Before we walk into the galleries of the Getty Museum, Ricky Gervais feels the need to lean against a railing overlooking the hills of Los Angeles and quote Keats' When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be. At length. "I know what he means now," he says. "You hit an age and you realize, What is your legacy? And you don't want to waste your time on things that you're not proud of." Dude, I'm thinking, let's go make fun of paintings! But I can't stop him. I'm not asking questions, yet he starts telling me about the existential quality of his work. And about how money isn't important to him. This is not cool.
Luckily, it lasts only 10 minutes, and then we're inside, and Gervais proves to be the best person in the world to go to a museum with. He has a shocking knowledge of art history, gets swoony over tiny details and moves at a reasonable pace, which is to say very quickly. And yes, he makes fun of paintings. The one where the Virgin Mary has her fingers outstretched? "She's talking 'bout the bloke she met last night," he says. He barely looks at a depiction of plump martyr St. Andrew as we pass. "That cross," Gervais says, "would never hold the weight." It is the first time I have spent two hours in a museum and wanted to stay longer.
Sure of His Awesomeness
Still, I can't shake those first 10 minutes. The guy couldn't be nicer or humbler or easier to talk to, everything I hoped for as a fan. But how could the actor and writer who--first in The Office, then in Extras--mastered the cringe comedy of unaware arrogance have earnestly quoted Keats at me? This is a man who starts his latest stand-up comedy tour, to be aired on hbo on Nov. 15, by walking out in a cape and crown as giant letters spelling out his first name explode in the background. Could it be that Gervais takes the piss out of arrogance because there's so much of it in him? Because when you watch--and you must--the video of More to Lose, the early '80s single from his very serious pop band Seona Dancing, in which Gervais stares moodily into the camera, his hair flapping like a flock of seagulls, you realize this is not a man unsure of his awesomeness.
That self-assurance is why he's been turning down movie roles ever since the second episode of The Office. He had no interest in starring in a film he didn't have complete creative control over. His new movie, Ghost Town--a small, hilarious romantic comedy about a dyspeptic dentist besieged by the dead to help them complete their unfinished business--opens Sept. 19 and marks the first time Gervais has taken a major role in a movie he didn't write and direct. "I was being a baby. I didn't like being away from home. I don't like not being in charge," he says. "I think I grew up a little bit."
Even so, being in charge retains its appeal. Gervais did Ghost Town in part to help prepare for shooting This Side of the Truth, an $18 million film due out next year, co-starring Jennifer Garner, about a world in which he's the first person to lie. He financed it without a studio so he'd have control. And he's working on a movie with his writing partner on The Office and Extras, Stephen Merchant, called The Man from the Pru, about a group of twentysomething friends in 1970s England trying to escape from their poor, small town. It's what Gervais did, leaving Reading, England, to go to college and then play in a rock band, eventually getting a job at a radio station when he was 36.
Pushing the Discomfort Zone
Now he and his girlfriend, whom he met in college, live in London and have bought a second home on Manhattan's Upper East Side because it's close to the museums. At 47, he still has the impishness of someone who unexpectedly made it. When he spots a sign pointing upstairs to paintings, the L.A.-ness of it cracks him up. "Paintings! That's great. They have to be very specific. Like 'Things Made of Clay.' It's a bit like This Side of the Truth, where there's a sign that says CHEAP MOTEL FOR SEX WITH A NEAR STRANGER." On the Ghost Town set, he'd do 15 takes of a scene, trying out different runs; here he flits among the artworks, making great jokes, most of which I have to promise not to print since they're about religious paintings and he's an atheist who likes to offend without hurting box-office receipts. "It's more amazing to me that a man walked around and said that stuff," he says, looking at a painting of Jesus Christ. "There's nothing more amazing than human kindness. You don't have to say later, 'Oh, probably half-God.'"
That boyish awe, which even his most detestable characters possess, comes out increasingly as earnestness, from the tear-jerking Extras finale to the touching moments in Ghost Town. In his stand-up, he starts with fat jokes, moves on to aids and then, when you're expecting rape for the comedy trifecta, spends an hour deconstructing fairy tales. "For a cynic and a misanthrope and the generally unpleasant persona that he projects, he's actually very sentimental," says David Koepp, who co-wrote and directed Ghost Town. "Which is usually the case with comics, but they're not always good at channeling it."
Gervais spends 10 minutes in front of a portrait, wondering what the royal guy is pointing at. He considers asking the guard but worries the guard won't know and will be embarrassed, and then worries he's being a snob by assuming that the guard won't know. In the end, he decides it's best not to risk it. Gervais, whose comedy is all about pushing discomfort, is not fond of it in his life. "I'd love to take Ricky camping," says his Ghost Town co-star Téa Leoni. "It would be the most entertaining four days of my life. I think it would be the first time he'd have lit a fire or been out in the wild."
Gervais already has deep thoughts about the wild. As we exit the galleries, he finally notices the view I was trying to show him by the railings. He stops and is quiet. Then he says, "Nature wins, doesn't it? You can't really compete with a few hundred million years of evolution." As we contemplate our mortality, I feel bad for judging him for quoting Keats; he has earned the right to ponder without having to amuse me. But then he adds, "Except spiders. Lose them. Nothing needs eight f______ legs."