Stephen Mangan's career is on a high. Fresh from more 'Episodes' success with Tamsin Greig and Matt LeBlanc, the popular British has just been announced to play Sherlock Holmes' creator in 'Houdini and Doyle' in a new 10-part drama for Encore. Not only that, but he was the first person the BBC called to step in for absent 'Have I Got News For You' host Jeremy Clarkson just before the General Election. All this, plus a whole bunch of voiceover work. It's fair to say, Stephen Mangan is a man in demand.
But... it hasn't always been so. Actors are notoriously, if understandably, prickly on the subject of professional failure, but for our Brits Blitz project - championing those British stars flying the flag in film, TV and music across the world - Stephen very generously took us through the whole humbling process of turning up, as a British actor in Hollywood, being promised the world, but ending up with rather less... And if you thought 'Episodes' was too brutal to be realistic, read on...
Read more about the Brits flying the flag for music, TV and film in our special #BRITSBLITZ section:
- Simon Pegg Reveals The Unromantic Reason British Actors Remain In Such Demand In Hollywood
- Why Indie Star FKA Twiggs Is A Lot More Than R-Patz's Girlfriend
- Ed Sheeran - Yes. Girls Aloud - No. What Makes A Brit Big Down Under?
"I always resisted going to LA, it always seems to me, everyone has to be dazzlingly good looking and I feel too quirky for that, the whole looks thing always worried me – they have to have perfect teeth and no body hair and sculpted pecs and boundless enthusiasm – and us Brits have a very bad reaction to dealing with that enthusiasm, our first reaction if someone says how amazing you are, is to say ‘I’m not that good.’ You want to underplay it, that’s how we’re brought up.
"But if you say I’m not that great, they just look confused and move on to the next person who does think they’re great. So you have to learn not to do that, you have to leave your self-deprecation behind.
"In the room, with a dozen people all telling you how brilliant you are, and you know they don’t really have a clue who you are. They’re better actors than me. They’re like womanisers in a way, they tell everyone they meet they’re the most amazing person ever, because if you turn out to be a failure, who cares, it doesn’t matter, they’ll never see you again, but if it turns out to be right, that one person in a hundred, they’ll say ‘I told you from the beginning.’ And I think Americans are genuinely warmer, more enthusiastic and ready for a world of possibility.
"Part of your ego can’t help but believe it at the time. Head of a massive studio telling you you’re great, you think, well maybe I am.
"I met this manager, he said, I’m your biggest fan, I’ve seen everything you’ve ever done… Simon.’ Er, it’s Stephen. ‘Stephen, I said Stephen.’ About 10 minutes later, his secretary knocked at the door, she said ‘I have Keanu Reeves on the phone.’ And he said, ‘Tell Keanu Reeves to fuck off, I’m talking to Stephen Mangan here.’ I thought, every meeting, 10 minutes in… it had to be a set-up.
"Then I did a pilot over there for ABC with Jason Alexander and Jane Lynch. And that was an eye-opener. You have to audition for everybody at ABC, but the only person who matters is the head of the network, so everyone else plays this game of waiting to see what the emperor thinks, and then they’ll make sure they have the same opinion. You’re trying to be funny, and if the guy or woman laughs, and if they laughs, everyone laughs.
"So that went okay. And then I watched the slow destruction of a really good script by some very bright executives… it’s like designing an elephant by committee. You’re standing on the stage and six people come over and say, ‘Is that tie funny?’
"But it’s a great place to work. It’s LA, it’s sunny, you’re in the studio where they filmed Chinatown, and you feel part of this epic thing.
"The pilot didn’t get picked up, but I was kind of relieved because I’d seen what it had become. But I was a bit sad because I was playing a homicide detective for LAPD, and I had a badge and gun. I was a cop! That would have been great.
"But there we go. One door shuts, another opens. They make 14 pilots a year, each one costing millions. And they might put two on the air, and if either of those make a second or third season, it’s a miracle. It’s a sausage factory. They’re making an industry out of art, a factory out of something that is quite creative and mysterious. You could put the five best comedy actors and writers in a room, and they could come up with something terrible. There’s no formula as to what works."
Why do they love a Brit so?
"The cynical answer is because we’re cheap. But I also think that, in this country, we train up actors really well. Not just drama schools, but theatre, TV, there’s a whole range of stuff to cut your teeth on. So we punch above our weight, and it’s great. Because all you really want to do is work with interesting people. And you have to get to a level to do the work you want to do."
Is it possible to get too big?
"You have to be careful. Matt Leblanc will be answering the question about a 'Friends' reunion for the rest of his life, but he’s incredibly gracious and he gets it, and he’s grateful for it giving him so much.
"It’s not the world’s worst problem to have, but I don’t need to be the biggest name out there… I want to be working when I’m 85. So I want to be big enough to attract the good parts, but not so big to get the rubbish that comes with it.
"As soon as you become the brightest star in the galaxy, there’s only one way to go from that… the history of stage and screen is littered with people who became huge for a short time. It’s a marathon, not a spirit."
'Episodes' continues on BBC2.