Saturday 19 October 2019

Stephen Merchant has his spandex moment

With his directorial debut in cinemas, Stephen Merchant spoke to Donal Lynch about ambition, disappointment and why he eschews therapy

Jack Lowden and Florence Pugh in 'Fighting With My Family'
Jack Lowden and Florence Pugh in 'Fighting With My Family'
Stephen 'the director' Merchant and producer Dwayne 'the Rock' Johnson

On the face of it, Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, and Stephen Merchant, aka Ricky Gervais's comedy sidekick on The Office, would not seem like obvious collaborators.

One is one of the most famous action movie stars of our time, the other is a cerebral and bespectacled comedy writer. But when Johnson decided to turn the story of England's first female World Wrestling Federation star into a movie, he decided that Merchant was just the man to bring some storytelling to the spandex.

Incredibly, it works; the resultant movie - Fighting With My Family - is touching, uplifting and very funny. It's been described as 'Rocky meets the Royle Family' and the standout performance from young Florence Pugh lifts the film out of the realm of sports cliches and into something dramatically satisfying.

Over tea at the Merrion hotel, Merchant tells me it made him a fan of a spectacle - one hesitates to say sport - that seems to involve equal parts athleticism and panto.

Stephen 'the director' Merchant and producer Dwayne 'the Rock' Johnson
Stephen 'the director' Merchant and producer Dwayne 'the Rock' Johnson

"Doing this film blew up a lot of my own snobbery towards wrestling. The family in the film are so passionate about what they do and there's so much choreography and stunt work involved, I was sort of evangelised in making the film. The Rock and myself had worked on a film together years ago and he got in touch. They wanted to make something that was funny and I hope I was able to do that."

Merchant's comedy pedigree is, of course, impeccable. In addition to The Office, he also co-wrote Extras and has had a critically acclaimed stand-up career. His milk bottle lenses and enormous frame - 6'7" he says - give him a sort of inbuilt physical comedy (witness his hilarious chat show turns) and his soothing Bristol burr seems to lend itself to laconic observations.

Being funny, was, he says, something that seemed to come naturally in his youth.

"In your teenage years you feel awkward. I was always too tall. I wasn't really bullied, I wasn't this cowering wreck, but being funny did seem to be in my DNA, a natural way of communicating. My Dad was always very funny. It was a social thing, a way he put people at ease and I probably inherited that. When I was at school I would also use humour as my sort of secret weapon. It meant I could control when people laughed at me."

As a teenager he wanted to be this generation's John Cleese.

"It was quite hard explaining that to the careers' counsellor. It was like saying 'I'd like to be Mozart or David Attenborough'. It seemed a crazy, and almost arrogant ambition."

After school he studied film and literature at the University of Warwick and began performing at local comedy clubs in Bristol. He was not a natural at stand-up, he says.

"A lot of comedians feed off the crowd and love the validation of that and, dare I say it, like hearing the sound of their own voice. I have a bit less of that urge. I enjoy stand-up for the puzzle of it. I think that's why I ultimately felt more like a writer."

He had dabbled in student radio at Warwick and in 1997, aged 23, he applied for a job at a London radio station - where he was interviewed by Ricky Gervais. "I sent in my CV and he invited me in and it was unlike any other job interview I'd ever had. He conducted it over a pint and we just sort of hit it off and were laughing from the off really. He said to me: 'I've sweet-talked my way into this gig - and I don't really have much experience of radio. You've done a bit of radio and if you can do the lion's share of the work we can work together'. And he was as good as his word."

Gervais was more than a decade older than Merchant, and more settled in his life. "It was kind of like having an older brother. I had a youthful, hardworking ambition which sort of fused with his laid-back sense of 'let's do it, and if it's good, it's good'."

The Office came, he says, from a series of observations about the corporate world and middle management, which they developed for their own amusement. "Then I had to go off and do this training exercise for the BBC and I decided to work that experience into what would become The Office. We gave David Brent a name and gave him an office and it became a more formed thing. We weren't thinking grandly - we thought it was a sitcom."

The runaway success - critical and commercial - of The Office might have been daunting in its own right, but Merchant says they were preserved from feeling the burden of expectation by a certain naivety.

"We ended it when we did because we had run out of things to say and we didn't want to repeat ourselves, or let it drift into becoming a parody of itself.

"It was also very labour intensive because it was really just the two of us doing it and one series would take a whole year or longer. We were naive: we thought: 'This is the first thing we've done and look how well it turned out. We must have a golden touch.' We realised only after how difficult it is to connect in such a big way with audiences."

But, in fact, they would continue their success together, collaborating on another mockumentary, Extras, which was another huge hit for the BBC.

"After that I said there's no way we could top this. It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime thing to so get under the skin of people. Well, maybe twice in a lifetime."

He's being modest. An Idiot Abroad - the comedy travelogue which Gervais and Merchant created for Karl Pilkington - was another incredible critical success, burnishing the idea that Merchant could do no wrong, comedically speaking. Perhaps that sense of nothing left to prove caused a slight waning of ambition. In the intervening years, he's done a mixture of radio, stand-up and sitcom (he wrote a short-lived series called Hello Ladies) about a web designer who chases beautiful women - but never again seemed to strike such a rich seam of televisual gold. It's been a decade since his last notable film turn and Fighting With My Family is his directorial debut.

"There are disappointments and frustrations in life, mainly to do with my own limitations," he says of the intervening years. "I always have this feeling that I'm reaching for more than I'm capable of."

His girlfriend is the American actress Mircea Monroe and they split their time between England and LA.

"I do feel quite out of place in LA but over time I've made a lot of friends there," he says. "They don't think of me as eccentric, there are far more cringey people than I am, they're the ones with the shrinks and all that stuff.

"I've never had a shrink, I'm pretty even-keeled. I'm never that depressed but I'm also never that excited, I just trundle along really."

'Fighting With My Family' is in cinemas nationwide now

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