Tom Cruise asked and was given a flat ‘no’. The fellas behind Pirates Of The Caribbean tried and were reportedly fobbed off. So when you scoop up the kids on Boxing Day and head out to the flicks to catch Night At The Museum, be very aware that you’re watching something rare - Ricky Gervais in a hefty budgeted Hollywood movie.
Sure, he’s turned out for JJ Abrams in Alias and he’s currently filming a spoof scene for the special features on Season Six of 24 but Gervais is a picky sod and rightly so.
While other UK comedians continue to flog a horse long after its toes have curled, the co-creator of The Office and Extras prides himself on keeping things fresh. No David Brent dolls for the little ‘uns this festive season. Oh no.
Night At The Museum sees Ben Stiller as Larry, a layabout dad who finally finds himself a job as a night watchman at the Museum Of Natural History in Manhattan. Larry’s plans of kipping while earning a wage go slightly awry when all the museum’s artefacts and models come alive during his shift. Ricky plays the museum manager, Mr McPhee.
In the past, Gervais has stated he didn’t want to ruin movies just for the sake of cropping up in them. He’d rather bang out free, record-shattering podcasts where the focus is on his unique, hilarious and somewhat troubling Mancunian mate, Karl Pilkington.
Perhaps another reason why we didn’t see him in M:i:III is because Gervais seems to have a strict set of rules when it comes to taking this kind of work. Namely the fact that stretching his acting chops is certainly not on his agenda.
“I told them, I’m English, simple. No accents,” he says without cracking his face. TF still has to stifle a laugh. “It's difficult enough concentrating on acting let alone that accent. You’ve got me for three days, I'm English, no accent and no wigs.” Done with stifling, totalfilm.com lets out a chuckle. “You’re laughing, I said that, didn't I?” He turns to Night At The Museum helmer Shawn Levy, whose shoulders are pumping up and down with laughter. “Yeah, it’s true. He laid down those rules.”
If you haven’t really absorbed the huge success of Gervais’ past projects in the US, then seeing him on the same screen as legends such as Robin Williams, Mickey Rooney and Dick Van Dyke - as well as Frat Packer Stiller - might seem a tad odd. But the fella from Reading is huge in the US - they love him. So he’s pretty much part of the Frat Pack himself now, isn’t he? The Peter Lawford figure, we suppose…?
“I don't think I'm the member of any club,” he says earnestly. “I just think it's just me and Steve, alone. I don't know, it's nice to be asked, but I don't see myself as part of an acting fraternity or a comedy fraternity, I see myself much more as a writer/director, or at least an aspiring writer/director, not necessarily in film, although I would like to do that. For me it was a challenge and it was dipping my toe in the water.”
Almost a cameo then. “That’s funny,” he says, shaking his head. “People are saying 'he's got a cameo', as if I’m some amazing actor. Which is very flattering because they've missed out 20 years of me building my parts up and then just doing cameos. They talk about it as if I’m Roger Moore or something.”
Former Nickleodeon and Disney director Levy knew that taking on the heavy purse and meaty CGI set pieces of Museum would put him even further away from that illusive low-key movie he’s desperate to grind out.
“I know, it’s nuts. I got lost on the way to my smaller movie,” he tells TF. “After Pink Panther I was looking for something smaller in scale but more specifically something other than just a comedy. And there was something about Museum, the story of the father and son finding redemption for their relationship.”
Levy turned down the movie repeatedly for almost a year. “It was the level and complexity of visual effects, I couldn’t see myself turning to that. But I found the answer in Chris Columbus who was my fellow producer on the movie. He gave me the advice to simply storyboard the movie so that I was clear about what I wanted. Long before I spoke the language of visual effects I storyboarded every major sequence so I could hand it to my team and say, 'this is what I want, I don't know how to do it but this is what I want on the movie screen.’”
Gervais and Stiller’s paths have crossed before, you’ll recall. Ben playing a distorted version of himself in the opening episode of Extras, Series One. So Ricky was expecting him to ask to return the favour at some point.
“Yeah,” he says, scrunching up his face. “We only get on during press conferences, if you want the truth. No, really, he’s great fun. I just got an email out of the blue saying he'd got a part for me in this new film. A blockbuster. No pressure.” Wouldn’t he have preferred his feature film debut to have been in an art house flick, bit more cred, thumbs up from the sniffy critics and all that?
“Not at all. Although I do enjoy those type of films, I'm not a movie snob at all. I much prefer a really good Hollywood blockbuster to a thought-provoking arthouse movie because it's, you know, entertainment.”
Oh it is. And the kids will love it. Thieving monkeys, rampaging elephants, inch-high cowboys and Atilla The Hun – seriously, what more could an ankle-biter wish for at Christmas?
“This is what I thought,” Gervais says, his hands apart, emphasising the point. I'm always looking for comedy plus. I get to the point where I'm just doing comedy but it's quite easy to make a load of people laugh, it's our reflex action. This film doesn't skimp on the comedy, it has got heart; it's visually amazing. But the visual effects, as fantastic as they are, and they are incredible, are a supporting role to the story and that's the way they should be.”
TF suggests that you should never leave a cinema marveling at a film’s effects - if you do, the story wasn’t strong enough.
“I kind of agree,” Gervais states. “There's so many stories that are supporting roles to the visual effects, you know. It's someone showing off with a big bag of toys, and this doesn't do that.”
This world of Hollywood movies, opening weekend figures and special effects seems so far removed from everything else Gervais has done this year. The conversations with buddies Merchant and, especially Pilkington, while making the movie must’ve been pretty interesting.
“My friend. Yeah, Karl Pilkington - I don't know if your readers are aware of him but he's an idiot. We didn’t talk about it. I mean, he saw Finding Nemo and he said 'it was really good', and I told him how much animation costs and he went, 'ridiculous, just get a real fish and prod it with a stick.' So I left it there.”