James Corden interview: theatre, criticism, Mike Leigh, John Hughes and more
As he launches his autobiography, we talk to James Corden about Back To The Future, his love of theatre, Gavin And Stacey, Steve Martin and forgiving Robert De Niro...
I had just 24 hours to read James Corden’s new autobiography, May I Have Your Attention, Please?, before I was due to interview him. It’s a book that gets off to a bit of a bumpy start before it finds its feet, and it’s punctuated with a number of apologies to assorted people.
But, I thought it was a really, really engaging read. I wasn’t sure what to expect from an autobiography of a 32-year-old, but his in-depth look back at his theatre work, a very, very funny account of a rugby match, a fascinating insight into working with Mike Leigh, and the incredible story of The History Boys are among the many, many highlights.
It’s something of a treat, with Corden dissecting his work, discussing his critics, and showing off the many facets of his character, warts and all.
The current newspaper serialisation of the book does it no favours, with the headlines being around Corden’s time in the company of Lily Allen. There just happens to be a lot more to it than that.
Which made the following interview a really interesting one to do. Here’s what Mr Corden has to say...
It’s probably best to tell you from the start that I’ve got a bone to pick with you.
It about page 308 of your book. I like the fact that you start each chapter with recommended film and music to enjoy it with, but I’ve got to take umbrage with the chapter where you say “Best film to watch alongside:”, and you write, “Back To The Future (not the third one)”. So what’s wrong with the third one?
I just don’t think it’s as good as the first two. The truth is, that I’ve only seen the third one once, whereas I’ve seen one and two a lot. So, do you know what, I’ll bow down to your superior knowledge, given that you’ve seen it more!
I think I only remember how I felt when I went to see it at the cinema. And that was I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first two. It’s the cowboy one, isn’t it?
Yeah. It’s brilliant.
Is it really? Because now I feel bad! I should go back and watch it.
There are loads of homages to classic films and westerns in it, and there are mirrors of shots from the first two films, too.
It depends how nerdy you want to get about it all. I think it’s massively underrated.
I think I didn’t really appreciate it as much as I should have done. I’m definitely going to rewatch it now!
Moving onto your book, then. I think the thing for me that really came across was where you talked in-depth about your work in theatre, which seems to be a side of your work that not too many people fully appreciate. You certainly come across as happiest, professionally, when doing either theatre or writing in the book. Would you say that’s a fair reflection?
Yeah. I think they’re the two times where you’re allowed to be the most creative, I think. In the theatre, you get to rehearse for five, six, sometimes seven weeks. And then opening in a show, like the play I’m doing now, it’s wonderfully rewarding. As is writing.
The truth is that the thing I enjoy the most is writing something, and then being in it. Because you really get to be there at every stage of that thing’s life. There’s nothing quite like writing a line months ago, and then you’re on a set somewhere that looks exactly as you described it, and someone delivers the line in a better way than you ever imagined it could be. That would happen on our show [Gavin And Stacey] quite lot. We had such a good cast, and they would lift it 50 per cent sometimes. I’m absolutely at my happiest there.
There’s one picture that you paint in the book, of you getting to the theatre early, before a show, and sitting on the stage looking out into the empty auditorium. It struck me, reading that, that it’s theatre you’re most in awe of?
I still do it now.
You’re taking your play [One Man, Two Guvnors] around the country at the moment, before moving it to London?
We started at the National, and we start a week after that on the tour, and then we come back and go to the West End.
Is that strange in any way? Because at the point you’re writing the book, your son had just been born, and it’s quite interesting that the first project you do afterwards is straight back into theatre. And it’s like you’re regrounding yourself?
Yeah, although I got offered the play a long time before I knew I was going to have a baby. I think it was over a year before we started it that I agreed to do it. Just because of schedules, and things like that.
The thing is, some people said it was a strange choice to go and do this play, and it never really crossed my mind not to. What you want, or what I want, is a varied and full career, that’s all. It’s about nothing more than that. I’m overjoyed, and blown away by how the play I’m doing at the moment is being received. What this has taught me is that I don’t want to really go more than two years, if I can, without doing a play, because you lose those muscles sometimes. It’s such a wonderful place to be.
It’s muscles as well, perhaps, that people don’t expect you to have, or that they’ve forgotten that you had. You talk in the book about when three projects got terrible reviews within a month of each other: your sketch show, your first time hosting the Brits, and Lesbian Vampire Killers. Do you still pay a price for that, do you think?
I think I do, and I don’t really know why. I’m unsure as to why that is. But people only ever ask me, and they don’t ask the people who write those things, you know?
I think I’ve been very honest about how I feel about those projects. But I’m not the first person to have been in a film that was very good, and underperformed. And I’m not the first person to have made a sketch show on BBC Three, and it got reviewed badly. And I’m certainly not the first person to have hosted the Brits and not go down very well.
But I am unsure... that was in 2009, and I think that the work I’ve done since then has been good. I think that the third series of Gavin And Stacey was good, which was written after that. So, I don’t know. I wonder if it’ll ever go. If someone’s not really liking you, you’re probably not doing anything, is the truth.
Do you get to a point where it’s c’est la vie, especially when you’re on something like Twitter, which puts you as close the people who dislike you as like you as it’s realistically possible to be in the modern world? I love the bit in the book where The History Boys director Nicholas Hytner accurately predicts individual critical reaction to it. I just wonder if that helps?
The thing that I take is that far greater people than me, who you would consider to be absolute national treasures, have endured far worse criticism than I will ever go through.
Someone like Gary Barlow is a prime example. Someone who is a national treasure, who you’d say is loved by everyone, and the criticism that I’ve ever had doesn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg of the things that have been said about him. Or David Beckham.
Or, you know, I was lucky enough to go to dinner once with Tom Jones. And I was asking him about Elvis Presley. I asked him for stories, and he said, the funniest thing is, before Elvis died, all he was getting was negative press. People were just out to get him, and now, no one remembers those things.
When Woody Allen dies, no one will talk about Match Point. They’ll talk about Manhattan.
You can’t think about it. And, I would love to know quite why people would think it was okay to behave in such a manner when they go to work. But that’s not for me to think about. All I can do is try and do my best.
There’s one piece of criticism that you got in the book, when you talk about working with Mike Leigh. And I don’t think anyone’s really written about working with Mike Leigh as explicitly as you do here. The bit where he confronts you with a very, very honest assessment of the show Fat Friends, I thought was really stark. How do you feel when with Mike Leigh, who you clearly idolise, your introduction to him is him saying that he really doesn’t like the show that you’re in?
That’s fine. Because that’s a very different thing. Criticism of a show is very different to criticism of a person and their abilities. And that’s a line which I think people confuse.
Of course, anybody’s free to criticise a show and not like it. We all like and don’t like things, and it would be boring if we all liked the same thing. What Mike didn’t do was dismiss anyone involved in that show as not being talented. It’s just not a show that he liked. Also, if Mike had liked that show, it would have been doing something wrong, because it was a prime time show on ITV, and I don’t think Mike Leigh is a target audience for it.
That’s the fine line. I’ve been lucky enough in the past year or so to have had some wonderful reviews, in this play, for example. But I am just a person in it. I am just a cog in a wheel. It can only be as good as the script in your hands and the people you are working with. So this play, being a success, isn’t down to me. In the same way that Lesbian Vampire Killers underperforming or being reviewed badly isn’t down to me, either.
Michael Owen said a great thing once. He said, you’re either the greatest footballer in the world, or you’re shit. And the truth is neither of those things is true. And that’s the same for me. None of those things are true, the good and the bad. I try to take them with a bag of salt.
I loved reading about the process you want through on Mike Leigh’s All Or Nothing, which you describe as quite lonely in the book, which I thought was interesting in itself, given that you were in the middle of so much that you wanted to do at the time.
Where did that loneliness come from, and if you hadn’t learned so much about character creation from Mike Leigh, where do you think that would have left Gavin And Stacey?
I think if I hadn’t have done any of things... in some ways, I feel like all the things that I did before Gavin And Stacey were all leading to that point. Working with Shane [Meadows, TwentyFourSeven] was as beneficial. There’s something incredibly inspiring when you’re eighteen years old and you’re watching a film director who’s twenty four. You go wow, he’s just doing it. He’s not waiting around, he’s just doing it.
The same with Mike, when you realise that character and story are all that really matters. Good characters, and a good story, and that’s it. So, yeah, it was all of that. And then working with Alan [Bennett] and Nick [Hytner], I feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with so many people. I do feel like they’ve sort of shaped, and some of the work that I’ve done.
The parts of the book where you talk about the stage and film productions of The History Boys are terrific, I think. It really captures a snapshot of a stage and a time, that just by nature of the roles you were playing you just can’t ever go back to.
And how seamlessly the film came about. I remember reading Nigel Hawthorne’s book, where he talks about having to go and play a part in Demolition Man he didn’t like to help get The Madness Of King George film made [the previous Alan Bennett/Nicholas Hytner collaboration]. Those parts about The History Boys feel like a real freeze frame of your life.
Absolutely. And the greatest thing about making that film for us is that often you do a play, and it’s on, and if you do well, it sells, and if it’s sold out, perhaps 30,000 people will see it. And that’s it, and when it’s done it’s done. All you’ve got is your memories of it, and perhaps a programme.
Whereas the greatest thing about us shooting that film is that forever now we have this thing, with a box, and a cover. And we can pull it out and I think it’ll be really interesting in our 50s and 60s to watch it, and go oh my God, that’s what we did. That text, those lines, those words. It was a magical thing to be involved in.
The first question I was originally going to ask you, and this was before I’d picked the book up, is that I think 32 is a very young age to write an autobiography [he's 33 now], and I didn’t understand why you’d tackle it now. And then I read the book. It makes sense, that you appear to have lived through two or three lifetimes in 32 years, had to put up with a forcefield of criticism thrown in your direction, and a forcefield of praise. It’s some cocktail.
But it got me thinking. You say in the press release that you should never have been this guy. You’re not the cool, good-looking boy at school. And it struck me that the first 30-odd years, you’ve been pushing against what people don’t think you can do. But now, you’re proven you can. So what changes? What do you push to do next?
I think you’re probably right. I’ve never really thought of it like that, as pushing against stuff. I’ve never really seen it in such a black and white way.
The trick is to try and keep challenging myself, really. I’m writing a new series for BBC Two, which is a comedy thriller called The Wrong Mans. It’s so up Den Of Geek’s street, you have no idea. It couldn’t be further away from the world of Gavin And Stacey, and the trick is to keep trying to do those things. I’d love to just carry on, really.
The truth is that for all that stuff you mentioned there, the good and the bad, I’m incredibly grateful for it. For all of it, I truly am. Because a lot of that stuff that’s mentioned in the book, I did bring a lot of that on myself. I wasn’t really behaving in a manner...
I got asked yesterday if I thought I’d been misrepresented badly. And all I could say was I think I was representing myself quite badly at the time, both personally and professionally.
Right now, sat here, I’ve never really been happier, both personally and professionally. And the trick is to push the boundaries of what you can do, safe in the knowledge that you will make mistakes. You can’t make anything without making mistakes, nobody can. That’s it really. All you can do is try and do your best.
You know when you’ve done your best, and you know when you haven’t. You know when you’ve worked your hardest, and you know when you could have tried a bit harder. And that’s all you can do, really. Keep going, and keep trying to help yourself.
Do you think you give some of your detractors a pass in the book? I did wonder that while reading it. You’re no fool. You know that some people are going to like what you do, and some that won’t. But there’s a lot of the time when you talk about the criticism in there that it almost feels your way of coping with it to say they were right.
Well, no. I think they were right about the work. I could write a book about how I felt at the time. But I, unlike a lot of those people, don’t want to sit down and write a book about things I don’t like. I can’t see how it can benefit anyone, and I can’t see how it’d benefit me. And I’m at an absolute loss to see how it could benefit them.
Obviously, they take some form or solace or enjoyment from it, and that’s completely up to them. But the last thing I want to do is sit down and write things about people that aren’t very nice. I couldn’t think of a worse way to live my life.
When I say I think they’re right, I mean I think they’re right about those particular projects. They weren’t good enough, they weren’t. On no level were they good enough. But that doesn’t mean that someone’s not very good, it just means they did something that wasn’t.
We all seem to forgive Matt Damon when he’s in You, Me & Dupree. Or George Clooney in Batman & Robin. Or Robert De Niro when he’s in Rocky & Bullwinkle. And if these heroes of mine, these legends, are making mistakes, then who’s mad enough to think I won’t make one?
You speak for yourself where forgiving De Niro for Rocky & Bullwinkle is concerned.
[Laughs] Well, I’m looking forward to seeing Killer Elite!
I think Jason Statham is really underrated. And I’m a huge Clive Owen fan, and stick De Niro in the mix, and a kick ass yellow, black and white poster, and I’m in!
You ever see Clive Owen in Chancer?
Yes! Yes! One of the greatest television series ever!
It’s interesting you mention Steve Martin in the book, too. He talked, in his autobiography, about if people weren’t laughing at his jokes, he got through it by assuming that they were the ones in the wrong for not laughing.
[Laughs] I love Steve Martin.
Me too. I’m the person who managed to sit through Cheaper By The Dozen 2 and still find at least one thing to laugh at.
Completely. Steve Martin is a prime example... he’s never sat down and gone I’m going to try and make a bad film. Well, perhaps other than Bringing Down The House. But I’m with you. I’ll defend him. The truth is, if you’ve made The Three Amigos, who the hell are we to say anything negative about Steve Martin?
He made The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains and All Of Me within a few years of each other. An amazing run.
Yeah. John Hughes is another example. If you look up the 80s, and what he did in ten years. And then he made two films that didn’t work, and people killed him. They killed him so much that he said, right, I’m not going to do this any more. And he just moved out and built a ski slope in his garden. You kind of what to go, who am I? You can say that you didn’t like that film, I didn’t enjoy it John Hughes. But you are still one of the greatest film makers ever. If they’ll go after John Hughes...!
He’s unbelievable. And then he dies, and he’s a hero again. It’s just so said. Just because you do something that’s not great, it doesn’t mean that you’re bad.
For me, one of my all-time heroes is Ronnie Barker. And I remember when Not The Nine O’Clock News did a massive piss take of The Two Ronnies. That’s just how it goes. Comedy should evolve like that, it absolutely should. It needs to keep breaking new ground, and new people should come through. But Ronnie Barker? If he’d only ever done Porridge, he’d still be better than almost anyone else. Porridge, Open All Hours, The Two Ronnies... that’s a huge hit rate.
And with that, we ran out of time! James Corden, thank you very much.
May I Have Your Attention Please? is available now, published by Random House.