Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ricky Gervais: A 'Ghost' of a Chance

Entertainment Weekly Fall Movie Preview

He created ''The Office'' and starred as the worst boss of all time. Now the British comedian is being promoted to Hollywood leading man in new comedy ''Ghost Town.'' But does he even want the job?

Despite an Emmy and a pair of Golden Globes for The Office, breathless reviews for his HBO series Extras, and an inspired guest turn on The Simpsons where he tried to seduce Marge with an acoustic love song about ''Lady Di,'' Ricky Gervais isn't a celebrity in America yet. Not in the Brad Pitt sense of the word at least. So it's a little strange that he feels the need to check in to hotels here under a fake name.

RICKY GERVAIS ''Would I have rather done The Office than been in The Godfather? No doubt about it''

When Gervais — or, should we say, ''Paul Anderson'' — answers the door of his suite at the Four Seasons in New York, he doesn't look much like a celebrity, either. He looks like a traveling salesman who's just been shaken out of a nap. He's wearing a black T-shirt and baggy sweatpants. His face is covered in stubble. A half-finished bottle of red wine, presumably from the night before, sits atop the minibar.
When he's asked right off the bat who Paul Anderson is, Gervais takes a seat on the sofa and shifts around uncomfortably. He didn't know this was coming and he wants to explain, because he knows that if he doesn't, he'll come off like an arrogant jerk for using an alias. On the flip side, it means that he'll also have to come up with a new fake name to use in the future. A future when, perhaps, he will be famous enough in the States to need one.

After a few stammering moments, Gervais sighs. ''He's a guy I used to work with at a radio station in England. I just thought it was such a wonderfully generic name...Paul Anderson. It's got nothing to do with the director. I haven't seen There Will Be Blood, although I'm sure it's great.'' With that settled, Gervais asks for help hatching a new identity. When it's suggested that he go with something flashy, like Johnny Depp's infamous hotel pseudonym, ''Mr. Donkey Penis,'' Gervais mulls it over: ''It's a very brave man who calls a hotel and says 'I'd like to speak to Mr. Donkey Penis.' So I see how that would be effective. But let's see...maybe Scott Houston?...Brad Cockmore?...Bob Crunt?''

Gervais likes this last one. A lot. After repeating the name a few times, chewing over all of its funny textures, he lets loose a high-pitched girly squeal of a laugh. Even funnier, though, is the fact that there may soon be a lot of people calling to speak with ''Mr. Crunt.'' Because after revolutionizing TV comedy from the sleepy outpost of the BBC with his squirm-inducing, awkward-silence-filled anti-sitcom The Office (which Gervais co-created, co-wrote, and co-directed with Stephen Merchant, and starred in), the 47-year-old is now betting his short but unblemished track record that a self-described ''fat, middle-aged British comedian'' can become a leading man. And not just any leading man, but a leading man in the wheeziest and most cliché of Hollywood genres, the romantic comedy.

In his new film, Ghost Town — which was co-written and directed by Steven Spielberg's go-to screenwriter, David Koepp — Gervais plays Bertram Pincus, a misanthropic dentist who, after briefly flatlining on the operating table during a routine colonoscopy, wakes up with the ability to see dead people. One of them, a former cheating husband (Greg Kinnear), won't stop haunting him until he agrees to woo the man's widowed wife (Téa Leoni) away from the self-righteous do-gooder she's planning to marry. Think of it as The Sixth Sleepless Sense in Seattle.
It's an unlikely career move for a guy who's made it a point of pride until now to write and star in his own projects. (Such as his hilarious podcasts, which are available at iTunes and audible.com.) But in a way, it's a miracle that Gervais has been able to keep Hollywood at arm's length this long. Ever since the first episode of The Office aired in the U.K. in 2001, film executives have been calling. And, for the most part, Gervais has politely turned them away. ''I remember I got a call from one of the studios during the first season of The Office, and they said, 'We'd love for you to be the lead in this film.' And I went, 'Well, who's going to see that?' It was just quiet on the other end of the line. They'd never heard someone say that. I told them, 'You want John Cusack for this.'''

Since then, Gervais says he's been offered dozens of parts in huge Hollywood movies — been given the chance to work with Johnny Depp and Tom Hanks — and passed each time. Instead, he's chosen to guest-star in an episode of the TV show Alias, because he's a fan of J.J. Abrams', and signed on for a bit part in Christopher Guest's 2006 comedy For Your Consideration, because he considers This Is Spinal Tap to be the alpha and omega of all things funny.
It's not that Gervais isn't grateful, it's just that deep down he knows he's not dependent on anyone else for a job. ''The only choice an actor has is yes or no,'' he says. ''I have more choices than that. I can write my own thing. Everything I do is bespoke, so it fits me. Would I have rather done The Office than been in The Godfather? No doubt about it. Would I have rather written and directed Extras than been in Gone With the Wind? No doubt about it. Would I rather do the podcasts that I do or be in the next blockbuster film as a hired hand? There's no doubt about it.''

EIGHT YEARS AGO, when Gervais' mother passed away, his sister and two older brothers met with their local minister, who was preparing her eulogy. He wanted to know some things about their beloved mum — her hobbies, her passions, the things that made her special. ''So he said to my brother, 'Tell me about your mum.' And my brother went, 'She was a keen racist.' Just like that. Straight face. And the vicar was like, 'I can't say that!' And he said, 'Okay, she also liked gardening.''' Gervais' brother then gave the minister a phony name so that when he listed her children in his remarks, Gervais and his siblings exploded with laughter.

Gervais grew up poor in Reading, 40 miles outside London. His father was a laborer who carried bricks on construction sites, and his mother was a homemaker. Both were hilarious. ''My dad was very dry,'' Gervais says. ''He'd say two words a day, but they'd be a clever put-down.'' As a child, Gervais didn't realize that his family was poor, or that his mother would buy Christmas presents for the kids and spend the rest of the year paying them off. He never thought about it because they were always cracking up. Years later, that ability to mine humor from the bleakest of circumstances informed every minute of The Office. Gervais had worked in a place like Wernham Hogg, he'd had a boss like David Brent, and he knew that sometimes the funniest thing in the world was the joke that misfired, or the humiliating faux pas.

''The Office worked because the themes are huge and everyone understands them,'' says Gervais. ''Boy meets girl, wasting your life, bad boss. Jesus, what's bigger than that? If you're not dying and you've got a house, what's the worst thing that happens to you every day? Embarrassment.''

REFLECTING ON HOLLYWOOD ''I don't care if I never do another film again,'' Ricky Gervais says. ''I can create my own material and I've got to remember that. As exciting as it is to be a film star, it means nothing to me''

In both The Office and Extras — and to a certain extent in Ghost Town — Gervais fine-tunes the awkward art of tossing off an offensive remark and digging himself deeper and deeper into the ditch as he tries to explain his way out. It can be excruciating to watch. You don't know whether to laugh or cringe. ''The British Office is one of the main things that made me do what I'm doing now,'' says Jonah Hill (Superbad), who just finished shooting next year's This Side of the Truth opposite Gervais and Jennifer Garner. (Gervais co-wrote and co-directed the comedy about a world where lying doesn't exist.) ''Ricky finds these uncomfortable moments and lets them breathe,'' Hill says.

Christopher Guest, who also appears in Truth, rarely grants interviews, but when asked to comment about Gervais, he got on the phone right away. Guest, whose films include Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, is Gervais' idol. And the sentiment seems to be mutual. ''Most comedies are made to get to a punchline and it's left at that. In The Office and Extras, there are also great moments of sadness and desperation. And for me, that's interesting.... I think The Office is the best TV I've ever seen, period.''

Gervais, who splits his time between England and New York City, where he just bought an apartment with his longtime girlfriend, Jane, is the first to admit that the show that launched his career has been ''ridiculously'' overpraised. And he's stunned that it's now a global franchise with versions in America, Chile, Russia, Canada, and France. There's even an unofficial version in Germany. ''The Germans are the only ones who didn't want to pay for the rights,'' says Gervais, ''which is strange, because it's not like the Germans to take things that aren't theirs.''

When Gervais talks, it's sometimes hard to tell whether he is joking. Gags fly out of his mouth so fast, and in such a deadpan, that sometimes you feel like you're not so much interviewing him as just trying to keep up. In a string of recent stand-up performances, two of which were taped for an HBO special that will air in November, Gervais aims that same withering, rapid-fire delivery at such sacred cows as Stephen Hawking (''Pretentious. Born in Oxford, talks with that American accent''), Nelson Mandela (''He hasn't re-offended. Shows you prison does work!''), and Anne Frank (''No sequel? Lazy''). Of course, this only works because he lands the sharpest punchlines on his own chin. Or chins. In his act, he describes how his life has changed since becoming successful, complaining that he's no longer referred to in the British press as just ''Ricky Gervais, comedian.'' Now he's ''Ricky Gervais, Tubby Comedian.'' Or ''Ricky Gervais, Rotund Comic.'' Or, simply, ''The Chubby Funster.''

With his first film as a Hollywood leading man now hitting theaters, Gervais suspects that he's about to become a target on this side of the Atlantic, too. And, initially at least, it doesn't seem to bother him. ''The reason I chose to do Ghost Town is because it was by far the best script I got,'' he says. ''It's good, it's moving, and I figured if I didn't do this one then I'll never do one. To me, it's perfect. I don't care what it does at the box office. I don't care what it scores in focus groups. I don't give a f---. It's exactly how we wanted it. And I'll like it in 20 years as much as I like it now.''

Gervais knows that he's had a charmed run so far, what with all those awards, and Office spin-offs in Russia, and testimonials from heroes like Christopher Guest. But deep down, he seems to understand that it won't last forever. That some will see his bid to be a Hollywood star as a sellout, or an ego trip. And that drives him crazy. ''Trust me, I get no joy out of seeing my fat face on the screen,'' he says, getting worked up. ''I'm not trying to be a film star. I don't care if I never do another film again. I can create my own material and I've got to remember that. As exciting as it is to be a film star, it means nothing to me. Do I say that because I have no ego, or the biggest ego in the world? I don't know and I don't care.''

Gervais leans back on the sofa and runs his hand through his hair, trying to regain his composure. You're left waiting for a sign that he's joking, a punchline to break the awkward silence. But it never comes.


Pirates of the Caribbean 2
Gervais passed on the chance to share the screen with Johnny Depp, saying, ''I didn't want to sit in a Winnebago for six months waiting to show up as a comedy pirate for two minutes.''

The Da Vinci Code
Ditto to costarring with Tom Hanks in this 2006 Ron Howard thriller. ''I'm going to pop up and people are going to go: That's the fat fellow from The Office! Who the f--- does he think he is?''

Star Trek
Abrams approached the comedian about his franchise reboot, due next summer: ''I was never a big fan, so I would've felt guilty taking the part just to be in a blockbuster. To what? Boost my profile?''

Arthur remake
''I said 'no' straight-away,'' Gervais says about an offer to star in a new version. ''Why would I mess with a perfect comedy? They know people don't watch films that have the wrong font — it's got an '80s font.''

Magnum P.I. movie
Gervais wouldn't say which role was offered, but we'll bet it rhymes with ''Figgins.'' ''I don't want to be the funny butler...because [roles like that] do no good. I just keep walking away.''

More with Ricky Gervais:

Posted Sep 19, 2008
Published in issue #1013 Sep 19, 2008

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...well he certainly is coming up in Hollywood. Did you see him in the Emmy's when he took back his award from Steve Carell. I thought that was hilarious!! It was the best part of the show. It was the only part of the show were I actually laughed. hahahah

And while I'm disappointed that The Office didn't win, I'm excited that it's coming back on tomorrow night. Thank god! Now my Thursday nights will have purpose.

Anyway, do you remember that one Tide commercial with that funny talking stain on the guy's shirt? Well, Tide decided to make a contest out of that and have people submit their own talking stain spoof. Tomorrow night during the premiere of The Office, Tide is going to show the winning spoof.

Guess which one will win. Check them out @ http://www.tidetogo.com/ads

I hope I'm not overstepping any boundaries. I work for Tide and if you have any questions, feel free to contact me.

Ericka Watts
Tide To Go Ambassador