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Johnny English - Rowan Atkinson Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

ROWAN Atkinson discusses his role as 'stunt man' in Johnny English, as well as comparisons with Austin Powers, and why the French are such perfect targets for humour at the London press conference to his latest movie...

Q. In the production notes, it mentions we are witnessing Rowan Atkinson, 'the stunt man', on several occasions. The driving I can understand...
A: Funnily enough, the driving stunts were the ones that I actually did the least of in the end, which was a source of fantastic frustration for me, because a lot of the stunt driving stuff, a lot of the car chase, was being shot at the same time as the main thrust of the scenes in the movie, and because I'm in virtually every scene, it meant that really I did very, very little of the car stunts, which was a shame.
Of the others, I did a few. I did the dropping through the Coronation on the electric cable, to grab the crown off John Malkovich's head. And it was something that.. you know, I'm no good at heights. I hate swings and roundabouts and all that sort of thing, so the first time I did it, I was absolutely terrified, and I thought, 'oh that's alright, I've done it now and I know it's safe and I know the harness doesn't snap'.
But then the second time, it felt slightly worse than the first time, and then we did it 15 or 20 times, and every time that I was sitting on that little ledge, looking down at what I was about to swing down on, I just kept thinking I wish I hadn't agreed to do this.

Q. Johnny dreams of being a ladies man, were you much of a ladies man as a teenager?
A. Moi? No, I certainly wasn't. I had a very quiet and private life until way, way late. I think you're very rapidly encroaching into areas where I would never answer a question of that type, so I'm sorry. Even if I told you the whole truth, I suspect that it wouldn't be worth printing.

Q. Are you ever keen to challenge the audiences' certain perception of a Rowan Atkinson character?
A. I know I've got enough creative curiosity towards the idea of playing somebody different, you know, because character is what interests me and getting inside someone's skin and trying to make him real or credible, and usually funny. I've never felt any particular need, or ambition to play a serious role just for the sake of it. But there are many characters who are half serious and half funny, or different proportions... I think Johnny English, for example, is not an immediately ridiculous, or silly character, I think he's quite a serious-minded man.
It's just that he has failings which become obvious out of the discrepancy between how good he thinks he is and how good he is, which is where the comedy comes. But, at the same time, he's not terrible. He's not a terrible spy, it's just that he's not very good and he's certainly not good enough to be Agent 1, which is the job that he’s given.
There's no doubt, there's always a problem with audiences, because they prefer actors to do one thing, certainly in the world of comedy, and to do it really well, and to do it for the rest of your life, which I don't want to do.

Adds Peter Howitt: I think what's interesting about Johnny English, in respect to the two most famous characters of the many he has portrayed [Mr Bean and Blackadder] is that Johnny English is different. Indeed, it became an important part of the process of playing a serious character.
Obviously, the Blackadder character is only looking out for his own skin and how he can manipulate any situation to reach the ends that he requires for his own personal gain or protection against the forces that are up against him. And indeed, Mr Bean is a very self-centred character.
But Johnny English is neither of those; he is actually an incredibly selfless character. He likes the adulation and he has an ego, but he's essentially a very good man, a very loyal man, because if you strip away the comedy, which one shouldn't do for too long, Johnny English is a hero, and in any film where you have a hero, you want the audience to want that man to succeed, because a hero requires the audience to root for them; whereas in Bean and Blackadder, when either of those characters fall over, or make mistakes, you're glad that they have, and not much more, because they had it coming in a way.
With Johnny English, you've got a character that does make mistakes and falls over, but you always want him to get back up again and finish the job, because he isn't just out for himself and he's very dedicated to his job in a selfless way that other characters than Rowan has played were not.
So the comedy always came last during the writing process, which was about making the character true and consistent and believable, within his desires as a character, and then, hopefully, making these things funny.
Rowan Atkinson: Certainly, that's the only reason why Natalie's character, Lorna, would ever fall for him to the degree that she does, because she perceives him to be a good man, who means well. I mean, he's a bit of a clutz, a bit of an idiot, he's a bit pompous, which is providing most of the comedy, but you've got to make him believable in order for the audience to want him to win.

Many of the jokes are anti-French? How do you think that will go down in America, and in France itself?
A: Well, I think the Americans will adore any jokes at the expense of the French. But I've got to go to France at the beginning of June, so that should be more interesting.
I read a fantastic thing in a Spanish newspaper yesterday, which said that a third of French people want Saddam Hussein to win, which I thought was the most brilliant statistic. I do love the French, for things like that; they're so uncompromising in their view of the world, which is why they are such a fantastically rich source of comedy, because they are so queer about their view of the world, and they won't be shoved off that position by any other events.
And also, generally speaking, as races go, making jokes about the French appears to be something that nobody really minds, not even the French. Even they don't seem to care. They just go about their lives.
Clearly, though, if you were trying to think of what nationality of foreign person would cause the biggest upset in terms of who was going to become king of England, then clearly a French king is as unattractive to us, as a British President would be to the French.

Q. Are you planning on going down the Austin Powers route? Sequels?
A: I have no idea. Clearly, if this film was a huge success, and I think it would have to be a very, very big success, then there is the potential for a franchise. But I have no particular ambitions to do it, or not do it. It's quite a flattering idea if it could become something that we could do more of, but it all depends on the commercial reality of it.
I think what's good about the whole Johnny English idea is that it is very distinct from Austin Powers. I think people assume that it is going to be a kind of Austin Powers, when I think it's actually a million miles away in tone and style. Personally, I love Austin Powers, and I love Mike Myers and his uncompromising view of character comedy, but I think we've done something quite different, so I hope it's seen to be distinct from that.

Rowan Atkinson sums up Johnny English...
The whole movie, basically, is about a fantasy fulfilled on the part of Johnny English. You see his fantasy at the beginning, and then you see him living this fantasy. Of course, his fantasy, undoubtedly, is James Bond in all his shapes and forms. And I think it is Roger Moore who Johnny would probably have in mind, as I think those mobile eyebrows are very much something that Johnny does.

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