Ricky Gervais will next be seen on the big screen plying his heinous comic mastery in Muppets Most Wanted. It's the latest Disney venture into the world of Kermit the Frog et al, and due for release in Australia next month.
Gervais co-stars alongside Tina Fey in this adventure comedy that follows the Muppets to Europe where they get caught up in a jewel heist caper. It's yet another instance of Gervais willing to broaden his particular brand of comic appeal.
"I've been a lifelong fan of the Muppets," Gervais says. "I loved watching them every Sunday along with my older brothers and sisters and they were laughing just as hard as I was. I saw that it wasn't just a kids' show and this was almost wish-fulfilment for me. I've never really grown up and it's something special when you can spend your time on a set talking to a frog!"
Best known as awkward, underachieving boss David Brent on the seminal BBC series before taking the show Stateside, the 52-year-old Brit has come to be regarded as a prolific comic superstar in the course of the past decade including his work as multi-hyphenate creator/writer/actor/director on The Ricky Gervais Show, Life's Too Short, and Extras. Gervais is the master of mockumentary comedy as well as being one of the most inventive funny men of his time.
The youngest of four kids in a working-class family from Reading, England, Gervais attended University College London, where he met Jane Fallon, his girlfriend of more than 30 years.
In 1997, the budding comedian scored a gig as a host on London radio station XFM. Not long after, he and his former assistant Stephen Merchant teamed up on a 20-minute demo tape that, after a couple years of development, became The Office on the BBC. The show's breakaway success - which resulted in the critically acclaimed NBC spin-off - turned Gervais a cult comic icon in the U.S. and earned him a notorious stint as host of the Golden Globes.
Gervais recently finished work on Night at the Museum 3, re-teaming with Ben Stiller in the immensely popular family comedy franchise.
Q: Ricky, you seem to enjoy being a comic provocateur?
GERVAIS: I like being a court jester with a bit of swagger. I enjoy breaking taboos and being outrageous. I've said many times that my approach is Darwinian - either I survive or I don't! I'm not worrying about offending people who want to be offended. I like taking risks and being brazen. I go out and do whatever happens to excite me and makes me want to work on a project. It's not about fame for me. Mass murderers get lots of press, too! (Smiles)
Q: Apparently you're the bad guy in the new Muppets Most Wanted film. We hope you're not going to be too villainous towards the Muppets?
GERVAIS: I wouldn't dream of it! (Laughs) I love the Muppets, I love Elmo, I love them all. When I did Sesame Street some years back it was one of the best moments in my career. I was enthralled by the magic that came with the feeling that I was actually having a conversation with a furry little creature.
For me that's the key to these kinds of movies where you suspend your disbelief and feel this wonderful affection for the Muppets. I almost wish I didn't know there was a hand inside. They're so real to me. They're like family.
Q: You almost turned the film down, didn't you?
GERVAIS: It was bad timing. I had just finished shooting Derek and I was about to start work on Life's Too Short and I was in the middle of a doing a tour in Scandinavia. There was just no way. But the (producers) wanted me and told me that they would try to accommodate my schedule and since I loved the Muppets so much there was no way I could say no! It's probably the biggest Hollywood project I've ever been involved with.
Q: You're a big animal lover, aren't you?
GERVAIS: I've always loved animals. I'm not sure I even understand why. Animals are very dear to me and I hate reading about animals suffering or being mistreated in any way. In some ways I find animals easier to love than many humans.
Q: Are you going to try and upstage Kermit?
GERVAIS: That's impossible. When I tell people I've done a Muppets film I make a distinction by saying that I'm the human lead because I know that Kermit's the Man. I can't believe my luck. After being enchanted by the Muppets for 35 years now I'm the lead in the next Muppets movie. It's ridiculous. Don't think I don't know how lucky I am. (Laughs) This is a big movie and it's ironic but one of my favourite films of all time is The Muppet Christmas Carol. It's a tradition of mine to watch it every Christmas and I hope people will have just as much affection for our Muppet film.
Q: Working on a Muppets film is a far cry from your work on Derek. Were you surprised that Derek generated so much criticism last year?
GERVAIS: It's misplaced. It's a shame that speculation gets in the way, but people want headlines. People want hits. They want to say something on their blog. I don't think it's controversial at all. I think it's incredibly sincere and sweet.
With Derek, I wanted to stop laughing at characters and root for them a bit more. He's my favourite character I've ever created and played.
And he's the first hero I've played. And I think Derek is the nicest person in the world.
Q: Derek was also a change for you in that it wasn't an overt comedy but more of a bittersweet story?
GERVAIS: I've always tried to write about what I know, and most of my family were carers and still are. Five or six of the women in my family still work with the elderly and people that have Alzheimer's. I've got years of stories from them. Some would make me cry, some would have me in tears of laughter. So I've had stories of retirement homes coming at me for the last 30 years. Even some sad stories were funny because I think that's what humour's for. It's to get us through hard times.
Q: Do you pay attention to the controversy that often follows you?
GERVAIS: Not really, but it might mean that I'm doing something right. I remember when Life of Brian was viciously condemned as being blasphemous and disrespectful. There was a lot of commotion after I poked fun at some Hollywood stars.
But you know you're doing something right when there's as many people who hate you as there are who love you. It means you're not pandering and you're not trying to please an audience. I write and perform to please myself. This is all for my own amusement as much as it anything else.
Q: Have you ever been fearful of a backlash such as that which followed your 2010 Golden Globes hosting gig?
GERVAIS: That show was three hours of my life. I wrote those jokes in about two hours. I tried to do a good job but it meant nothing to me. And that's why I could do what I did because I wasn't beholden to anyone in the room. I didn't have to go and suck up or apologise to a director or a star because I don't care what they think of me because good, bad or indifferent come Monday morning I'm back writing my next show or my next stand-up. As long as people want to watch your work you're doing a good job.
Q: Are some people too eager to take offence?
GERVAIS: I think when people get offended they are mistaking the target of the joke for the subject of the joke. But you make decisions: Do I pander to the 200 people in the room or the 200 million people watching at home? No doubt about it; no comedian would have made a different decision. I've tried to remind people who complained about my making fun of big stars that it wasn't as if I was insulted soldiers wounded in the battlefield.
Basically anything you say is going to be offensive in some way to someone or some group. It's in the nature of the job. I make no apologies.
Q: You famously turned down roles in several big films including Mission: Impossible 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, and The Da Vinci Code?
GERVAIS: Given the choice between being part of three box-office hits and doing The Office, I would choose doing The Office every time even if I hadn't known it would be successful.
The master plan is to do what I want every day. I don't do a lot of films because I look at the films I'm sent, and if I can think of someone better I tell them. When Ron Howard talked to me many years back about doing Da Vinci Code I told him that I would ruin the movie.
"I'm a comedian," I said. "I can't do a serious film like yours because people would point at the screen and say, 'Oh, that's the guy from The Office.'"
So it just depends. I don't worry about what I will be doing in five years, what's right for my career, what will the critics say, I don't care. I pop up in my favourite things for fun but they are fun.
Q: Is it in your nature to be outspoken?
GERVAIS: Comedians are by nature an outspoken bunch and we are free to say what we want to a certain extent. We also jump at any chance to get up on stage and shout about something. That's part of what excites and inspires you - you want to stir things up and make some observations on the state of things.