Ricky Gervais talks about his role as Bertram Pincus in the upcoming movie "Ghost Town," as well as his work in "The Office" and "Extras."
In Ricky Gervais’ breakthrough Hollywood comedy, “Ghost Town,” opening Friday, he’s a misanthropic dentist who dies briefly, and wakes up beset by even more irritants — ghosts who all want something from him.
Before everyone in the Colonies wants something from Gervais, 47, I mixed it up with the hilarious star and co-creator of Brit discomfort-comedy classics, “The Office” (he exec produces the NBC remake) and “Extras.” To use his catchphrase from the latter, we were havin’ a laugh throughout.
Q: Irony, sarcasm and the like are notoriously misread in American newspapers. So let’s just agree to be completely sincere and literal starting right now.
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I’ll take that at face value.
Q: OK, let’s really start now.
A: There’s a big difference between irony and sarcasm as well. It’s very misused, irony, but often they mean sarcasm.
Q: Let’s just move ahead. The premise of “Ghost Town” is, “I see dead people — and they’re (expletive) annoying.”
A: Yeah, you know what? With Bertram Pincus, it doesn’t matter if they’re dead or alive, they’re (expletive) annoying. (Laughs.) He’s not prejudiced whether you’re dead or alive. You’re annoying if you’re just there.
Q: How much of you is in Bertram Pincus?
A: More than most of my characters —
Q: Hang on, hang on. That was a complete “Access Hollywood” question.
A: I’m sorry, but I’ve answered that 300 times, so let me answer it again.
Q: That’s why I stopped you. I’m not going to ask you what it was like working with Tea Leoni either.
A: And do I believe in ghosts?
Q: Nope. None of that.
A: (Laughs.) That’s not a bad question, though, “How much of you is in Bertram Pincus?” It gives me a chance to show that I don’t just blindly take roles because I want to be on in the cinema, so, you know, as they go, that’s one of the better ones. One journalist asked me the other day, she put her hand up in a press conferences and she said, “I think it’s a funny gag that you’re a dentist and yet you wear those awful crooked teeth.” I went, “Sorry?” Greg Kinnear went, “Oh, God.” I went, “They’re my own teeth.” She looked around like I was lying, she went, “Really?” I went, “Well, look, why would I wear ’em to a press conference?” And she sort of went red, the other journalists were laughing, I went, “Before you ask, no, I’m not wearing a fat suit.”
Q: Is there a palpable air of awkwardness that surrounds you off-screen in your personal life?
A: No, that’s followed me around, that label of inventing the comedy of embarrassment, but I don’t get embarrassed that easy. I get embarrassed for other people. If someone else in the room makes a bad joke, I want to die. I want to be able to take it back for them. So I feel other people’s discomfort a lot more than my own. I’m one of those guys that if I go to the toilet and there’s a wet patch on my trousers, I come out and go, “Look, I’ve pissed myself.” Then there’s no embarrassment. It doesn’t happen, but — OK, it was a bad example. I just want to say now across America, I rarely piss myself.
Q: It was a urinary hypothetical, and I’m willing to —
A: (Laughs.) Yeah, exactly! Ohhh, dear.
Q: It’s a change of genre for “Spider-Man” writer David Koepp, who’s directing. Do you think that’s a gamble, and were you hoping to wear Spandex or shoot guns?
A: Yeah, no. So you’ll know where I am with this, the day I sort of start doing a film about a hard-drinking ex-cop who now has got to get his daughter back from the mafia, that’s when you know I’ve lost it.
Q: You’re a cop who doesn’t play by the rules.
A: Exactly, yeah, yeah, it was the drinking that lost me my wife in the first place, but you know what? If they’ve got my daughter, I’m not gonna drink no more. When I take that role, that’s it. Ricky Gervais has given up.
Q: I like it when you talk about yourself in the third person.
A: Well, I did it ironically. Am I allowed to say that?
Q: Yeah, I guess we’re tossing that rule out.
A: See, you couldn’t see it because I was doing it as a headline. You can’t see this, but as I said, “Ricky Gervais has given up,” my hand sort of went across the sky like it was a headline. So I want you to put that in print. ‘Cause over the phone it doesn’t come across. It does just sound like I was talking about myself in the third person. If you’d have been in the room with me, if you could have been bothered to actually come here, as opposed to just getting someone else to call me up, then you would have seen that.
Q: I like how you’re putting this all one me. You wrote, produced, directed (with Stephen Merchant) and starred in “The Office” and “Extras,” but you’re working as an actor in “Ghost Town.” The obvious question here is, what’s your problem with hyphens?
A: (Shrieks with laughter.) Well, OK, I’m going to find the real question in the ironic shield that you’re using as a journalist. I feel you don’t feel good about your profession. That’s what I think. And I think it’s a defense mechanism, and I think you should stand up and say, “I am a journalist-feature writer-critic, and I’m the best.” So let’s get that out of the way straight away.
Q: I’ve just about had it with these vicious attacks of yours. Here, I’ll give you the real question: Did being hired as an actor leave you freer to pursue … drugs?
A: (Shrieks laughing, giggling.) You can’t do it, can you? You can’t just do a straight, down-the-line — I bet you’ve still got posters up in your apartment of, like, chimps on toilets, haven’t you — ironically? Just put up a Rembrandt and say “I love Rembrandt,” and you’ll be a better person for it. Now, give me a question.
Q: Let’s get this sellout question out of the way and then move on.
A: Well, I think selling out is doing something that you think is not right for you, but you’re doing it with an ulterior motive, whereas that’s not true. So I’ve never apologized for people not liking what I do. I don’t care, in all honesty. I don’t care if that person does find it boring or not funny, because this is the thing about comedy: as many people hate “The Office” as love it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Q: I didn’t know that.
A: In fact, I’m probably in the red. I imagine more people can’t stand the sight of me than love my wonderful crooked teeth. That’s it. If you’re pleasing everyone, you’re not pleasing anyone. I’ve never liked this idea of committee or democracy in comedy or art or drama. There’s only one person I’m trying to please, and that’s me. And some people don’t believe that. Having said that, of course I want people to watch it. I don’t do things and put them in a drawer. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t want to do it or watch it. But all I’ve tried to do is do things that I’m proud of, and I think if you’re happy with your product, it doesn’t matter what happens. This crazy fear of like opening weekend or reviews. It’s mad. It’s just crazy. It’ll send you mental.
Q: You’re ranked No. 83 on the 2008 Telegraph’s list “the 100 most powerful people in British culture.” For the record, I think No. 64, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, can go to hell.
A: Yeah, you know what annoyed me? I made No. 36 in the Time magazine Most Influential People of the year, and Nelson Mandela beat me. I mean, what’s he done? He was in jail for 25 years. I did “The Office” and “Extras.”
Q: He’s a total fraud.
A: (Laughs uproariously.)
Q: Bearing in mind the rise and fall of your character in “Extras,” please tell me how fame is turning you into an egotistical monster.
A: Oh, me? The honest answer is not at all. I haven’t changed a bit. I came to it late with a bit of a wiser head on my shoulders, and I always remember why I’m doing it. I know how privileged I am, and I can’t believe I can get up and do exactly what I want every day. What do I want? What do I need? For me the joy is being in a room with Steve Merchant coming up with silly stuff. I don’t go to every celebrity’s party I’m invited to. In fact I avoid it because I think, “Oh, there’s people there I wouldn’t even cross the street to see. Why do I want to be stuck in a room with them?” I’m not part of this fame club. You know there’s a big difference between a “Big Brother” winner and Robert De Niro, and I think people know that. In fact, when “The Office” first broke, I was very prickly about it, you know, I didn’t want to be lumped in with those people who’d do anything just to be famous, like wave and smile and phone in what I had for breakfast that day. But a journalist said, “So what advice would you give to someone else who wants to be famous?” And I said, “I’d tell them to go out and kill a prostitute.”
Q: What led you to the comedy of making people squirm? Did you develop it like, say, Lewis Black discovered at one point people thought it was funny when he shouted?
A: Well, I suppose there’s a bit of that, but when you first sort of act it out, people sort of identify with it because they’ve seen it happen. But the most important thing for me is empathy. I think people laugh because they recognize something. I think they laugh because they understand what that person is going through. Comedy is puttin’ people in your shoes, and I think that is the most important thing. Laurel and Hardy proved it 100 years ago. It hasn’t been improved upon. It’s understanding what someone else is going through that’s funny. The first joke was a caveman falling over and the other ones laughed because they knew he didn’t mean to do it. And they thought, “Oh, my God, I know what that’s like. I did that.”
Q: There’s nothing funnier than watching a caveman twist in the wind.
A: I know. Also, when I go back in time, I leave things lying around that weren’t there, and then they’re just walking around and they fall over like a — you know like a big rib cage of a mammoth. They fall over that and they rock for a little while, and that’s funny.
Q: You’re the leading man in a big Hollywood picture for David Koepp, who wrote the latest Indiana Jones, “Spider-Man,” “Carlito’s Way”…
A: That’s an interesting point because I read the script, and it was the funniest script I’d read in five years. I’d turned down everything else, and I thought, if I don’t do this I won’t do anything. It was great. And it was very collaborative, and he let me work on it, and he knew I was a writer and director myself, and he came to London and we reworked the piece and changed things, and it was very collaborative even on the studio floor. I didn’t know about him, but I got on with him great, and I learned a bit more about him, and I learned that in L.A., writers go, “One day I’m going to earn Koepp money.” But after about two weeks I was talking with someone and they go, “Yeah, he wrote ‘Carlito’s Way.’ ” And I said, “He wrote ‘Carlito’s Way’?” And he went, “Yeah,” and I went, “Wow!” And went to him the next day and I went, “I didn’t know you wrote ‘Carlito’s Way.’ ” And he went, “Yeah.” And I said, “I’m going to treat you with more respect.” And he said, “That’ll be nice.” (Laughs.)
Q: An IMDb (Internet Movie Database) wrote about “Ghost Town,” “Oh God I love Ricky Gervais but this movie looks boring and not funny. Why, Ricky, Why?”
A: Well, I think they haven’t seen it. Do they have to take it seriously? It’s like now I’ve got to answer that question like it really is awful and boring, as opposed to going, “Surely you haven’t seen it yet.” (Laughing.) So should I answer it in two parts, so if they’ve saw it, it was boring, I’ll answer that one. Then can we point out that they’re guessing it was boring, having no information whatsoever.
Q: By now, you must have been offered some hilariously bad American projects.
A: Yeah, after the first episode of “The Office” went out, I was offered scripts. One of them was a lead. They sent me this film and I said who’s the lead, and they went, “You are.” And I went, “Well who’s going to go and see that?” And they just sort of went quiet. They thought, “Who is this nobody turning down an opportunity?” And I said, you need John Cusack for this. No one’s going to go and see me in this. People are jumped too early. They do a film and they’ve had a bit of success on telly, and it’s advertised on the side of a bus for a week and they go straight to DVD that no one rents? Where’s the point in that? I’ve got offered all these millions of bit parts popping up as a comedy pirate or a butler, and I just thought “No one’s ever said, ‘He’s been in 13 movies for a minute, let’s give him his own role.’ ” It doesn’t work like that.
I was offered a film as Will Smith’s brother. I didn’t ask. Steve Merchant came over a couple of years ago, and Steve said, “We’ve got the perfect role for you. We love what you did in “The Office.” We love what you did in “Extras.” It’s a film where a man can hear babies’ thoughts.” And Steve went, “It’s like ‘What Women Want’ with babies?” They went “Yeah, except you can hear them and they can talk.” He went, “Like ‘Look Who’s Talking?” They went, “Yeah.” He went, “It’s not for me.” (Laughs.)
Q: Don’t babies just want to eat and poop?
A: Well I think so. That probably is — exactly! (Laughs) It’s such a boring — yeah, you need to know what a baby’s thinking, do you, really? You know, you sort of know.
Q: I was against a U.S. remake of “The Office,” because we have such a lousy track record: our “Coupling” remake bombed, and I’m dreading the U.S. version of “Life on Mars” — apart from the remake of “The Office, which is doing well.
A: I know, it’s the first one in about 30 years, isn’t it? I think the last one is “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son.” It’s crazy.
Q: Please tell me there won’t be an American remake of “Extras.”
A: No, I don’t think there will be. There’s no point. Also that was on a bigger channel and it was a bigger cult hit, you know. The English version of “The Office” went out on BBC America and there’s a ceiling there. There was 250 million people who hadn’t seen it on BBC America, and I did it as an experiment, really. I wanted to see, and I don’t know why that worked and everything else has failed. With hindsight, I’ve got some ideas. I think one, it was a comedy that wasn’t quintessentially English. It was universal subjects, it was boy meets girl, it was quite existential, wasting your life, a bad boss and all those things that everyone identifies with. And the second reason I think, apart from my involvement as a genius executive producer, was that all my influences are American. So I felt that I was just sort of selling it back to you guys, you know. I ripped off “Spinal Tap,” you know, a direct ripoff of “Spinal Tap.” Christopher Guest is the biggest influence on my acting style. “Larry Sanders” is in there. “The Simpsons” was in there. “Laurel and Hardy” is in there, that look in the camera, Tim being Ollie surrounded by Stans. And I think that I sort of sold back to you what you invented.
Q: You people have a long history of doing that.
A: (Laughs.) Yeah, I’ve ripped off the best, though, haven’t I?
Q: You’ve told an inspiring story about having to pee in your kitchen sink while you were working your way up.
A: That’s true. There was no working my way up. I was at the bottom and liked it there. I’ve never worked my way up. I didn’t even start sort of like working for a living until I was like 28, 29. This fell into my lap about 38, I’d say, 37. But that’s true, yeah, because there was no toilet in the block. So it’s crazy to put on pants and go outside if you need to wee, you know. I demand en suite.
Q: In a recent interview, you explained your policies about using minimal hair, makeup and costuming? Think you’ll ever be accused of playing the same character all the time?
Q: And if it’s you, isn’t that kind of an insult?
A: That’s fine. There’s this strange thing where an actor goes, “I want to show my versatility.” Why? No one’s at home going, “I’d like to see him do something else.” What is this? Is this a test? Are we being judged? Woody Allen played one character and he played it brilliantly. Bob Hope played one character. Groucho Marx. You know, all the best people played one character. I know where I am, and if you want a putz that can be redeemed, I’m your man.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org