Ricky Gervais

Says it’s not about the money

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - NEWS -

Ricky Gervais leans back in his chair, puts his feet up on a padded foot­stool. “Good, OK,” he says. “Shoot!” He cocks his thumb to his index fin­ger and mimes a pis­tol fir­ing, though it’s not im­pos­si­ble I imag­ined that. Had he been wear­ing a (very cheap) suit and tie, I’m sure he would have ab­sent­mind­edly fin­gered the vis­cose. We are trans­ported back to Slough in the early 2000s; Gervais seems to feel it, too. “As David Brent would say,” he con­tin­ues, ex­plod­ing into that fa­mil­iar mad, jagged laugh.

Con­jec­ture over where Gervais starts and Brent ends has long been a mat­ter for dis­cus­sion — not least by the 54-yearold co­me­dian him­self. Gervais al­ways be­lieved you should write what you know, so when he sat down to cre­ate The Of­fice with Stephen Mer­chant, he set it in the mori­bund Home Coun­ties, close to Lon­don, where he grew up, in a hum­drum work­ing en­vi­ron­ment not un­like the one where he’d spent the best part of a decade. Brent would rather have been a pop star; the same was true for Gervais, one-time singer of Seona Danc­ing.

But, of course, Gervais is not re­motely like Brent, too. While Brent seemed to sweat in­se­cu­rity and fail­ure, Gervais has global fame and suc­cess. He’s our Woody Allen: a writer-di­rec­tor-per­former who works at a fu­ri­ous pace and does ex­actly what he wants. And, un­like Allen, Gervais con­tin­ues to stretch him­self. Last month, he re­leased what he be­lieves is his most “ac­com­plished, am­bi­tious” movie to date, Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dents, a comic ca­per made ex­clu­sively for Net­flix, in which he stars along­side Eric Bana.

But then, this sum­mer, there’s David Brent: Life on The Road, in which we meet David Brent 15 years on. Gervais will tour a new stand-up set as well, his first for six years, with the mod­est aim to de­ci­pher “hu­man­ity”.

All of which is why we’re in an odd dress­ing room in north Lon­don, with Gervais hav­ing his pho­to­graph taken. Be­side us is “the world’s largest mir­ror” — the kind with light bulbs around the out­side — which of­fers our re­flec­tions in un­flinch­ing, un­so­licited de­tail. I’m re­minded of an aero­plane toi­let.

Gervais nods, “and you don’t have TMZ wait­ing for you when you land to ask you ques­tions about Don­ald Trump, or some­one who’s died. Or some­one who’s just had an af­fair. ‘Re­ally? I watched two films [on the plane], I don’t know’.” To­day, he wears a tight T-shirt and jeans, looks fit and healthy, though his back’s a bit dicky (hence the foot­stool). “That’s not me try­ing to be cool,” he ex­plains.

Gervais might not show it, but 2015 — wrap­ping up his sit­com Derek, shoot­ing two films back to back — was the most gru­elling year of his ca­reer.

“Crazy,” he says, but then a lit­tle voice, the one that has sav­agely punc­tured the brat­tish­ness of cod­dled celebri­ties four times now as pre­sen­ter of the Golden Globes, kicks in. “Was that be­cause there were fire­bombs thrown at you? No, it wasn’t that. There were burn­ing crosses on your lawn? Not that. It was just that the hours weren’t good. I was fin­ish­ing at four [am] some days.” He cracks up again, the sound like a crisp packet be­ing scrunched. “Within the con­straints of what I do for a liv­ing, it was a very, very hard year.”

To a great de­gree, Gervais only has him­self to blame. He wrote the script for Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dents, “de-French­ing” the orig­i­nal, 2009’s En­voyes Tres Spe­ci­aux — a farce about two ra­dio jour­nal­ists who are sent to re­port on a war, lose their air tick­ets and have to fake their re­ports.

He also di­rected, pro­duced and took a lead role. He chose to go with Net­flix, be­cause they of­fered the great­est cre­ative con­trol, the most money and “I didn’t like noisy cin­e­mas when I wasn’t fa­mous”. He says he picked the type­face for the poster, and you don’t doubt him. Gervais did the same for David Brent: Life on the Road, which will be re­leased in Au­gust, and

much more be­sides: the of­fer­ing in­cludes a dou­ble al­bum of orig­i­nal Brent ma­te­rial, so you can play along at home.

This all-con­sum­ing way of work­ing be­gan back with The Of­fice. When he and Mer­chant pitched the show to the BBC, Gervais was “a 39-year-old id­iot who worked in an of­fice”. Nev­er­the­less, he de­manded that he would play Brent and di­rect the se­ries. Per­haps be­cause it only cost £140,000 and it was go­ing out on Mon­day night at 9.30pm on BBC Two, they agreed. Gervais doesn’t much like com­pro­mis­ing, and now he rarely has to.

“It’s funny, be­cause I was of­fered film parts the first week after The Of­fice went out,” he re­mem­bers. “I was sent a script and I said, ‘Who’s the lead?’

They said, ‘We want you to be’. And I said, ‘Well, who’s go­ing to go and see that? You want John Cu­sack’. Se­cretly, I hoped they prob­a­bly thought, ‘Oh, what in­tegrity’. They didn’t. They thought, ‘What an id­iot! He’s just turned down a film’. Be­cause most peo­ple don’t.”

‘Every­thing I do is quite ex­is­ten­tial. You know, “Am I lead­ing a good life?” That might be be­cause I’m an athe­ist and I think this is all we’ve got, so you bet­ter be nice. And have fun’

Gervais has de­clined some meaty roles — not least parts in JJ Abrams’s Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble III and Star Trek films — be­cause, for one thing, he didn’t think he’d be es­pe­cially good in them, but mainly be­cause they would not add to his “Oeu­vre . . . still em­bar­rassed say­ing a French word.”

He goes on: “Do­ing Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dents and Life on the Road in one year, I felt like I was go­ing to big school. Like, I could write a se­ries and di­rect it to­mor­row and put it on telly, and it’s 23 min­utes; it’s good.

“With a film, you’ve got to make it ex­cel­lent. There’s some­one fund­ing it. There are film stars in it. Jok­ing aside, you go to bed at night think­ing, ‘This is a big re­spon­si­bil­ity’.”

The bot­tom line of such a high-wire ap­proach is that you get a lot of credit when it works ( The Of­fice, Ex­tras) and there’s nowhere to hide when it doesn’t ( Life’s Too Short). Gervais seems to recog­nise this pres­sure, while at the same time mak­ing it clear there’s re­ally only one per­son he needs to sat­isfy.

“I do it all,” he says, “so that I only let my­self down, is the hon­est truth.”

All of Gervais’s work for TV and film has, he thinks, a com­mon theme.

“Every­thing I do is some­how rooted in hu­man­ity,” he says. “It’s al­ways about peo­ple, it’s al­ways about ego, it’s al­ways about des­per­a­tion. It’s quite ex­is­ten­tial. You know, ‘Am I lead­ing a good life?’ That might be be­cause I’m an athe­ist and I think this is all we’ve got, so you bet­ter be nice. And have fun.”

Gervais started to ques­tion the ex­is­tence of God around the age of eight — “the RE teacher got the worst of it” — but then he was pre­co­cious in lots of ways. He would lie awake at night in Whit­ley, in the Reading sub­urbs, try­ing to fathom out infinity.

He used to climb in­side the fam­ily’s coal bunker; he would take a chisel with him be­cause he liked to chip away at the rock to re­veal the shiny in­te­rior.

“I re­mem­ber hav­ing to be care­ful when I cut it, in case I ac­ci­den­tally split the atom,” he re­calls. “I’d heard this term ‘split­ting an atom’ and thought I might ac­ci­den­tally de­stroy Reading.

“Ahh, the weight of the world on my shoul­ders.”

His fa­ther was a labourer, his mother was a house­wife; Gervais had two older broth­ers and a sis­ter, but the age gap was 11 years (his mother told him, aged 13, he was “the mis­take”). Still, Gervais was close to his sib­lings who, he says, treated him “like an ex­per­i­ment”; he could read aged three and was watch­ing Monty Python at 10.

“I didn’t know I was poor grow­ing up, be­cause ev­ery­one was in the same boat,” says Gervais. “I couldn’t have bikes — it never re­ally both­ered me — but I could have any book. I loved school, I loved learn­ing. Yeah, I never cared for pos­ses­sions. I still don’t, re­ally. I don’t get ex­cited by a car, I don’t wear a watch. I buy the nicest house I can af­ford, in the nicest area I can live in. But never re­ally cared, as you can see” — he runs his hand up and down his clothes. “Get my hair cut in a bar­bers be­cause, what? It doesn’t in­ter­est me; it’s noth­ing.”

Gervais was smart, but not es­pe­cially driven. “In the 1970s, there was a big thing at school about peo­ple work­ing on oil rigs who were earn­ing £1,000 a day,” he says. “Ev­ery­one was say­ing, ‘Think of that! Seven grand a week!’ And I was think­ing: ‘I’d only work one day. Why do you need more than £1,000 a week?’ ”

His early ca­reer seems to back up the idea of some­one who was not lazy, ex­actly, but al­most. Gervais stud­ied phi­los­o­phy at Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don, stayed on to work at the Univer­sity of Lon­don Union (ULU), first on re­cep­tion and then as as­sis­tant events man­ager. He met his girl­friend, Jane Fallon, aged 21, and they are still to­gether now.

Did Gervais feel un­ful­filled? “No,” he in­sists. “I thought a job was to pay your way, and then the point of evenings was to spend time with your girl­friend and friends, hav­ing a drink and a laugh.

“I was still cre­ative: I played in a band, I failed as a pop star, I man­aged a cou­ple of bands. I wasn’t think­ing: ‘Oh my god, this is tick­ing! I’m 32. I’m a fail­ure’.”

He gives the mat­ter some more thought. “I look back and it would be a bit em­bar­rass­ing to be a 55-year-old events man­ager,” he con­tin­ues. “Putting on raves. It was touch-and-go. Like­wise, me de­mand­ing of the BBC, ‘You ei­ther have it with me in it, and I di­rect it, or you don’t do it’. They could have said no, and I could be sleep­ing in a car now. So it turned out well.”

Gervais al­ways sus­pected that he would bring David Brent back, but he was de­ter­mined that he didn’t want the set­ting to be an of­fice again. He also wanted to leave it long enough that it didn’t cloud the rest of his ca­reer.

Fif­teen years on, the time felt right. In the film, Brent is now a sales rep for a clean­ing prod­ucts com­pany called Lavichem, still in Slough. He had a spell man­ag­ing a young rap­per, but that didn’t work out — another par­al­lel with Gervais him­self — and now he’s cashing in his pen­sion and tak­ing his hol­i­day leave in one fi­nal ef­fort to get an al­bum deal. He’s brought to­gether a group of ses­sion mu­si­cians and is go­ing on an in­ter­na­tional tour (thanks to the in­clu­sion of Cardiff on the itin­er­ary).

“The Of­fice was about fame; an or­di­nary man go­ing through a bit of a midlife cri­sis,” says Gervais. “Be­cause apart from work­ing in an of­fice for 10 years, the big­gest in­flu­ence on The Of­fice was prob­a­bly me watch­ing those quaint do­cu­soaps of the 1990s, where or­di­nary peo­ple got their 15 min­utes of fame.

“Now the world’s dif­fer­ent; it’s harsher. Now peo­ple will do any­thing to be fa­mous. There was no Bri­tain’s Got Tal­ent, no YouTube when The Of­fice was out. There were no news pro­grammes that said: ‘Tweet us with your news.’ [What] The fuck is that? All right: ‘I’ve just seen Godzilla . . .’ ”

It’s not giv­ing away too much to re­veal that Brent isn’t cut out too well for this new world ei­ther. “He’s out of place, out of time,” says Gervais.

“In The Of­fice he was 39, and ba­si­cally with nice peo­ple. Now he’s in a room full of al­pha males and he’s not the boss any­more, and it re­ally is dog-eat-dog. He’s al­most bul­lied, and it’s quite tragic that he’s haem­or­rhag­ing money for this dream he’s been sold — that he can make it be­cause Su­san Boyle did.”

Gervais shakes his head fondly. “A 39-year-old bloke pranc­ing around who’s the boss is a bit undig­ni­fied; he’s a prat. A 55-year-old rep who’s wast­ing his hard-earned cash is re­ally sad . . . but re­ally funny!”

This could sound mean, but Gervais reck­ons this is where peo­ple get him wrong. He has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing cyn­i­cal, but he thinks his work is ro­man­tic, even sen­ti­men­tal: The Of­fice was a love story; Ex­tras was about friend­ship; Derek was al­most a fairy tale, dot­ted with lit­tle para­bles. The Golden Globes mono­logues are close to the knuckle, but the tar­gets — the Hol­ly­wood glit­terati, in a room to re­ceive an award — should, Gervais feels, be big and strong enough to look after them­selves.

“Oh, I grew up want­ing to do a show like The Wal­tons,” says Gervais. “I loved hon­our, loy­alty, in­tegrity. Hon­our, that’s king. Noth­ing like it. And that’s what we do in drama and com­edy: we cre­ate our own he­roes and vil­lains, so no one re­ally gets hurt. We have the role play for the soul, so we go through our emo­tions and it might make us think: ‘Oh god, I said that to him . . .’ ”

Ricky Gervais might not have reimag­ined The Wal­tons yet, but you wouldn’t put it past him. As we fin­ish up, his brain is still whirring. Half an hour ear­lier, we talked about his fam­ily: how one of his older broth­ers is a painter and dec­o­ra­tor, and his sis­ter is a carer, work­ing with the learn­ing dis­abled. Only now he is fret­ting that he might have said “hand­i­capped” in­stead of “dis­abled”.

“That’s be­cause I’m fuck­ing Brent!” he says — which, of course, is true and also thank­fully not. ‘Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dents’ is out now ex­clu­sively on Net­flix ‘Life on the Road’ is re­leased in Au­gust

‘I thought a job was to pay your way . . . I was still cre­ative: I played in a band, I failed as a pop star, I man­aged a cou­ple of bands’ — Ricky, right, with Bill Macrae in their New Wave group Seona Danc­ing in 1983

‘I grew up want­ing to do a show like “The Wal­tons”. I loved hon­our, loy­alty, in­tegrity. Hon­our, that’s king. Noth­ing like it’ — Ricky with his long-term girl­friend, nov­el­ist Jane Fallon

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