Twilight hunk spotted filming in Amersham.” Now that’s a headline you don’t see every day. It was from the Buckinghamshire Advertiser in mid-May, when Taylor Lautner, buff superstar of the blockbusting vampire franchise, was spotted “near the train station in Amersham-on-the-Hill and other locations around the town”. He was filming series two of the BBC3 sitcom Cuckoo. What the article failed to mention is that the scene being shot at the station involved his character, Dale – a guileless American escapee from a cult who is adopted by the Thompson family – stepping into moving traffic.
“We didn’t even talk about how we were gonna do the scene!” gasps an effervescent Lautner. “If I was making Cuckoo in the States we would’ve had to rehearse it 5,000 times, hire ten stunt drivers and I would’ve had to maintain a ten-foot distance between me and the cars!”
Series director Ben Taylor (Spy, Cardinal Burns) vouches that the road wasn’t locked off, but the traffic was “moving slowly” when Hollywood’s once highest-paid teenage actor literally stepped into what he sweetly describes as “a live road”. But the director insists, “He was under strict instruction not to do anything foolish. But his reactions sell it as something more death-defying than it was. I told him off after the shot, but he just grinned, punched me in the ribs and jogged off to the next scene. They breed them differently in the States!”
Cuckoo is a different breed of sitcom. Actually set in Lichfield, Staffordshire, and mostly shot at Wimbledon Studios, series one broke the channel’s record for most-watched comedy launch when it premiered in September 2012 to 1.15 million people, a feat unhindered by its American star Andy Samberg. He played the titular far-out, workshy hippy dipstick whom the Thompsons’ daughter Rachel brings home from her gap year after marrying him on a Thai beach.
However, due to Samberg’s commitments to the Fox network cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, he was unable to return for series two. So, in order to maintain the self-imposed USP of Big Yankee Star in Small British Sitcom, the writers and producers introduced Lautner as Samberg’s long-lost son (and, yes, they do explain away the 13-year age difference). Except this time they cast a bona fide Hollywood superstar. They knew what they were doing. And so did Lautner, 22, who, after playing werewolf Jacob in the six Twilight movies – which grossed a cumulative $3.3 billion – could do whatever he wanted. He chose the BBC fish-out-of-water farce.
Actually, first, he starred in action movie Abduction which was panned – the New York Post said: “Actual abduction may be preferable” – but still made $82m on his name alone. So how did he end up in the sitcom he pronounces “Coo-koo”? Well, they asked. Production company Roughcut, led by Ash Atalla, fabled producer of The Office, “reached out to him”. Lautner binge-watched all six episodes of series one. “I was sold,” he says.
“As Ash was telling me about my character on the phone, I was laughing out loud.” Lautner laughs out loud a lot, and claims to love comedy, although it’s difficult to elicit anything specific. “I’m kind of all over the place,” he parries.
Cuckoo is by far Lautner’s best work. He plays Dale as giggly-sweet and innocent – the opposite to Samberg’s nest-invader, who was aggressively peace-and-love. In the deadpan words of Greg Davies, who plays dad Ken, “He’s more like a lovable dog, which is how I see Taylor in real life.”
Lautner may have gone from werewolf to puppy, but back home he works in a world of sharks, and found two months in London and its outlying towns a welcome break. “My goal following the Twilight franchise was to challenge myself with a wide variety of roles and genres. Cuckoo was unlike anything I’d done before and I knew I’d have the time of my life!”
The cast fondly recall him joining in with the childish games, such as the “Ear Game”, in which he and Outnumbered’s Tyger Drew Honey would sneak up and flick each other’s ears. He also played the “Hand Game”, which involves not moving your feet and trying to knock your opponent over by slapping their hands. Davies confirms that Lautner is “the most competitive man you’ll ever meet.”
This reflects his upbringing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and LA: he trained in martial arts from the age of six, was a karate black belt by eight, and combined baseball and “hip-hop dance” with acting at school. Just 16 when cast in Twilight, he gained 30 pounds of muscle in the gym to convince the producers to re-cast him in the second film, where Jacob’s role expands in line with his pecs.
I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that Dale is caught wearing just a towel in episode one. After Twilight, didn’t he say he’d only take his shirt off if the part demanded it?
“Yeah, I did. And it was a conversation I had with all the producers, and they justified it, saying they really wanted to take a poke and a stab for the fun of it. You guys do that so well, making fun of yourselves.”
On one level, he’s gamely up for satirising himself – in 2009, at the height of Twilight hysteria he hosted Saturday Night Live and threw himself into sketches mocking his then-relationship with Taylor Swift and his remarkable torso. But on another, he’s every inch the sanitised salesman Hollywood tends to produce, calling everything and everybody “awesome!”
But the cast and crew’s respect and fondness for this new cuckoo in their comedy nest is clearly genuine – director Ben Taylor calls him a “handsome chiselled Chaplin”, while actress Helen Baxendale, who plays Ken’s wife Lorna, simply says he’s a “lovely, lovely, sweet boy”. He doesn’t need to be risking his skin on a rounda- bout outside Amersham station, after all.
And when I tell him I have detected a couple of English glottal stops in his accent (“Steve Mar’in”), he’s sincerely thrilled. “Really? I did find myself using a few words that you guys use, ‘garden’ for ‘yard’, even inflections, like, we say ‘WEEK-end’, and you say, ‘week-END.’ Little things like that.”
Did he drink pints while he was here?
“No. I’m not the biggest beer fan.” The clue’s in the torso. Which is awesome.
See Cuckoo tonight at 10:00pm on BBC3