Ricky Gervais Still Has a Lot to Say About Fame

4-25-16 Ricky Gervais Special Correspondents
Ricky Gervais wrote, directed and starred as Ian Finch (shown here) in "Special Correspondents," out on Netflix April 29. In addition, the British comedian has "David Brent: Life on the Road," based on his character from "The Office," coming to British movie theaters in August. Kerry Hayes/Netfilx

Ian Finch finds out in middle age that he is an underachiever. His wife tells him as much at a company party for the radio station where he works as a sound engineer. She then sleeps with Finch's colleague, Frank Bonneville, and leaves her husband within 24 hours. Even before Finch finds out these last two pieces of marriage-ending news, he says, "I care about everything. And I try my best, but nothing much seems to happen. It's 'cause I'm boring."

Special Correspondents, out on Netflix on April 29, follows Finch and Bonneville as they miss a flight to Ecuador and decide to fake their "on-the-ground" news reports, and a hostage crisis, from an attic in New York's Queens instead.

Finch's demeanor seems a far cry from that of Ricky Gervais, the real-life British comedian who wrote, directed and starred in the new movie. Gervais is better known for his standup comedy, his sitcom The Office, movies like The Invention of Lying and his controversial turns hosting awards shows.

"Because I can see the future, I'd like to apologise now for the things I said at next week's Golden Globes," he tweeted in advance of his fourth go-round at the helm of the Golden Globes in January. "I was drunk & didn't give a fuck." Having established the lack of fucks given, he proceeded in quintessential Gervais fashion to poke fun at the actors in the room, individually and as a group, as well as at NBC and the awards themselves (which he called "worthless"). In doing so, he was honoring what to him is possibly the only "sacred cow," free speech.

Gervais has a second movie coming out this summer featuring his iconic Office character. David Brent: Life on the Road hits theaters in the U.K. on August 19. In a recent interview over the phone from London, he described a current fame-seeking culture he calls tragic and talked about his right to vocalize his atheism. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

It feels a little ironic to be the journalist on the phone interviewing you about Special Correspondents. In the spirit of the movie, should I just make up your answers, maybe add a soundscape?
Well, it's funny, I have picked up quite a few articles saying, "Should we be worried as journalists—is this a terrible slight against media and journalism?" And it's not, really, it's quite a mild satire of journalism and media. That's the sort of backdrop, really. It's bigger than that. It's more about human nature. It's more about lies, and we're all tempted by lies, not just journalists.

Everything I do I sneak in a bit of a morality tale to it. Even my knockabout sitcoms, even my children's books, have a bit of an existential feel to them. Are we doing the right thing? Are we living a good life? And I think the biggest target is fame again, which is an obsession of mine.

The Office was sort of about a normal person becoming a bit famous. It was about TV in itself. I'd watched a lot of docu-soaps where a normal person got their 15 minutes of fame, and it was quite quaint and sweet. But now it's different, now it's insatiable. Now there are people that live their lives like an open wound. Now there are people that do anything on camera 24/7 and let you see. There is no difference now between fame and infamy. People do awful things, and they get rewarded for it because they allow people to film it for our voyeuristic viewing pleasure.

It's, "Look at me, look at me, I deserve more. I don't want to work, really, I just want to be famous because I think that'd make me happy." Well, you know, it only makes you happy if fame is an upshot of what you do, if you're famous for something, if you're famous for something you can be proud of, if you're famous for doing something that makes the world a slightly better place, if you're famous because you created something, if you're famous because you helped someone, if you're famous because you were good at something. Success has to have an element of working hard; otherwise it's not success. And I think kids are being sold a lie.

[Vera Farmiga's character] is the epitome of what's wrong at the moment. [The movie] is also about normal people, nice people, sometimes doing not so nice things because they're pressured, because it's an easy way out. Like my character—I start off the happiest man in the world. I love my little comic books, I love my video games, I've got a nice wife, I've got nice friends, I'm in my favorite job, I'm an engineer. I don't realize I'm an underachiever until my wife breaks this to me, and it's devastating. And now I'm under pressure to do something about it. And it all goes oddly wrong.

You talked a lot about fame. You are obviously quite well-known all over the world now. What have you learned from that?
I've learnt what I knew before I went into it: It's meaningless. Fame per se is nothing. It's not to be looked up to, it's not to be worshipped. There should be no privilege that comes with being famous. I feared it at first because I didn't want to be lumped in with those people that were famous for doing anything.

Now I'm better with it because I can laugh. It's a joke, it's such a joke, and people take it all so seriously. Look at the uproar when I made a few jokes at the Golden Globes. That wasn't a room full of wounded soldiers; [those] were the most privileged people in the world that get millions of dollars every day for playacting. I'm one of them, I'm not saying I'm above them, but I'm saying, What was the uproar? What, they can't take a joke? What are they, prophets? You can joke about anything, including prophets.

So I'm belligerent about that, and I've got more belligerent. I won't have this sacred cow nonsense. Nothing's sacred. Everyone's allowed their opinion. Nothing is above critique. As an artist, I get critiqued all the time. I don't run and cry.

I'm pushing back at this new culture of outrage: People saying, "I'm offended," and we're all meant to go, "Oh oh, sorry then, you're offended. Oh, I won't say it then." No, that's not how it works. Some people are offended by equality, some people are offended by mixed marriage, gay marriage. So what? Offense is a choice. Offense is taken, not given. It's up to you whether you're offended by something or not. Just, you know, grow a pair. So that's how I feel about it. Freedom of speech is one of the greatest honors of a free world, I think. You can't abuse freedom of speech. It's something else. Maybe the only sacred thing.

Speaking of the Golden Globes, one of my colleagues wanted to know why you keep hosting these awards shows that you "clearly don't enjoy."
I do!

What do you enjoy about them?
Oh, I really enjoy them! I have the most fun. I write the jokes, and I can't wait to get out there and say those jokes. Same with my standup. I cherish the gasps as much as the laughs. It's up to them. I can't control how they take that joke, but I can control writing the joke and saying the joke. I don't care if they all start crying; that's not my problem. I can justify everything I've said. I'm not one of these comedians that thinks comedy is your conscience taking a day off. My conscience never takes a day off. And the most important thing for me when anyone asks me to host a show is, Can I say what I want? That's the bottom line.

4-25-16 Ricky Gervais
Ricky Gervais hosting the Golden Globe Awards on January 10. Paul Drinkwater/NBC Universal/Reuters

In addition to Special Correspondents, you have David Brent: Life on the Road coming out soon, based on the character you played in the original British version of The Office. What was it like to revisit David Brent?
I love playing that character. I love playing the idiot being able to say the wrong thing. He thinks he's being really PC, but he's getting it wrong because he's living a lie. David Brent is about the blind spot. It's about how he sees himself and how we see him. And that's really exciting for a viewer—laughing at someone's blind spot about themself. It's lovely.

But the most exciting thing—aside from the music, because I'm a failed pop star—is all the things we spoke about just a minute ago. It's the fact that the world's changed. It's not quaint anymore, this fame—it's brutal and insatiable. When David Brent was at Wernham Hogg, he was the boss, and he was basically the boss of nice people. But now he's in an office, and it's a real dog-eat-dog world. The world has changed; it's full of alpha males and females who get on the apprentice by saying, "I will destroy anyone who stands in my way." He's out of time. This is really Terminator 2, this phase of demanding sort of fame and success.

He was 39 before and now he's 55, and he still wants to be a pop star, because he's been sold that lie. He spends his hard-earned cash trying to live this dream, 'cause everyone thinks they can be famous nowadays. And it's tragic. But it's very funny.

I've read that you were a big fan of David Bowie. What was it like to work with him on Extras a few years back?
Amazing. I cite that as probably the only, the biggest upshot of being famous, that you might get to mingle with people who know who you are so they might talk to you. With David it was very special. He was a hero for 25 years before I met him. And then I met him, and he was wonderful, funny, charming, brilliant, an absolute privilege to know as a friend. I never forgot that David Bowie was my hero, but I also couldn't get over the privilege of knowing David Jones. That was the bigger thrill for me.

What was going through your head when you heard the news of his death?
I was absolutely gutted. What's strange, since we were just talking about the Golden Globes, it was the night of the Golden Globes. I got back to the hotel room, and I think we'd opened a bottle of champagne, and we were going to watch some TV. It was early, I think it was like 12, 12:30. I started seeing these things on Twitter, and I thought it was a hoax. And then his son tweeted something, and I knew it was real, and I was shocked and gutted. Because about a week or two before that I'd been talking to him on email.

It was a really funny email—really funny, daft. We used to send each other really funny emails, like, compete who could be the weirdest and funniest, and he always won. [There was] no clue at all. What dignity. [He] kept it private, creating brilliant music 'til the end. There was no one like him. An incredible artist and a lovely man.

Another co-worker wanted to know why you feel so strongly about talking about there being no God. But what I actually want to know is, Why do you think people are offended when you talk about this subject?
Someone tweeted me once and said everyone is entitled to their own opinion so please shut up about your atheism. And that sums it up really, the irony in that is incredible.

The reason I talk about it, as opposed to keeping it to myself, is because somewhere there's a 12 year-old who's getting beaten up at school or can't tell his parents that he doesn't believe in God. And I want him to know it's OK not to believe in God. There's nothing wrong with you. It's your right to believe whatever you [want]. This thing about secularism—we're the only ones that will protect real freedom of expression and religion, because we view all religions the same. I believe it's your right to believe in any god you want, and I believe it's my right not to believe in any god.

I think it's this bizarre thing that religion somehow claimed good, like you can't be a good person if you don't believe in God, which is ludicrous. Again, someone tweeted me, "If you don't believe in God, why don't you just go out and rape and murder as much as you want?" And I said, "I do, which is not at all." It's really odd that people say that without God I might as well go crazy. Really? So you're only good because you think someone's going to punish you or reward you? That's not good. That's being a prisoner.

I'm good because I want to share the world with my fellow man, you know? It's this myth that atheists have nothing to live for. No, we've got nothing to die for. We've got everything to live for. I think this world is a beautiful place. I want everyone to get on, whatever they believe. You know, atheists aren't going around executing people because they believe in any particular god. That's not happening.

I think you can believe in what you want. I don't run into churches saying, "It's all a lie!" I don't do that. I know loads of religious people, but what they don't do is stone gay people to death for being gay. When you start doing that, it does affect me, religion does affect me.

People ask me things like, "If someone proved there was a God, would you believe in him?" I go, "Well, of course I would." And he'd win the Nobel Prize.

Is there something I should have asked you that I haven't, maybe about Special Correspondents?
Uh, no, I'm just very excited about it being on Netflix, because I think Netflix is going to be the return of the auteur. It's not a lowest common denominator movie that's focus-grouped to death so that everyone comes out and watches it in the first weekend or it's taken out of cinemas. It was the film I wanted to make. It's a grown-up comedy. People who've got Netflix may as well watch it. They're going to really like it. I'm very proud of it. And that's it, really. I couldn't have had a better time making it.

What was different about making something for Netflix rather than for television or movie theaters?
Nothing for me, because I've always demanded final edit, but I've had to do lower-budget movies sometimes to get that privilege and do them in smaller releases. Same with my TV work—to get final edit, you know I didn't go to big networks, I went to cable. Now Netflix comes along, and it's the best of both worlds. There was more money to make it, bigger scale, no interference and more people are going to watch it. But the process is the same.