IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Stephen Merchant Talks 'Movie 43,' the Future of 'An Idiot Abroad,' and the Genius of Karl Pilkington

Wednesday, 23 January 2013 17:12 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Stephen Merchant Talks 'Movie 43,' the Future of 'An Idiot Abroad,' and the Genius of Karl Pilkington

According to Dumb and Dumber co-director Peter Farrelly, comedian Stephen Merchant is “one of the top five funniest guys on the planet,” and I honestly can’t find any flaws in that statement. 

Writer, director, actor, comedian, and radio presenter Stephen Merchant is probably best known as co-creator of the extremely popular British sitcom The Office, along with his friend and frequent collaborator Ricky Gervais. But in addition to that groundbreaking series, the duo have also gone on to create such popular shows as Extras, The Ricky Gervais Show, Life’s Too Short, and An Idiot Abroad, as well as a series of podcasts and audiobooks with comedic savant Karl Pilkington, which were certified by Guinness Book of World Records as the most-downloaded of all time. Merchant has also appeared in several popular films including Hot Fuzz, Run Fatboy Run, The Invention of Lying, Tooth Fairy, and Hall Pass, which was co-directed by Peter Farrelly. Now, Merchant returns to the big screen once again in the new anthology comedy Movie 43, which opens in theaters on January 25th.

The film features several different shorts that are all tied together by one story, and were directed by different filmmakers including Peter Farrelly (The Three Stooges), Griffin Dunne (Practical Magic), Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand), Bob Odenkirk (Let’s Go to Prison), James Gunn (Super), Steven Brill (Mr. Deeds), Steve Carr (Paul Blart: Mall Cop), Rusty Cundieff (Sprung), Jonathan van TullekenPatrik ForsbergJames Duffy and actress Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games). Merchant’s segment entitled Truth or Dare, reunites him with his Hall Pass director Peter Farrelly, and finds the funny man on an unusual blind date with a woman, played by Academy Award-winner Halle Berry, where a game of truth or dare breaks out and the two would-be-lovers try to one-up each other. 

Movie 43 truly stars an all-star cast that in addition to Merchant and Berry includes such talent as Hugh JackmanKate WinsletNaomi WattsLiev SchreiberEmma StoneKieran CulkinRichard GereKate BosworthJack McBrayerKristen BellJustin LongUma ThurmanBobby CannavaleLeslie BibbChristopher Mintz-PlasseChloe Grace MoretzGerard ButlerSeann William ScottJohnny KnoxvilleTerrence HowardElizabeth BanksJosh DuhamelAnna FarisChris PrattJ.B. SmooveDennis QuaidGreg KinnearCommonSeth MacFarlane, and even Nicole “Snookie” Polizzi

I recently had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Stephen Merchant about his work on Movie 43, as well as his overall career. The hilarious comedic-actor discussed his new film, re-teaming with Peter Farrelly, why he really wanted to do the film, jumping at the chance to pretend to be on a date with Halle Berry, performing the film’s over-the-top comedy with the Oscar-winner, blind dates, playing truth or dare, the future of An Idiot Abroad, whether or not there will be more podcasts or audiobooks, and the genius of Karl Pilkington.

Here is what the English funny man had to say:

IAR: To begin with, I spoke to director Peter Farrelly recently and he mentioned that he thinks you are “one of the top five funniest guys on the planet.” 

Stephen Merchant: Oh, that’s nice.

I know that you worked with him on Hall Pass, but can you talk about how he got you involved with Movie 43?

Merchant: Yeah, he said to me, “Do you want to do a comedy sketch where you're on a blind date with Halle Berry?” And I said yes before he finished the word BERRY. Because why would I not do that? I mean whatever the film is, just that picture, I mean just to show my children, and grandchildren. That’s like an heirloom. So yeah that was my motivation. Plus I also like pizza and I had a lot of fun doing Hall Pass so it was kind of a no-brainer for me. 

So you really wanted to do the movie just for posterity, so you would have an image on celluloid of yourself being on a date with Halle Barry, is that correct?

Merchant: A lot of what I do is based on those kinds of motives, so yeah. My career is not for your amusement. It is for me to have pictures that I can chiefly show to people that I went to school with who said I'd never amount to anything or never be in a room with an attractive woman. That's pretty much my motivation for everything I do. 

Well then, what was Halle Berry like to work with? I understand from talking to Mr. Farrelly that she was more than willing to get crazy and really go over-the-top with the comedy, is that true?

Merchant: Well I was pleased because it was a great privilege to work with her but I felt like we were on my turf rather than hers to some degree. We were doing a comedy sketch and not an Oscar winning drama, so I felt like she was coming into my universe and I was kind of relaxed. I said to her before hand that I have a real problem with sticking to the lines, basically just because I don’t like to memorize lines. I was never trained as an actor so I said to her, do you mind if I say different words? She was really into that. She was up for it and Peter didn’t care. It was great for her. We were throwing ideas back and forth and she seemed very flexible. There's one thing that I love, which is something I did on Extras and a lot of stuff I've done. That is taking someone who you have a clear association with, like a movie star, thinking of them as very dramatic or earnest, and seeing them in a comedic setting. For some reason that is really funny to me because you're not quite used to seeing them do comedies and you're sort of wondering how it's going to work. They add a sort of realism and a gravitas to the scene, which is very funny to me.

Your segment in the film is entitled Truth and Dare and, as you mentioned, it takes place during a blind date. Did you have any experience with blind dates or playing truth or dare? Were you able to draw on any real life experiences while you were improvising?

Merchant: Well, it was less drawing on my own experience and more trying to think, what is the worst thing that I could do or say in this scenario? I seem to remember kind of encouraging Peter to humiliate me as much as possible because I just find that very funny. I'm very game with any direction that can make myself look like a fool. Lots of actors, even comic actors, have a certain vanity and they kind of want to come out looking good or cool in some small way. I'm happy to go gung-ho and to me that was my biggest fear. If I was in a blind date situation my biggest anxiety is making a fool of myself, you know I’m terrified or crippled with the fear of coming across like an idiot. The good thing about a comedy is you just get to live out all those anxieties, but you can walk away at the end of the day and nothing really happened. That's one of the reasons I think people find a lot of the comedies that I've done difficult to watch because we’re really squeezing that part of life for all the laughs we can. 

Did you feel comfortable doing that in front of Halle Berry? Was there anything that you did that you worried would maybe be too much for her to handle, comedy-wise?

Merchant: Oh yeah! The whole time we were shooting I was thinking she was going to say, “I'm an Oscar winning actress, I can't do that!” But she just jumped in, and she was really gung-ho about it. I don't know what Peter said to her beforehand but without giving anything away, within the sketch we're doing truth or dare and it starts off with some pretty mild dares. But they escalate and get crazier, so by the end we're in a pretty mad place, both physically and I think in terms of the story. She did not have a quarrel and she really was willing. Both of us looked pretty weird and grotesque by the end of it and she did not have a moment's hesitation. 

I have to tell you Stephen that I am a HUGE fan of the work you have done with Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington, especially the podcasts and the audiobooks. I listen to them religiously and I can’t begin to tell you how many laughs, and how much enjoyment they have brought to me over the years.

Merchant: That's very nice of you to say, thank you. I appreciate that. 

If you don’t mind, as a fan, there is something that I’ve always wanted to say to you, "KARL PILKINGTON HAS A HEAD LIKE A FUCKING ORANGE!!!" 

Merchant: He does! You're absolutely right. Think about how many times I've heard that in my life being without Karl so who knows how many times he's heard that walking down the street, or in a store. What a living hell his life must be. 

Do you think you’ll do another season of An Idiot Abroad or has Karl just had enough?

Merchant: As far as I'm concerned, he's had enough. I haven't spoken to him for a while because I've been away, but he's doing another show without Ricky and I, about the meaning of life (entitled The Moaning of Life). So he's working on that at the moment. I think really we've broken him as far as traveling is concerned. We've really put him through the mill and I think, yeah, he's not having anymore of that.  

As far as the podcasts and the audiobooks, do you think you guys are done doing those as well?

Merchant: Well, never say never, but at the moment we are. All three of us have been doing different things in different parts of the world so it's just hard to get together and do that stuff. I feel like we've done lots of talking into microphones over the years because even before we did the podcasts, we did a radio show every week. So we've done lots of talking and it's hard, even with an idiot as amazing as Karl, it's hard to keep going without going over the hill into old territory. 

Finally, this is probably a hard question for you to answer, but what is the stupidest thing you have ever heard Karl say? Or is just everything he says incredibly stupid?

Merchant: Everything is incredible like, "What were those things in the film Gremlins called?" We were talking once about reality TV stars and how there are these people who are only famous because they had a famous mother or father. Then Karl said, "Well, you can say the same about Jesus," which I guess is sort of true. But for me, the first time we realized we were on to gold dust was early on in our radio careers. We were talking away and Karl didn't really speak much, he was just the producer then. He happened to mention that when he was younger he knew a family that kept a horse in the house. And he said it like it was a matter of fact, you know, like most people know someone who keeps a horse in the house. Once we got that story out of him, we realized that he just saw the world in a totally different way. That's the thing with any kind of comedy, you just try to find a perspective that's fresh, different and unique, and Karl is just hard wired to see things differently.

Movie 43 opens in theaters on January 25th.

To read our exclusive interview with director/producer Peter Farrelly about Movie 43, please click here

FULL DISCLOSURE: Movie 43 was produced by Relativity Media, iamROGUE's parent company. 

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