Ginny Dougary
The Times
April 2010

The comedian talks about everything from relationships to body image

It started pretty badly. At one point, Ricky Gervais said it was the most difficult interview he’d ever done – and he was using “difficult” in the same way that someone says a dress is “interesting” when they mean “horrible”.

The feeling, it must be said, was mutual but, fortunately, this encounter in his anonymous-looking office, above an estate agency in Hampstead – despite 60 hellish minutes which veered between awkwardness and outright bloody-mindedness – does have a happy, if somewhat unorthodox, ending.

To be frank, I had half-expected it to be tricky. It was the control thing that worried me. I’d heard stories, possibly apocryphal, about Gervais, dissatisfied with the way a photoshoot was going, simply taking over and directing himself himself. There was in addition something about the look in his eyes – cussedness tinged with anger, a lack of trust, maybe – underneath the hectic bravado that could spell trouble.

We chitchat about the pronunciation of his name – which is French-Canadian on his father’s side – “Gervaaayze” (as in haze), although his mother, from Reading, rolled it out with a rural burr: “Gerrrrrvayze.”

He remembers only fully understanding that his dad came from another, far-off country when various uncles and aunts came to visit and “of course, they were real Canadians and had check jackets on”. He’s been to Canada but not to visit his relatives: “Obviously, I’m interested in my immediate family [he has three much older siblings] but, no, I’ve never worried about where I came from. I don’t see the point, really.”

So you won’t be doing that Who Do You Think You Are? genealogy show any time soon? “No. Who cares who the f*** you are? Oh God, I love it when they cry when they find out their great-great-grandmother was a prostitute. Really? I mean, really, do you care? It’s all come flooding back now, hasn’t it? Oh, the terrible memories of 150 years ago.”

He is close to his two brothers, Larry and Bob, and his sister, Marsha: “I like them and I get on with them. We’ve shared a life together. So that’s why I care about them, because they’re nice and loyal and, you know, if they were all adopted I’d feel the same. That’s what caring about someone is, not someone saying, ‘By the way, you share 99 per cent genetic material.’ Do I? Oh that makes it different, then.”

We’ve barely started and already we’re into the heavy sarcasm and belligerence. I happen to agree with Gervais that those shows featuring an endless parade of weeping celebrities are a bit suspect, but there’s also something absurd about his toxic snideness. It would probably be funny on the stage, but close up it’s faintly alarming; a bit like being trapped in the back of a cab with an irate driver who’s sounding off.

My next mistake is to comment (innocuously, I think) on why he always puts his feet on his desk – does he have a lower-back problem?

“It feels comfortable,” he says, looking faintly uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t do it in your house. I do it because it feels nice and relaxed.”

Later, when we sort of kiss and make up, it transpires that this was a turning point for him – ie, when things really started to go wrong – and his reasons reveal a lot about his rather complicated personality, as well as his uneasy accommodation with fame.

His comedy – and writing, in general – works because it is true to life, and full of acute observation. There’s no lumbering exposition and he follows the good writer’s rule of “Show, don’t tell.” His creation and portrayal of David Brent, The Office’s boss, resonates because his character is totally recognisable, whether the audience lives in Slough or Poughkeepsie. We all have a little bit of Brent inside us – an executive friend of mine confessed she feels herself to be cringingly like him whenever she tries to chum up to her staff.

There are discernible overlaps between Gervais himself and his most famous character, particularly his mannerisms. After our interview, I talked to half-a-dozen people about the feet-on-table business, and most of them said either that it was something Brent actually did or, at the very least, it was a quintessentially Brentian thing to do. What is intriguing is that Gervais intuited my discomfort with him sticking his trainers under my nose before I was even really aware of it. It was only afterwards that I thought, “Well, what if I were an elderly, genteel lady – would he still think it was OK to do that?” It also struck me how much it was a distancing device; with his body stretched out in an L-shape, his face could not have been further away from mine.

I ask him if he is sentimental, and he says that he is. So, I wonder, what is the stronger element in him: sentiment or ironic detachment. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t understand the question because it doesn’t make sense. I don’t think you can break it down to a percentage, because there’s lots of overlap as well. I’m 100 per cent human so I’m a logical person with all the attributes of being human…”

Perhaps you find me asking for a percentage a bit off-putting but… “I’ll take every question you ask very seriously.” OK, let’s try it another way: some people are completely sentimental without a trace of cruel wit in them and… “I never lose one when the other one’s happening. I don’t understand the question. You’ve gotta start again.”

Well, you have answered the question in a way… “I couldn’t have. If I did, I did it by mistake because I don’t understand the question.”

Oh dear, I sigh. The reason I’m asking the question, partly, is because your new film, Cemetery Junction – which you’ve said is very autobiographical (a coming-of-age story of three lads trapped in Nowheresville, plotting their escape) – has got a lot of warmth and heart, and feels quite different in tone to, say, The Office (or, certainly, from the one episode I saw, Extras).

Now we’re talking about “the work”, Gervais is back in his comfort zone; he knows where he’s going, he has control and there is a momentary ceasefire in hostilities. “[The new film] is more an out-and-out drama so there’s no veil of irony in it, like some of the other works. In The Office, we were laughing at the people who were delusional and un-cool, and now we’ve found people who are cool and, you know, we’re going, ‘This bloke is cool and his feathers are going to fall out one day but not this summer, and isn’t it excitin’?’

“I suppose it was quite dangerous in The Office to expect people to go from laughing at a bit of slapstick with a middle-aged man having a breakdown and then going, ‘But, really, no, he’s a real person and he’s got real emotions.’”

That’s what made it so interesting. “Of course and I think we’ve always done that.

As long as your characters are real and they resonate and there’s some sort of basis in reality and empathy to the piece, as opposed to just crazy slapstick, then I think you can shift gears.

“But it’s all in how you set up your wares, you know. We drip-fed the boy-meets-girl thing, which sometimes doesn’t work in sitcoms because they’re either plonked in or they’re cynical or they forget the jokes, so it’s quite hard to have it all.”

His accent weaves in and out of the Reading burr and a more sloppy urban-teenager-speak – “re-uh” for real; “resonaigh” for resonate; “re-a-li-ee” for reality.

When Tim, the world-weary sales rep, finally gets his girl, Dawn, the gorgeous blonde receptionist, I tell him that I felt like cheering. There had been more misunderstandings, missed opportunities and silent yearning than in a Jane Austen novel. “As soon as you realise that Tim and Dawn can’t say what they want to say because the cameras are watching them…” He snaps his fingers in a very Brent way, “…takes on a whole new level… It’s like, seething and Victorian. So all Tim had to do was look at Dawn and for her not to be looking back or look at Dawn and then get caught. It was all body language because people don’t blow up what they’re thinking anyway.”

It’s time for some more questions and, feeling flushed and anxious, I fan myself with some papers on his desk and then totally freak him out by mentioning the menopause. Do you think people are frightened of you? “Erm – um – in what way?” Frightened of your brightness or that you will lampoon them or put them down?

“Er, I think that, yes, some people are intimidated by a famous person and if they knew how, you know, how idiotic… Well, I think it’s the same percentage of idiots that are famous as not, probably more, I would have thought. So… er… I hope I’m not intimidating in a bad way. I mean, taking this example – um – you know, it’s not nice when it’s combative.”

At this point, I almost fall off my chair as it swings backwards alarmingly – practically to the ground – and I gasp, “Is this a joke seat?” (to dispatch pesky interviewers, I’m thinking.) “No, it’s Stephen Merchant’s – so it’s got a very long back.”

Well, I’m leading up to a question that I’m worried is going to make you angry but, anyway, let’s go. “I won’t be angry,” he says. “I won’t answer it if I don’t like it.” So I want to talk to you about your looks. When you were a pop star (in an Eighties Spandau Ballet-ish duo, all cheekbones, dusky eye make-up and earrings, called Seona Dancing) – “Failed pop star,” he interjects – you were an incredibly pretty boy. Do you ever look at those old videos or pictures of yourself? “No, they’re too depressing.”

Why this interests me is that, in practically every single interview he’s ever done, Gervais refers to himself, in some way, as “fat” or “ugly” or both (as in “ugly, fat git”). Is that really the way you see yourself?

“Well, I don’t think I am a fat git, looking at the national average… and certainly the world average. But I’m a fat git compared to what I was, I suppose. I went from 9 stone to, you know – and then you hit 30 and those were my eating years…” (He’s now 48.)

Do you feel any nostalgia for that pretty boy you once were? “No, of course not.” Do you not care about your looks? “Er… I don’t know. I’m not vain in that way. I don’t preen. I’ve started working out for other reasons.” Health? “Yeah, health – and because I don’t want to get fatter.

“You know. It went far enough. And it was laziness because no one gets fat behind their back. If you burn off less calories than you eat, you put on weight – it’s not a shock to anyone. The people who eat too much must be happy with that or they’d do something about it.

“And I’m eating as much as I ever did because I enjoy it, but I’ve decided to work out more. I run over the Heath and I’ve got a gym at the house, so no excuses at all – not that there was an excuse before… The only reason to live longer is to drink more wine and eat more cheese.”

He and his TV producer partner, Jane Fallon (This Life, Teachers) – the couple have been together since they met at University College London in 1982 – live in a big pile in Hampstead but have also bought a flat in New York. They don’t have children, so no schools to worry about, and what with Gervais’s burgeoning Hollywood career (Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying), it wouldn’t be all that surprising if they spend more time in the States. If so, will he feel pressurised to submit to the American beautification process?

“I think you mean, Los Angeles. New Yorkers are more…” Normal?

“Absolutely.” They’re still far more high-maintenance in the looks department in Manhattan than we are. “It’s probably more to do with what you do… The Hollywood pressure is that you do have to be of a certain standard or a certain type. I see everyone doing it, even good character actors. I think, ‘Why are you starving yourself?’ The pressure is there to have white, straight teeth…”

Would you ever do your teeth? “No, they’re clean and they’re real – it’s so strange to me that anyone would ever think I would. If I haven’t done them now, why would I do them?”

And, boom, off he goes… “What is in America? Who gives a f*** what anyone thinks? I don’t give a f*** what they think and if I don’t get a film role because my teeth are crooked, then f*** them, I don’t want it. I just go, ‘It’s ridiculous.’ And if I don’t get a film role because I’m not thin enough, then, ‘F*** you.Why would I f****** do that, you f****** shallow c****!’ I hate them, and I hate that people think that I would. It makes me angry. I remember when a newspaper said, ‘He’s lost three stone for Hollywood.’ I went, ‘No [his voice veers upwards], I haven’t lost three stone and I would never f****** do it for Hollywood. I did it ’cos I work out and I wanna be fit.’ And that annoys me. Someone said, ‘I saw him in The Ivy and he was having a salad.’ ‘Yeah, I had a salad. I also had f****** deep-fried scampi and followed it with ravioli, you lying f****** c***!’ So the answer is, ‘No.’”

This is a splendid rant and hugely entertaining, although Gervais is genuinely angry and not performing it for laughs. But even in Hollywood, he is now calling the shots. The Invention of Lying – in which he plays an unsuccessful film writer who is told by everyone that he’s a fat loser and, guess what, he still gets the girl – was written, directed, produced, narrated by and stars Ricky Gervais. As he says, “I create my own labour. I write my own roles and I write fat little putz roles, and now I write slightly less fat little putz roles. I don’t go for roles which demand a 28-year-old model. Why would I do that?”

The reason, I think, that he is quite often misunderstood is because his humour hinges on playing with taboos. The danger being that while the audience accepts when is on stage, his offensiveness is a parody of other people’s prejudices (made more piquant by our worry that, at some level, we battle with equally unattractive knee-jerk reactions), that comic tension doesn’t always come across in interviews. So something that he intends to be humorous – even though it may be, as Gervais says in another context (calling his friend, Stephen Fry, “a f****** bent c***”), possibly “a joke that went wrong” or “ironic humour that fell flat” – it can be reported as what he really believes.

A case in point, are his recent remarks – asked for the umpteenth time about why he and Jane haven’t had children – when he went off on a sort of sub-Loaded riff that fat chain-smoking impoverished slags in leggings should be compulsorily sterilised. As he says, coming from his background (his father, Jerry, was a labourer, and his mother, Eva, a housewife with a salty tongue; they were not well off), “it’s fundamentally the opposite of what I believe”. The thing is, he should have known better. He should have been sufficiently media-savvy to realise how bad that would look in print and, actually, if anything qualifies as “a joke that went wrong”, that hits the jackpot.

Gervais has said, in the past, that he shouldn’t need to wear a “Billy Bigot” T-shirt in order to flag up to people that he’s only joking. But when I try to get him to talk about the way we all have thoughts that pop in our head that we’re ashamed of, don’t we, he comes over all arsey again.

First of all, he says that this is a subject he talks about on his latest tour. “I love to examine it. I look at middle-class angst all the time.

“When David Brent goes up to the black guy in the office and says, ‘I love Sidney Poitier’, that was him trying to tell him he’s not a racist. I love looking at those taboo subjects that make us feel uncomfortable. If you’re brought up in an environment where people are saying, ‘Black people are lazy’, for instance, you hit an age, if you’re an intelligent person, when you go, ‘That’s just not true.’ It’s like why I became an atheist at the age of 8. Until that point I’d never questioned it and when I did, it was, ‘Of course, it’s bulls***’, because the evidence – just like the evidence of racism – is overwhelmingly wrong.”

Still, I wonder, are there any thoughts he has now that occasionally make him ashamed of himself? “That doesn’t make sense. How can you go, ‘I know that’s wrong but I like it’?” And then, “You can’t help what pops into your head. It’s how you act on those things, rationally.” Are you sometimes shocked by the things that pop into your head? “No.”

You’re frowning at me as though I’m saying something very stupid. “No, it doesn’t make sense is what I’m saying. I think you’ve made a category mistake in what the mind is, is my high-falutin’ answer. You can’t be ashamed of…” Yes, you can. “No, you can’t.” More wrangling ensues… At one point, he insists that my suggestion that there is a gap between an unbidden thought leaping into your head, and the way you believe you should think and behave, is schizophrenia. No, it’s not, I say, pretty cross and exasperated myself by now. “I dabble with those things in comedy…” Precisely. “I dabble with the worst thing to say and then I deal with it – but I haven’t got this strange sort of man with two brains sort of syndrome.” Oh God! “I’m sorry if it’s uncomfortable, but I think you’ve got to realise that this is important to me. I don’t want to be misinterpreted, so I don’t want you to be unclear. This is as much for you as it is for me. So if you mean, ‘Have I ever had a belief that I’m ashamed of?’, the answer’s, ‘Yes.’”

I wonder if this verbal torture is something to do with Gervais having studied philosophy for three years; perhaps he took courses in semantics and semiology while he was at it. “It’s difficult because we can’t even get our interpersonal frames of reference correct to answer the question,” he says. “But also what’s good about it is that it seems to be about how you portray yourself and how you perceive yourself. Are you worried about your press persona; are you worried about the press, in general?”

Actually, it wasn’t really about that in my mind but it clearly was in his… As I’m considering this, we have a breakthrough. He mentions a recent, not altogether friendly, interview and tells me that, despite it giving the impression that the two had met face to face (details about his body language and facial expression and so on), they had only spoken on the phone. When he sees that I am shocked and disappointed, the whole mood changes dramatically.

He goes to the next room for a glass of water, I follow him and when we resume our conversation, it’s like talking to a different person. All the aggro has dissipated and everything about him has changed: his feet are nowhere to be seen, he leans across the desk to engage more fully; even his face opens up, his eyes widen and one catches a glimpse of that younger, unhardened self.

Bizarrely, we start to discuss why the interview has been so difficult to that point. He says that the reason he does interviews is that there’s a responsibility to the backers of his various projects. Was it the directness of my questions that bothered you? “No, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, she thinks I’m such a horrible, nasty power freak… She thinks I’m intimidating, she thinks I’m combative.’

“Because on the face of it, that’s how I was being. And what I should have done is sat you down and said, ‘Listen, once bitten twice shy, and I’m really worried about things being taken out of context.’” But maybe I did irritate you, anyway? “No, the situation does. Straightaway I go, ‘Why am I swimming with sharks again?’ And I’m so conscious that anything can be… So when you said, ‘You like putting your feet up’, I suppose I was on the defensive. And straightaway we got off on the wrong foot.” He’s so earnestly in the moment, he doesn’t hear what he’s just said. “I thought, ‘F***, she could think that’s an affectation or that I’m rude; she could think I’m doing a power play, like I’ve read that in a book, you know.’ And so I tried to make it clear in a weird, like honesty-type Tourette’s-type of way that I just felt comfortable because it was my place – and I said in such a weird way, ‘I wouldn’t do it in your house.’

“I feel really bad now. It must have been like walking into someone who’d just come from a harrowing experience in Vietnam and didn’t want to talk about it!” This, in case there is any doubt about it, is a joke.

Complicated, isn’t it? “I’ve never done an interview when in the interview you analyse the interview. This is the most postmodern, deconstructed interview I’ve ever done. I wish we could do the post mortem.

“Of course, you do that in your head. I’ll go home to Jane and go, ‘Oh my God, I said this… and I know the headline.’ But you can’t get a headline out of this.”

Earlier, before our détente, I had wondered whether Gervais fell into the Englishman’s retreat of making a joke in order to avoid talking in an honest way about his feelings. He gives an answer to a different question – one that has been on his mind, not mine – about the perils of being famous. “I suppose I came to fame a bit cynically. I wanted people to know fame was an upshot of what I did, as opposed to the driving force because, fundamentally, I probably do want to be considered above the people who do anything to be famous and live their life like an open wound.”

I ask him if he’s self-analytical; again, his thoughts wander back to fame, and at first he becomes spectacularly tongue-tied. “Er, probably no more than I ever was… I mean fame makes you – um – more… um, self-analytical I suppose because… now you’re worried about not how people perceive you but how people who don’t know you perceive you, which seems unfair because your reputation is everything.

“I’m more conscious in public than I ever was. I’m probably less of an extrovert than I was. Fame has made me a bit more of a recluse.

“I go to restaurants but they’re safe environments. People don’t bat any eyelid in the Ivy but I probably wouldn’t go to Nando’s on a Friday night in Birmingham, and I don’t go to pubs. I’ve had no bad experiences, everyone’s very polite, but you can get phobic. It’s about feeling trapped. If you walk into a shop and you see someone go [he whispers behind his hand], then you walk out again. Walking down the street with someone going, ‘Love the show’ – nothing wrong with that at all. But being plonked somewhere where there’s loads of people who you don’t know but think they know you – that’s a bit weird. We’re not really meant to be famous.”

He was walking down the street once and there were a couple of kids, about 12 or 13, and one went: “‘Hey, man, it’s you, innit? Office man.’ I went, ‘Yeah’, and I kept walking. And heard them going, ‘Who is it?’ And I kept walking and I was about 20 yards away and this kid shouted, ‘What’s your name?’ And I had to shout, ‘I’m Ricky Gervais.’”

The idea of him doing this, it must be said, is snortingly funny. “’Cos I don’t want to be impolite. They don’t know. And I never want to be that bloke – you know, when they go, ‘I asked for his autograph when I was 14 and he told me to f*** off.’ I hate that.”

It’s at times like this that you catch a glimpse of the nicer side of Gervais, and understand why his friendships are long, and why a smart-sounding woman like Fallon would still be at his side, 25-plus years on. He’s unforthcoming, which is unsurprising, on the secret of sustaining a relationship over three decades: “There is no secret.

It’s all the obvious things. Things in common. Respect. I suppose – um – you’re soul mates. You see eye to eye on everything.”

But his romanticism comes out when we talk about his idea of the perfect endings to films. When I say that Cemetery Junction has the same sort of grit-with-a-heart feeling as British films like The Full Monty and Brassed Off, Gervais says he hasn’t seen them. He only catches new films – about three a year – when he’s on the plane. At home, he watches the same DVDs again and again and rattles off a list: The Godfather, Casablanca, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Play It Again, Sam, Tootsie, Raging Bull. “It’s like taking a drug because it gives me the same emotion as it did the first time, and some things are made better the second time round. I’m better the second time round.”

With his new film, “We wanted to do Hollywood does gritty. It had to be glorious and glamorous in its blue-collar degradation, like Saturday Night Fever. When you watch that – he’s walking down the street, he’s looking good but he works in a paint shop and he lives for Saturday night. But most people who watched that weren’t going, ‘How sad, this fellow’s gonna fall’; they’re going, ‘Oh, look at that! He’s f****** cool.’”

The Apartment (directed by Billy Wilder) has had the biggest influence on his and Merchant’s work. When I say that two of the young guys (Christian Cooke and Tom Hughes) in Cemetery Junction are pretty gorgeous, he says “Who wants to see fat ugly people?” Oh no, don’t start that again. “No, Billy Wilder said that when he cast Marilyn Monroe alongside Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis [in Some Like It Hot], and he said, ‘No one wants to look at ugly people.’”

He says Cemetery Junction is autobiographical in that “all the women in that film are women from my family – my mum and my nan – and all the men are the men in my family and different friends growing up. There’s a line in it that my Mum actually said to me. [Gervais plays the character based on his father, in a white vest, always being undermined by his crabby mother-in-law.] When I was 18, I said, ‘I’m going to France’, and she said, ‘What do you want to go there for? There’s parts of Reading you ain’t seen.’ Which is very sweet.”

It was the death of his mother, nine years ago, in particular, which made a profound impact on her son: “It’s devastating when you see someone dying of lung cancer – it’s f****** horrible, dreadful. My dad died a couple of years after. He was pottering around the garden with a few cans and sort of went, just like that. When your parents die, you’re sad because you miss someone who bore you and shaped you and cared for you, and it does make you think about other things, like your health. I went to the doctor, and dragged Steve along once, and said, ‘I’ve found a lump – I’ve got cancer.’ It happened twice.”

We move away from intimations of mortality to those romantic endings.While his humour is graphic, his romances are oblique. “It’s so much more powerful when they don’t kiss. ’Cos in Hollywood they go, ‘Da da da, kiss, happy ever after.’ What do you mean, ‘Happy ever after’? What blew me away about The Apartment was the ending – he says, ‘I love you’ and she’s sort of shuffling the cards, ’cos when they were friends they used to play, and he says, ‘Did you hear what I said? I absolutely adore you.’ And she says, ‘Shut up and deal.’ Beautiful – soul mates – they’ve got things in common, they’ve already built it on a friendship.”

There is one especially moving moment in Cemetery Junction, when the father and son reconcile, in a tiny gesture, and Gervais – who co-wrote it with Merchant, their first feature film together – would burst into tears every time he shot it. “Yeah, it was, like, ‘Wheew’ [blows his nose], ‘That was brilliant’ [another honk], ‘Ok, let’s go again’ [clears his throat with emotion].’’

By now I am emboldened to ask him directly if he’s a romantic.

“Of course,” he says. “As an atheist, that’s all that matters. You don’t get rewarded for being nice in Heaven, you get rewarded for it on earth. So be nice to people. Make a connection – because, you know, what else is there except making a connection with someone?”

It was lucky for both of us that there were two parts to this interview and, I would agree with him – Gervais is definitely better the second time round.

* * *

Cemetery Junction is released on April 14

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