The British actress Sarah Niles was, like many of us, a late convert to “Ted Lasso.” She missed the debut season when it rolled out on Apple TV+ last year, not getting her first taste until her agent sent her outtakes regarding a possible role in Season 2.
“So I watched the show,” Niles explained in a mid-July phone interview, “and I was like, ‘This is really good! It’s really what I need right now.’”
She was hardly alone in the experience. The story of an upbeat U.S. college football coach (Jason Sudeikis) who is brought to Britain to coach a fictional English Premier League football (i.e., soccer) squad, “Ted Lasso” received some tepid reviews early on. But for many, the series felt like an emotional balm in a year of contentious elections, protests and, of course, the pandemic — an exceptionally feel-good show in one of the most feel-bad years in memory. Earlier this month, the show received 20 Emmy nominations, the most ever for a freshman comedy.
Niles’s character, Dr. Sharon Fieldstone — she was introduced in the Season 2 premiere last week — is a sports psychologist whom Lasso’s team, AFC Richmond, brings on to help one of its stars, Dani Rojas (Cristo Fernández). Dani has a case of nerves so bad that he effectively loses the ability to play, but Coach Lasso has clear reservations about Dr. Fieldstone from the start.
After all, what is Ted himself but an amateur psychologist — and one with a bad experience with the professional kind, thanks to an unsuccessful effort at couples therapy with his wife?
Nor do Ted and Sharon get off on the best foot. She is unamused by the antics of Ted and his fellow coaches. And her austere demeanor — every time Ted refers to her colloquially as “Doc,” she corrects him with “Doctor” — offers a sharp contrast with the show’s usual parade of jokes and genial aphorisms.
But Niles, who in recent years has appeared in the acclaimed series “I May Destroy You,” “Beautiful People” and “Catastrophe,” as well as onstage and elsewhere, said she didn’t feel as if her character had been brought in merely to be another foil for Ted to win over.
“The first conversation I really had about the character was with Jason, who gave me an idea about the character, where she might go in the journey — or where Ted is maybe going in the journey,” Niles said. “There was so much information. I began to realize, Ah, this is a journey not just for him. It’s a journey for her, too.”
From London, Niles talked about that journey, about having to play a “straight” character on a show populated by goofballs and about belatedly learning to ride a bicycle for the role. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
So much of award-winning and prestige TV has been really dark and grim for years. And “Ted Lasso” is going in the opposite direction. As a performer, what’s it like to work on a show that has such an optimistic and upbeat feel to it?
It’s such a good feeling. [During the pandemic,] I either wanted to watch comedy or extreme horror. I don’t know what that was about. And this just kind of landed on my lap. And then when I watched the show, I was like: “Please, dear God, I need to get this job. I need to get this job.”
Obviously, Jason Sudeikis is great on the show, but another of its strengths is that it has such an exceptional range of supporting characters. When you first watched the show, did you have any favorites?
Watching the rapport between Coach Beard [played by Brendan Hunt] and Ted Lasso is just so much fun; they’re so good together. I love their banter. I love Higgins [Jeremy Swift], he’s so English, bumbling his way through stuff. But I love Roy [Brett Goldstein] because he speaks my language. He’s got a potty mouth, he swears a lot. And Dani Rojas — “football is life!” — he just lights up the pitch. There’s too many, there’s too many.
One thing I think the show has done a good job with, better than a lot of shows, is female characters. Both Keeley and Rebecca are fantastic characters, and your role is another this season. Was that an attraction at all?
Definitely. When I watched the first season, I really liked Hannah’s character [Hannah Waddingham’s Rebecca]. They weren’t afraid to put her in this position where she had power. She looks powerful, she’s so tall. She’s gorgeous, she’s sexy, and she’s not afraid to take Ted down a peg or two. And then you’ve got this lovely Keeley. We’ve got a whole history of what we call “wags” [short for “wives and girlfriends”], the kind of women who go to clubs where footballers go because they’re looking for a football partner. But she’s really, really smart, really sharp. These female characters are so well rounded, and they’ve got a lot of fight in them.
You play a relatively straight character on the show with a lot of people acting goofy around you all the time. Is it hard to play a straight character in these circumstances? Do you ever just want to crack up?
Yeaaaaahhhh. It’s so hard. I’m a bit goofy anyway. So, I was ready to goof around with them. Very hard, very hard to find that balance because Jason is such a lovable character. It’s hard to keep that balance of, you know, being straight, keeping your kindness, keeping it all up in the air.
“Ted Lasso” does not seem to have become as big a phenomenon in Britain as it has in the States. Do you have any thoughts on whether it transfers well or why maybe it doesn’t?
I think it is popular in the U.K. I just think sometimes the British can be a little bit reserved, a bit quiet about things. I think there’s more fans who adored it even later on, like myself. I mean, I watch Apple TV+. Loads of my friends and other people have said: “Oh, I’ve been watching this show. Love it. It’s the best thing.” I don’t know how I missed it.
In the United States, I feel “Ted Lasso” almost has a political, ideological dimension because it’s a show about human decency, and after four years of Donald Trump, there seems to be a yearning, at least for a substantial audience, for something other than name-calling and scapegoating. Do you feel it has anything like that sort of ideological dimension in Britain, or is that just an American thing?
No, I definitely picked up on that very early on. You know, England is the — what do you want to call it? — the brother or sister country. We have our own challenges related to politics. [Laughs.] We’re never too far away from what you all are experiencing in the U.S.A. I feel like that’s why a lot of people I’ve spoken to have said how much they needed it.
And the pandemic, of course, was a shared experience.
Exactly. Ted is always just full of surprises. I love that his name is “Lasso.” Reminds me of, you know, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which is one of my favorite films. You know “It’s a Wonderful Life”?
I think about that idea of “lassoing the moon.” Nothing but possibility. I feel Ted is like that. He lassos you with his optimism, you know.
I thought of “Ted Lasso” as conjuring a sort of western America figure — Sassy calls him the Marlboro Man. But I love lassoing the moon.
Yeah. He’s just got that optimism. You could try to resist it. You could try. But you’re going to be infected by it. The way he tells stories. One of my favorite scenes is that darts scene in Season 1. When people assume they’ve got him pegged and they understand him. I love his expression: Be curious, not judgmental.
Anything else that was fun or unexpected?
One of the funny things about this project was the bike riding. Before I started this job, I couldn’t ride a bike. I don’t know what happened in my childhood. I’m going to have to seek some therapy about why I didn’t know how to ride a bike. I kind of told Jason, “Look, I can’t ride a bike.” He’s like [voice shifts to mimic him]: “Oh, don’t worry about it. You’ll get it. You’ll get it.”
A few people helped me out — family members and friends — because there’s a park not far from me. Just getting in the park and getting on the bike. It was wonderful, actually. You get to learn something new. It’s all very “Ted Lasso” that you learn something new in life.