New Interview: Stephen Merchant

hello ladies

Stephen Merchant's new sitcom, Hello Ladies, in which he plays lonely Brit Stuart Pritchard looking for love in LA, is on Sky Atlantic on Wednesdays at 10pm from October 16. You can read more about it here. I interviewed Merchant recently for the Independent on Sunday. He was in LA having just had brunch, I was in South London with Crocodile Dundee on ITV in the background. Success doesn't seem to have changed him since I first interviewed him a decade ago. He was very friendly and very open. Here is a full transcript of our chat.

BD: Hello, is that Stephen? I thought you would have an assistant to answer your calls now?

SM: Yeah, that's right, I'm a big shot.

BD: Hello Ladies is set in LA but it steers clear of Crocodile Dundee-style fish-out-of-water cliches.

SM: I think it's more to do with the organic nature of how it came about from the stand-up tour when I came to LA and did it here. Aside from a few cultural reference points that I changed it was the same. HBO saw it and suggested it to me as doing it as a sitcom. They responded to the stand-up persona and so because of what people were responding to it didn't seem like a fish out of water angle seemed necessary.

I think it's automatically there but only a whiff of it, more because I don't look right - less to do with being British more to do with being too tall, too pasty white. My teeth are alright but they are not American teeth and my hair is not as thick and luscious. Over here it is dense with beautiful people and most of the men who are aspiring actors are 5ft 5inches so I tower above them and the women. So we wanted that sense that he's out of place, less that sense that he's a guy who doesn't understand the foreign ways. He'd be out of place anywhere, with his physicality and attempts to be a player, he's like an existential fish out of water. 

BD: So not much of it is about Stuart having your distinctive English accent then?

SM: It's also the idea that in the stand up show I was entering the world of showbiz celebrity and it's still quite not working out. Even though I was on TV I still wasn't getting enough action. I didn't want to make him a comedian/actor. He would be out of place in England. I wanted the idea of loneliness in the city and him buying into the fantasy of what he's been told, particularly people who grew up in the suburbs of England, that California is a place of glamour. LA is like the show mMoonlighting, all about women getting out of limousines in mink coats and going into VIP parties. I think he's been sold that fantasy all his life as we all have…

BD: Has a veneer of super confidence. He can talk to women, he's just rubbish at it.

SM: I think it's a confidence that he learnt from books on dating like The Game, how to have confidence, walk into room with a swagger. He knows the theory of it but on the occasions when he is confronted by actual opportunity he is less comfortable he almost elects to be rejected and when they say yes he is more frightened. I read The Game just before we started and it's interesting. There's an undercurrent of misogyny in those books. It's like The Sting, an elaborate con to get women to sleep with you. I think he's learnt from those things so he's got the flat, but its at the base of the Hollywood Hills and he's got the convertible but it's not quite the right convertible. He's in his mid-thirties - I play a bit younger in the show - it's his time, he's thinking why shouldn't I get a crack of the whip…

The problem is there is something ultimately unsavoury and superficial about it and pandering to the kind of man he is who was rejected a lot as a teenager. Men who couldn't date the girls they wanted to or get into the cool parties. I didn't have much confidence so a lot of those books are about seeking revenge on the guys and women who rejected you. He is still competing with the guys he went to school with and they've long moved on.

BD: How much of you is there in Stewart?

SM: I think I suffered when I was in my late 20s early 30s. I had the same impulse of trying to prove yourself. I was awkward stuck out, I was nerdy and there is a part of you that is governed by those experiences, thinking wait until I've made a hit TV show then you'll see. But then you don't want to gloat it's not very nice, that idea of taking revenge is very unsavoury. You just feel it's not a very nice feeling to think you are going to drive past in your nice car. The best revenge is living well.

BD: How does Stuart's love life compare to yours?

SM: I'm a single man in Los Angeles working too hard. But I have my poster across town and I'm hoping to take full advantage of that. It hasn't happened yet. It's very difficult. What I'd like to do is take a date to a bar which overlooks one of my billboards on Sunset Boulevard. But I haven't had the date or the time.

BD: So there is a bit of overlap?

SM: Of course 

BD: Can you see the Hollywood sign from your house?

SM: I can't, but only because this isn't in that part of town. i've got a perfectly nice "crib". Let's not confuse us too closely I'd hate people to think I was as selfish as he is.

BD: What do you like about LA?

SM: One thing I do like about LA is that for all its weirdness I do like its work ethic. There is a very strong get up and go ethic here that I do respond to. I directed five out of eight, episodes and I'm in most of the scenes. I'm not dictatorial but I meddle much to the chagrin of the director. Directing comedy is tricky because one of the things is having that third eye. I did enjoy trying to render the comedy onscreen, that was a thrill, I was protecting the jokes, trying to make the transition from page to screen. In this project I've worn so many hats it was crazy. I'd like to point out that my name being all over the credits is not my ego. There are so many unions you are obligated to put your name down so many times.

BD: After working so much with Ricky Gervais would you call this your solo album? 

SM: I think that's fair to say - it's my ambitious jazz funk solo album.

BD: When did you last see Ricky?

SM: When we did the Lifes Too Short special earlier this year. I haven't seen him for a while but we email all the time. We never talk about our other stuff though. From right at the beginning, maybe I'd occasionally run a stand-up bit past him, but he's always done his stand-up stuff separately from me. When were work together its very intense and collaborative. I don't know why we don't discuss separate stuff.

BD: Is there any rivalry?

SM: I don't think so. I can't speak for him but I've never felt that. It's like this sounds grand but I don't try to compete with other people. I like to think there's enough pie for everyone. The kind of people I'm competing with are my heroes who I know i'm going not fall short of. Woody Allen, Billy Wilder. I thought Blue Jasmine was brilliant. Nobody will ever have a career like that because nobody will be able to make a film unimpeded. If only I could write or direct like them. I never feel like winning a race against my peers and certainly not against Ricky. That seems perverse. I get to bask in the reflected glory of his success.

BD: Your lip-synching on Jimmy Fallon (see below) has caused quite a stir on YouTube.

SM: Yes. I got stopped at breakfast. Boom! Shake The Room I've known the words to that since college, Single Ladies I learnt on the plane going to New York.

BD: If the series doesn't pan out there's always a place for you on Strictly Come Dancing. 

SM: I was thinking you work so hard on things like sitcoms and stand-up and the things people end up responding to are the silly things you do that take ten minutes. 

BD: Like David Brent's Dance?

SM: I think it's because physical stuff gets people in a different way. I've always been a fan of physical comedy, John Cleese, Laurel and Hardy, it kind of hits you in a different way, bypasses the intellects and hits you in the gut. 

There is something about the fluency of Ricky's performance in that he didn't rehearse he just went for hit, it's two takes, wide shot, no close ups of arms, legs, feet, just keeping it like that with the whole body in relation to rest of the room. Maybe if you'd done it tighter I don't think it would have been as funny.

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