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It's OK, he wants you to cringe

September 17, 2008|RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ

AFTER THE very first airing of the very first episode of the British version of "The Office," Ricky Gervais, the series' star and co-creator, was offered leads in a slew of movies.

"It was ridiculous," Gervais says succinctly.

"They were premature," he continues with dismay, before launching into what appears to be a favored mode of expression -- the acerbic comic tirade. "Who would go see a bloke who had one hit from a sitcom? People leap way too early [into films] through vanity, fear or flattery. They think, 'I'm making a film.' You're making a film that no one is going to see! You have no power. You're going to go in there like a grateful little puppy and you're going to do what everybody says. And it's rubbish. It's going to be advertised on the side of buses for a week and then go straight to DVD."

Those initial movie offers came back in 2001. Now, seven years later, the 47-year-old Brit is in a Los Angeles hotel room promoting "Ghost Town," the first film in which he stars, along with Tea Leoni and Greg Kinnear. This supernatural comedy is written by David Koepp and John Kamps (and directed by Koepp), but it's hard to imagine a part better suited to Gervais. In the film, he plays a cranky New York dentist who dies briefly during an operation, and when he wakes up he can see dead people -- and they annoy him.

Gervais is known as the poet laureate of comedic discomfort -- England's answer to Larry David. Cringe-inducing embarrassment is his metier, and he's shown it off to fine effect first in the original "The Office" and later in the HBO series "Extras," which examines one of Gervais' pet bugaboos: the unexamined quest for fame. Gervais plays striving Andy Millman, who starts out as an extra and unexpectedly achieves stardom as the lead in an embarrassing sitcom. "Extras" has already won several awards, and Gervais is up for five Emmys on Sunday.

Cheekily cutting

Promotion doesn't seem a natural fit for Gervais, though he's a great talker. In fact, he is a great guest on talk shows except for the problem that he doesn't really like to do them because, as he says, he's "not in control of the idea." In person, Gervais evinces an idiosyncratic mixture of astringency and empathy. Dressed in an orange T-shirt and jeans, he's a roly-poly Englishman with a cheeky schoolboy grin, offering cutting pronouncements about a range of human foibles, including his own.

"I've always felt sorry for those who don't have a sense of humor," he says. "The worst thing to me growing up was to embarrass yourself socially. I feel sorry for anyone. Hitler could walk in and make a bad joke and I would cringe and [say], 'Oh, I wish he hadn't made that bad joke.' You know?"

"Ghost Town's" script reminded Gervais of classic Hollywood films, the kind that Jimmy Stewart might have made, that could play every Christmas on TV and never feel dated. "Nothing cheap in it," he says. "No smut, no pandering and there was no aiming at a particular demographic." Of course, he Gervaised it up a little bit, working with writer-director Koepp to really tailor it to his own comic persona. "It's a flawed character," Gervais says. "I made sure there were things in the script about me being a putz or ludicrous. I think it's more heartwarming."

Koepp arranged the shooting schedule so there would be plenty of time "to fool around," or rather, to let Gervais ad-lib. "What you see is 85% scripted," Koepp says, with the other 15% coming from Gervais' finessing jokes through many takes. "Like, for the price of one joke, you get four."

About Gervais, Koepp says: "His greatest fear in the world is looking stupid. Trying to be funny and not being funny is humiliating. I think one of the reasons he was careful to pick a Hollywood movie is that he desperately didn't want it to be a bad one. He waited too long for success to [toss] it away. Like a lot of people who get success late in life, it means more to them. They're more protective."

Gervais, the youngest of four, grew up in Reading and began writing as a kid -- original scripts for the Hanna-Barbera cartoon "Tom and Jerry." He initially went to University College London to be a marine biologist and is still an animal enthusiast. "My ideal life would be throwing open the doors when I get up in the morning and there is a garden just full of animals, jumping . . . like a Disney film. You know, squirrels jumping on me, monkeys and alligators walking past me."

A writing partner

He ultimately bagged science for philosophy and then tried to be a rock star in the David Bowie mold, but he never took off. He managed an indie band and a Queen tribute band, and segued into radio, where he met Stephen Merchant, who eventually became his writing partner and played Millman's incompetent manager on "Extras."

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