In Johnny English Strikes Again, the UK is in peril, as a result for a security breach at MI7, leaving every agent in the field identified and exposed, and the only option left is to turn to Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) to save the world. Casting aside his job as a teacher, he accepts the mission, but quickly realizes that being an analog spy in a digital world may prove to be a bit of a challenge.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Rowan Atkinson talked about what it’s like to play both Johnny English and Mr. Bean in films, over so many years, the most fun thing he gets to do as Johnny English, the virtual reality sequence, the most challenging stunts, Emma Thompson as Prime Minister, whether he thinks there will be more Johnny English or Mr. Bean movies, and his desire to do another live show on stage.
Collider: When we have so much tragedy and trauma going on in the world, it’s nice to watch something like Johnny English Strikes Again and see him save the world, in whatever crazy way works for him.
ROWAN ATKINSON: Yeah, absolutely! He saves the world with such apparent ease, despite never really making a good decision. You can’t quite believe that he does succeed, but he does love to. He’s strangely brave and determined, and he just keeps going.
When you started playing this character in advertisements in 1992, could you ever have imagined that it would lead to movies and that you’d still be here playing him and revisiting him, all of these years later?
ATKINSON: No, I couldn’t, actually. As you know, he started off in a series of TV commercials for a credit card in 1992, and then the first movie was made around 2002. He had an unusual career path. I don’t think many successful movie franchises have grown out of a TV commercial, but this one did. But to be honest, it’s like all things in one’s career – or in my career, anyway – where you just do what seems like a fine idea, at the time. I don’t look to the future very much. I just think, what’s the next enjoyable, successful thing that you might try to do? That’s what keeps you going and exploring the possibilities. Every time we do a movie, whether it’s a Johnny English movie or a Mr. Bean movie, I feel as though I discover more about the character. I always feel that the characters have actually changed. If you watch the first two Johnny English movies, back to back, I think the character would definitely feel as though they’d changed, were different, or would at least be more fully-rounded than he was when he first appeared. I suppose that’s inevitable.
It seems unusual that any actor gets one character that they get to revisit for this many years, and you have two, with John English and Mr. Bean. What do you love about playing each of them, and getting to go back and forth between them?
ATKINSON: I like the fantasy that they represent. Mr. Bean is a child trapped in a man’s body, and he behaves like a child. He’s got that anarchy and selfishness, but also love of fun and silliness. It’s hard to play people who are silly, or who are inclined to be silly. I don’t think I’m a very silly person, so it’s just fun to go back to being a child again, which I get to do when I play Mr. Bean. Johnny English is not a child, but he’s also not much more than a teenager. He hasn’t really grown up yet. Mr. Bean is generally having fun, and Johnny English is having fun in his world. He loves this world which, by some weird series of circumstances, he’s been allowed to be in. It’s the world of a British spy. I’m sure he’s an admirer of James Bond because he thinks he’s James Bond, but he isn’t.
You get to do so many wild and crazy things in this, and there are so many fun moments, whether it’s car air bags deploying, playing the bagpipes, dancing, or running around in knight’s armor. What was the most fun thing to do?
ATKINSON: From my point of view, I suppose the most fun thing is always going to be the driving ‘cause I’m a bit of a car man. I get to choose the car for the movie and co-write the car chases, and all of that stuff. I’m afraid that I find the business of filmmaking not fun. I find it quite hard, and it’s physical and tiring. So, getting behind the wheel of the car, I relax, unlike my co-star, Ben Miller, who plays Bough, who has to sit in the passenger seat while I drive, in the way that I want to. It was only a few weeks ago, nearly a year after we finished filming, that he told me how scared he was, all the time that I was driving. He’d been very sweet by not mentioning the fact while we were filming, but now I find out that he had an awful time, so I feel rather guilty about it.
I loved the whole virtual reality sequence, where you have the head gear on. What was that sequence like to shoot, and did you ever have trouble seeing with that thing on?
ATKINSON: I could see ahead very well, but I couldn’t see down. When he first comes out onto the street, and he doesn’t realize he’s out in the street, but the curb drops down, he crosses the road, and the curb pops up. I couldn’t drop my head, in order to see where the curb, was on either side of the road, which meant that I had to pace it out. It was two and a half paces, and then there was a step down, and then, after another six paces, there was the step up at other side of the road. I could only hold my head up and count, while all of these cars were screeching to a halt around me and blowing their horns, live in the take. I found that very, very tricky, to make it look as if I was just walking with confidence in a straight line, without any confidence whatsoever. I think that was the secret to the movie. I think that’s has worked out the best. We thought it was such a good idea, but we were scared while we were editing the movie because we had to get this movie out before anyone else had the same idea. It seemed to be such a logical joke about virtual reality, and I was amazed that no one else had done it, or at least not in the way that we did, as far as I’m aware. Maybe there will be copycats, but we got in there before most other people.
Were there any of the stunt sequences that you found most challenging, or more unexpectedly challenging than you thought it would be?