The ever-talented Stephen Merchant (co-creator of The Office and Extras alongside Ricky Gervais) has a penchant for playing the unsuccessful romantic. In his first team-up with The Farrellys – the underrated Hall Pass – Merchant steps out of his marriage and attempts to woo a bevy of women… all unsuccessfully. In Movie 43, Merchant is at it again – this time attempting to seduce Halle Berry in one of the film’s numerous sketches.
In the following interview with Merchant, the comedian discusses working with Peter Farrelly once again for Movie 43, the anxiety of memorizing lines, whether he longs to ever be the lead in a film and his in-the-works HBO series Hello Ladies. For the full interview, hit the jump.
Stephen Merchant: Yes — I remember Amazon Woman on the Moon really making me laugh. I remember there’s this really funny sketch with Ed Begley Jr. as the Invisible Man. This very beautiful recreation of the old 30’s Universal horror films. He [thinks he’s] the Invisible Man but he’s actually visible. I remember that being very funny. I don’t think I saw Kentucky Fried Movie until many years later. I certainly never saw any of them in the cinema. I think it would have been interesting to have seen those movies [there] because there’s just something about that kind of big-room laughter, which is unique to movies. Most sketch comedies you tend to see on TV, where it’s a much more isolated experience.
Was that part of the appeal of the project – to do a sketch comedy for cinemas?
Stephen Merchant: You know what – the appeal of the project – I did a film with Peter Farrelly and Peter said ‘Do you want to do a sketch where you’re on a date with Halle Berry?’ And I was like ‘Yep’. There wasn’t really any thought after that to be honest. So that was the reason I did it. I like Peter and I was happy to sit opposite Halle Berry for two days. That was my main motivation for doing it.
It’s not a bad motivation…
Stephen Merchant: Not at all…
Stephen Merchant: I enjoy his movies. I think they’re very funny but they’re not the sort-of movies that I would make. I mean their movies that I laugh at. When I get hired as an actor as opposed to a writer, one of things that’s exciting for me is doing stuff I wouldn’t normally do myself. So whether it’s a kid’s movie or a voice in animation or in this case – where I just get to be silly, it’s a different kind of comedy for me. As a performer, it’s a different pleasure than when you’re writing or directing. As a performer, you’re just in the hands of the director and you go with whatever they want to do. You make suggestions and you do what you can but it’s fun to not have that level of responsibility and just doing whatever you think would be funny and letting them guide you either broader or faster or slower…
Is it difficult to not inject your own sensibilities into a project?
Stephen Merchant: The most [I] inject is I’ll make suggestions here and there – just for what I think I can do in a funny way. I might pitch in jokes but I’m pitching in jokes that is in keeping with the project, rather than what I would necessarily do. The things I tend to do are more low-key, more naturalistic, more sort of ingrained in reality. A lot of what the Farrelly Brothers do is broader, more knockabout comic style, which I find very funny but is not my natural go-to place. So I try to slide in with what they would want. It’s silly for me to try and co-opt it into what I do because I’m just there as a hired hand really.
Was there ever talk of you contributing a sketch to the film?
Stephen Merchant: I don’t remember. I feel like there were suggestions I made. I do remember — I’m always quite willing to make it worse for myself. It’s like what would make me more humiliated on the screen. So I feel like I probably pitched ideas like that. But I don’t really remember anybody ever asking me to write a sketch.
Stephen Merchant: I remember going into Halle’s trailer and having a conversation with her beforehand. I was very worried. She’s obviously an Oscar winning actress and has some great heavy weight stuff behind her. My approach is very sloppy. I can’t remember lines for the life of me. I don’t know why that is but I have some sort-of weird block. I have this recurring anxiety, which is me having to do a Shakespeare play. It’s opening night and I haven’t learned the play. And I think I can wing it, can’t I? I have this real anxiety about learning lines. My basic conversation with Halle was ‘Do you mind if I don’t do the lines exactly as they are. I can’t remember them’. And she told me not to worry. ‘Let’s just play around.’ So she was very relaxed about improvising. And Peter I think was just happy to be out of the house. So it was very relaxed. But you know I think she’s probably not experienced with comedy. It was nice that I was working with her on my ground, on my turf. Because if I was suddenly in a dramatic scene with Halle, I’d be scared.
Stephen Merchant: I would be the lead in a movie – but firstly to be the lead in a movie… most of it is they have to finance it. You put me in the lead and no one is going to go see it. But also it’s more what you feel you can carry. I feel comfortable doing the awkward English guy. That’s something I would want to do. And I’ve written some projects with that in mind and down the road, I hope I get to do that. But I’m not a maniac. I know that in end it comes down to what the moneymen will bankroll. So my feeling is it’s best to surround me with other actors that people actually want to go to the cinema and see.
You do have a penchant for playing the unsuccessful awkward romantic? What is it about such characters that attract you to them?
Stephen Merchant: Well actually I’m doing a new series for HBO called Hello Ladies, which is based on my stand up loosely. And it’s actually that – me in Los Angeles failing to seduce women. And the reason I like that so much is 1.) it chimes with what I used to feel certainly when I was younger in my teens and twenties and 2.) a lot of my comic heroes were always people that were failed ladies men whether it be Woody Allen or Bob Hope or any of those kind of characters where [there’s a] gap between what the guy wants to be in life – the kind of James Bond smooth talker – and the real thing. I just find that very funny. I think it’s very human. Everyone knows what it’s like to go out on a bad date or say the wrong thing. It’s just endlessly fun to play that kind of character.