Atkinson on why at times comedy isn’t fun
Comedy can be a dreadful business, even for a gifted funnyman like Rowan Atkinson. Consider Johnny English Strikes Again — starring this rubbery-faced comedian as a bumbling wouldbe James Bond — which arrives seven years after the franchise’s second instalment and 15 after the first.
In a phone interview from London, he speaks about the allure of the spy, the power of free speech and why being humorous is often no fun at all.
In its opening weekend in Britain, Johnny English came in second to Venom in boxoffice grosses, but beat out a A Star Is Born. It looks like (actors) Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have competition.
Yeah, finally. (Laughs) It’s held up quite well just because the weather is terrible here, so that helps everybody trying to sell tickets to movies.
That thing about the process being “really, really, really hard”. Please explain...
Whatever I do, I think I could do better. I’m fairly notorious for wanting another take and another take and another take and another take — and another take.
And sometimes that’s good, but very often it becomes counterproductive.
The sitting around in an office in London thinking about wouldn’t it be funny if Johnny did this or did that — that’s fun. And then the editing and the music and the sound dub — that I enjoy very much. But the meat in the sandwich, where you actually have to make it work in front of the cameras, I really dislike.
You actually appeared in the Bond film Never Say Never Again. Is Johnny modelled on (Bond actor) Sean Connery?
I’ve always thought that (actor) Roger Moore is more Johnny English’s inspiration. I think he’s slightly more the raised eyebrow, more ironic, more just having a lot of fun in the world in which he’s found himself. And that is Johnny’s view. He’s quite a self-centred, self-regarding individual.
Johnny is not remotely interested in anybody else or their lives. He’s just thinking about the adventure that he’s on and in the end, he just wants to drive the fast cars and wear the sharp suits and go to the exotic locations. And, of course, garner plaudits if he can.
Emma Thompson, who plays the prime minister in Johnny English, has called you a modernday Charlie Chaplin. How do you see yourself?
I don’t think about myself very much in the pantheon of comedy history. But Chaplin was certainly an inspiration. The French comedian Jacques Tati was very important for (the character) Mr Bean.
I saw Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday when I was 17, and it just had a tone and an attitude and a slowness that I had never seen in a comedy movie before. That idea of expressing yourself entirely visually rather than verbally was inspired by him as much as anything else.
Mr Bean is staggeringly popular. Any plans to bring him out of retirement?
No plans to bring him back. If you look at the 80 million Facebook friends that Mr Bean has, an awful lot of that is in China and India and Venezuela and Malaysia and Europe and the Far East — and far less general interest in the US.
We only ever made 13 halfhour TV shows, and 13 shows are not going to get you onto any American terrestrial TV network.
But the good thing about the Internet is that it’s just a matter of people clicking, and they can see anything and everything that I’ve ever done.
A reviewer in The Guardian (daily in England) asked, “Can’t the British film industry give Rowan Atkinson a role that really does justice to his talent?”
It’s an interesting question and I haven’t a clue. I mean, it’s the age-old dilemma of being known for doing a certain thing in a certain way. And even if people think, “Well, we could cast him in this role”, then they say, “He just brings a lot of Mr Bean baggage with him and would people take it seriously?”
I can see myself in some Dickensian role... those sorts of characters. But I think I might have burnt my bridges with the outright silliness of so much of what I’ve done.
Comedy star Rowan Atkinson; and (inset) as secret agent Johnny English. The franchise is a parody of the dashing spy movie genre characterised by the James Bond films