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Stephen Merchant: “I see The Outlaws as a low-rent suburban western” | TV & radio


Stephen Merchant, 46, is a writer, producer, director and comedic actor who rose to fame in 2001 with The Office, about life in a paper supply business in Slough. Created by Merchant and his former XFM co-host Ricky Gervais, the award-winning series spawned an American version with Steve Carell, and is credited with starting a new wave of comedy series that have given up on laughs and punchlines in favor of a mock documentary style. . The couple followed The Office with Extras, in which Merchant played the incompetent agent of troubled actor Gervais, amid a feast of celebrity cameos. In 2013, he wrote and starred in the HBO sitcom Hello Ladies, a series based on his stand-up routine that followed an Englishman in Los Angeles and his failed attempts to date. Elsewhere, he has worked variously as a DJ on BBC 6 Music, podcaster and voiceover artist, and appeared in films such as Hot Fuzz and Jojo Rabbit.

Merchant’s new six-part series, The Outlaws, co-created with Elgin James, follows the fates of seven strangers doing community service in Merchant’s former hometown of Bristol. Characters include Darren Boyd’s reactionary businessman, Clare Perkins’ diehard activist, spoiled Eleanor Tomlinson influencer, Merchant’s sad lawyer – and Christopher Walken in his first comedy role. British, as a career criminal fresh out of prison.

The Outlaws starts off as a sweet sitcom, then turns into a comedy-thriller. Did you deliberately disagree with the public’s expectations?
Yes, in part. I like that there is humor in things but what I go to a lot, if I watch TV, are thrillers. So I try to get my cake and eat it. I watched Hitchcock grow up a lot and I liked that there was a wink and humor as well as an element of suspense. My favorite Sopranos episodes have this – there’s the Pine Barrens episode where Paulie and Christopher try to kill a Russian hitman and they find themselves stranded in this snowy wasteland, Paulie losing his shoes. So I like the idea of ​​merging different sensibilities. I kept thinking of The Outlaws as a western, but a truly pedestrian, suburban, low-rent western.

Community service seems an ideal packageuntil you throw different characters together. Have you already done it?
I’m happy to say that I didn’t have any trouble with the law, but my parents worked in community service when I was growing up, so I knew it would be an interesting backdrop. My mother supervised the offenders in placement, as did Diane [the character played by Jessica Gunning], although I like to think my mother was less informal.

Did your mom talk about her job?
She would share little things. She told me there was an old man who was constantly caught stealing cabbages from the allotment gardens, and over time they realized he was feeling lonely so he was committing these petty crimes. to meet new people. A few children I went to school with also crossed its ranks. They were like, “How is Stephen? And my mom was like, “Yeah, he’s in college. Anyway, I notice you stole bikes.

What did it take to rally Christopher Walken?
I flew to New York then took a car to Connecticut where he lives. It was in the middle of winter and it is an isolated house. When I got there, he returned the car, much like Dracula sending the car when the lawyer arrives at the castle. I had never met him before and he has a pretty imposing presence, in part because your associations come from him playing gangsters or psychopaths. The first thing he said to me was [adopts Walken’s raspy, halting tones]: “Would you like to… like a little… of this omelet?” I had just eaten a giant breakfast but thought to myself, “I can’t refuse Christopher Walken’s omelet,” so I sat there stuffing the omelet into an already full stomach. But I think we hit it off. With a lot of actors of his caliber and time, it feels like they’re calling at this point – it’s just a paycheck for them. But he couldn’t have been more connected and invested.

What did he think of Bristol?
Well, I told him before he got that Bristol reminded me of San Francisco, which I don’t think is entirely fanciful when you stop to think about it. It’s very hilly, there is a bohemian subculture and a big bridge. Of course, once we got there, we were filming during the lockdown. So we made all these big claims about Bristol and then he only ever saw it from his car on his way to the set.

Neighborhood Watch: The cast of The Outlaws, with Walken (second from left). Photography: James Pardon

There is a down-to-earth quality to the comedies you write, which often feature ordinary people in austere environments. Do you see yourself throwing everything in the air and writing a space opera?
I’d love to do an action blockbuster, Fast & Furious type of thing, largely because I love watching them and they’re so absurd. But my heart still rests on things that seem to exist in the real world. I’m not particularly a fan of fantasy or The Lord of the Rings. It just seems like there is enough interesting stuff going on in the local pub that I don’t need to start making up elves.

Do you have a hunch when a show is going to be a success?
It is not false modesty when I say that I really have no idea what people want. After our success with The Office, I was like, “Well, I definitely have the Midas touch,” but I’ve since realized that I have no idea. I took part in this Lip Sync Battle show. Who knew the world would want four seasons of a show in which celebrities lip-sync with the songs? In one episode, Stevie Wonder stepped in and mimed a Stevie Wonder song. This is the craziest thing I have ever seen.

Can you tell me about the role of the British serial killer Etienne Port in the upcoming drama Four lives? [The series was filmed two years ago, but has been delayed until the inquests into Port’s victims have been completed.]
It was a real start for me, and not just because I had to shave my head, wear false teeth and have a different accent. There is no way to understand a killer’s thought processes, so you have to create your own kind of analysis of that and your own internal logic. Throughout the trial, for example, which they recreated very closely, he sometimes clearly lies, and then he speaks the truth clearly at other times as well, and the two seem to overlap. So that was a meaty thing to put my false teeth in. It was actually one of the first acting jobs I did and enjoyed, as I often find acting a bit boring. I’ve always thought of myself as a screenwriter and director first and then acting is something I do, either because there’s an obvious role for me or because a funny thing comes along and I think that it sounds like a laugh.

Out of the Office: Merchant and Ricky Gervais first worked together doing a
Out of the Office: Merchant and Ricky Gervais first worked together doing a “made-up job” on the XFM radio station. Photograph: Harry Borden / The Guardian

It will sound sassy but, when you were growing up, what made you think you could be funny?
This is a valid question. I think first because my father was and is very funny. He’s always been a fan of movie comedy in particular, so from a young age I watched Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy. Then later came Fawlty Towers and Monty Python. There was also that awkward teenage thing to control when people laugh at you, it was appealing. I was very tall, so people were always pointing fingers at me and commenting on me long before I got on TV. So I thought, ‘Well, if you want to watch me, I might as well play one way or the other.’

You became known for your work with Ricky Gervais, first on XFM radio station and later on The Office. How did your working relationship go?
Ricky’s job [at XFM] was chief speech officer and he decided he needed an assistant chief speech officer. They were completely made up roles and we were supposed to provide content for DJs, but we weren’t good at it and we ended up going on air and being funny. There was an immediate feeling that we knew what the other was thinking, even though we constantly surprised each other. I think there was ease and confidence, so we could keep going up in the air and rely on each other to just keep the ball in the air.

When you broke up, was it a release or did you feel like you were losing a limb?
It was not a conscious separation of paths, but simply the natural desire to do slightly different things. I went to do my Hello Ladies show, which was based on my stand-up and talked a lot about single life, and it wasn’t something Ricky had been through for long. Since then, I’ve worked with different people and I think being in the trenches with someone else is really helpful. You don’t feel alone and you support each other. When I’ve done things without an accomplice, it’s definitely more stressful.

Do you still love comedy that makes you cringe and laugh?
I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable or uncomfortable – that’s not my ambition. Corn I’m always aware of the social awkwardness and I feel my most scary times are during the times when things go wrong socially, so I think comedy is one way to deal with that.

Do you save these moments for later?
Ah yes, always. I was once at a cool Hollywood party hosted by actress Sarah Silverman where I ate a piece of chocolate that I didn’t realize was filled with a jar. I was immediately obliterated. I’m six foot seven but it turns out I don’t have Willie Nelson’s build. So I got out to get some fresh air and, the next thing I knew, I had just walked through an 8 foot picture window. One minute I was inside, the next I was outside surrounded by broken glass, and the party had gone silent like a saloon bar in an old western.

It sounds mortifying …
It was embarrassing cinematically. But, once I figured out I was okay, my first thought was, this could be great for a scene on a TV show.

The Outlaws starts October 25, 9 p.m., BBC One


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