Mike Davies hears a Ghost story from Ricky Gervais.
Barely had the second episode of The Office been on TV back in 2001, than Ricky Gervais was having film scripts turn up on his doorstep by the truckload. In that first year he reckons he must been offered 100 films, ranging from supporting roles to the lead. He didn’t accept any of them.
“Some of the scripts were awful,” recalls the 47-year-old Reading-born comic. “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. There were 30 that might have been a good prospect but I was either too busy or I looked at the role and thought ‘there are other people you could have chosen, why me?’
“I felt I had to justify being the one they picked. I had to be David Brent but I just didn’t feel these 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”.
With pictures of David Brent already turning in up in anything from adverts for office chairs to a newspaper story about a woman who sued her Brent-like boss for sexual harassment, Gervais was wary of exposure fatigue.
“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.’ Even the cameos I did had to tick a lot of boxes. I took For Your Consideration with Christopher Guest because he was my greatest influence. I did Stardust because I’d be doing scenes with Robert De Niro and I had to do Night At The Museum because Ben Stiller did Extras and sent me an email saying ‘want to return the favour?’”
Seven years on from those overstuffed mailbags, Gervais has finally found the right material to make his Hollywood debut as leading man. Ghost Town casts Gervais as Bertrum Pincus, a misanthropic English dentist in New York who’s elevated rudeness to an art form.
“He’s a loser and a bit of a putz but I loved the character immediately,” he says. “I loved the way, when he’s being wheeled into hospital, he says to the doctor ‘why are you so tanned?’. I could hear me saying that. He reminded me those great Jewish characters from the 1950s and 1960s, played by actors like Walter Matthau, guys who were cranky and laughed in the face of adversity but who never got what they wanted because they shot themselves in the foot.”
Bertrum’s intentionally isolated life is turned upside down when a minor operation goes wrong, leaving him clinically dead for several minutes before he’s resuscitated. When he leaves the hospital he discovers that he’s acquired the very annoying new ability of being able to see and talk to ghosts. “And these ghosts have all got problems,” explains Gervais. “They keep asking him to help resolve some issue they’ve left behind in the world of the living.”
A greeing to help recently deceased womaniser Greg Kinnear stop widow Tea Leoni from marrying a man he thinks is wrong for her, Pincus is alarmed to find dormant feelings sparking back into life.
The parallels with Scrooge and his redemption are no coincidence and Gervais admits that it was a clincher theme in taking the role.
“I think redemption is the greatest theme in any film. For a long time I never understood why it was OK to be bad and then to be forgiven. but now I do,” says Gervais. “As you get older you think ‘well he was hurt and he made a mistake’ and you forgive it..
“In The Office, we made sure Brent was redeemed and at the end of Extras we made sure Andy Millman was too.
“Ghost Town has that morality tale that you find in A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life; people are out there who care and you have to care, too.”
With Ghost Town, the forthcoming Night At The Museum sequel and his debut as writer-director on This Side Of The Truth, set in a parallel world where he’s the only character who knows how to lie, Gervais seems to have taken to Hollywood like the proverbial fish to water.
He reveals, however, that his next joint project with Merchant is very much closer to home. Likely to do for Reading what The Office did for Slough, it’s a 1970s coming of age tale about two 20somethings who work for the Prudential building society.
It’s reasonable to suggest that the nostalgic title, The Man From The Pru, not to mention the whole setting, will be as lost on today’s homegrown generation as it will Americans.
“But then people thought The Office would never translate and it does because it doesn’t matter how we speak, it’s what you are talking about that matters,” he counters. “There are universal subjects – a decent job of work, making a difference, relationships and a boss. Who doesn’t relate to that?”
* Ghost Town opens tomorrow