Ricky Gervais put Slough on the international stage with two series and a Christmas special of The Office. He returns to the BBC later this year with another comedy series Extras, but before that he can be heard in British animation Valiant, playing cowardly, disease-infested pigeon Bugsy. He's also due to take a cameo role in Mission: Impossible III, and has overseen the US version of The Office, which will also be screened on BBC THREE later this year.
You turned down Pirates Of The Caribbean and said yes to Valiant. What's your thought process when choosing a role?
Pirates Of The Caribbean, I'd have to go to LA and the Caribbean, and spend six months in a Winnebago for two minutes on screen. Whereas Valiant I had to go ten minutes down the road to a studio for four days, and my fat face doesn't appear on screen - so, no competition at all.
You're very choosey, and have turned down a lot of roles...
Yeah, it's rare isn't it? It's got to tick a lot of boxes. Firstly, everything that I do that isn't writing and directing something with Stephen Merchant is fun, it's a diversion, it's not what I do. I could spend the next three years going round America, popping up as the butler in every sitcom in the world, you know what I mean? It'd be fun, but so what? It's not what I do. I'm much more interested in doing something that I'll be absolutely proud of and leave a legacy - whatever you want to call it. I think it's probably because I started so late in life, and feel guilty about not achieving anything by the age of 28. You have to keep your powder dry, so the more that I pop up on panel shows, bad sitcoms, bad movies, the less they'll want to see my new project that I've put 100% into. You've got a pile of goodwill, and I just think you can use that up in the first year of fame, or you can spread it over a career and only do things you're proud of. I spent three years of my life making sure The Office was just right, I'm going to do the same with Extras. I want to do something that makes a connection with people, not just be good for ten minutes.
Valiant is the first time you've voiced a cartoon character...
I did a couple of lines for Comic Relief in Robbie The Reindeer about four years ago. I was a penguin... why do I keep doing fat birds? That's a quote, isn't it? Don't take that out of context! On Valiant I liked the story. I think I was rubbish for the first day, I didn't know what I was doing, because it's so alien to me. There are no other actors there and so you're acting blind, so to speak.
They wanted my character to be big and over the top, and be a real Cockney wide boy. And I was just thinking, I can't do that, that's not what I do. I do naturalistic acting! I remember saying to them after about an hour, "I think you should have got Bob Hoskins." And all the producers sort of looked at each other and went, "He's right." But then they let me ad lib a little bit more and do my own thing, and I sort of crossed it between my stand-up persona - which is a brasher, cockier version of myself, but still very vulnerable - and Bob Hope and Woody Allen, because he's a reluctant hero and a bit of a coward. By the end I kept wanting to start again and I'd keep saying, "Now I know what you want!" So the director must have been very patient and probably kept on thinking, "Why didn't we get Bob Hoskins?"
Ewan McGregor was a big help wasn't he?
Ewan was there the first day and he was amazing. Bang on, exactly what they wanted. I went into the toilet and was having a wee. He came in and went, "You alright?" I said, "Yeah, I just don't think I'm any good at this. It's the shouting, I just can't do it." And he said, "Aye, I know what you mean. You don't want to feel like you're a ****, do you?" I thought, Yeah, he's right, I really shouldn't worry about it. And after that I went out and it was great. See, to people like Ewan it's second nature. But for me, I had trouble just reading the script, that's why I was making it up as I went along.
So can we expect you to appear in more animation features in the future?
I'd love to. I've been a fan of animation since I was a kid. When I was at school and we had to write a story, everyone would write a story about going out or what they did, and I would do an original episode of Tom And Jerry. My favourite programme in the world is The Simpsons, and I've just written an episode of that. So all that time watching telly when I was five, writing for a cat and a mouse, came into some use. When I started in comedy, which must be - ooooh, four years ago now! - my ambition was to get a joke into The Simpsons. So when Al Jean asked me to write an episode, I just thought, I might as well retire now, it's done. I'd love to do more animation. I'm not allowed to tell you anything about the episode, although I will tell you that my character does try and woo Marge with a love song.
Is it important to you that you're doing a British film with Valiant?
No, just that it was good. In fact, usually the first thing that turns me off is someone saying that it's a British film, because that means it's going to have a couple of awful TV actors, one old actor who'd done an international movie in 1969, and it's going to be a gritty tale about getting a hockey team up into the Fourth Division. It'll be advertised on the side of buses for one week, and then it's going to go straight to video. So no, "It's a British movie" is not the big carrot for me! I thought the script was great and they said the magic words, "It's near your house, and you can burp and make it up as you go along." My kind of film!
But how come you're going back to television with Extras and not making a movie. You're in a position to make a movie that isn't about a hockey team...
Because I've seen other people fall because of that. I've seen so many people get a little bit of success and they take a film that's awful, because they can't believe their luck. It's better to wait. I was offered a part in a film after the first episode of The Office. They called me from America and I said, "Who'd be the lead?" and they said, "You would." And I said to them - and they couldn't believe this - "I wouldn't go and see a film that I was the lead in." This doesn't happen in America, and they went, "What do you mean?" So I said, "I wouldn't go and watch this? Who do you think is going to watch it? You want John Cusack for this part." They were so taken aback, they thought I was mental. But people do it.
Television, you've got to come in to a level where you've got a certain amount of control, and I'd rather wait until my cachet is even higher, maybe, and I can... I'd love to do a film if the part was right, but I'd rather do my own low-budget one that me and Steve [Merchant] had complete control of. And also it's the process I enjoy. The joy for me is not sitting back and watching myself in Technicolor. The joy is coming up with the idea, writing it, casting it. I enjoy that process and I want to be proud of it in the end - I don't want to feel I've got away with it. I don't want to say, "It wasn't very good, but they paid me $5 million." That's never interested me. I don't feel we've gone back to television, I feel we never left it, and that's the important thing. I'd rather do a great television show than a poor film.
And is Extras set in the film world?
Yes. Each week I'm an extra on this film and I try and get a part or a role. I come across an A-list celebrity and I try and schmooze them. I'm just trying to make it in this world, so we've got Samuel L Jackson, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Ben Stiller, Ross Kemp, Les Dennis - who is incredible. When you see the Les Dennis episode you will not believe the things that he is willing to say about himself. And the Kate Winslet episode... well, you will not have seen anything like [starts laughing]... they all play twisted versions of themselves, and that's all through The Office and them being fans of the series. I never would have been able to do this if I'd been taking bit parts in films for the past five years.
What can you tell us about your part in Mission: Impossible III?
Don't even know what it is yet. JJ Abrams, the creator of Alias and who I worked with, he's a fan of The Office and I'm a fan of his, he said: "Do you want a part in Mission: Impossible III?" And I said, "Yeah alright, when are you filming it in England?" And he said, "Just get on a plane!" And then I asked: "For my part, can I take off a mask and reveal that it was Tom Cruise all along?" and he went, "Take a mask off, sure. What, in the film? No!!!" I don't even know what it is yet. I think it was taken out of context that I was starring opposite Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible III. I can tell you now: I will not be starring opposite Tom Cruise. I think it'll be, "Oh, was that the bloke from The Office then?" "Yeah it was." "He might pop up again... no he doesn't." Again, I'll do that because it might be a bit of laugh. But if it was filming now, I wouldn't do it, because doing Extras is my day job. These roles to me are like playing golf for other people. They're not what I consider my mission in life to be, which is to goof around as a fat bloke on telly. It's my calling.
How easy is it proving to escape the David Brent character?
It's still around isn't it? When Extras comes to the screen it'll be two years since we completed the finale of The Office, and there's not a day goes by without there being a mention of David Brent in the paper. It can be anything: it can be a thing about a new EC directive about desks - picture of David Brent; there was one which was a big picture of David Brent and there was some woman saying, "My boss groped me, he was just like David Brent!" And I was thinking, 'Don't use a picture of me, put a picture of the bloke that groped her! Don't do that!'
And the David Brent dance was voted the top TV moment of the last 75 years, beating the moon landing! It was like 5,000 people in the TV industry, and I think one in five voted for the dance, beating the moon landing, the Iranian embassy siege, and the fall of the Berlin wall [laughs]. They wanted a quote, and I said, "It's quite right it beat the moon landing, because by his own admission that was just one small step, whereas mine was a hop skip, a high skip, and a crab impression!"
You know what, what's the worst thing that can happen? People think that's the best thing I've ever done? There's worse things to be famous for. People say, "Oh, he's just like you." Well it is really. I don't applaud people who can put on nine different wigs and do ten different voices. I want to say, "Just do one character well." It doesn't interest me, variety. I just want to give it my all, and if it comes back to haunt me, then so what? I'm still proud of it. The next thing I do is going to be naturalistic and use my face and hair, and talk a bit like me. But, you know, I hope people can see that I'm not a clown. I'm a writer/director trying to convey something that resonates in the real world. Oooh, hark at me!
Valiant is released in UK cinemas on Friday 25th March 2005.