Rowan Atkinson talks about transforming into the detective Maigret and the emotions that can be conveyed simply through silence.
Rowan Atkinson is famous for
Mr Bean, a comedy that is likely to be playing somewhere on Earth at every moment of the day. Mr Bean is celebrated for his badly co-ordinated movements and gurning faces. He is constantly on the move.
So it is intriguing that the chief quality which the 62-year-old actor brings to his latest role is the polar opposite of Mr Bean.
As Jules Maigret, Atkinson’s principal asset is stillness. Playing the 1950s French detective in this British TV adaptation of the best-selling crime novels by Georges Simenon, the actor succeeds in conveying as many emotions when he is silent as lesser performers manage in an entire speech.
On set in Budapest, which doubles as Paris in the 50s, the actor says, “The thing I thought I could do was
Maigret’s thoughtfulness. It’s his ruminative and quite compassionate side, I suppose, which is interesting. Because he is definitely not an egotist, he is not a performer, he is not an eccentric, he is not a weirdo.”
The actor, who has also starred in such globally popular comedies as Blackadder, Johnny English and Four Weddings And A Funeral,
continues that, “I’m not claiming any of those things for myself, but I felt I could probably portray a lot of the aspects of him that did exist, particularly that quietness. I think I’m quite good at not doing very much on screen.”
He certainly is. As Maigret, Atkinson suppresses his natural instinct for broad comic gestures.
Rather than pulling funny faces, he adopts a forlorn, furrowed demeanour. His Jules Maigret is world-weary, not witty.
“When I told my friend Richard Curtis that I was going to do Maigret, he said to me, ‘You do realise you’re going to play a character closer to yourself than you ever played before’.” – Rowan Atkinson
Atkinson is chatting to us in a break between scenes. Wearing Maigret’s dark three-piece suit, Atkinson is a friendly, pensive man who accords each question respect.
He says that when approaching the role his main challenge lay in the fact that, in some ways, he is quite similar to his alter ego.
“When I told my friend Richard Curtis that I was going to do Maigret, he said to me, ‘You do realise you’re going to play a character closer to yourself than you ever played before’ – and he’s right.
“I’ve never wanted to play myself. I’ve preferred to play people far removed from me because it feels easier.”
Nevertheless, the actor is certainly convincing in Maigret:
Night At The Crossroads. The sleuth is suitably reflective as he investigates the murder of a diamond dealer in a community that clearly has something to hide.
Maigret is the subject of 75 novels which have sold a staggering 853 million copies across the globe.
Atkinson reflects on why, nearly a century after he first appeared in print, the sleuth is still so popular.
“He’s a TV detective, so to an extent it’s a well-ploughed furrow. There are a lot of them about.
“But Maigret is very different. He doesn’t have any oddities about him. He is a very ordinary guy. It’s an interesting way to appreciate his job, to see the ordinariness of the guy set against the extraordinariness of the challenges he faces. It’s like when someone is elected prime minister. You know that, with certain exceptions, they’re ordinary guys who have been ambitious and are suddenly in a position of extraordinary power.
“If they’re sympathetic characters, then I think the people they represent have sympathy towards them. But if they’re less sympathetic characters, people are more ready to criticise. It’s that feeling of ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’.
“With Maigret, a murder has to be solved and this is the guy who has got to do it. So you’re automatically rooting for him. You do want him to succeed, so that helps. He’s a goodie, not a baddie.”
The one possible bone of contention when preparing the drama was whether it was appropriate to depict the detective smoking his trademark pipe.
But Atkinson asserts that he would have found the role difficult without it.
“The pipe and pipe-smoking is definitely a very important part of Maigret and his world and his attitude and his time,” he muses. “Certainly there was never any attempt to excise it. He is a ruminative person and the pipe is a vital prop to emphasise that.
“Maigret might not have a limp or a lisp, but at least he’s got a pipe.”
Rowan Atkinson tells James Rampton why he couldn’t say ‘non’ to playing the famous French sleuth Maigret, who returns to TVNZ 1 this Sunday in Maigret: Night At The Crossroads.