WORDS: SCOTT RUSSON
The Office man talks exclusively to DVD REVIEW about his new star-studded series extras, his awkward relationship with fame and giving Tom Cruise a call on the blower ...
When you were considering your next project after The Office was Extras the first idea you came up with?
No, even during The Office's early days we had this backlog of ideas that we were considering because we always knew we were going to end The Office quickly. We had a couple of other projects that we came up with before Extras - one was about community service workers and that was called The Black Sheep Of Garstang Park. That was going to be like the new Auf Wiedersehen Pet and then the old Auf Wiedersehen Pet came back, so we thought, 'Well, that's pointless'. Then the other idea, which we might still do, is a movie called Man At The Pru, which is about a group of twenty- to thirtysomethings in 1970 in a seaside town where the '60s didn't really happen. It's just about them mucking around and wasting their lives and then getting married ... while working at the Prudential.
So why did you opt for Extras?
It just felt right. It felt like we were starting where we left off with The Office, because the Christmas Special started exploring that desperation for fame. So it continued my fascination with celebrity, desperation, ego, and acceptance. And you write about what you know - I worked in an office for seven years, and the last seven years I've been working in the media industry. It seemed ripe and it was nice to cash in with what we'd earned with The Office, which was becoming the Hollywood darlings.
How come your writing partner Stephen Merchant has opted to appear in front of the camera?
I think he was fed up of me getting sent free things (laughs). He had a little cameo in The Office but we had to think of a part that was right for him.
But wasn't he originally going to play Gareth in The Office?
No, that's not true. What happened was that Mackenzie Crook came in for the part and thought it would be funny to speak like Steve. Actually, maybe it was our idea that Gareth was from the West Country, because we both think it's a funny accent ... particularly when you're talking about post-apocalyptic survival.
Because you were so ingrained in people's minds as David Brent. did you ever consider just writing and directing the series and not starring as Andy?
Yeah. Well, before we knew it was going to be Extras,
I thought I wouldn't be in the next thing that we did. And that wasn't to avoid being David Brent, it was to avoid the fame aspect. I didn't like it when I first became famous, it gave me the creeps. I didn't like the attention, I didn't like the recognition. I didn't like any of it. I still don't, but I've gotten over it now.
You seem pretty at ease with with your celebrity status ...
There are a few things that I'm still not comfortable with. And there are different levels of fame. Obviously, what I don't do is turn up at premieres of films that I'm not in. I don't go to showbiz events because there is free champagne. I don't hang around after awards ceremonies. I don't do reality game shows. I don't sell my story to Hello!. I don't do any of those things because I'm not interested in them and I want to downplay my fame I certainly don't crave the mainstream.
Which of the celebs that featured in Extras were you most in awe of?
Well, when Sam Jackson walked into the room you knew someone pretty damn impressive had entered the building.
Which of the six episodes is your favourite?
I think for pure comedy and the deconstruction of a person, Les Dennis' is probably the most complete. With Les Dennis you knew what you were getting and I think that episode might be most people's favourites. Everyone got the references and everyone knows him so intimately; you don't really know what Sam Jackson is like in his life. I'm very proud of the Kate Winslet one, because of the storylines and the issues that we addressed. It's also nice to have the star of the biggest film ever, dressed as a nun, talking to a Nazi, about phonesex - now that that didn't happen in Terry And June.
How did you find writing your Simpsons episode?
I'm such a fan and know the show back to front, it felt like I was one of the team writers. You've also got to realise that when it comes out in March and the credit that says 'written by Ricky Gervais', it was a joint effort. I sent them the script and they sent back ideas which I incorporated - it was constantly back and forth. It was the closest I've come to collaboration.
Would you want to work collaboratively like that again?
Well, I did it because it was The Simpsons, but I usually say no to anything that's not my project. I like being uncompromised and doing exactly what I want. But there's a couple of things that I'm doing this year which you just don't say no to: one of which is The Simpsons (which is one of the greatest shows ever); the other is Christopher Guest's new film For Your Consideration.
You've famously turned down roles in a host of big-budget Hollywood films, so what made you go for this?
Well, he's the biggest influence on my comedy certainly my comedy acting style - and Spinal Tap is probably the greatest comedy of all time. It's another thing that I've never done before, because it's completely improvised. People think The Office was improvised but it's not, it was all on the page.
You turned down a role in The Merchant Of Venice were you not tempted to do it just to meet AI Pacino?
Well, yeah, I was, but then I thought, 'Why am I doing this?'. I don't love Shakespeare, I don't know if I'd be any good at it, and if I really wanted to meet Pacino I'm sure I could, I'd write to Jim 'II Fix It! But you have to be disciplined with my cache from The Office I could spend the next 10 years popping up in all my favourite things ever, but to what end? I could spend six months in a Winnebago and cameo as a pirate for five minutes, but in that time I could have broken the back of a new sitcom in a room in central London with Steve Merchant, and for me that's more exciting.
How's the Mission Impossible II part working out?
I'm not going to do it now, because I want to do Chris' film instead.
So no Cruise in Extras, then?
Well I don't mind phoning him up and saying, 'Oil Cruise, what you doing next June?' I'm not proud, I don't mind if all I hear back is, "CLICK, buzzzzzzzzzzz ... " If we come up with an idea for him, we'd approach him. We're not scared of approaching anyone; we're not scared of getting a no. We've also found out that he likes The Office, which is bizarre to think that Tom settles down to watch the show.
Will your Xfm radio show return?
We're actually going to do a podcast with me, Steve and Karl Pilkington (Yes, he is for real- he's brilliant). What we want to do is a radio show for ourselves and just stick it straight onto the internet at a regular time each week so people can download it, and we're trying to make it free.
And finally, we've got an idea for a film for you: it's a new Carry On movie with you, Catherine Tate, Peter Kay and Bradley Walsh - what do you reckon?
Well, let's think (long, long, long pause) when Hell freezes over.