Ricky Gervais, control freak, failed pop star, astute businessman, multimillionaire comedian, seems the perfect interviewee – unprotected by aides – answering every question with wit and a few giggles. He says he doesn’t care what people think.
“I know that sounds arrogant, but it’s the opposite. There’s nothing I can alter if someone doesn’t like me.” Nevertheless, the façade slips as he launches into a foul-mouthed tirade against critics.
“I know I’m a grumpy old man. Maybe it’s genetics and we’re programmed to get grumpy at 55.” He warns he’ll tweet this interview “as a marketing tool, if you haven’t slagged me off”.
He is frequently trolled on Twitter, which is some sort of accolade. “Twitter can also be used as an awareness campaign for the few things that make my blood boil – animal cruelty, injustice and religious intolerance.
“Twenty years ago, it would have taken ten years standing outside Tesco to get 100,000 signatures. Now you do it in a few days. That’s social media at its best – people caring and making a difference.
“Sometimes, though, when I’m bored I take a picture of myself in the bath, so I can’t get on my high horse and claim I always try to change the world.”
I'm in the olympics pic.twitter.com/6GWzOkt0eu— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) August 14, 2016
There are scribbled notes on the inside of his left wrist – prompts from the previous evening when he tried out a 30-minute routine in a 400-seat theatre for a proposed tour later this year.
“If Hollywood never called again, or TV dried up, I’d do stand-up, which I love,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m sane or not. I think I am, but then so do insane people.
“The truth is, I don’t care. I’m happy. Even if I hadn’t won awards and made money, I couldn’t have spent my life better, playing at what I love, writing and directing. I even feel good paying tax.
“That doesn’t mean I like it, but if I earn a million I should share it with the government. As a working class kid, I got free schooling, university and healthcare.”
The council house boy from Reading, whose father was a labourer, was told by his housewife mother that he was a “mistake” because he’s 11 years younger than the rest of his siblings.
“She was being honest – no reflection on me. It could have been a different sperm. Who cares? Life is a mistake anyway.” And although his partner, Jane Fallon, whom he met at 21, writes books, he hasn’t read one since JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye aged 28. Yet his speech is littered with quotations.
After working in an office for seven years, he was inspired to write The Office with its antihero David Brent. “I see a lot of him in me, but also in others over the years. We all want to be loved, to think we’re popular and respected, to be thought of as interesting.
“And we’re all prats sometimes, with egos we have to curb. I say if you don’t know who the David Brent is in your office, it’s you.”
One of the first reviews in 2001 in the Daily Mail said it was a “summer stinker”. Gervais smiles. “I love that. I assumed no one would watch and it was joint bottom in the ratings with women’s bowls.
“But we didn’t change a thing and it grew by word of mouth. That taught me a lesson – don’t panic, or do things by committee.
“In those days I believed getting a good review was important, but it makes no difference now. The only thing I worry about is having final edit because I write for me and like-minded people.
“I don’t try to second-guess an audience or wonder what demographic will enjoy it. Then move on to the next thing.”
This month he resurrects the character in David Brent: Life on the Road (in cinemas from Friday 19 August). “I missed him and the world has changed. He’s the underdog in a dead-end job [selling women’s hygiene products] and still dreaming of fame.”
So he cashes in his pension for a last-chance tour as a singer with his pop band, Foregone Conclusion (there’s a Life on the Road album by David Brent & Foregone Conclusion that’s also out on 19 August).
“Brent can’t compete in the dog-eat-dog world, but doesn’t realise it because he sees people on The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent make it for a while after three judges vote for them. I don’t want to be part of that.
“Simon Cowell? He hasn’t killed anyone, and it’s entertainment. What’s the worst he’s done? Made lots of money out of us, and who can blame him? But if you’re impressionable, these shows can have a bad effect, and it’s getting worse.
“A survey of ten-year-olds found most want to be famous when they grow up. We’ll run out of doctors because they’ll all be aspiring singers. A working class kid sees people become rich by letting cameras into their home to show terrible things – infamy is as good as fame today – and it seems more attractive than doing a five-year apprenticeship to become an electrician.
“The Kardashians are paid £20,000 by manufacturers to tweet, ‘I’m enjoying this chocolate bar.’ We’re all responsible because we partake. There’s nothing you could spoof about what they’ll do to get on telly. Celebrity Enema? I don’t know what’s going on.”
The film reflects a moment in Gervais’s own career in the 1980s when he had a group called Seona Dancing. They were popular in the Philippines with single More to Lose.
“I got it wrong, but I didn’t want to be famous. I feared it – the press going through my bins. Now I have to remember I’m famous so I’m not cornered by a load of drunks in a pub, but the worst that happens is someone being nasty about you on Twitter. What’s that to worry about?
“Who said, ‘All you have to do to never be criticised is do nothing.’ Great, isn’t it? I didn’t become famous until I was 39 and won’t forget what it’s like to be poor. I haven’t changed – except I’m older. Muhammad Ali said that if you’re the same person at 50 as you were at 20, you’ve wasted 30 years of your life.”
Transferring a much-loved TV programme to film is strewn with calamity. “Some will expect The Office and hate it. Others will say it’s better. You mustn’t care.”
He dismisses criticism he’s “milking” a well-worn theme. “The show was 12 episodes – seven-and-a-half hours – and the film is 90 minutes – nine hours in 15 years. How is that milking it? Joseph Heller was told he’d never written anything as good as Catch-22, and he replied, ‘Yeah, but neither has anyone else.’ Lovely, isn’t it? It’s a bit of an analogy for The Office.”
Will Brent now die? “I don’t know. Never say never, but I’ll have to kill him off soon.” Earlier this year he wrote, directed and starred in Special Correspondents, which was released by Netflix.
In it, he plays a sound engineer for an arrogant radio correspondent with whom he fakes reports about a war in Ecuador from New York. “It was going to be a Hollywood studio film but Netflix offered the same budget so it was win-win.
“I didn’t have the trauma of trying to make a successful cinema film, yet they paid me well and didn’t interfere. Perfect.” He says the lukewarm reviews don’t bother him.
“I was never a comedy snob. I love Laurel and Hardy because they fall down and pick themselves up for our pleasure, which is what I try to do with Brent. Character is much more important than plot in a sitcom.
“Even one great character makes it good. More than one, you’re flying. Someone said that comedy is a normal guy trying to do something he’s not equipped to do, and Brent is the epitome of that.”
Although he’s brilliant at puncturing self-importance in others – especially during the four times he has hosted the Golden Globes – he’s also adept at mocking himself. There’s a brilliant excerpt in Extras where David Bowie sings he’s “a little fat man” who “sold his soul”.
He insists, “I like people insulting me, which is quite odd. I laugh and think, ‘You can’t hurt my feelings. I’m too happy.’ I’d like everyone to be like that and not be upset by idiots.
“I am neurotic, but in a different way. If I have a cold, or find a lump, it’s definitely terminal. One day I’ll be right, which is a terrible thought.
“While you’re alive you’re in charge of your destiny. If you’re nice and try your hardest, you’ll probably have a better life. I’m quite chilled and try to rule out stress. Even when I had no money I was never dissatisfied and didn’t care about material things.
“I thought the point of life was to have a roof over your head and a drink with friends. I want to go to bed thinking I didn’t do anything bad today and maybe even did some good.”