Interview: Stephen Merchant – From The Office to The Mentalists

Stephen Merchant mentalists

Stephen Merchant is used to being noticed. At 6ft 7in tall it is difficult for him to be inconspicuous as he arrives at his publicist’s Covent Garden office. Walking into the conference room he ducks to avoid a beam. He has probably been ducking since puberty.

The co-creator of The Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais has been getting noticed much more in recent years, though, with a blossoming screen career. In 2013 he fronted in his own HBO series, Hello Ladies, as a lonely Brit looking for love in LA. He has just finished filming Table 19 in Atlanta with Anna Kendrick, in which he plays one of a group of misfits at a wedding.

Next month he will make his West End stage debut in Richard Bean’s Pinteresque comic drama The Mentalists. He plays Ted, an eccentric Englishman dreaming of revolution in a bleak hotel room he shares with Morrie, played by Steffan Rhodri from Gavin & Stacey.

The part might be yet another outsider for Merchant, but this is still a departure. When it comes to theatre his CV is, how shall we say, somewhat thin since he did his drama A-level while growing up in Bristol. “Yes, I laugh about the cliché of Simon Cowell saying ‘you stepped out of your comfort zone’ but I think it’s true that the more you do stuff the more you look for stuff to scratch a different itch. It’s not going to be long before I start work on a novel and my crooning album.”

What drew him to the play? “I keep meaning to read it,” he jokes, before offering a more considered response. Merchant suggests that Ted could be a cousin of David Brent.

“It’s not like I’m leaping into Richard III. Ted slots into this lineage of comic anti-heroes that go back to Basil Fawlty and Tony Hancock, who have strong ideas about how life should be led. It’s the same with Brent and now with someone like Nigel Farage. I think part of the reason people find Farage so compelling is that there is something innately comic about him.”

He is certainly not doing it for the money. Payments still roll in for The Office, which has been adapted in countries from America to Israel. He has property in Hampstead and Hollywood. “I do have financial security, so everything I do now is largely governed by whether it will be fun, a challenge or different.” He likes the idea of theatre’s gravitas too. “As you get older there’s a point where clowning starts to become a little bit embarrassing.”

Merchant turned 40 last November. Is this his mid-life crisis taking an artistic direction? “Possibly,” he concedes. “I think I increasingly enjoy acting. I want to be wearing a silk scarf, going to Joe Allen’s, the full luvvie. I’m happy to embrace that.”

He hardly needs a silk scarf to make an entrance. His stick insect physique is a blessing and a curse, but he has made it pay. “I was always a fan of people that had a very distinct thing, an iconography, people like Laurel and Hardy and John Cleese. I like the idea that you could draw the silhouette of the person and you would know who it was.”

Interview continues here.

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