EDIT: In the original version of this article we incorrectly implied that David Brent: Life On The Road would be available to stream on Netflix UK as of February 2017. David Brent: Life on the Road is in cinemas on August 19th
Ricky Gervais is bringing David Brent’s legacy to the big screen. Chris Mandle talks fame, humanity and Hollywood with ShortList’s new guest editor
Ricky Gervais has been taking his duties seriously. Look no further than the scribbling on the cover of this week's ShortList Magazine. “Have we got a smaller pen?” he says, casting aside a mammoth-sized marker in favour of something more slender. “It should match the pen I’m holding on the cover. Am I right?” He does a scribble. “Maybe it needs to be heavier.” He’s looking up at us, hunched over the glossy cover with a look that says: stop me if I’m not making sense. The room is thick with the fumes from the assorted marker pens and there’s a rapid-fire squeak as they glide across the surface. He’s doodling a natty tie on himself. “If anyone thinks that’s sh*t, just let me know, OK?” he slides the cover across the long, white table. “I think it looks good, that.”
Since The Office ended in 2003, Gervais has gone from a big deal in Britain to a massive Hollywood star in his own right. The higher his career climbed – acting alongside A-listers, hosting the Golden Globes, writing an episode of The Simpsons – it often felt like he’d got further and further away from the manager of a paper merchants in Slough. In fact, so self-contained was The Office’s 12 episodes (and Christmas special) that amplifying David Brent’s schtick for the big screen almost seems counter-intuitive. Why now, after 13 years? Why at all? Gervais props his feet up against the table in a move eerily similar to that of Brent, and calmly puts his hands behind his head, locking his fingers.
“Brent is the sort of constant in this, but it’s not the same. I didn’t want it to be The Office and I never would, that would be mad,” he says. “The same people, at the same desk? No. But David Brent... If he was a real person, he would be different at 55 than he was at 39. He still wants to be famous, but ‘fame’ has changed behind his back."
On The Road
Gervais thinks fame is crueller now than it used to be. The Office was inspired by cheery documentaries such as the BBC’s Airport – shows that made mild celebrities out of the wacky members of the public that passed through. But now, Gervais says, fame is louder, more turbulent and more distressing as a result – and it was that bleak state of play that made him want to thrust Brent back into the spotlight.
“It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” he says. “I think your sympathies are more with Brent from the start, because [in The Office] he was a prat, but not a bad person.”
David Brent: Life On The Road finds Brent initially slaving away in an office selling women’s personal hygiene products. His colleagues are boorish, intimidating and openly hostile to him, and we join him as he prepares to take some paid (and unpaid) leave so his band, Foregone Conclusion, can go on tour. Cracks begin to show from the off, and it’s clear Brent’s life on the road is going to be a complete disaster. Gervais says he was given an opportunity to show Brent at his weakest.
“Documentaries are more intrusive now – people talk about their private lives more, they tell you what they’re thinking, what they’ve been through, so we had to tell more about Brent’s private life. He had to have a dream, and [this time] the dream is sadder. He’s a 55-year-old rep, he’s seen things like BGT and The X Factor and thinks, ‘Well, if Susan Boyle can make it,’ and, ‘If Paul Potts can have a go, so can I.’ He’s been sold another lie.”
Gervais’s disdain for celebrity culture is pretty well-documented, and something he’s happy to bring up. When he gets rolling, though, he really gets rolling. “There’s a new profession called ‘being famous’,” he says. “A new vocation: living your life like an open wound.” He describes an incident where his US-based PR was approached by a well-known confectionary company to tweet that he was eating a bar of chocolate in exchange for a pretty hefty sum. “It’s so strange how that can work out, economically,” he says, incredulous. “In this movie, if there is a sort of satire, it’s against being sold the fake dream. Soon we’ll run out of doctors because they all want to quit and be singers. They always say they want to be Mariah Carey or Madonna. Never Michelle McManus or Steve Brookstein. Deep down, they know there’s a difference.”
He thinks reality TV is barbaric now. “You see these D-listers going through terrible times, bullied by the press, [then] they go into Big Brother as therapy, and they say, ‘I’m doing this to change the public’s opinion of me’ – why do you give a f*ck what the public think of you? They want you to go in there and have a breakdown, not have a nice time. It’s just nasty voyeurism.”
Gervais got his opportunity to tell the world of celebrities exactly what he thought of it when he hosted 2010's Golden Globes. Since then, he’s hosted it three more times, tearing celebrities to shreds in a room where they’re used to being endlessly pandered to. He says that it’s important to be upfront and to dispel the bullsh*t that typically coats Tinseltown. He reels off anecdotes as we sit at opposite sides of a table. On more than one occasion you’d think he was rehearsing a ‘bit’, but, he says, this is just him “telling it like it is”.
“The press think I’m ‘Hollywood’ and I’ve got billions...” he says. He starts chuckling, which is his way of telling you he’s about to unleash another joke. “But it’s ridiculous, because [Jerry] Seinfeld’s got a lot more money than me, and he talks about how annoying a milk carton is…” He starts giggling now, faster. “He goes home and he’s like, ‘I’ve got a f*cking bunion, there’s no milk. Urgh, Netflix!” Ricky’s cackle-and-shriek sounds like a firework. “He’s just the same, only with more money in the bank. People always ask, ‘Oh but how much is a pint of milk?’ They’re trying to catch you out. I always say, ‘I don’t know, mate, but here’s a grand; go buy one, keep the change!’” The room is full of Ricky’s laughter, giggles and chuckles and shrieks, each one followed by a lurching gasp as he catches his breath. If you didn’t know he was funny, you’d think he was, well, pretty arrogant. But he knows that. “I’m always playing my worst enemy," he says, grinning.
Gervais has been working on this script for more than a year, including three weeks on casting and six weeks doing the edits. He’s worked in front of, and behind, the camera. And he’s also been lumbered with a magazine to edit. Sorry, Ricky. If he was just acting, he says, he’d do three weeks, go home, accept the cheque and do it five times more in a year.
He admits the US didn’t really get the UK take on The Office. “The US one got played in the middle of America and got 10 million viewers. Mine played on BBC America and got one or two million. But that was just industry darlings. It’s a struggle to get a film to go well at the US box office; it takes six months, and I’m already losing my hair!”
His laugh ricochets off the walls again. “I flirt between honesty, what I mean, and getting it wrong. The audience is clever enough to realise I’m playing an idiot. I’m always going to get it wrong and come down on the wrong side.”
After the Brent film comes his return to stand-up, something he says he’s excited to do. Though his early post-Office performances – Animals, Politics and Humans – were huge, he says he’s doing things totally differently now.
“Animals was me wanting to be the biggest ever,” he recalls. “I never knew what I was doing, call it beginner’s luck. My first ever stand-up and I’m on the cover of the Radio Times, a fat bloke with a beer – I looked like I’d broken out of the audience. I was slurring words. There was nothing slick about it. I wanna go back to my roots. Just a stand-up show, talking for half an hour. I’m trying to get them right”
His new routine is about how much the past 15 years have changed him. He starts smirking again before launching into his new routine. “I go out, and…” he’s suddenly glassy-eyed, thoroughly bored-looking. “God, I don’t need this, do you know how f*cking rich I am?” he starts cackling, his eyes crinkling up as he laughs. “They all start laughing, and I’m like, ‘I’ve got to play Wembley!
This is sh*t! I’ve only got four things to talk about!’”
Yes, in some ways he has changed. But at least he’s (really) honest about it.
David Brent: Life On The Road is at cinemas from 19 August. Pick up this week's ShortList, guest-edited by Ricky Gervais, from Thursday
[Images: EOne, Levon Biss]