This interview contains a spoiler for a costume that Ricky Gervais wears in Muppets Most Wanted. Not a massive spoiler, but thought you’d want to know
It’s March 2013, and we’re having a pinch-yourself day. For we’re on the set of Muppets Most Wanted (still simply known as Muppets II at this point), and have seen things that would have our younger selves pinching ourselves. We’ll have, as a result, a lot more on the film for you in the weeks ahead.
Our starting point though is when we’re bundled into a room with a bunch of other wide-eyed visitors from around Europe. Turns out the room belongs to one of the stars of the film, Ricky Gervais. And turns out too that he’s wearing a lima costume, for some reason. On then with the interview…
Can we start we how you got involved? There was said to be a cameo in the first one, that ultimately never got to the screen, and then it’s led to a lead role this time?
I remember where I was. I was in Scandanavia. I was doing a little arena tour, and I got a call from my US agent saying that they want you to be the lead in the next Muppet movie. And I said no at first, because I just couldn’t do it. They said that they were filming in January, February, March  and I’d just finished a show called Derek. I was worried about doing press for that, and I was about to start directing Life’s Too Short. And they said we can make this work, we can make this work.
So I haven’t had a day off since Christmas! [this interview took place in March 2013]. I went from finishing Derek, doing this mini-tour… but I’m so glad.
I was also worried about letting people down. That I wouldn’t do Derek justice, I wouldn’t do Life’s Too Short justice. I thought I’d be doing three things half-heartedly, as opposed to one at a time. But I read the script and I loved it, which isn’t a surprise, because I love the Muppets.
They’ve been really accommodating. They even created a hiatus in the middle of filming for me to do Life’s Too Short. They’ve been incredible. And I’m so glad I did it. I kick myself sometimes thinking that I nearly turned it down, which would have been one of the biggest regrets of my life. Because every day is funny.
I have loved the Muppets for about 35 years. I used to watch them every Sunday, and I’ve got older brothers and sisters, and even when I was young, I saw them laughing at what I thought was a kid’s show. So I thought there’s something about this, there’s something else about this kid’s show. And then I saw John Cleese do one, and he’s still doing his thing, and I thought this is cool. This isn’t a kid’s show.
This film in particular, the comedy is certainly on two levels, as they say. There’s something in it for… well, I don’t know what an adult means really. I’ve never grown up. Particularly men – men never grow up! I’m laughing all the time on set, I’m just talking to a frog!
If someone said what’s your best day, I’d say spending time with the talking frog.
So what’s with the lima costume you’re wearing?
I can explain it, yes, as opposed to it being my weird foible! ‘I’m doing the film, but dressed as a lima! That or no deal!’
This is a costume for the film, yes, and not my own. I’m a master criminal, and the lima. That’s all I can tell you. It’s actually quite comfortable – it’s like a babygrow, a onesie. This suits me. I’m having a great time. The guys are funny. The operators – they’re actors and comedians, great puppeteers, but sometimes I just don’t look at them. Even in breaks, I see the frog slumped, and I’m like ‘make the frog talk, I want a chat’.
I love animals. They’re probably my first love anyway. And the personification of animals, it should almost be illegal. It’s too instantly funny, it’s too good. I do a lot of it in my stand-up. My first stand-up was called Animals. There, I act out animals arguing, and I think there’s something very, very precious about them anyway. So when you can make one talk, I’m a sucker for it.
Having said that, it’s a great film as well. This is not a silly little knockabout thing with a tie-in. It’s a big Hollywood movie. You’ve seen the sets, the amount of production that goes into it. One of my favourite films of all time – not just my favourite family film, or kid’s film – is The Muppet Christmas Carol. I watch it every year. It’s already one of the greatest stories ever told, given that it’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And the only way you could improve that is to put Muppets in it. And they did!
Basically, I’m in my element!
How’s the singing and dancing?
There are little bits. There’s one big number between me and Constantine. We do a proper Hollywood song and dance number, going out onto fire escapes and tap dancing and stuff. I’m okay at singing! I’m a pretty good singer actually, as a failed pop star! That doesn’t phase me. Dancing?! [Sighs] That sends a chill down my spine. I don’t know if you’ve seen The Office, where David Brent dances: that’s the peak of my powers. That’s as good as it can be.
Luckily in this, it’s written that it’s meant to be awkward, and that I don’t like it! They make me dance, which is perfect, because I can play awkward when I’m really feeling awkward really easily. But I think I got away with it. It’s meant to be fun. It’s a joke as well. But I’ve never done anything like this really!
If you could perhaps talk about that first moment of meeting a Muppet for the first time, as a fan?
Well, the first Muppet I met was Elmo actually. Not part of this gang! But I did Sesame Street a few years ago, and I’ve cited that as the highlight of my career. And I’ve worked with Bowie and De Niro! I’ve won Golden Globes, I’ve done The Simpsons… but I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Again, there were no humans around – this guy was a living, breathing little red furry thing. He made me laugh, the fact that he answered back… I treated him like he was an animal who could talk, and I’ve never lost the magic of that. I don’t see them when they’re slumped. It’s like I can’t see them unless they’re on a hand, talking!
I think that’s the important thing about creativity. People have got to be willing to suspect their disbelief. Particularly in comedy, and particularly for kid’s as well. To remember how nice it was to be fooled. I get that every single day. So to answer your question: I was blown away, and the novelty hasn’t worn off.
On the part of The Muppets team, they improvise quite a lot and really enjoy it. Have you found a lot of improvisation on this set?
Yeah. I have. You have to hit the marks, because it’s a juggernaut of a thing, and you can’t go off road too much. You can’t really do it physically either, because they’re so restricted in their tramlines – that’s what they can do. So you do it with little, more verbal things.
For example, there’s one scene where I come in and say ‘what’s the matter, you only ever knit when you’re nervous’. And I found this the funniest thing, that there’s a frog knitting. So we started improvising. I asked him ‘is that a present for someone?’, and he goes ‘maybe’. I just smirked to myself as if the frog is knitting me a scarf!
It’s collaborative, but as I say, it’s such a big budget thing, and it takes so long. You can’t just say pop over there – you have to take a bit of floor up and work out how to do it. Everything’s problem solving: every day there’s hours of problem solving. If you are going to ad lib, it has to be within those tramlines, which is very different from what I do. With things like The Office and Derek, of an eight hour day, seven hours of it is acting. Whereas here, one hour is acting, and it’s seven hours of ‘how do we do that?’. It’s a very different process.
I think it’s about the Muppets. There’s no room for ego if you’re in a Muppet movie! Obviously. I couldn’t be a diva anyway. One, I’m dressed as a lima. And two, I can’t help but smile when there’s a fucking talking frog!
Have you heard that Walter does an impression of you yet?
Yeah. He’s just a little… a bit too goody-goody, Walter. And he hasn’t got a nose!
Can you tell us about the scenes you shot in Ireland? What happened when you all turned up there?
That was funny. I don’t want to diss anyone, but I had a similar experience. I did Alias, with Jennifer Garner. And there, it was meant to be Ireland, and there were a lot of flat caps. I said to them you might as well bring a horse in the pub if this is what you think Ireland is like! It’s a bit like that – 1960s Ireland. Everything’s a bit heightened. It looks amazing, looks beautiful, but it’s fairytale Ireland.
Where do you get your comedy inspiration?
I’ve no idea, I’ve no idea. I like realism, I like human behaviour. I’ve done surreal stuff, and deconstructed nature a lot with Flanimals. But animal comedy, to a certain extent, is undermining a societal norm. But I think my best results come with real life, real people, the minutiae of human behaviour. The excruciating social faux pas.
I think that’s more universal, and it gives you a scope for drama as well. It’s about what’s inside, rather than what’s happening around you. Everything I’ve done has come from character first. David Brent. Then I had to think about what would be the best place for him: an office. Derek. What would be the best place for him: an old people’s home, because it’s all about kindness, and the forgotten.
You have to have a reason to do something, and it has to have a voice. And that comes from character. Then you build everything around it. I think if plot comes first, or if high concept comes first, it can be great, but it’s harder. I think if people feel it viscerally, almost subconsciously…. I think comedy’s about empathy.
I’d say my inspiration is probably empathy with people. With everyone. And this will sound like I’m doing a song for the United Nations, but everyone’s the same really. The circumstances don’t really matter, the themes I pick on… People thought The Office was really quintessentially English, but it wasn’t. The themes were about making a difference, a romantic comedy, and it was about not wasting your life. That’s the same for everyone, it doesn’t matter where you are. And I think that’s what I mean. Emotions are universal. Circumstances change.
Does this humanitariasm extend into the film? Do you all get redeemed?
Do I get redeemed? I don’t think I do, except I was never in charge. I was always number two. So I’m like a pawn in the game. But it’s funny you should pick on redemption: it’s probably my favourite theme in everything I’ve done. David Brent, you sort of forgave him because you realised his life hadn’t turned out as he thought. For all his sort of prattishness, he needed a hug. That’s funny you should pick on that. But it’s a cartoon world, so as long as our villains get their comeuppance at the end…!
It’s not that manipulative. It’s not aimed at six year olds. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s sort of more grown up than you’d imagine. It’s on two levels. It’s sort of like The Simpsons. I can’t understand how The Simpsons is for kids. I don’t know what’s in it for kids. A bald man hitting his head? For me, The Muppets seem more grown up. Maybe I’m just a kid!
And with that, time is called. Ricky Gervais, thank you very much…
Muppets Most Wanted is released in the UK on March 28th.