Ghost Town - Ricky Gervais interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
RICKY Gervais talks about dentistry, why Laurel and Hardy are the ghosts he would most like to be able to see and meet and why his kind of comedy works best.
He also talks about what appealed most about Ghost Town, why he felt it best to remove the kiss from the ending and what he’s working on next.
Q. Does playing a dentist make it easier going to the dentist?
Ricky Gervais: Well, luckily I only go to the dentist about every 15 years. That’s my technique… to wake up with raging tooth ache and then go: “Maybe I should have gone to the dentist more often.” I was put off when I was about five. I had loads of fillings. I haven’t got them any more [laughs]… the teeth fell out altogether. I was at a round table in Toronto where a journalist put her hand up and said: “I love the gag in the film that you play a dentist but you wear those awful teeth…” Greg Kinnear went: “Oh God!” And I said: “Sorry?” And continued: “Well, no they’re my real teeth.” She didn’t say “sorry”, but went: “Really?” So I said: “Of course, I’ve got them in now! Why would I wear them to a junket?” So, she sort of went red but she couldn’t believe that I’d be in a film with these teeth. It’s like taking the risk and asking a woman: “Are you pregnant?” It’s not worth the risk! It’s just not worth it.
Q. Did you have a technical adviser?
Ricky Gervais: There was. There was a dentist there and all I had to do was mix this thing, put the thing in her mouth and leave it. And then make it look as if it had stuck. So, it wasn’t too technical. I really didn’t like handling the syringe. It really gave me the creeps. I’m not phobic but it makes me feel a little bit funny… a needle. So, I kept making sure that no one left it lying around. But I do all my own stunts [laughs]. On the second day… you know they put the board down to roll the dolly along on carpet, I fell off it and hurt my ankle. Unbelievable! I’m hardly Tom Cruise.
Q. If there you could see ghosts, who would you most like to meet?
Ricky Gervais: Laurel and Hardy. I’ve been asked that before and I thought about it and it’s them. Obviously, Charles Darwin and Winston Churchill. I’d ask him: “Why did you say all those things? Were you having a laugh?” It was just so provocative, brilliant and drunk, which I like. Brandy, cigar and speeches like: “Yeah, we’ll fight them anywhere… beaches, whatever!” So, Laurel and Hardy first but I’m afraid I don’t believe in ghosts.
Q. It reminded me a bit of A Christmas Carol with its theme of redemption? What do you think the public fascination is with redemption?
Ricky Gervais: Absolutely. It’s one of my favourite themes, redemption. But I never understood redemption when I was young. Even before I was an atheist, I always thought with the prodigal son, “well, why’s he getting the special treatment?” Because he’s screwed up and now… do you know what I mean? It’s the same when a wife beating drug addict gets up and says: “I’ve been clean for three years…” [claps, as if giving a round of applause]. Well, I’ve never beaten anyone up, so where’s my round of applause? I sort of understand it now, though. I think that we feel good prevailed and we felt a part of it. You mustn’t get them to the point where they’re beyond redemption. You must never make them too evil, because there’s a point of no return. I mean: “He hasn’t raped for three years…” I don’t think that would get a round of applause.
So, there’s a limit to what you can redeem. But if someone’s just a bit grumpy, and you know that he’s wounded… I did it with David Brent as well. David Brent was never a nasty man. Again, he was just confused. He sort of mistook popularity with respect. That was his worst crime. He wanted to be one of the gang really. He was quite a nice chap. So, when I made him genuinely sort of cry and ask for his job back, I wanted people to think: “Of course, he’s got feelings! I’ve been laughing at him for ages.” I think the most important thing about comedy or drama is empathy. If you’ve got empathy, you’ve got everything and that’s why I’d like to meet Laurel and Hardy, because it began and ends with them. I’ve never seen such chemistry. I love them… I don’t just laugh at them – I want to hug them. But I think that’s why they nailed it 100 years ago. You’ve got to be able to do that. Even with unsympathetic characters, you’ve got to feel something for them and you’ve got to care about them a little bit.
Q. Your comedy is always based around that… it has emotion to it…
Ricky Gervais: Yes, but I think it’s as easy to put in real emotions as not. I just think some people don’t care. Particularly directing, it’s a matter of taste really. It’s as easy to get it right as wrong really. I came to doing The Office, my first thing really, with a much longer list of don’ts than do’s. I never liked that over-acting, or adding to the comedy with funny voices. Exposition… I always thought that was lazy, when someone comes into a room and goes: “John, you know your brother, the one that went to Gambia?” It’s like: “Yeah, he’s my brother! Of course I do.” It’s just like: “You don’t need to do that.” You also don’t need convoluted plot-lines. Life is so interesting… just every day life. I remember someone once saying: “Drama is real life with the boring bits taken out.”
Well, we left them in and made a feature of them. We left in the post-mortem of a bad joke – the silence, the awkwardness. And luckily we had a real ace up our sleeve in the camera crew. So, now David Brent could look at you. Now when he was lying he could just [mimics a David Brent gesture to camera] and it brought you in. You suddenly felt it and said: “Oh my God, he’s looking at me, what can I do?” We used the same trick in Extras in a different way.
I think the social faux par is probably what most people fear… more people fear public speaking than death and that’s because we don’t want to make a fool of ourselves. It’s fundamental. So, we made a thing of that. It was a slight on fame… it came out of these docu-soaps where normal people were having their 15 minutes of fame and then it was this love-hate relationship where people keep going back. People that have been battered by the press and fame keep going: “Well, OK they’ll be nice to me this time.” Well, no they won’t. You’re the whipping boy, so just walk away. So, we played on that.
But the important thing was that every day we make a bit of a fool of ourselves, but there’s no one watching. However, there was with David Brent. And in Extras, instead of the film crew it was a Hollywood legend. So, now even though it’s the eye of God in Extras, I’m embarrassing myself in front of Samuel L Jackson or Kate Winslet. So, I’ve always wanted to up that angst, to make people feel it – not just watch it disconnected, but to go: “Oh God! Oh no.” And I think people identified with that.
Q. Did you have any idea what you started back then with The Office?
Ricky Gervais: No, of course not. We thought it was good. We don’t think it’s any better than we did then. We knew we had something special and we put everything we had into it. But we thought it’d be a little cult show on BBC2. We didn’t even know we were going to do a second series.
Q. You’ve turned down so many films, so had you thought you’d ultimately like to do a romantic comedy?
Ricky Gervais: I didn’t turn down… I probably turned down maybe 100. They weren’t all bad. I just wasn’t looking. Often, I didn’t read the script because I didn’t want to like it and I didn’t want to want to do it because I was doing The Office or Extras. I also thought my first film would be written by myself and Steve Merchant. As it is, it’s going to be my third. But Ghost Town was the best script I’d read in five years and I got a funny feeling from page one. I thought: “This is me!” And for the first time ever, I saw me doing the lines. I remember thinking it would be as it’s turned out now. When I did it, it’s exactly as I imagined it… as is The Office and Extras. I’d also say that romantic comedy makes it sound like I’m trying to be Matthew McConaughey and it’s not like that. But this is a very flawed character and I know what I am. If it had been me taking my shirt off and taking myself seriously, it wouldn’t have happened.
Q. It’s also a romantic comedy without kissing…
Ricky Gervais: Exactly. There was a kiss and I took it out. At the very end, they kissed… but why? Does that mean they live happily ever after? We don’t know that. My favourite romantic comedy is The Apartment and she says: “Shut up and deal.” That means they’re soul mates. That means so much more… so much more. Every Hollywood and British rom-com that comes out finds the couple kissing at the end. But it means nothing. Again, it’s lazy writing.
Q. Was there also a sense of awkwardness on your part?
Ricky Gervais: Kissing someone? No, I’m not a germaphobe either. I’m not as awkward as I am in the film. I don’t think I’m awkward at all [laughs]. It was purely what I was talking about. The kiss didn’t mean anything and it didn’t say anything. I think what we came up with – “it hurts when I smile”, “I can fix that” – was really sweet. What appealed to me about it was that it was old fashioned. It’s like It’s A Wonderful Life or Annie Hall. There’s a bit of Groundhog Day in there. Thinking about it, it is quite Bill Murray. I love those curmudgeonly old boys. I love Walter Matthau, Bob Hope… what’s great about them is that the joke’s on them because they’re smart-ass. Like Groucho [Marx] – he’s the cleverest bloke in the room and he’s doing his lines but it’s doing him no good – if you’re surrounded by idiots, you’re the unpopular one and the odd one out because idiots don’t like smart asses. I just love those guys that say what’s on their mind. It’s also very liberating as an actor and a comedian. We all feel it. We never want to say what’s on our mind… we bite our tongue. As a famous person, I can’t send my soup back now if it’s cold because someone will say: “He’s changed.” So, it’s great to play a role like this where you can say exactly what you think. So, that’s what appealed to me first about Ghost Town… the one-liners.
Q. And he uses those attributes to his advantage… such as in the scene over the Chinese dinner?
Ricky Gervais: Yes, he uses the fact that he’s funny. David Koepp [the director] said “we need something here to show…” I wanted it to be something you shouldn’t laugh at. I wanted the bond to be… because he was so perfect – Richard, her boyfriend – I wanted them to be bonding over something that’s naughty. And that’s what happens in real life. You bond on things behind closed doors. That’s a real bond. You don’t bond in public, or like everyone else, you bond on something that’s particularly you two. I like the juxtaposition that she shouldn’t be laughing at that because her boyfriend’s who he is.
Then, we put a line in after that where Greg [Kinnear] says: “I’ve never seen her laugh once.” And so… It’s not a particularly original trick. I saw it first in Annie Hall, where he came back and was beaten up and he made her laugh. He said: “I’m just a three foot band aid.” But he made her laugh and I’d never seen that before. She laughed at a joke. Before that, people said funny things but nobody reacted to them. They were just straight moments. But this made me smile and I knew she loved him. Yet, it’s so simple. It was difficult to do that in The Office because there was a camera crew and we did it with a sly look. We made Tim and Dawn only laugh when they were together and be alienated. We made him look at her when she wasn’t looking back. Body language is more powerful than words.
Q. The original plan for you was to become a pop star, right?
Ricky Gervais: Well, it wasn’t the original plan. It was plan number 32… again, which I fell into. The original plan was to own a sweet shop. I was about six. My mum asked me what I wanted to do and it was a little local shop called Tom Edwards, I just said I wanted to own that because of all the stuff in it. But she said: “You know you have to buy all the stuff to sell it?” And that put me off. I thought I’d found the perfect plan! But then it was science all the way.
I didn’t have toys and bikes; I’d go out and pick up rocks. I was into science and nature. It was my first love. I was going to be a vet and a marine biologist. I went to university and studied biology for two weeks and I just thought: “I’ve been conned!” It’s the same as when you found out that you’d been watching Blue Peter and all the cool kids had been watching Magpie. You’d been conned; they’d been sneaking in learning. I felt like that and thought I’d done enough. I knew enough and didn’t need to know anymore. So, then I changed to philosophy. I then did a demo and got signed.
But I must say, this stuff about me being in a pop band has only surfaced because I’m famous now. That was nothing. It was 10 minutes and I made a song that didn’t make it. It’s a myth. I think we got to No.75 or something and I probably sold as many as the No.1 did this week! But it was all over. The reason you see that one clip is because that’s it. That’s the clip. My pop career has been greatly exaggerated. So, then for seven years I worked in an office, which is where The Office comes from.
Q. Can you tell us about the film you’re working on with Stephen Merchant?
Ricky Gervais: Well, I’m in the middle of finishing a film that I’ve written and directed with Matt Robinson called This Side Of The Truth. That was just shot in America. It’s me, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, Jonah Hill, Tina Fey, Christopher Guest, Jason Bateman… it really is the comedy cast of the decade. And that’s set in a world where the human race has never evolved the gene for lying. I come along and realise I can lie and everyone believes everything that I say. It’s a similar tone to Ghost Town, but with a little more edge. Steve’s got a cameo in that, actually.
The one I’ve just finished writing with Steve is called The Man From The Pru, which is set in my hometown area, really, in the early ’70s. It’s about class and can you escape the stifling small-town mentality? The sexual revolution didn’t go past Carnaby Street. We’re filming that next summer, in Pinewood and surrounding areas.