indian accent. He was just doing this really amazing character and really goofing off. There was a lot of stifled laughter. It was probably midnight, last shot of the night, all of us were slap-happy, and we just couldn’t make it through the shot without laughing, busting at the seams, laughing so hard. Very funny. That was a favorite on-camera moment, him just trying to get us to laugh, which worked.
H2M: You played musician Ian Schonfeld on the beloved ABC Family show Huge. You said once that you helped develop the character into a musician. What was that process like?
AS: Oh man, I said that?! Basically, when I got that part…I had auditioned three times for the part when I got it. But before the auditions, I met Savannah Dooley (producer, writer) when she was still making the pilot into the pilot. She was adding characters and changing things. That’s when she interviewed me, and I had gone to fat camp in high school. There definitely wasn’t a guitar-playing guy in the mix but then I came in playing guitar and I was very open to whatever instrument I could play that would work with Ian. But I auditioned with a guitar and I played an original song every time I went in there. In the pilot, it showed me playing the guitar, but I don’t think that was me. I know that they decided to make the music a bigger thing because I play music. It was a long time ago so I don’t remember but I”ll defer to saying it was their decision, not me changing the role. It was definitely in the character to play something.
H2M: Every camp has to have that great guy who plays the guitar!
(Photo Credit: Bruce Birmelin / Contributor)
H2M: You’ve described Ian as having a “big heart and big soul.” He was such a likable character, who fans rooted for. How would you describe the overall experience of being part of that special show?
AS: Aw man, “special” is a great word for it. I would sum it up as my own personal John Hughes moment. Very John Hughes. I learned so much about myself. It was my first professional gig. And Jacob Wysocki (who played Dante Piznarski) was recurring on the show and we had just started hanging out before the show, outside of it, and became very close. Now we’re collaborators and he’s one of my best friends. I wish I kept in touch with everybody else but it was just an amazing experience and I definitely call it my John Hughes moment. I was 17 and it was my first job.
H2M: A fan favorite scene shows you singing the amazing original song, “Do It Right This Time.” Was that song written specifically for the scene or did you select if for Ian’s big performance?
AS: It was written for the scene, I didn’t write it. Snuffy Walden and Jake Coco and Winnie (Holzman, a writer for the show) and Savannah, the four of them together wrote it. There were a couple arrangement things that I did. But I only arranged it to make it look like it was being played by a 17 year old with basic skills. I don’t think I brought a musicality to it but I definitely performed it. The experience of working with Snuffy Walden, one of the best guys in the business, was amazing. We recorded the stuff. I couldn’t have asked for a better first gig than Huge. It was just everything I needed to learn, everything about what you can do on TV, I learned at a young age. I was very lucky.
H2M: More on your fantastic music, which you record under the pseudonym Dr. Television. Your “surf pop” sound is fun, warm, upbeat, easy to listen to, and it brings the listener right to a warm day on a Cali beach. Describe how your California upbringing influences your musical style.
AS: Definitely with the album that’s online (DRTV), definitely heavily, heavily influenced. Growing up and falling in love with girls from California, growing up minutes from the beach, it’s engrained in me. That’s where I would do everything. I’d go down to the beach, hang out. It was definitely a huge influence on me. The stuff I’m making now has a surfy influence but its not as washed out as that album. I’m looking for another producer because I’m going for different-sounding pop stuff – pop and hip hop. I’m looking at some cool hip hop producers. It’s a new sound but it’s still me. I’m releasing new stuff in April.
H2M: One of my favorites is a song called “Julia.” On SoundCloud, the track is paired with a picture of none other than the amazing Julia Roberts. Is the song in someway an ode to the famous actress?
AS: I’ve never met her, I’ve never seen her. I love that you are listening to that song. Now we’re talking about music that’s newer. That’s the last song I recorded above my parents’ garage, so it’s kind of a soundtrack to my childhood. I moved out in August to my apartment. “Julia,” as well as “Mia,” both of those songs are from this era when I was writing songs and naming them after famous actresses that I liked. I was just writing pop songs but I didn’t know who to write them for or who they were about so I started naming them like that. There’s this one called “Sandra” that’s never going to be released, after Sandra Bullock, and one called “Whoopi,” for Whoopi Goldberg that’s never going to be released.
H2M: You talk about Diane Keaton in one of your songs too.
AS: Yes, I do. I’m Dr. Television so there’s a lot of entertainment. I can’t believe you listened to all of that, you came prepared!
H2M: Absolutely. “Killer” is my favorite one. Amazing.
AS: Thank you! That’s the newest one. I released that one on Halloween. That’s more the vibe that my stuff is taking now. “Wonderbread,” is more surfer stuff and was on Scorpion last night. It opened the show.
H2M: That’s amazing!
AS: All those ones from 2012, 2013, I recorded at a studio with a dude named Garrett Zeal and he really helped me find my new sound. I have a new niche with “Killer,” I’m really vibing there. I don’t get to talk about my music a lot so thanks for asking. I’m glad you liked “Killer,” that’s more the route I’m going down.
H2M: You’re really gifted and passionate. It’s not everyday I turn on a new musician and I am instantly drawn to the music. That’s how I felt, really. I listened to it nonstop.
H2M: After talking with you and listening to your music, you clearly have cool taste. What musicians or musical acts are you really into right now?
AS: Now, I’m really into pop but my idols, as far as my idols go, Harry Nilsson is one. David Byrne is up there. I love Motown and I love Biggie Smalls so much. It’s weird because we have a cool time of music with people like Frank Ocean who are blending genres and letting the lines bleed. He’s someone who goes to rap and goes to hip hop. So that’s sort of where my niche is going right now. I love Frank Ocean, he’s bleeding the lines. Hip hop in general, the way that hip hop is produced, that and certainly pop. But as far as my idols go, Harry Nilsson, David Byrne. Stevie Wonder is huge for me. I’ve also been listening to a lot of LCD Soundsystem.
H2M: How about in the world of entertainment, non music? Any particular TV shows, movies, or performances you’ve been enjoying? Who or what are you really into?
AS: Man, I love Gina Rodriguez, I just love her. She’s great. We work right next door to each other. When I see her, I’m just gushing. I love her. I watch Jane the Virgin and I think it’s great. Anything that plays with a genre I’m always a fan of. There’s something so fresh about it. I really like The Knick. Grainger Hines (who plays Captain August Robertson) is my neighbor so we talk about it all the time. I was really into The Leftovers too. I was also addicted to The Blacklist while they were our competitor, don’t hate me. So I would watch it a few days afterwards.
H2M: As a hip hop fame, do you like Empire?
AS: I haven’t caught Empire yet, I haven’t had time. But I love Hustle and Flow.
H2M: Last question! You describe yourself in a Paleyfest interview as a nerd for alternative comedy. What are some things someone new to the alternative comedy scene should check out?
AS: First, I’d say podcasts, podcasts, podcasts. You want to listen to Comedy Bang! Bang! You want to listen to The Pete Holmes Show. You want to listen to How Does This Get Made? You want to subscribe to whatever podcast you can get your hands on. Start following Shelby Fero on Twitter. Start following Maria Bamford. You want to get into the alt comedy world? Hmm. Watch old episodes of Mr. Show with Bob and David, watch Comedy Bang!Bang! on IFC. It’s hard not to find your thing where you vibe the most with the people who are making your favorite stuff. Like Reggie Watts really resonates with me because he blends music and comedy together in a new amazing crazy way. I’d like to do something like that at some point in my career. He definitely inspired me to buy a loop machine. I love comedy so much, I’m actually working on an alternative comedy sketch show right now. It’s the first thing that I’m producing and trying to sell. I’m in the process of doing that and it’s been an amazing journey to watch something cool get made. Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job was a huge influence on me comedically, as it Check it Out! with Dr. Steve Brule and The Eric Andre Show, a lot of the Adult Swim programming. I’m plugging so much alternative comedy right now. That’s really the stuff I try to stay up to date on. Anything that Paul F. Tompkins touches.
Scorpion airs Mondays at 9 pm on CBS.
(Lead Image Credit: Bobby Quillard)