This week sees the DVD release of 'Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb', with Ricky Gervais back in action as the museum director Doctor McPhee. This sees him reunited with Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan and the much-missed Robin Williams.
Ricky Gervais talks to HuffPostUK about why he was so tickled by this particular franchise, what and who makes him laugh and what made Robin Williams so special...
Q: What kind of man is Dr. McPhee?
A: “McPhee is an oddity. He's a strange little man and I like him. Actually he is one of the most peculiar little men I've ever played, but he tries his best. He's one of those people who desperately want to be witty and known for their sense of humour and he just hasn't got it. (chuckles) He wants to be articulate but he runs out of words mid-sentence. He can't finish his metaphors and his analogies. He can't come back with the witty riposte that he thinks he should be coming back with. He’s so out of touch and he's got that lovely blind spot I love playing. David Brent ('The Office') has it as well. It is the difference between how he sees himself and how the rest of the world sees him and obviously that fits in with the whole storyline, because he's the only person who doesn't know what's going on. (that everything in the museum comes to life at night). He thinks it’s all special effects.”
Q: You clearly have a lot of affection for this character.
A: “Yes, I love that feeling of the person who's in charge being the biggest idiot. I love the fact that he's got little tweed suits and little bow ties and everything has to be in its place. He thinks that's what an Englishman in New York should look like. I love those characters who are a little out of touch and out of time.”
Ricky Gervais reveals an affection for characters "a little out of touch and out of time"
Q: Was there a lot improvisation in your scenes with Ben Stiller?
A: “Honestly, when me and Ben are going for it I'd say 20 percent of the takes are usable. Poor Shawn (Levy, director) bounces over and says: ‘okay say that. We'll keep that, do that again …’ It’s crazy. We just ad lib and try to make each other laugh and then Shawn cuts it all down. But it's so much fun. I remember the first film. I walked on the set and Ben said he wanted to hug me because I was a real person and he'd just spent the last three weeks running round talking to a tennis ball on a stick [for his scenes with the T-Rex, added later with effects]. It was so flattering. I want to put that on my CV: ‘Stiller says I'm better than a tennis ball on a stick.’”
Q: How did you get involved with 'Night at the Museum' in the first place?
A: “It all started with an email I got from Ben, who had appeared on my TV show 'Extras'. He said I had tapped him to do 'Extras' and told me: ‘if you want to return the favor, you can appear in my new movie 'Night at the Museum'. No pressure (laughs)! I've known Ben for ages actually. We have dinner in New York or London when we're in town.”
Q: There are some fantastic historical characters in the films. If you could go back and meet somebody from the past who would you pick?
A: “Oh, I have a list. Laurel and Hardy, Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin. I'm fascinated with science and these are visionaries; people who changed the world. I like innovators and people who thought differently.”
Ricky Gervais reckons about 20% of the material he shoots with Ben Stiller is usable
Q: Were there any highlights making this movie?
A: “It was great because we shot in New York and Vancouver, two of my favorite places. I walked to work in New York. It had snowed so it looked absolutely beautiful. When we were in Vancouver, they had a bit of a heat wave. I was there for about ten days and I fell in love with the city. It’s one of the loveliest places I have ever been to.”
Q: What do you enjoy about this series of films?
A: “I've always enjoyed those big family blockbusters, particularly around Christmas, as long as they are good and these are really good. I like big escapist films. It’s odd because the type of comedian I am and the things I do when I'm writing and directing myself usually deal with the darker side of the human psyche and excruciating social faux pas. I often deal in taboos and the subjects I do as a stand-up are quite challenging. But my film roles have been much more fun and escapist. I almost think of them as not in my oeuvre of work as an actor or a comedian. It is great doing films like this. I'm used to doing everything myself. I've been with the project years before I start filming, then I film it and edit it and I know it inside and out. With this, you turn up and do your part and then you say goodbye and you get on your plane; which is very different for me.”
Q: So it is a less demanding?
A: “It's like a little holiday. It's not like work. I'm proud to be in these films, 'The Simpsons', 'Family Guy' and 'Sesame Street' and hosting the Golden Globes, but I always think of those projects as my extreme sports. They're things I do at the weekends for a laugh and then I get back to the real stress and trauma of being at the helm and having to take the blame for everything and having to make every decision. That is what makes me grey, doing my own thing (laughs).
I suppose it’s like the difference between a job and a career. If you're the boss you don't stop at six o'clock, you have to worry about everything all the time. On these films it is nice to see someone else having to do everything and going grey - Shawn Levy (laughs)!”
The film marks one of Robin Williams' final appearances on screen
Q: It is very moving watching Robin Williams in the film, as Teddy Roosevelt. He delivers a great performance as always.
A: “Yes, I was shocked by Robin's death, number one because he was obviously too young, two because I knew him quite well and worked with him and he was an absolute joy, and three because I wasn't aware of any of his problems. I don't read gossip. So it was a doubly shocking for me that there was this sadness, because he always seemed to be happy. When you were with him he always said nice things about you. He was always trying to make everyone laugh and I mean everyone, like the crew, people who came up to him, or a runner asking what he wanted for lunch. He was always trying to make people feel good. It was remarkable.
I do the Bob Woodruff Foundation Benefit for wounded soldiers in New York every year [Stand Up For Heroes]. One year Robin Williams was a special guest and he spent the night by the side of the stage watching all the other acts and when they came off he told them what bits he loved. He stayed there telling the other actors how good they were. He was amazing. When you've been in the business as long as he has, I'd forgive him for being jaded. But he wasn't. He was a lovely guy.”
Q: Why do you think the 'Night at the Museum' films have resonated so strongly around the globe?
A: “It is the ultimate fantasy: the greatest, most powerful people and things that have ever lived, dinosaurs and mythological characters coming to life. Everything that's ever been conceived or imagined comes to life and if I were a kid this film would have blown my mind. It would have been my favourite film. It is truly magical and it's perfect for Hollywood because with effects you can do anything now. If you can imagine something you can put it in a movie; it is incredible. The first time I saw the first movie, when that dinosaur wagged his tail and wanted you to throw the bone, it was joyful, it was just perfect. And let's not forget that the best family films are great for adults too.”
Q: Any other favourite films?
A: “I watch 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' every Christmas. The first film I ever saw that blew me away, which I still love today, was 'The Jungle Book'. I think that was the first film my mum took me to see. I was six and I remember the next day in class I made all the kids reenact it, to the point where the teacher looked at her watch and said ‘we're going to have to finish this tomorrow,’ because I was giving everyone their roles and saying: ‘you’ve got to do this.’ She had to say: ‘no, we've got to stop.’”
I remember my mum took me to see 'Ring of Bright Water' when I was about seven or eight and I was crying my eyes out [Mij the otter in the film dies]. I love pathos, I love sadness. I cry at a film and I laugh at a film. I want a movie to be an absolute life-changing experience. I don't watch knock-about Hollywood comedies. I want to be taken to a place that is quite traumatic but then turns out okay.”
Q: Were you funny as a kid?
A: “I did enjoy making people laugh but I was also attracted to funny people. I'm quite happy to not be the one trying to make other people laugh. I'm happy laughing at someone else. I enjoy laughing and I’ll happily be the one just laughing all night if you can make me laugh.”
Q: What makes you laugh?
A: “It's not people, it's more thoughts and situations and real life. Someone trying to be funny probably isn't as funny as someone who doesn't want to be funny but is and can't help it. Someone being serious or angry might be funny. If you get angry, the first thing I want to do is laugh because I don't know why you're getting that angry. Pathos makes me laugh, funerals make me laugh.”
Q: Who do you find funny?
A: “Larry David is funny. I did 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' and he's one of the people who giggles and ruins as many takes as me. Jerry Seinfeld's great. I love Zach Galifianakis.”
Q: You are so funny yourself. It must feel great having the ability to bring a smile to people’s faces?
A: “Well it’s very subjective, I know for a fact that not everyone feels like that. For everyone who thinks my face brings joy, someone wants to punch the television and I think that's the important thing, that you should polarise people. If you're doing anything mildly interesting or different, as many people should love you as hate you. For as many people who say ‘I've got Ricky Gervais’s laugh as my ring tone,’ other people would want to smash the phone to pieces with a mallet and I wouldn't have it any other way. You mustn't want to be liked by everyone because if you are, one you'll fail and two you'll be aiming so low, you’ll end up in the middle and anodyne.”
Q: You mentioned how hard you work. Do you take time off?
A: “No, as Winston Churchill said: ‘if you find a job you really love you'll never work again,’ and that's what it feels like for me. I know how lucky I am to be here, what a privilege it is and every day I remember that. My dad was a labourer. He worked for fifty years getting up at five in the morning, sometimes six days a week, in all weathers carrying bricks and concrete. How can I complain? I do things I'm passionate about. I get paid a ridiculous multiple of what my dad earned every year, to the point that I have to stop thinking about it because I feel guilt and shame and worthlessness.”
Q: How do you relax?
A: “We [Ricky and his partner, novelist Jane Fallon] don't book two weeks in the Bahamas and do nothing, but if I have to do a ‘promo’ in New York, we will go there for ten days. I do ten hours work and then we're in our apartment, seeing friends and walking in the park. It's like a holiday. I've been on holiday since I was born. My average day is writing or pottering around or doing a bit of publicity and then I work out and I'm in pyjamas by six o’clock and we've opened a bottle of wine and the cat's on my lap and we're watching videos and TV. There's nothing I’d rather be doing.
I'm ashamed to say as hard as I work and as much as I love this job, I'm almost not allowed to count it as a job, because there are people with real jobs. I do things for fun. I try to do them well and I have to tell myself that even though I am not a brave soldier or a doctor or a nurse, that someone somewhere enjoys what I do.”
'Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb' is out now on DVD. Watch the trailer below...