Depressed, stricken with grief and dabbling in drugs: the comic’s latest TV character is his darkest by far… and has made him face up to his own mortality
Ricky Gervais smokes heroin in his new Netflix show. That’s hugely controversial, even for him – and as if to prove a point, he takes the hardest of hard drugs on screen not once but twice. ‘Well, it would be a misrepresentation not to say that heroin is very moreish!’ says the comedian with his familiar, wolfish grin. ‘That’s a line from one of my stand-ups: “Hobnobs, Pringles, once you pop you can’t stop. Same as heroin.”’
In his new show, Ricky Gervais plays Tony, a journalist whose wife Lisa has just died from cancer. Tony can’t kill himself because the dog needs feeding, so he expresses all his anger and grief by saying and doing whatever he wants, no matter who gets hurt
Funny, but the creator of The Office and Extras has made a highly successful second career out of winding people up and causing outrage, whether in his stand-up shows or roasting Hollywood stars at the Golden Globes. Now he’s pushing the boundaries in a different way with After Life, a six-part series about death and grief that’s as black as comedy can be – his character even pays for someone to commit suicide in this show. ‘What’s good is that people can’t accuse me of anything, because they know it’s a character.’
Gervais plays Tony, a journalist whose wife Lisa has just died from cancer. Tony can’t kill himself because the dog needs feeding, so he expresses all his anger and grief by saying and doing whatever he wants, no matter who gets hurt. But the portrayal of heroin is still surprisingly positive, as Tony gets comfort from drifting away, into the arms of a vision of his wife. Can Gervais not see why some people might be shocked?
‘There’s absolutely no comment on heroin per se in those scenes,’ he insists, shaking his head. ‘He’s a man in free fall, who wouldn’t have indulged in the underworld when he was married and happy with his wife, but suddenly he’s hanging about with a sex worker and a drug addict because he doesn’t care about himself any more. If you talk to a hundred heroin addicts, I bet you’d find that 90 of them first tried it after a really bad experience. The thing to take from this is that he tries something he would never have tried, and it doesn’t turn out well. He’s not the right man for heroin. Not that anyone is.’
Gervais admits that his new show is in some way an ode to his partner. ‘Jane dying would be my greatest fear. And I wanted to show that our kind of life is fun. It’s not romantic dinners and being taken along in gondolas. It’s “you can’t wait to get home because it’s a laugh together”’
Still, Tony does appear to walk away from the infamously addictive drug after taking it twice, which seems unlikely. Has the real Ricky Gervais ever done the same?
‘I’ve not indulged in that. I believe the injecting of heroin is the addictive bit, as opposed to smoking a little bit in a joint. I make the guy say that’s no big deal [as opposed to injecting]. I don’t want people to think you can take heroin a couple of times and it’s fine. So is there still a conscience? Yes. And is there still a reality and a bit of research here? Yes.’
Gervais relishes the chance to talk about his work, so he’s open and friendly when we meet in a café near his home in north London. And once you get past the shock tactics, what will emerge from this interview – and from the new show – is a big, surprising change in him: a strong desire to be seen as good now, as well as daring.
The quiff, the Bowie-esque teeth, the quick wit and nervous energy are all still in place, although at the age of 57 his usual dark T-shirt is filled out a little more than it was a decade ago when he was trying harder to be a Hollywood leading man. He won’t mind being challenged about his desire to shock, but then how could he? His character Tony also gives money to his drug supplier in After Life, knowing it will be used for his suicide.
‘I think that’s the much more contentious bit,’ says Gervais. ‘I am in favour of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia.’
Would he do that?
‘I know that I’d want it. I hope when I’m ready to go you can just go to Boots and get something for it. I hope we get more advanced and more liberal, that there’s not all this hate for people who want to do it, all this going: “How dare you?” That’s madness.’
Did he write the suicide and heroin scenes to grab headlines?
‘I’ve never thought of that. Controversy bores me, it gets in the way.’
That’s a change, because there’s no doubt he has pursued it in the past. Gervais made his name with The Office and Extras, but then created a brash stage persona for stand-up tours, taking confrontation to a new level. His repeated use of the word ‘mong’ outraged disability campaigners, for example, until he apologised. Last time I saw him perform, two years ago, he joked about the ‘good old days’ of the IRA and Dr Harold Shipman and how he’d rather have a cup of tea with Hitler than someone with a nut allergy. In the United States he is just as famous for having been a merciless, hilariously rude host of the Golden Globes – joking about Mel Gibson’s drinking to his face, for example – as he is for movies like Ghost Town and Muppets: Most Wanted.
Now Gervais has produced After Life, the first few episodes of which feel like the bleakest comedy ever made. ‘There is a reason for that. The love of your life dying of cancer is the bleakest thing you’ll ever experience, isn’t it? I’m relying on people’s understanding and forgiveness to know that this man – who would be a nightmare to meet and work with – is worth saving.’
The women in this series, including Kerry Godliman as Lisa, Ashley Jensen as a dementia nurse and Roisin Conaty as a sex worker, are the strong ones.
‘Growing up, to me women weren’t the weaker sex. They held it together. They had to be like lionesses,’ says Gervais, who was always very close to his mother Eva when he was growing up in Slough. ‘So I’ve never done the damsel-in-distress nonsense. I always try to make strong female characters, instead of using them as props for men to be funny or heroic. Because that’s just not true. It’s nearly always the opposite in real life. The lionesses do all the work.’
I’ve met his partner Jane Fallon, the novelist, and I’m struck by how similar she is to Tony’s earthy, funny wife Lisa in the new series. Gervais and Fallon got together at university more than 30 years ago, and for a long time both were penniless. Then she became a successful TV producer on EastEnders and This Life before he made The Office. The couple live in a £10 million mansion in Hampstead, but their everyday life is ordinary and they like to be on the sofa by six in the evening with their cat Ollie, a bottle of wine and a box set. Is this series something of an ode to her?
Ricky Gervais in his new series After Life with Penelope Wilton. Gervais says: ‘What’s good is that people can’t accuse me of anything, because they know it’s a character’
Gervais in David Brent: Life On The Road. ‘If I went out on stage as me and sang some of the songs he does and said some of the things I say as David Brent, they’d go, “F****** hell, what’s going on?”’ says Gervais
Ricky Gervais with Kermit and Miss Piggy in Muppets Most Wanted. Gervais says he plans to do maybe one film every seven years
‘Yes – Jane dying would be my greatest fear. And I wanted to show that our kind of life is fun. It’s not romantic dinners and being taken along in gondolas. It’s “you can’t wait to get home because it’s a laugh together”. And watching telly on the sofa together, doing stupid things like running around pretending to be aeroplanes.’
So if you want a glimpse into what his home life is like, watch the flashback scenes in this series. We get an insight into the man Gervais really wants to be halfway through the series, when his character Tony starts to realise the consequences of what he’s doing: he just can’t be cruel and destructive to those around him. His heart’s not in it. The characters start to explore this and Penelope Wilton, who plays a grieving widow, says: ‘All we’ve got is each other. We’ve got to help each other struggle through and then we’re done.’
Is that Ricky Gervais’s secret manifesto?
‘Yeah. I don’t believe in heaven and hell. I think life is its own reward. I do believe that.’
Some people will be surprised by the compassion and good intent that emerges. ‘I understand that, because they don’t know me. What have they got to go on? Me going out on stage being a brash and more confident version of myself and saying the wrong thing for irony. Me having a go at people they probably love at the Golden Globes. That’s the marketing.’
What does he mean?
‘Simon Cowell doesn’t want to go round telling people: “I’m not really as nasty as I seem on The X Factor.” I market the Golden Globes like I’m going to be drunk on the night and I might say anything. I’m never drunk and I’ve written the jokes and practised them.’
Gervais is currently doing small warm-up gigs around the country in preparation for a new stand-up show called SuperNature
And cleared them with his A-list targets?
‘Of course. But I’m playing a pantomime villain. And I think my targets are OK. If you can’t tease the richest, most privileged people in the world, who can you tease?’
His first and most famous creation was obviously a mask. ‘David Brent can get away with murder.’ The vain, deluded character he created for The Office and the movie Life On The Road – including highly dubious songs about gypsies and Native Americans – is forgiven, even as we laugh. ‘If I went out on stage as me and sang some of the songs he does and said some of the things I say as David Brent, they’d go, “F****** hell, what’s going on?” But when they know we’re laughing at David Brent’s attitude, it’s easier. The ambiguity is when I do stand-up and I flip between the two…’
Does he ever edit himself?
‘Every day. I lie awake every night going: “Should I say that? Can I defend that? Is anyone going to take that personally? Is that cruel?” Everything I do.’
Some of the flak he gets does sting. ‘This is what gets to me: I do a routine to about 800,000 people live on tour, it goes on Netflix and is watched by 40 million people, then someone does a snobby blog and thinks they’ve put more thought into a joke than I did. No! I’ve been working on every one of those routines for a year. They’ve been road-tested to millions of people. This is tested on humans!’
Twitter is the main place where such people can reach him. He has 13 million followers but seems to be tiring of the platform. ‘There’s so much noise now. Anyone can be on Twitter, their tweet can sit alongside Richard Dawkins as though it has the same sort of credibility.’
The world has changed, too. ‘It’s harder, because up until a couple of years ago I’d say the wrong thing for comic effect and everyone got it. Now they’re going: “No, there are people who actually think that!”’
Why still tweet then? ‘I use it as a marketing tool. But it’s also more than that. With all the stupidity and lies that are about, Twitter is a way I can go: “That’s actually not true.”’
Gervais is currently doing small warm-up gigs around the country in preparation for a new stand-up show called SuperNature. Does Jane come with him on tour?
‘To all the good places, yeah. She lets me do Ipswich by myself.’
They went to LA together while he was trying to conquer Hollywood. Has he let go of that dream? ‘I’ll probably do a film every seven years, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.’
What does he mean? ‘Hollywood is all Marvel Comics now, or small movies at Sundance. All the film stars want a TV show or a game show or a podcast. I think television has beaten movies, since The Sopranos and The Wire. I don’t watch movies any more. I don’t watch TV any more. I watch foreign dramas from around the world on Netflix [see panel below].’
His priorities are changing. ‘The holy grail for me now is stand-up. Jerry Seinfeld said to me once: “Why do you want to do movies? You’re a stand-up.” I realise now what he means. There’s something so fulfilling about it. You don’t have to let anyone down. I can make it different every night. The tickets sell out in advance so it’s already gone well before I even turn up.’
So he has questioned his whole approach.
‘Do I spend three years making a movie that makes people go “Yeah, that was all right”? Or do I come up with an hour of stand-up I can tour around the world for a year, any time I want, then put it on Netflix and get paid twice?’
Five gripping foreign dramas you must see, by sofa-surfer-in-chief Ricky Gervais
‘We’ve got the greatest TV series from each country in the world over the past ten years to get through before we just watch what’s on after EastEnders, do you know what I mean? The following should only ever be watched in the original language. Never watch the dubbed version. That’s an order.’
Dark, Netflix. ‘It’s not so much where they are, as when they are. The production is breathtaking. As good as TV fantasy gets’
‘This German time-travel serial-killing drama is brilliant. Children go missing every few years. It’s not so much where they are, as when they are. The production is breathtaking. As good as TV fantasy gets.’
4 Blocks Amazon Prime
‘This is about a Muslim immigrant gang in Berlin. The head of the crime family tries to go legit to protect his family, but it gets complicated when he enlists the help of a boyhood friend who is actually an undercover cop. So fast and intense, it’s incredible.’
‘An amazing drama about an undercover Jewish anti-terrorist squad. It depicts a two-sided story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The main guy is working for the Israeli unit undercover inside Palestinian territories. It’s gripping and the danger level is always too high for comfort.’
Before We Die All 4
‘This Swedish undercover cop series is just remarkable. I can’t say too much about it without giving away any twists. You’ll have to trust me.’
Ride Upon The Storm All 4
‘Probably the best thing I’ve seen in the last few years. Danish drama about a dysfunctional family headed up by an alcoholic father. Who just happens to be a crazy priest with a bit of a God complex. Perfect.’
What boundaries does Netflix give him? He couldn’t make shows like these for the BBC, for example, could he?
‘I could, but there would be an awful lot of arguments and me leaving, slamming the door. I like to think Netflix trusts me. They see the scripts. They certainly have a conscience. They certainly wouldn’t want stuff that was genuinely offensive – irresponsible or racist, for example. People have the right to be offended, but I can’t see anything in there where a complaint would be upheld.’
He ponders for a moment. Ricky Gervais may be always pushing and provoking, but the paradox is that in these alarming days, he also wants to be seen as one of the good guys. So this last bit is important to him.
‘I’ve never had a complaint upheld, actually, with all the things I’ve said and done over the years. That must tell people something…’
‘After Life’ begins on Netflix on March 8