Ricky Gervais (‘After Life’) on how ‘everyone’s grieving’ and the freedom to say what you want [Complete Interview Transcript]

Ricky Gervais is back with another dark comedy series, “After Life,” in which he plays a grieving widow who now feels free reign to say and do whatever he wants. Gervais is a two-time Emmy winner for “The Office” and “Extras,” with 24 nominations in all.

Gervais recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws about his approach to “After Life,” why he loves doing only two seasons of his shows and his feelings on award shows. Watch the exclusive web chat and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Ricky, I just put you into my Emmy predictions for Best Actor. Tell me why I’m not crazy to be predicting you.

Ricky Gervais: Well, what’s your track record? For all I know, you might always get it wrong and this is a big joke. This is a big jinx.

GD: I’m pretty good. I’m sometimes a good luck charm for certain contenders.

RG: Honestly, I don’t know and you mustn’t think about it. It’s lovely to be thought of, particularly by your peers and it is a big award. Whatever you think of awards, it’s the biggest TV one, along with the Globes. As awards go, it’s up there and it’s lovely. But you just mustn’t think about it because I don’t know how many programs are made, hundreds? If you’re even thought of in the top 10, that’s amazing. I think people don’t realize how hard it is to make a program, then how hard it is to make a good program and then how hard it is a make a program that’s good and gets recognition and then to make a really good program, it’s really hard. It’s crazy. I think my best shot seems to be, statistically, Lead Actor in a Comedy. I think I’ve been nominated for 24 Emmys. I’ve won two. One was for Program, “The Office,” and one was for Lead Actor in “Extras.” I’ve won three Globes. One was for Program, “The Office,” and two were for Lead Actor, one in “The Office” and one in “Extras.” I think BAFTA’s the same. I think I won seven BAFTAs, three were for Program, four were for Lead Actor in something. So I think it is my best shot. What I take from that is that I make these programs and they’re really good but I win the awards and that means, to me, that the rest of the cast have always let me down (laughs). So everyone else is the weak link. That’s what I take from this.

GD: I see you’ve got one of your Emmys behind you so that’s sort of a good luck charm.

RG: Is it, though? You see a busker, someone who’s got loads of fivers and they go, “Oh, I’m popular. Everybody loves me.” Then others hide that and go, “Oh, I’m poor. I’ve only got a pound.” So which is it? People see that and go, “He’s already got a few” or they’ll go, “He’s got an Emmy. Let’s give him some more.” So who knows?

GD: Tell us a little bit about this show, “After Life” and where the idea for it came from.

RG: Unlike all my other shows, particularly the sitcoms, I didn’t have the character first. Everything I’ve ever done usually comes from a character that somehow inhabits me. David Brent existed before “The Office.” Derek existed before “Derek,” etc. With this one, the concept came first. I was on tour. I was going around the world with “Humanity” and I thought, “I’m only working an hour a night. I should maybe write a show,” and I thought, “What should I do? I’ve done this, I’ve done that.” You change, you get older, the world changes. I think the best programs come when you’ve got something to say. You’ve gotta get something off your chest. It mustn’t be preachy and it mustn’t be obvious but I think if you can sneak in things that annoy you or you like or you thought about, I think it makes it a little more tangible. The first thing I thought of was, “Imagine if you lost everything and you thought about killing yourself but then you didn’t. Everything else is a bonus.” You can suddenly do and say what you wanted ‘cause you’ve always got suicide to fall back on. It’d be like a superpower. That was the seed of the idea. Then you think, “What’s losing everything? The love of your life.” Everything came from that and the first idea, I think, was obviously it would be fun that, as an audience we laugh for two reasons, I think. One, we live vicariously through this man going around saying exactly what he wants because we all wish we could do that a little bit. Sometimes we wish we could say, “I’ll tell you what I think of you” and we don’t because we worry about the consequences or it’s too much trouble. The other thing we laugh at is a staple of comedy, which is it’s usually a normal guy trying to do something he’s not equipped to do. Tony, he’s trying to become a badass. He’s trying to become a psychopath so he won’t feel anymore and he can’t do it ‘cause he’s burdened with conscience. He’s basically a nice bloke still. So that’s the dilemma. Can he become this verbal vigilante to make himself feel better? That’s the big question. The real big question is, “If you lose everything, is life still worth living?” That’s the big question. That’s the meta question but the fun question is, “What can you get away with?”

GD: Yeah, I think for me the most surprising thing about this show, you’ve always mixed in bits of drama into your comedy and bits of pathos but this is a show that feels more like a drama with bits of comedy into it because of how serious the subject matter is.

RG: I agree with you. I do agree with you but over the last few years, I’ve realized that there’s no difference. If you’re dealing with realism, there’s no real tangible difference between comedy and drama. Real life is a mixture of everything. You’re having a laugh, then you find a lump. You’re having a bad day then something good comes of it. Every day is like that. Everything is yin and yang and what you do with it. If you’re dealing with realism, fiction is like that. Really, you do change and you wanna tackle more serious subjects and darker subjects ‘cause you want to challenge yourself and the audience. Comedy’s always joked about death and tragedy. That whole thing, comedy is tragedy plus time. It really is, it’s just usually watered down and sometimes with a laughter track. I also think the reason why things like this don’t always get made is because everyone starts off with good intentions. They say, “I’m gonna be the bravest, most uncensored, un-compromised ever,” and then a network says, “If you take out a few of the swear words we can put it earlier,” and, “You shouldn’t do that because they’re very vocal and we won’t have to write letters back,” and gradually you go, “Oh, okay.” You take the compromise. I think a lot of it is broadcasters are scared of media and scared of social media and scared of the complaints and they’re second-guessing an audience. They’re saying, “I think it’s a bit too much for the audience.” What they mean is, “We might get one complaint which is blown out of proportion and we’ll have to write a letter or cancel it or say sorry.” Everyone is talking about these subjects, in factories, in schools, in playgrounds, at their home. They’re all talking about it and they’re all making jokes about it. So why do we think they can’t take it when it’s put on telly? They can. The more you pander to this myth, the more watered down and safe and homogenized TV and all art becomes. I’ve always been a bit defiant but I think as I get older, I don’t wanna get bigger or richer or win more awards. I wanna be braver. I wanna be less compromised, more honest. I wanna be more honest and I wanna patronize the audience less and less.

GD: So then going off of that, was this role particularly challenging for you, tapping into that kind of grief and anguish?

RG: I don’t think it was because as I say, it’s a very clear-cut thing that he starts off doing, and that’s easy. Even if I’m writing it for myself, when the direction’s very clear and pure, it’s easier to do. The more complex it gets, it’s harder ‘cause you have to tell the audience what you’re thinking. You have to say, “This character’s acting like this but he’s not thinking like this” and that’s the challenge. it’s easier when you do a fake documentary about the office because we can have a talking head showing what David Brent thinks and then we show, “Actually that’s not what’s happening at all.” So it’s a little bit harder but as an acting challenge, no, because again, it’s real. I think it’s easier to be real as long as you haven’t got symptoms. That broad comedy still exists. They’re doing a funny voice or they’re being over-shocked. That still exists and it’s funny. It’s great and they get 20 million viewers but it’s just not what I do. I think doing less is more in realism, if you know what I mean. There’s bits where the challenge was really what the audience think. Are the audience gonna be okay with me saying horrendous things to a child and then feel sorry for me 30 seconds later? Again, if you do it properly and you explain what’s happening, they go with it. They get it.

GD: Let me just ask you about the audience reaction to this show because I think it taps into something that everybody’s gone through. Obviously, everybody loses somebody at some point. What has the reaction been like from audiences?

RG: That was the surprise. To answer your first question, I’ve never had a reaction like it. I don’t just mean the size or the frequency of reaction because that could be a symptom of how many followers I’ve got on Twitter or the fact that Netflix has got 150 million subscribers. There’s no broadcaster like it and it’s constant. It’s not that. It’s the intensity of the reaction and you said it. People come up to me and they say, “I didn’t know whether I should watch it or not ‘cause I lost my mom last week.” The overwhelming thing is that everyone’s grieving. Everyone’s grieving now or were or recently or distant past, and of course. Everyone walks around thinking, “I’m grieving, people don’t wanna hear that,” but everyone’s grieving. The older you get, the more you’ve got to grieve about. If you do a grownup thing about this stuff, grownups have been through a lot. Just being alive is hard work and you go through it. When you’re young, you lose your grandparents. When you’re my age, I’ve lost both parents. Then you start losing friends and then siblings and then the love of your life, which is the top of the tree, I think. Yeah, that’s been the overwhelming thing that I took from this. Everyone’s grieving and everyone that was grieving liked it and thought it helped them and they thought it was dealt with well. That’s lovely. You shouldn’t think of that because you shouldn’t be dictating to what’s right and wrong ‘cause I don’t think art has a political motive or has a responsibility as such, but as a person, I do like the fact that it’s nice for people to say it helped. It’s been amazing.

GD: You’re working on the second season right now. Two questions. Number one, can you tell us a little bit about what we can expect and also, you usually only do about two seasons of these shows that you do. Is this gonna be the end of it or are you leaving the possibility open for more?

RG: I do like doing 12, 14 episodes. I think that’s great length. Put everything in it and have nothing left, if you do everything yourself. If you’ve got 100 writers, then you can do more. If it’s a factory, you can do more. This is a cottage industry so six episodes to write, film and promote, that’s a year. By the time they’ve seen it, they think I’ve just churned it out yesterday. It’s been a year. I have fallen in love with this. I’ve always stopped early, maybe too early but I think that’s right. Maybe I’m getting too old to start again so I might milk this more (laughs). If you start writing a series and it takes you a week to think of half an episode, you’ve ran out, and this flowed. I’ve nearly finished the second season ‘cause there’s enough to go. The second series should be the best ‘cause you’ve done all the hard work even down to the admin of you’ve cast so you know who you’re writing for. You know the audience reaction. They like this character. They love this character. They don’t like that character too much. You know so much and you can hit the ground running. There’s no setup. It’s just pure fun and drama. Without any spoilers, everyone’s back, apart from Julian, the drug addict, for obvious reasons. Everyone’s back and a few added surprises. The only spoiler I’ve been given, because I know how traumatic it is, the dog does not die. That’s all I’ll say. The dog does not die.

GD: I’m glad to hear that because as a dog owner myself as I watching this, I found myself hugging my own dog close to me.

RG: Dogs will save humanity. It’s a representation of something much bigger, which is another thing that people have told me. I’ve met people that said, “My children got me a dog after my wife died.” That’s so sweet. I can talk about dogs all day. But yeah, it is important. One of the themes of this was that the ordinary things keep you alive long enough to think about stuff. You do have to feed the dog. However sad you are, you have to feed the dog. It’s not the dog’s fault. You’ve gotta walk the dog, however depressed you are. You’ve gotta walk the dog. You’ve gotta go to work and earn enough money to get drunk. You’ve gotta deal with the people ‘cause that’s the job. All these mundane, ordinary, annoying things, they will keep you alive.

GD: Absolutely. Before I let you go I wanted to ask you about something. You’ve hosted the Golden Globes three times.

RG: Four.

GD: Four times? My brain’s not quite working this early in the morning. I wanted to ask you what you thought about the Oscars went hostless this year and they’re talking about going hostless again. What do you think about that as somebody who’s famously hosted an award show?

RG: Honestly, I don’t watch award shows. If I’m not there winning an award or handing one out or insulting everyone in the audience, I don’t watch them. They’re not a spectator sport. I tried to make them one. I don’t know. I remember one of the awards I won was during the writers strike and someone at the Hollywood Foreign Press just read it out. They just went, “Winner, ‘Extras,’ Ricky Gervais.” I was called. I was in bed in London. “You’ve won an award.” “Brilliant.” I think that’s the way to do it.

GD: I remember watching that on “Entertainment Tonight,” I think it was. You can’t miss these things if you’re like me but it was a very odd experience.

RG: Did the guest presenters do any schtick?

GD: It was just an “Entertainment Tonight” type thing where these correspondents read out. They said, “Okay, now the next category is Best Director and here are the nominees, and the winner is Julian Schnabel” and they would just move on from that.

RG: Was there whooping? Was there cheering? Did people go up and make funny speeches?

GD: There was nobody there. It was literally like a news conference.

RG: No, I mean this year’s Oscars.

GD: Oh, this year’s Oscars, I’m sorry. It was all the banter. There was all the usual stuff. There just wasn’t a host there to give the opening monologue. They got Queen instead.

RG: As a host, what did I do at the beginning? I did three and a half minutes. I know it gets the headlines because I’m saying awful things about famous people but it’s hardly a dent. I come out and do a couple things with Mel Gibson, usually. You know what? It doesn’t matter, really. These awards, they’re a nice pat on the back. Some people love dressing up and going on the red carpet in sweltering heat at 3:00 in the afternoon. I think it’s sad why there was no host. I think the controversy always gets in the way of things. I think we have to remember that most of the world population don’t care. People come up to me and they say, “I loved you when you hosted the Oscars” or “I loved you when you hosted the Emmys.” I don’t even correct them ‘cause it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that it was the Golden Globes. They saw someone that was quite funny, whatever. They’re getting on with their lives. These people are sitting at home and they’re watching it. There’s bigger problems. There’s no starving Africans going, “There’s no host!” (Laughs.)

GD: Ricky, thank you so much for your time and congratulations on the show. I know I’ve heard from a lot of people who really love it, myself included. Thank you so much for your time.

RG: Thank you, and thank you for sticking your neck out. This could put your average down.

GD: I know. I hope you pay off for me.

RG: I haven’t got an Emmy campaign. I don’t do anything. I’m in England doing the second series and on tour. I’ve got nothing. So please, tell people. I don’t even know who these Emmy voters are. I’ve never even met one! Who are they?

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