Out of Office
Since playing David Brent’s sycophantic sidekick in The Office, Mackenzie Crook has become a minor movie star, thanks largely to his role in Pirates of the Caribbean. So why is this critically acclaimed and commercially viable actor still nervous, asks Do
EAR WITH me while I attempt a slightly far-fetched comparison. Mackenzie Crook is to Jeremy Irons as Anthony Andrews is to Martin Freeman. Whereas everybody expected the boyish Andrews to emerge from ITV’s Brideshead Revisited as a major star, it was, in fact, Irons, less good-looking, but more versatile, who achieved proper celebrity. Similarly Freeman, who played the hapless Tim in The Office, Ricky Gervais’s mighty sitcom, seemed to be the cast member most likely to forge a successful career away from Slough’s favourite paper merchants.
Well, Freeman has popped up in the odd film since then, but his career is already lagging someway behind that of Crook. The tiny, sharp-faced actor, who played sycophantic Gareth in The Office, secured a supporting role in all three Pirates of the Caribbean films and last year received ecstatic reviews as Konstantin in a triumphant production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Now he has been dragged to a London hotel to promote his role in a strange little comedy called Three and Out.
“Yeah. I am really beginning to tire of listening to my own voice,” he says, while failing to locate sugar for his coffee.
Despite his recent successes, Crook still seems inordinately nervous and uncomfortable in his own frame. He rarely looks you in the eye. He allows his sentences to gradually decay into a breathy ellipsis.
“Yes. I am still susceptible to nerves,” he says. “I can get anxious about the work. I didn’t go to drama school, so I do sometimes feel like I am not properly qualified. I still feel like I am learning the ropes.”
He got the chance to talk to a few acting legends while working on Three and Out. The film, in which Crook’s London tube driver agrees to engineer the demise of suicidal Colm Meaney, also features Imelda Staunton and Anthony Sher.
“It is inspiring just seeing the confidence actors like that bring to their job. With Anthony and Imelda and Colm, you just get this sense that they know they can do the work.”
Why would somebody so conspicuously nerv- ous decide to move into the entertainment industry? Raised in the most middle-class corner of Kent, Paul Mackenzie Crook is the son of a travel agent and a hospital manager. By the age of 10, it had already become clear that he was not growing at the expected pace and he was proscribed hormone treatment. In previous interviews, Mackenzie, now 36, has admitted that the focus on his physical difference did add to his self-consciousness. Yet, after leaving school, he still felt able to launch himself into the cruel world of stand-up comedy.
“Well, this will seem odd – because I did start on the comedy circuit – but I never saw myself as a comic. Everything I did was scripted. I would break away from the script to deal with hecklers, but, essentially, I was playing a part all the way through. So when I got into television with The Office, it seemed like a natural move.”
But it must have required real inner strength to endure a decade playing the likes of Charlie Cheese, “the cheeky chirpy chappy from Chorley”. Were there ever times when he felt tempted to throw it all in and become an accountant or a plumber? “I don’t think so. Throughout that 10 years, I was working my way up gradually. If it ever seemed like I was getting into a rut, I would take a show to the Edinburgh festival or whatever. It’s been a gradual climb for me. Obviously, there have been larger leaps forward – like The Office or Pirates – but it still seemed like a steady climb for me.”
Crook had worked alongside Gervais on Channel 4’s The 11 O’Clock Show, but he is adamant that he had no input into the initial creation of the extraordinary Gareth Keenan. Indeed, the character, who exhibits a creepy devotion to David Brent, boss of the paper manufacturers, was originally created for Stephen Merchant, Gervais’s co-writer.
“Well, the first time I read it with my normal accent, then they asked if I could do a West Country accent. Stephen is from Bristol, so that did, maybe confirm that they did originally write it for Stephen.”
Though Merchant is a brilliant comic performer, it is now impossible to imagine anybody other than Crook playing Gareth. The actor managed to bring a hint of terrible vulnerability to the blonde toady whose weekend adventures in the Territorial Army caused his workmates such hilarity. I wonder if Mackenzie, having looked at Gareth from the inside, can tell us anything about the character we don’t already know.
“He is just very childlike,” he says. “That’s his downfall. He wants to be popular more than anything and looks upon Brent as the most mature and intelligent person he knows. That’s sad in itself. Everything he does is to make people like him.” It sounds as if Crook remains fond of Gareth, despite his abundant flaws.
“Yes, I am very fond of him. He is not a vindictive character. He is just tragically naïve. Hopefully, I will never tire of talking about him. He is a fascinating character and, for some reason, people just took him to their hearts. The moment I read the script of The Office, I knew it was something special and I knew it was going to connect with people.”
After the series scooped up every comedy award worth winning, Crook was confronted with second-album syndrome. There was every possibility that an actor with such an eccentric appearance would have trouble securing further roles. But, as it happened, it was Crook’s very oddness that caught the eyes of mainstream film-makers. Johnny Depp, who had worked with Crook on Finding Neverland, recommended him to the men behind Pirates of the Caribbean, and he was offered the part of Ragetti, a daft pirate with an inse-
cure glass eye.
The cheques from the three Pirates movies helped Gareth buy a substantial pile in north London. The house, which he shares with his wife and two children, was once owned by Peter Sellers.
“I had already decided this house was the one,” he says. “Then the woman who owned it dropped in and mentioned it once belonged to Peter Sellers. Well, I would have paid double then. I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I do often think that this is where he lived when he was in The Goons, and Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe must all have been there.
“Sellers planted a beech tree at the bottom of the garden and the neighbours hate it because it sheds leaves and blocks the sun. But I like the fact that Sellers is still annoying people from beyond the grave.”
Mackenzie must, surely, have worried that he was in danger of being typecast as the deluded grotesque.
“There was a period when I was always turning up as one half of a fat-and-skinny double act. There was Lee Arenberg and me in Pirates. Then Johnny Vegas and me in Sex Lives of the Potato Men, and then the stuff with Ricky. There was a point when I said: ’I will never work with short fat men again’.”
Sex Lives of the Potato Men, a very broad British comedy, whose plot requires no further explanation, attracted some of the worst reviews in living memory. (“One of the two most nauseous films ever made,” the Sunday Times said without clarifying what the other might be.) Yet a few years later, Crook managed to captivate audiences and critics with his revelatory performance in Ian Rickson’s production of The Seagull at The Royal Court Theatre. Nicholas de Jongh, the Evening Standard’s veteran critic, felt the young actor was more impressive than his co-star, veteran Kristin Scott Thomas.
“Scott Thomas’s limitations serve only to make Crook’s Konstantin appear more pathetically isolated and his transition from TV comedian to serious actor more amazing,” de Jongh wrote.
This must have felt like a kind of vindication for Mackenzie. Theatre critics always have their knives sharpened for actors who gain fame in other media.
“Maybe, but I didn’t get into the production just to show I could do more serious work. Frankly, I didn’t know I could do it until the reviews started coming in. Ian Rickson got the idea of casting me as Konstantin, having just seen me in The Office and Pirates, but I am forever in his debt for having that confidence. It really was nerve-racking embarking on that and it was really quite gratifying that it worked out.”
Perhaps he might like to paste the reviews of The Seagull beside those of Sex Lives of the Potato Men in his scrapbook. The latter would serve to remind him (like the fellow who used to stand behind Caesar and whisper about mortality) that, even in moments of triumph, catastrophe is always at our elbow.
“Yeah maybe,” he laughs. “Though, you know, I don’t think I kept any of the reviews from Sex Lives.”
Colm Meaney and Makenzie Crook in Three and Out