Gervais' Ghosts - Ricky Gervais Interview
After the incredible success of The Office and Extras, British television critic Jim Shelley accused Ricky Gervais of “resting on his laurels”. It’s the sort of claim that can only prompt that familiar incredulous cry, “are you having a laugh-” 3D’s Darryn King takes a look at Gervais ahead of his first starring role in a feature film, Ghost Town.
In the past year, Ricky Gervais has co-written, co-directed and acted in his feature directorial debut; completed his fourth successful stand-up tour; commissioned the movie adaptation of his successful children’s book series, Flanimals; resurrected his Guinness World Record-winning series of podcasts that are downloaded (legitimately) almost four million times a month worldwide; made his 12th appearance on David Letterman’s Late Show, becoming the first guest to pen his own Top Ten; and shared the stage with everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Richard Dawkins. Soon – because there are some things you just don’t say ‘no’ to – he will appear on Sesame Street serenading Elmo.
But Gervais has actually been very careful about his choices, especially when it comes to movies. “I didn’t want to be everywhere,” Gervais says. “Some people seem to do everything they are offered and I didn’t want to be like that. I always knew that I’d never regret saying ‘no’ but that I could easily regret saying ‘yes’.”
Before 2008, Gervais had made cameo appearances in only three Hollywood feature films, for his own reasons. He did Stardust for the chance to star alongside Robert De Niro; For Your Consideration to work with his comedy hero Christopher Guest; and Night at the Museum because he owed Ben Stiller a favour.
“If I got offered 100 films in that first year, 70 of them were awful,” Gervais says. “And some of the scripts – awful. You know, a film with a bloke from the telly trying to get a girls’ hockey team into division two or something. I mean, shoot me. Of that 100, there were about 30 that might have been a good prospect but I was either too busy or it was arbitrary. I looked at the role and I thought, ‘There are other people you could have chosen, why me-’ I felt I had to justify being the one they picked. I mean, I had to be David Brent – it was my part. But these other ones, I just didn’t feel were me. So I resisted for many reasons and fear was one of them – I didn’t want to jump too early and I didn’t want to fail.”
Gervais says the script of Ghost Town, from the pen of Hollywood screenwriting heavyweight David Koepp, was the best script he’d read in five years. Ghost Town is the story of Bertram Pincus, a misanthropic dentist who suddenly finds himself being harangued by the ghosts that populate New York City.
There are plenty of laughs, and some stand-out ad-libs from Gervais, but Ghost Town is a far cry from the rollicking comedy some might still expect of Gervais – it has much more in common with the warm and fuzzy Frank Capra films of old. It is a natural choice for Gervais, who has always looked behind the spectacles and silly dances and concentrated on bringing out the humanity of his characters.
“[Ghost Town] is about being alone, redemption, caring about people – it’s all of those things,” says Gervais. “Otherwise you are just watching someone fall on a banana skin… And that’s funny, don’t get me wrong – if I walked down the road now and someone slipped on a banana skin, I’d make sure they weren’t hurt, but then I’d want to laugh. But you want a little more than that in a film.”
Redemption is also a recurring theme of Gervais’s own work in The Office and Extras, particularly in the extended Christmas specials. Andy Millman realises the error of his ways in the Big Brother household, and even David Brent ultimately finds someone he can talk to on a sincere level. “I think redemption is the greatest theme,” says Gervais. “I think everything should have a bit of Scrooge in it, otherwise why should you care- If someone starts off good and ends good, that’s boring. So Ghost Town has that morality tale that you find in A Christmas Carol, and it’s also a bit like It’s A Wonderful Life – people are out there who care, and you have to care too.”
As for the process of filming itself, Gervais makes no bones about it. “It was absolutely brilliant. It couldn’t have been easier. I loved every scene, I loved the acting, I was allowed to ad-lib and change a few lines, and I was in the middle of New York.”
For all his varied success though, it seems inevitable that Gervais has found himself haunted by a spectre of his own. “If they do a survey about office chairs, there’s a picture of David Brent,” he laughs. “The worst one I ever saw was when there was a story about a woman who sued her boss for sexual harassment… And they didn’t put a picture of the real boss on the front page of the paper, they put in a picture of me as David Brent. So there you are.”
Ghost Town opens 12 February.