Ricky Gervais Sees Dead People
by Paul Fischer
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British funny man, satirist and writer Ricky Gervais rose to international prominence in the acclaimed British sitcom The Office. His follow-up series, Extras, received widespread critical acclaim. A brilliantly sardonic observer of social mores, he is now the star of the Hollywood movie, Ghost Town, which premiered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. In the film, he plays a selfish dentist who almost dies during a routine procedure and finds himself surrounded by ghosts who need his help. It was quite the challenge to keep a straight face during this meeting, but Gervais talked about the film and admitted that he’d rather write than perform. Paul Fischer had a front-row seat at this special audience with a comic icon.
Paul Fischer: So, Ricky, I understand that you only agreed to do Ghost Town on the condition that you didn’t have to kiss anybody.
Ricky Gervais: No. What I thought was—the ending was this Hollywood thing. And I thought, “Well, that doesn’t solve anything. I don’t like those schmaltzy endings where you think, “Oh, they kiss, and then the rest of their life’s all right.” So I just thought it was better if they—if you did it just slightly more subliminally, really. I did say, “No nudity.” You don’t want to see this with a shirt off. No, we did work on the ending. And I thought I liked it more that—it was a line, because one of my favorite films is The Apartment. And in that, she just says, “Shut up and deal.” That’s what I wanted. And we came up with—“It hurts when I smile.” “I can fix that.” And I thought that was a much nicer ending. I just think that, at last, for people to see that—and they go, “That’s different.” And they wouldn’t even have noticed if you hadn’t said it. But I think they go in, and they think, “There’s something slightly different about this film.” And that’s what I always want to do. I think, “It should be slightly different, at least. Even for its own sake, it should be slightly different,” because otherwise—you know, just watch another film that probably does it better than you.
PF: Why did this character speak to you, that you wanted this to be your first lead in a movie?
RG: It looked like me on the page. When I first read it—and I’d read a lot of scripts, and I turned them all down mainly because I was busy. I felt, “This is the best script I’ve read in five years.” And it was an interesting character. I laughed. This curmudgeonly awful, rich, successful, clever man, going around saying, “You’re all idiots” appealed to me. And I’ve always liked those wisecrackers that sort of laughed in the face of adversity and it didn’t do ‘em any good. That’s the important thing. They’re still the loser. Groucho Marx. Woody Allen, Bob Hope. They might be getting these things off their chest, but they’re still losing. And I really like that, and I like that about Pincus. It’s slightly more emotional than some of the broader comedies, in the fact that it’s quite heartwarming. I felt a bit sorry for him, as well. And that was important. There was a thing where we went back and we came up with him just making cocoa. It’s really sweet, and he’s—his little pajamas are laid out. And he’s a man who wants order. But he’s missing out on something. And he sort of knows it, deep down. That always appeals to me. Pathos, and—comedy plus, I call it. [laughs]
PF: I read somewhere where you said you don’t see yourself as an actor. You more want to direct and write. Did that change, now?
RG: Well, there’s a reason for that. I mean, for me, the exciting thing is the idea. I love the creative process. And I’ve never stopped knowing that’s why I like this. The acting thing I fell into because—you know, with David Brent, it was my role, and I think I was the best person for the job. Mostly, I’m not. You know, if I got offered 100 films, 90 of them would be arbitrary. And I’d know there were better people than me and if I think that—I can’t go into a film thinking, “Well, someone else will be better for this.” My first lead in a film, I was offered after the first episode of The Office went out. And a studio called me. They sent me the script. And I said, “Who’s the lead?” They went, “You are.” I went, “Well, who’s gonna go and see that?” I said, “You want John Cusack.” And they went silent and thought, “Why is this nobody talking himself out of a film?” And it’s true. If you want someone to say the lines and stand in one place and do it well, every actor is better than me.
PF: But you also said no to smaller supporting roles, like Pirates of the Caribbean, if that rumor’s true.
RG: Yeah. Well, I was offered that. But, I mean, I was busy, and I just thought—you know, I don’t want to sit in a Winnebago for six months, to pop up as a comedy pirate. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, but no one’s ever said, “He’s been in 19 films for two minutes. Let’s get him his own starring role and let him direct it.” You know, it doesn’t happen like that. And I get no joy out of seeing my fat face on the screen. I get joy out of the work. I get joy out of the work. And I just—and I always—you know, and you get offered lovely things that would be fun. But I just think, “What’s the best that can happen?”
PF: Is that why you limit yourself to only doing two series of each of these shows?
RG: Well, that—yeah, but there’s a different reason for that as well. Because the intensity that we work at that—and we do everything, me and Steve. You know, we write, direct it, we sort of produce it. You know, that no one’s even allowed in the edit. We hand over a finished product and you can’t do that too long. It’s just too intense. You’ll run out of ideas. You’ll repeat yourself, or the quality will go down. And, you know, I started late. I’ve got so many ideas, I don’t want to die before I could do all these ideas.
PF: Just like in the film.
RG: Just like in the film, yeah.
PF: You said that when you read a script, there’s always a better actor who can stand in one place and say the lines. What is there not a better actor than you, to do? What is it you feel you can do better than anyone?
RG: I think I can bring something else. I think that, because I’m a writer-director, I can sometimes see the bigger picture, if they care. But I also think that the roles I’m going to, and the people that want to hire me, sort of know what I do. And let’s face it. You know, there are much better people, if they just wanted—you know. I cut lines.
PF: There are Hollywood rules that you’ve set up?
RG: I just think that sometimes there’s lazy scriptwriting, or editing or direction. And I just think, it’s as easy to get it right as get it wrong. If you’re there, you know, you can just feel it. And like, when we did The Office, we had a bigger list of don’t’s than do’s when we were writing The Office. We thought, “Right. Let’s talk how people talk,” for a start. Exposition. People come into a room going, “Hi, Tom. You know your sister, Sheila, who went to the Gambia?” What, we forgot to put that in the script, did we? It’s sort of like, let’s show, not tell. It’s just little things like that. That stand out. And I just think there’s enough poor television. It’s easy to do television. It’s easy to get something on the telly. I mean, people—if someone makes a bad TV show, they’re promoted. Because they made a TV show. And I think, “No, no, no! Let’s just—let’s try and make good ones!” You know, I don’t want to do things that are just fodder. I don’t want to fill half an hour, and I don’t want to do a film that’s just because you have the money, or got a bit of lottery funding. You know, you want everything to be special and timeless, and last, and be fun.
PF: I take it there will be no more Extras.
RG: No. No. I don’t think so, no. It’s—you know, at the beginning I was saying, “Never say never,” like The Office. But I think we did it. I think we nailed it on the special and it’d be going back for a slightly less wanted uncle. And I just think, you know, we should leave it. It’s done. I’m really happy with that ending.
PF: Pretty sad, though.
RG: Well, you say that. But if I did another one, you’d probably wish I hadn’t. Everyone thinks they want a third series. Always lets you down.
PF: Ricky. May I ask, did you get a reaction from the British Prime Minister from your letter? I read that you wrote a letter.
RG: No, I haven’t yet. Oh, I forgot to put it in a stamped, addressed envelope. I just said, “Can we stop killing bears to make hats for guards at Buckingham Palace?” It just seems a little bit over the top. To kill—it takes a whole bear to make a hat.
PF: You’re kidding!
RG: Yeah—it’s Canadian black bears. They get one hide. They shoot a bear. Sometimes they orphan—
PF: What kind of bears are they?
RG: A Canadian black bear.
PF: As a suggestion, what would they do for their hats?
RG: Synthetic. It was—they’re not—they’re ceremonial, for Christ’s sake. Who’s at the gates of Buckingham Palace going, “That fur looks a bit off. I want my money back. Who’s the twat in the useless hat? I’m off.”
PF: Especially in England, you’re a star. How do people treat you on the street? Is it that you can actually walk on the street?
RG: Yeah. part of it was a little bit—I was a little bit phobic, because it’s weird to be famous. And it’s worse on your doorstep, as well. So it gave me the creeps a little bit for a while. But now I’ve got a big house with a big gate, and shutters.
PF: How do you deal with the fame?
RG: I’m getting a bit better at it. But I try and ignore it. I try and live a normal life. But—I mean, you can’t, because I don’t want to be out, and I don’t go out to parties, and I don’t—the fame for me has never been the best bit. It’s always been the worst bit. You know, everything about this is better than being recognized. Genuinely. The work’s great. The money’s good. I love nice reviews, I love the awards. I love jumping queues at the airport. But it feels weird. It’s not natural, it’s not right. And I knew when I went into it, it was an upshot of what I did. You know, if The Office—if you’re a successful actor, you’re a famous person. But I just want people to know that—you know, why you do it. I remember one of the first interviews I did, I was very prickly about the whole subject. “And I don’t want to be lumped in with people who just do anything to be famous. Like, you know, I know there’s a difference between Robert DeNiro and a Big Brother winner. And I want to firmly be in that first camp. You know, someone who’s doing a trade, and wants to be successful in it.” And this journalist said, “So what would you give advice to anyone else who wants to be famous?” And I went, “I’d tell them to go out and kill a prostitute.” Yeah, it didn’t go down well then, either.
PF: Especially if they killed a prostitute.
RG: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. “Ricky told me. Jesus and Ricky told me.”
PF: Are you finding that, Ricky, with This Side of the Truth—is it like a cocktail party? You’re directing, obviously, that film, aren’t you?
RG: Yeah. No, I slipped into it pretty well, because I know what I’m doing. You know, again, it’s a comedy-plus idea, and I know what I want. if somebody asked me to direct The Matrix, I wouldn’t know where to start. I’d be in real trouble. But I know where I am with this comedy-plus, as I call it. It’s keeping an eye on the idea. And if you’re there—as I say, it’s as easy to get it right as get it wrong.
PF: How’s that going?
RG: It’s great. We’re halfway through it, and we’re in the middle of a dub, and putting the music on. And, you know, it’s great. And again, the thing that I’m proudest most about it, is it’s slightly different. You know, there’s not a film quite like it. And I don’t think there’s a film like this around at the moment. I mean, you go back to the ’40s, and you’ll find things a bit like it. Of course, there’s lots of more modern sensibilities in there. The humor’s changed a little bit. It’s a bit spikier than something Jimmy Stewart would have done. But it’s nice to play against type. It’s nice to be an antidote to things. And this isn’t a film aimed at 12-year-old boys who like smut. It’s a grown-up comedy, you know?
PF: Would you return to television?
RG: Yeah. Of course. Yeah. What have you got? [laughs] No, I would. I haven’t left television behind. It’s just a coincidence that I did, like, you know, all those things in a row. And then—all those things. Two. And then, you know, there’s sort of three films in a row that I’m doing. But that’s a coincidence, really. But no, I certainly haven’t left television behind. I just don’t have any time at the moment.
PF: What about The Office for the big screen. Possibly? Or never ever.
RG: Never. Never. They want us to do a live show of it. Bizarre! A fake doc—a fake documentary, now at the theatre. No. No, I won’t do it. I think there’s a German one, I think they’re making.
PF: Are you surprised the American version of The Office has become as huge as it—
RG: Well, yes, because, you know, any remake died, the last 30 years. Every remake has fallen by the wayside, either before it got to production, or taken off on the third episode. But I’m not surprised that America gets it. Because—two reasons. The office isn’t as quintessentially English as you first might think. It’s about universal subjects. It’s about—you know, wasting your life. It’s quite existential. A bad boss. Boy meets girl. And also, all my influences are American. Everything I’ve ever loved. From Laurel and Hardy, The Simpsons, Woody Allen, Marx Brothers, through sitcom. Through things like Taxi, Cheers, M*A*S*H, right up to the present day with great stuff like Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm. All my influences have been American. So I’m not surprised in that sense. But I’m surprised how successful the English version was. I mean, it’s ridiculous, you’d never have dreamt it. But, it was sort of there. The seed of the idea is there for the taking, because I say, it’s an everyman sort of concept.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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