Johnny English Reborn - Rosamund Pike interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
FORMER James Bond star Rosamund Pike talks about returning to the spy genre for Johnny English Reborn and working with the genius of Rowan Atkinson.
She also discusses corpsing and trying to pull yourself together when you get a fit of the giggles as well as what it was like to audition alongside Tom Cruise.
Q. This is your second time in a spy genre after your 007 movie Die Another Day, so which was more fun?
Rosamund Pike: Well, in a way this was sort of like being set free from the Bond mantle. It was like paying a wonderful tribute to Bond and sort of getting wings and being able to be very silly with it. I was so young and nervous when I did Die Another Day, so in a way it was like revisiting that territory with all the kind of calm and relaxedness that you get with perspective and getting a bit older and all that stuff. But the reason I really wanted to do this… I mean, if it had just been a silly Bond movie I wouldn’t have been interested. But it has all the ambition of a Bond film and it has a great story.
I think Rowan [Atkinson] after the first Johnny English wanted to make sure that when he came back he had a really great storyline to hang all the comedy on, so that the villain has an international agenda that’s just like something that Ian Fleming would have written. You’ve got big set pieces, you’ve got a scene on a golf course [a la Goldfinger], you’ve got a huge scene in The Alps with snow-mobiles and a cable car fight. There’s a big car chase, albeit that Johnny English at the time is in a highly powered wheelchair. But it has all the intensity and seriousness on one level, even though it’s absurd, as if we were in The Alps, doing a Bond film, with a sort of Aston Martin racing a Ferrari.
Q. Is that the only way to really get the biggest laughs out of the spy genre, rather than going for anything too stupid like, perhaps, a Scary Movie-style comedy?
Rosamund Pike: I think so. I think you have to find an authenticity and sort of mock the convention but in a way take it seriously. So, you believe in the mission but everything has just got an absurdity about it. When Johnny English is flying a helicopter, for example, he hasn’t flown one for a while, the GPS is down, so he thinks practically and drives right down to street level and follows the traffic. It’s absurd and it’s comic. But radio control rings in and asks what his altitude is and he says: “About 18 inches.” It’s very, very funny but it has a good motive behind it, so it’s genius I think. It’s genuinely funny and Rowan’s so brilliant with words. He can make a name funny. You know the famous story about him reading the phone book and it’s hilarious. The way he just says someone’s name… for instance, he talks to an air hostess and he sort of says: “It’s wonderful to relax after a hefty mission, don’t you find [pauses for effect] Barbra?” It’s the way he does it… it becomes hilarious. He does it again with another woman called Shirley. You can imagine him doing it [laughs].
Q. So how easy is it for you to keep a straight face when he’s doing that?
Rosamund Pike: It can be really hard. But you just have to think you’re going to get fined if you don’t. Sometimes you’re doing a film… we call it corpsing, but when you get it and it comes upon you and you’re in the grip of it and you can’t get rid of those giggles it’s very painful because sometimes you’re not even laughing at anything funny. You don’t know why it comes on. It can be something that nobody else is finding funny and you, for some absurd reason, have got an uncontrollable fit of giggles and it’s awful when it happens. You hold everything up!
Q. Do you have a trick for snapping out of it?
Rosamund Pike: You just have to try and use every power of your imagination to take you somewhere else. Usually, it’s the hardest thing to do and if you have, you then meet someone’s eye and you just collapse again! Rowan never gets it. He’s the sort of master at it, he’s so professional, he’s just amazing.
Q. When you talk about treating the genre seriously, do you also treat your character seriously in terms of preparation? I mean, you play a behavioural psychologist, so did you speak to any professionals as part of your research?
Rosamund Pike: Yeah but not in a great way. I mean Kate is not a funny character but you have to play straight with wit as it were. Everything has a sort of wit to it even though it’s not outright funny. If you played it too seriously, or if I went and did some terribly sort of method approach, it would be completely wrong and usurp the comic drive of the film. But it was fun. I read a few books, including one written by an ex-FBI guy on body language and how to use body language when you’re reading it in your everyday life. It’s the old thing of being able to tell if someone is lying. It’s now starting to be used in airport security. I think they’re screening and looking at people’s expressions and twitches in the queues coming into security and stuff.
Q. Is there much room for improv on Johnny English?
Rosamund Pike: Not really. It wasn’t that kind of film. I did another comedy with Owen Wilson and that was much more free with the words. But Rowan has worked on this script with the producers and Ollie, the director, and Hamish, who wrote it. They really collaborated in a way that’s probably going back to his old Blackadder days. So, they honed it and honed it and it became a really good script that didn’t really need improv. What he does is riff on what he’s got, so he’ll try any number of variations of playing high comedy, playing low comedy, playing it slapstick, or subtle. In the cutting room, they have every option.
Q. So, how does watching someone like Rowan at work compare to someone like Owen Wilson?
Rosamund Pike: Owen can be quite serious too. Lots of comedians are quite serious, although he’s much more about sort of entertaining the crew and riffing and being a bit more goofy on set, or silly, and trying out new things. Rowan is painfully kind of harsh on himself because he analyses and dissects his performance, really with anatomical precision. He sees things that us mere mortals just don’t see – tiny nuances, tiny things with timing. I mean, we did a scene where all he has to do is do up a zip and yet we did that 30 times to get the exact timing, the exact speed of the zip, the exact rhythm of it.
Q. Is there a danger that you can overdo something like that, so that it ceases being funny?
Rosamund Pike: No I don’t think so. He’s always searching for something and he always finds it and it’s always better. He’s a genius. He’s a totally rare, unusual, extraordinary man and it was such a privilege to work with him. He’s always got some interesting aphorism. There are various things in this film where inanimate objects behave in a sort of human way that’s very funny. There’s these two artists called Fischli and Weiss, who make these videos where they humanise these objects – o a drop of water will fall and it’ll build up until it runs and makes a puddle and the puddle touches something it’ll set off a reaction in something else… the water level in something else will go up and that’ll push a ball over the edge, which will land on a rubbish bag and the rubbish will all fall out. So, it’s just things happening to illustrate cause and effect and as I was telling Rowan about that he said: “Well, yes, it’s always funny when humans behave like machines or machines behave like humans.” It’s something that’s simple and obvious to him because it’s one of the properties of comedy.
Q. Your working with Tom Cruise next, aren’t you?
Rosamund Pike: Yes I am. I’m about to go off and do One Shot and I’ve very excited about it because he’s another great actor. I feel very, very lucky to be working with some great people, in a totally different field. But he’s again giving. I mean, you don’t want to work with assholes in this business, you want to work with nice people, and Tom is from my experience of meeting him was so giving and so generous and so engaged. He doesn’t have to be… I mean, he’s the biggest movie star in the world and it was an audition process. But he probably understands that and remembers it and we just played with it. It was like being in the most relaxed rehearsal room with one of the greats.
Q. So, what can we expect from you in that?
Rosamund Pike: Well, I’m relishing the opportunity to play a lawyer and make her different from the lawyer I played in Fracture because I feel that there’s a tremendous sort of cliché in the way that female lawyers are portrayed. I mean, I think that was a fine job I did in Fracture but it was a very specific route… it was that sort of sleek, put together lawyer type. And I’m interested now in finding a kind of real woman lawyer, who doesn’t have time to do her hair. Whether I’m allowed to do it is another thing [laughs] but I’ve read some of Lee Childs’ books now and the women in Reacher novels are kind of naturals. They’re very natural people and I want to make a lawyer who is very natural.