Ricky Gervais interview
Ricky Gervais is renowned for playing the most cringe-worthy character on television: David Brent, in the BBC comedy The Office, which Gervais co-wrote and directed. He has won international success for The Office, picking up numerous BAFTA and British Comedy Awards, as well as two Golden Globes for best performance for an actor in a comedy and best television series. In his new film Valiant, an animated CGI comedy, he co-stars along side Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent and John Cleese, as the voice of Bugsy the pigeon. Valiant is released in cinemas nationwide on the 25th March. His new television series, Extras, will begin on BBC2 in the summer.
LF: You turned down Pirates Of The Caribbean, what's your thought process in choosing a particular role?
RG: Well, for Pirates of the Caribbean I would have had to go to L.A., and go to the Caribbean and spend six months in a Winnebago for two minutes on screen. Where for Valiant, I had to go ten minutes down the road for four days work, and my fat face not appear on screen.
LF: You seem to have turned down a lot of films, are you quite choosy about your roles?
RG: Rare isn't it? Well, it's because it's got to tick a lot of boxes. Firstly, everything I do that isn't writing and directing with Stephen Merchant, maybe fun, but it's a diversion. I want to do something that I'm absolutely proud of, that leaves a legacy. I think its 'cause I started so late in life, it's because I didn't achieve anything by the time I was twenty-eight. I think you have to keep your powder dry, so the more I pop up on panel shows, bad sitcoms and bad movies the less they want to see my new projects that I've put a 100% into. I think you've got a pile of goodwill that you can either use up in the first year of fame or you can spread it over a career, on things you're proud of. I spent three years of my life making sure The Office was just right, and I have been doing the same for Extras.
I do stand-up, for many reasons really, it's an academic challenge that's great fun and I'm getting better at it. And again, I don't tour a lot because I don't think stadiums work for comedy. I think people that do stadiums, only do it so they can say: "I filled a stadium." So what? You have to think about the audience at the back, was it good for them? I think a lot of comedians are entertainers; they're like red-coats. There's nothing wrong with it - but it doesn't interest me - I want to do something that makes a connection. I want something that resonates with people.
That's why I don't do a lot of stuff. Some of the things I've turned down are simply because they're rubbish, or because they'll take too much out of my time. Like Pirates of the Caribbean, which I think is a brilliant film - absolutely brilliant - but I couldn't afford the time. Other things I don't do, because I don't want to be overexposed and things like this [interview]; you've got to save it to a minimum. Because when I see people on three chat shows in one weekend - forget it - I just think you have to keep your powder dry really... for things that do matter.
LF: This isn't your first exploration into voice-over, you also had a part in Robbie the Reindeer, but how was it this time around?
RG: Yeah, Robbie the Reindeer was for Comic Relief. I think everyone had a part; I played a penguin... why do I keep on doing fat birds?
I liked the story of Valiant, but I was rubbish the first day, I didn't know what I was doing. There were no actors there - you're acting blind so to speak - and they wanted me to be big and project and be over the top, be a real cockney wide-boy. And I was just thinking: "I can't do this; it's not what I do. I do more naturalistic acting" and I remember saying after about an hour or so: "I'm no good at this - I think you should have got Bob Hoskins!" And all the producers looked at each other and said: "He's right."
But then they let me ad-lib a bit more and I crossed it with my stand-up persona which is louder and brasher version of myself, but still very vulnerable. And I mixed it up with Bob Hope and Woody Allen, who are much more like reluctant heroes and cowards that go: "Oh, oh, I loved to...but I can't." It's that kind of exasperated fear. And by the end of it all, I wanted to do it again, I was like: "Oh, now I know what you meant!" The director was very patient. Even though I know he was thinking: "Why didn't we get Bob Hoskins?"
LF: So knowing what you know now about animated voice-over, can we expect more from you?
RG: I'd love to. For all those reasons I've said, you can do voice-over anywhere and it doesn't use up your pile of goodwill. I've been a fan of animation for years, since I was a kid. When I was at school and we had to write a story about going out and doing things, I would write an original episode of Tom and Jerry. I must have written loads. So all those years-ago, when I was five have come in handy! And when I started out in comedy, my ambition was to write a joke for The Simpsons. And when I was asked to write an episode for The Simpsons, I thought: "Well, I might as well just retire now."
LF: What can you tell us about your episode of The Simpsons?
RG: I can't, I'm not allowed to. But as I told another journalist - before I was told I wasn't supposed to talk about it - my character tries to woo Marge with a love song.
LF: In Valiant, your character is not the best looking of the bunch, we're you a bit disappointed?
RG: Actually I think they've done me proud, his legs are longer then mine I think! What can you do? It's a comedy part, and I think fat is funny. If I was handsome then David Brent wouldn't be around.
LF: Was it important to you to be part of a film that has been sold as an essentially British film?
RG: Well, no. In fact, it's the first thing that turns me off. If someone says it's a British film, then that means it's going to have a couple of awful TV actors, one old actor who did an international film in 1969, it's going to be a gritty tale about getting a hockey team to the fourth division, which is going to be advertised on the side of buses for one week and go straight to video. So no, being in a British film is not the big carrot for me! But like I said, they said the magic words: "It's near your house and you can burp and make it up as you go along." It's my kind of film!
LF: How many of your lines were ad-libbed?
RG: I did so much, I can't really remember. The guys told me I was the only one who ad-libbed. But then I think its pointless getting in a comedian if you want them to be funny and making them read other peoples lines. You know it was great for me, and I think it turned out really, really well. And from what I can work out they kept in a lot of my ad-libs - I don't want to talk out of line with the director - but in my mind I did a lot.
LF: You talked about Extras, how come you're going back to TV? When you're probably more then able to make a film in its own right?
RG: I've seen so many people fall. And seen so many people get a little bit of success and take up a film just because they can't believe their luck. I was offered a lead part in a film, after the first episode of The Office, and I said to them - and they couldn't believe I said this - "I wouldn't go and see a film if I was in it. You want someone like John Cusack to play this role." They were so taken aback, they thought I was mental.
But with television, you come into it with a certain amount of control. I'd rather wait until my cachet's even higher, maybe. I would love to do a movie, if the part was right. I'd rather do a film that Steve and I have complete control over. The joy to me is the process, not sitting back and watching me in Technicolor. The joy is coming up with the idea, writing it and casting it. I want to be proud of it in the end, I don't want to feel like I've got away with it, I don't want to say: "Oh, it wasn't very good, but they paid me £5m for it." That's never interested me. I don't feel like we've gone back to television, I feel like we've never left it. I'd rather do a great television programme then a bad film.
Extras is set in the film world. I play an extra who tries to get a part or a role in a different film each week, so when I come across an A-list celebrity I try and schmooze them. You know I play a character that's just trying to make it in this world. So we've got Samuel L. Jackson, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Ben Stiller, Ross Kemp, Les Dennis - who is incredible - you will not believe the things he is willing to say about himself... they all play absolutely twisted views of themselves. And this is all through The Office; I would never have been able to do this if I'd been in loads of bad films.
LF: Can you tell us a bit about your part in Mission Impossible 3?
RG: I don't even know what it is yet. J.J. Abrams - who I met on Alias, and is a fan of The Office - is a friend and he asked me if I wanted to be in it. I was asking him about the film and saying: "So, for my part, can I take off a mask and be like Tom Cruise all along." To which, he goes: "Yeah sure, take off a mask and be Tom Cruise...What? In the film? No!" So I don't even know what it is yet, and it was taken out of context that I was staring opposite Tom Cruise, it's going to be more like: "Is that the guy from The Office - is he going to pop again? Er, no he doesn't!"
But like I said, I do it as bit of a laugh. But if it were filming now then I wouldn't do it, I'd have to say no. Like I say, my job is filming and writing with Stephen Merchant. It's my calling, to fool around and be the fat bloke off telly.
LF: How difficult is it to get away from the David Brent persona?
RG: It's still around isn't it? When Extras comes to the screen it will be two years since we completed The Office, and there's not a day goes by when David Brent is not mentioned in the papers. There could be a new EC directive about desks and they'll be a picture of David Brent. There was one a while back, they had a great big picture of David Brent and a picture of a women saying: "My boss groped me," and I was thinking: "Don't put a picture of me! Put a picture of the guy who groped her! Don't do that"
The David Brent dance was voted the top TV moment of the last 70-years, beating the moon landing. It was voted by 5,000 people in the industry, and 1 in 5 of those voted the dance as the top moment. It beat the moon landing, the Iranian embassy siege and the fall of the Berlin Wall. They wanted a quote for this, and I said: "Well, it's quite right we beat the moon landing, because by his own admission it was one small step, where as mine was a half skip, a high step and a crab impression."
We nearly didn't do that, I thought it was a little bit over the top. But we worked backwards, I knew it would be funny to see me dancing, but we didn't want it to be contrived. I'm so glad we did it now. People say: "Do you think you'll overcome the shadow of David Brent?" But what's the worst that could happen? If people think that's the best thing I've ever done, well there are worst things to be famous for.
And I'm glad I put everything I had into it. People say he's just like me, well it is really. I don't applaud people, who go out on tour for 9 weeks with 10 different voices, I just want to do one character well. And if it comes back to haunt me, well I'm still proud of it. The next thing I'm going to do is something naturalistic, with my face and my hair and talk a bit like me. I hope people see past that and realise that I'm not a clown; I'm a writer/director, trying to create something that resonates in the real world. Oh, hark at me?!