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The Extra Special Interview

On December 16th, HBO concludes the second and final season of Extras, the show that earned its star and creator, Ricky Gervais, the Best Actor Emmy. Out sat down with the former Office worker to discuss his latest series finale, the intoxication of being famous and his parade of guest stars. Out: Like The Office before it, Extras ran for two seasons plus a holiday special and then you called it quits. Is that a steadfast rule for your series? Ricky Gervais: [Creative partner] Stephen Merchant and I don't make television for television's sake. The next thing we do might be 22 episodes. It might be a saga. You don't make the carrying case before you know what you're carrying. There's no formula. I just don't want to do an unwanted encore. Or worse still, do a wanted encore that's not as good. In the series finale, your character, Andy Millman, is now a major TV star on a regrettable sitcom and he's miserable with his fame. Who are worse fame whores, Americans or Brits? The British, no? Our culture seems to be promoting all the worst bits. We don't see the difference between George Clooney and a Big Brother winner. There are people that would be more impressed with someone on a soap opera than a bloke who discovered the cure for AIDS. I don't recognize him. Is he the one with the teeth? I guess he's always in the lab or something. Well, Americans are doing their best to catch up. I know! Did Andy Warhol even know what he was saying? It's just incredible. A British university conducted a survey amongst 10-year-old children and they were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up and [most of them] said famous. Just famous? Yeah, not even a footballer, not a pop star. Not even something that was frivolous and trivial to make them famous -- just famous. People don't care what they're on telly for. People who really are bordering on the mentally ill are wheeled out on stage to laugh at them, and I don't know where it's going to end. Are we going to wheel out people with severe disabilities and laugh at them? When did that start happening? I don't know. Maybe it's been a gradual process. There's also this constant craving to have your photo taken over and over again. We don't need another photo of the Beckhams. We don't need that in the world. We just don't. You have your fair share of famous folks on Extras. How do you select the guest stars? For the first season, whenever we read in a magazine article that had a Hollywood A-lister saying, Oh my favorite show is a thing called The Office, we'd think, Oh, we'll cash those chips in one day, and we did. For the second season, I was confident enough to cold call people and I felt invincible. I thought everyone was going to say yes and they did. But you also have a great range to the level of celebrity and notoriety of your guests. Sometimes it's not just good enough to have an A-lister because we know everything about them and it's banal. They've got to have something about them, because it's not just an acting role. We do love the baggage. In fact some of the best appearances haven't been A-listers, they've been people who've maybe fallen off the good fortune bus. Like George Michael in this finale. Yeah, well, he's an A-lister. The good thing about George Michael is that no one can really hurt him; he's above it. He goes and chats around saying I was picking up blokes in the woods, what you going to do about it? What's the problem? He's not going to apologize for it, nor should he, of course. But they don't know what to do with George Michael. But you do. Yeah, we talk about it. We have a laugh about it. David Bowie's appearance was fantastic. He riffs out an ode to Andy called "Chubby Little Loser." How did the writing of that go down? I sent him the lyrics and he put the music to it. The first time I heard the music was the day of filming. I can't believe how good it came out. He gave us ber Bowie, too. When he starts with Pathetic little fat one's bloody laughing, it's the way he does it that's just so...Bowie. I called him and I go Did you get the lyrics? I was like, I'd like it to sound retro, something like Life on Mars, and he went, Oh yeah, I'll just knock out another Life on Mars for you. It was just great. It seems like Ian McKellen had more fun than anyone directing Andy in a dreadful gay romance play that he is wonderfully ill-suited for. It's lovely to play that role of a man caught between two worlds. Andy doesn't want his homophobic friends to think he's gay but he wants to be part of this society where he's quite comfortable with it. So he's living that lie. That's a real staple of British comedy -- someone with pretension trying to change their spots. So is there any chance of a full staging of A Month Of Summers, the play within the show? My favorite part of that episode was watching myself running out onstage in that white tennis outfit. It was meant to be like one of those coming of age movies starring someone like Rupert Everett, where they always end up in a tuxedo with their jacket off on the beach. Just pretentious shit, bollocks like that. Oftentimes, you really are taking the piss out of the public perception of the actors who appear on your show. Has anyone ever been uncomfortable with what you've written for them? Nope, Orlando Bloom even said Make me worse. You can go further. He said, I feel like you're holding back with me! Clive Owen makes a fantastic appearance in the finale. He's terribly upset to be playing opposite a woman he finds to be too hideous to even to play his prostitute. I think that's the most perfect comedy sketch we've ever written. Is it a bit awkward to actually cast the extra to play a woman too ugly for Clive Owen to act opposite? Do you sit down with her beforehand? No, no, not at all. Here's a confession: we got there on that day's filming, there were four extras standing there, and the assistant director came up to me and Steve and said Which one do you want to play her? and I went Oh god, and tried to back away, and Steve looked at me and said, You're brave in the writing room. But in my defense we do get a lot of those extras from an agency called Ugly. In another lifetime, you were the front man of Seona Dancing, an '80s Cure-meets-Pet Shop Boys pop band. How would life be different for you if it had taken off? If it had made it any more than it did it would have been very difficult to come out as a comedy performer, but I'm not really ashamed of it. When they show me a picture of it on chat shows and I go Oh my God, people think I'm embarrassed about how I looked then. But no, I'm embarrassed about how I look now. I loved looking like that! I was thin! I had lots of hair! Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale premieres on HBO on Sunday, December 16th at 9:00 pm ET/PT. Send a letter to the editor about this article.
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