England’s reigning comedic superstar Ricky Gervais—who parlayed his oily charm into the hit British series The Office and Extras, as both writer and star—makes his big-screen debut this week with the supernatural comedy Ghost Town, in which he plays a misanthropic dentist who gains the unwelcome ability to commune with the dead. Gervais talked to Sara Cardace.
This movie is very sweet-natured, which seems at odds with your usual persona.
That’s exactly right. It’s a throwback to old-fashioned, nicer times. Like something Jimmy Stewart would have done. I mean, my stuff is pretty spiky sometimes—my stand-up is about as far as you can go with taboo subjects—and it’s nice to be the antidote.
You had to improvise some of the scenes, right?
The best script in the world doesn’t work perfectly when you actually act it out. That’s a law. That’s a given. So you have to play with everything. And the more fun you have with it, the better the finished product. I was filming a bar scene with Greg Kinnear, and we were going off on different tangents, saying crazy things and laughing. We thought, “This is great! This is funny!” But after two hours the director came over and goes, kind of hesitantly, “So, should we do one like it is in the script?” [Laughs] And I went, “Yeah, sure, we can do one like it is in the script.”
In one of your stand-up routines, you talk about the tabloids running bad photos of you with obnoxious headlines. Is the American press any nicer?
They are, except yesterday I was at a press junket with about twelve reporters asking about the film—you know, do you believe in ghosts, all this stuff, very pleasant—and one woman put her hand up and said, “Ricky, I think it was hilarious you playing a dentist with those manky teeth you wore.” I’m like, “Sorry?” And Greg Kinnear went, “Oh God.” And I had to say, “Okay, well, you know, those are my real teeth. Would I wear these teeth to here if they were fake?” And she sort of went red, and everyone was laughing. She probably thought, “I can show them that I’ve noticed something here—I love that subtlety, that he’s put in some really bad, crooked teeth. I’m gonna shine here. He’s gonna say to me, ‘That’s the best question ever. You’re the best journalist in the world.’ ” That was her hope.
You have an insanely popular podcast, The Ricky Gervais Show, which has introduced the cultishly adored Karl Pilkington. According to The Guinness Book of World Records, it’s the most downloaded podcast. In fact, you’re called the Podfather!
There’s an audiobook coming out on the 16th of September, and I can’t wait. I see my real job now as—never mind The Office, Extras, film career, Emmys— I want everyone in the world to know who Karl Pilkington is. Because he’s sort of a messiah, and I think only I know that.
In theaters September 19.