By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Stephen Merchant is best known as Ricky Gervais’ writing partner and frequent onscreen comedy foil. The two conceived the original acclaimed U.K. TV series “The Office,” and subsequently co-executive produced the award-winning American version that starred Steve Carell and John Krasinski.
While the extremely tall (6’7”), bespectacled blond stayed pretty much behind the scenes on the original “Office” (with the exception of a single guest appearance), he turned up alongside Gervais in their next hit comedy “Extras,” in which Merchant played the somewhat incompetent talent agent Darren Lamb to Gervais’ struggling actor Andy Millman.
The British duo has continued to work on other TV shows as well as in other mediums (movies, including “The Invention of Lying,” and podcasts). Indeed, they are working on an upcoming “Life’s Too Short” special (based on their 2011 TV series “Life’s Too Short”), due out later this year.
The 38-year-old Merchant takes on a decidedly prettier scene partner—Oscar winner Halle Berry—in Peter Farrelly’s star-studded ensemble comedy “Movie 43.” Judging by its red band trailer, the oddly titled project is a saucy R-rated comedy along the lines of the Zucker/Abrams/Zucker production “Kentucky Fried Movie.” Like “KFM,” “Movie 43” is composed of several stand-alone comedy sketches starring big name Hollywood actors, including Gerard Butler, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Hugh Jackman, Emma Stone, Kate Winslet, Halle Berry, and, of course, Merchant. The segments also boast various directors and writers.
Merchant and Berry’s segment is directed by Farrelly (“Dumb & Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary”) himself. “Movie 43” billed as “the most outrageous comedy ever made.”
While movie trailers have hinted at the hijinks of “Movie 43,” the comedy was not screened for critics prior to its release.
We pried what we could from Merchant, who recently called early one morning from London, to get the scoop on “Movie 43” and what else he’s got cooking.
Q: “Movie 43 is shrouded in mystery. When you got involved in the project, was it mysterious to you? Did you just receive your segment of the script?
Merchant: Peter Farrelly said to me “Do you want to be on a blind date with Halle Berry?” and I was like “Yep. Yep.” I’d have paid them to let me do that, so there was no discussion. I didn’t care what the rest of the film was going to be. I didn’t even ask to see what the rest of the script was. I just jumped in for selfish reasons. I just wanted the photograph to put on my wall with me and Halle Berry. They mentioned there were these other sketches with other people, but I wasn’t listening. I was too busy thinking about Halle Berry.
Q: Had you met Halle before?
Merchant: This was the first time. We showed up on the first day and off we went, really. I’m always concerned that big stars are going to be diva-ish or difficult but she was nothing like that. She was ready to jump straight in and happy to make a fool of herself. She was happy to humiliate herself in the sketch, which is something I’m always concerned about because a lot of actors are sort of precious and they don’t like losing their dignity or their cool onscreen, but she was gung-ho, she didn’t care.
Q: If you’re going to be in a Farrelly movie, you’ve got to be game for anything, right?
Merchant: Yes. I guess she know what was going to be asked of her. She didn’t queer anything. She just got on with it.
Q: The gist of you’re sketch is that you’re on a blind date and your date is going sour and you decide to play truth or dare, right?
Merchant: Right. I’m on a date with Halle Berry. There’s nothing funny about that. Everyone accepts that. And from there she suggests a game of truth or dare. It’s fairly tame at first and then it ramps up from there.
Q: Do you get a chance to steal a kiss or make out with Halle?
Merchant: That would be telling you. I don’t want to ruin it.
Q: You do some sort of stripper dance?
Merchant: There’s some stripping at some point in front of a bachelorette party. I don’t how Peter got me to do that because that is really weird. I don’t recall that being part of the deal. And then as I was doing this dance and sort of manhandling the female extras, because I’m supposed to be a stripper, he kept shouting other suggestions, and I remember thinking, are these girls aware of what they came in for today—seeing a half-naked, six-foot-seven pasty white English dude groping them, but everyone seemed up for it so there we are.
Q: You also have another guest star in the segment: Snooki (Nicole Polizzi), right?
Merchant: (He chuckles.) Right, yes.
Q: Were you familiar with her previous body of work, and what was it like working with herMerchant: I was aware of her oeuvre, only from reputation, I hadn’t seen any of it. She just showed up and we did it, and I don’t know if she knew who I was or what exactly was going on but again, she jumped in and was game for a laugh. We had to work so fast because we did it all in a couple of days. It was breakneck speed, really. There wasn’t much getting to know you time between me and Snooki.
Q: Have you seen the final cut of your segment?
Q: Is it tamer than you expected or did Peter include everything?
Merchant: It seems like everything’s in there. If they cut anything out, it’s pretty subtle because it seems like it’s all in there. The film, as a whole, is pretty outrageous, and ours is relatively tame compared to some of the other more naughty sketches.
Q: You’ve seen the entire movie?
Merchant: Yeah. There’s some pretty crazy stuff in there.
Q: You’re just in one segment, right? You don’t come back in another segment?
Merchant: No. They’re all individual skits.
Q: When and where did you shoot this?
Merchant: We shot it in L.A. I did a movie with Peter Farrelly called “Hall Pass,” so I feel like it was sometime after then that we did it. There are so many stars in this that they’ve been piecing it together when those people are available for quite some time.
Q: The inspiration for this was “Kentucky Fried Movie.” Were you a fan of that film?
Merchant: I never saw “Kentucky Fried Movie” but I saw (1987’s ensemble comedy) “Amazon Women on the Moon,” which is similar compendium of sketches. It’s quite rare. They don’t do it very often because people find it unusual to watch. I think it’s a refreshing thing to do because in the age of the Internet where things are in three- or four-minute segments, people watch things in bite-size chunks. The question is: are they ready to watch something similar on the big screen? I don’t know.
Q: How long did it take to shoot your segment?
Merchant: We shot the whole thing in a couple of days.
Q: Are you working on something now?
Merchant: I kind of am. I’ve got various things that are on the boil. I’m doing a “Life’s Too Short” special with Ricky (Gervais). I’m also doing a TV thing later in the year for HBO.
Q: Is “Life’s Too Short” a full season?
Merchant: No. It’s a one-off special.
Q: You have a TV series called “Hello Ladies” in the works?
Merchant: That’s going to be on HBO later in the year and we’re writing that at the moment. That’s a show that sprung from my stand up act, which also was called “Hello Ladies.” It’s about my various misfortunes and failings on the dating scene. This is a sitcom jump off from there, and it’s me as a lonely English nerd in Los Angeles trying to date women out of my league and failing and kind of embarrassing myself. That’s what that show will be.