'The Office' Star Ricky Gervais Back with 'Extras'

Ricky Gervais finds himself in a various of stock costumes on 'Extras'

hide captionRicky Gervais finds himself in a various of stock costumes as Andy Millman on Extras.

HBO

Madeleine Brand talks with actor Ricky Gervais about his new HBO comedy Extras, in which he plays a struggling actor. Gervais is best known as the annoying boss on the acclaimed BBC series The Office.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams.

Comedian Ricky Gervais first became known to American audiences with the hit British television series "The Office." He played an insufferable boss named David Brent. Now Gervais has a new show; it's called "Extras." It's about the people who work as background artists or extras on movies and television shows. "Extras" debuts on HBO this Sunday. Ricky Gervais spoke with DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand.

MADELEINE BRAND reporting:

Ricky Gervais, welcome to the program.

Mr. RICKY GERVAIS ("Extras"): Hi.

BRAND: And it sounds like "Extras" is a lot like "The Office," similar to "The Office" in that it focuses on the similar kind of tedium and mundaneness of life as a bit player.

Mr. GERVAIS: It's similar in sensibilities to "The Office." It's about, you know, excruciating social faux pas and the minutiae of human behavior. But it's different in that Andy Millman, the guy I play, is a little bit more self-aware than David Brent. He's not so much of a putz, but he's got his own demons, one of them being that he wants to be a successful actor and famous. But it's similar in its sensibility, certainly.

BRAND: In that he also wants to be liked and that he's also, as you say, committing all these social faux pas.

Mr. GERVAIS: Exactly. Well, deep down, he wants to be liked, but he's this guy--he's not driven, like David Brent, purely for popularity. David Brent just wanted to be popular and loved. And Andy--he's been trying to be an actor for five years. He's got the D-team around him. His agent is the worst agent in the world, absolutely useless, and he's just the worst. He's got a hapless sidekick called Maggie who's his only friend in the world, really. But it's a real Stan and Ollie sort of relationship. This is the blind leading the blind. She is stupid. It's just out there. Her stupidity is out there, and I can sort of at least look down on someone. So it's an ensemble piece and it's these people rallying against the world, trying to make it.

BRAND: I want to get to that idea that you talked about earlier about this sort of ambition of your character, the ambition of your character and the strivingness of him. And there's a clip I want to play where he's at a party and he's trying to buttonhole the producer of a film he's appearing on as an extra...

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah.

BRAND: ...and they have a very funny back-and-forth where your character, Andy, is pretending that he knows all about Japanese cinema.

Mr. GERVAIS: It's way over his head. He's gotten way over his head. But of course, he has to ingratiate himself and he just wants to agree with everything and appear intelligent and erudite, and he's not. He just wants to say, `Give me the line, OK? Just give me the line.' But he has to go through this whole sort of wooing process.

(Soundbite of "Extras")

Unidentified Man #1: And if you say to someone, `Do you like Japanese cinema?' and they say, `No, can't get into it. It's boring'...

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman): Oh.

Unidentified Man #1: ...you say, `Well, do you like "The Magnificent Seven"?' and they say, `Yes.'

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy) Oh, yeah, I love that.

Unidentified Man #1: Well, it's a remake of "The Seven Samurai."

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy) Oh, yeah?

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy) Oh, yeah. Of course, it is. What, they didn't know that?

Unidentified Man #1: No.

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy) Seven's the clue. You can't just make that up. Boy.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah. Yeah. You know, it really upsets me when everyone comes up with "Seven Samurai."

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy) I love all the number films, really. "Seven Samurai," "Ocean's 11," "Dirty Dozen," which is about as many as I think you can have on screen at once.

BRAND: Ricky, how much of that is improvised?

Mr. GERVAIS: None.

BRAND: None?

Mr. GERVAIS: No, it's all script, same as "The Office." People think "The Office" was improvised, but it's all on the page. We do that because what we found is that in the early days of "The Office," we went in with it sort of 80 percent scripted and we did some things and then we improv'd and we did--you know, and it gets a laugh on the floor because it's the first time they've heard it. But when you get back into the editing suite in the cold light of day, the written stuff is better. Our challenge with "The Office" and "Extras" was to get it completely scripted but to find a cast that could make it look like they were saying it for the first time.

BRAND: And when you're doing the jokes, the sort of back and forth, your specialty that your character--both of your characters, the David Brent character from "The Office" and Andy Millman in this series, "Extras"--both of them love to push something to the point of uncomfortableness. They sort of dig themselves into a hole over and over again.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, I don't know why I'm so fascinated with that. I think it's--I don't know. I'd say it was being British, but it can't be because "Curb Your Enthusiasm" pretty much pushes those same sort of embarrassing boundaries. I'm not a person that's easily embarrassed, but I'm embarrassed for other people.

BRAND: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERVAIS: I can't stand it. I can't stand someone being embarrassed. I don't know why. If someone slips over and the first thing they do is look around, I pretend I haven't seen it. It's just I'm mortified for them, you know. So I know how much embarrassment hurts, and I love it as a theme because you can keep digging a hole. It's just an endless well, embarrassment. It--you can just keep getting it worse until you have to pull back and let the audience breathe. But yeah, I really love digging.

BRAND: Let's listen to a clip where you're pretending to be a Catholic to impress a woman and she takes you to a prayer meeting.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of "Extras")

Unidentified Woman #1: This is Andy, Father.

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy) Hi.

Unidentified Man #2: How are you, son?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy) Oh. Oh.

Unidentified Man #2: You don't have to do that. I'm not a pope.

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy) No, it's old habits die hard. My old priest used to make me kiss him, on the ring. I did on his fing--and there was none of that going on. And that makes me sick, as well, people saying priests are pedophiles and kiddy fiddlers. There's probably--I mean, there probably are. I mean, you probably know some, but there's no higher percentage of perverts in--but you know, they're all in walks of life, aren't they? Not--you know, there are nancies everywhere. But let's not exaggerate the issue, is what I'm saying. I've never been touched by a priest. I've been touched by God. Not in that way, in the heart. But you know--or...

BRAND: It just gets more and more uncomfortable.

Mr. GERVAIS: It's just--it's...

BRAND: I mean, it's really funny. It's just really, really...

Mr. GERVAIS: But that's what being nervous and sort of out of your comfort zone does. It's the same in "The Office" when a black guy comes to the office and all he thinks is `I better show this guy I'm not a racist.' So what does he do? Only talks about black issues. And it's--you know, it's 'cause he's not comfortable with himself, same with Andy sometimes. Now Andy's a lot cooler, but you know, we all stumble, you know. None of us can just go, `Oh, forget it,' and walk out. For a split second, we think we can get away with this. And, of course, you know, when you're caught, you're caught. But that wouldn't be the comedy and the drama if we let him off. We've got to make him squirm.

BRAND: And you have some real stars playing themselves in this series: Ben Stiller, Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Stewart and Kate Winslet. I just found her particularly funny, and surprisingly funny. I didn't know she was a comedic actress. Did you know that?

Mr. GERVAIS: No. Well, I mean, you know, I think the best advice I'd say to any actor when you do comedy is play it straight, which she did. She was playing this sort of quite heartless A-list celebrity who was only doing this film because it was about the Holocaust and she thought that's how you win an Oscar. And she played it down the line. And, you know, we still can't believe what we got the actress in the biggest film ever to say. It's incredible.

(Soundbite of "Extras")

Ms. KATE WINSLET: I've been nominated four times, never won. And the whole world is going, `Why hasn't Winslet won one?' That's why I'm doing it. "Schindler's Bloody List," "The Pianist," Oscars coming out of their ass.

Unidentified Woman #2: ...(Unintelligible). Good luck, then.

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy) It's a good plan.

Ms. WINSLET: Yeah.

BRAND: And the narrative thread--or the reason--one of the reasons of why we keep hanging on and rooting for him is we--it's very simple. We just want him to get a line, right? We just want him to get...

Mr. GERVAIS: I hope so. I really hope so. I hope it's not, you know--'cause, you know, you want to see the people you've sort of come to know and love, or love to hate, you want to see them develop in some way. And I hope people get sort of caught up in that arc.

BRAND: But I love how humble that goal is. It's not, you know, conquering another nation, finding a lost ark, getting the woman; it's just getting one line.

Mr. GERVAIS: Absolutely. It's the small struggle. That's what life is, it's the small struggles. You walk down the street for half an hour, you see half an hour of drama. You don't need convoluted plot lines. You don't need long-lost brothers. You don't need it's set on the future; it's set on the moon. Everyday life is interesting enough, whether it be in an office or being ignored on the set of something supposedly more glamorous.

I've worked in an office. People are sitting down doing their stuff, or pretending to do their stuff, and they're bored. I've heard a car tire screech and 30 people went to the window. That was a piece of excitement in their day, that a car might have had to stop quickly, you know. You don't need dinosaurs, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Ricky Gervais, creator and star of the new HBO series "Extras." It debuts this Sunday.

Ricky Gervais, thank you very much.

Mr. GERVAIS: My pleasure. Thank you.

ADAMS: And thanks to DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand for that interview.

More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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