In your new film, Three And Out, you have a sex scene with new Bond girl Gemma Arterton. Did you manage 007-like cool?
It was nerve-wracking as I’d only done comedy sex before and this was ‘romantic’. But I delivered a good performance, so to speak. Though my wife doesn’t want to hear about it.
Did you worry about excessive groping?
That was the fear – stepping over the line. We wore modesty patches, but it’s still very intimate. We knew how far to go to make it look real though, without actually having sex.
What’s the film about?
I play a London Tube driver whose train goes over two people in a month. A colleague says if it happens again he’ll be retired with ten years’ full pay, so he tries to find somebody who will jump under the train. I’d been looking at lots of scripts, the majority of which were rubbish and this was a chance to carry a story – I’m not traditionally lead material.
Did you meet some drivers? Is it the easiest job in the world?
They scheduled an hour to train me to drive a one, but it took five minutes. It’s basically a handle you push forward to speed up or pull back to slow down. But these trains can hold 1000 people, so you have a lot of responsibility. The drivers were an interesting breed, with dreams and ambitions outside of driving the trains; they’re thinkers.
How does life after The Office compare with life before?
I got into stand-up to become an actor and planned to do it for a couple of years, but after ten years I was still there and completely ready to give up. Then The Office happened.
What was the lowest point?
The dole office. They’d ask what I wanted to do, then laugh in my face when I said acting. I worked in a hospital kitchen too, which was horrible. This monster of a bloke used to scrape the chicken carcasses into a garbage disposal from greasy trays. Every so often he’d spot a tasty morsel, pick it out and swallow it.
What kind of stand-up did you do?
Quite obvious characters. I did a teacher with the audience as the pupils. He was incompetent and I left rubber bands and paper airplanes on the seats for people to throw.
What’s the worst thing that happened during a gig?
Someone threw raw liver at me at a really tough place in Birmingham. The act before me was a gross-out magician, who did an illusion where he pulled his own liver out, then left it on stage.
Was it a conscious decision to play inept characters to puncture heckles?
It wasn’t conscious, but I know what you mean. It’s almost a cop-out, because when a joke doesn’t go well, it’s just part of the act. But the teacher was therapy for everyone.
What’s the worst thing you did at school?
I don’t remember anything bad, but I had a regular task that involved photocopying. A teacher kept his packed lunch nearby, so each day I started photocopying his sandwiches, compiling a file. I don’t know what my plan was. It just amused me.
Weren’t you in a rock band, too?
Oh, it really makes me cringe. It wasn’t my choice, but we were called Wade Hampton – a general in the American civil war – and did heavy metal covers. I was the singer and we’d do Warrant, Poison and, bizarrely, Status Quo. I was also massively into Nirvana and insisted we did Teen Spirit, but couldn’t reach the high notes. And even though my hair was long, I looked more like the Timotei girl.
You had to inject growth hormones as a kid – did you ever pretend you were a Cobain-style smack addict?
The hormones were before that, when I was around 13. I had to inject each day and once my cousins burst in and glimpsed me jacking up. I was really impressed with myself. But I was happy to do anything that would make me bigger and stand out less.
You’re still very slight. What’s the heaviest thing you’ve ever lifted?
I’m not sure. I pulled a tree down last week on some woodland I bought in Essex. There was a huge dead silver birch leaning against an oak, so I dislodged it and it crashed down next to me. I was lucky it didn’t take my head off.
What’s the woodland for?
Just as a nature reserve – it was a dream of mine. I also keep tortoises and fish. Unfortunately a heron emptied the pond last year and a fox ate a tortoise. I’ve bought a sound machine to scare off foxes.
Could you get an enormous plastic heron to guard the fish?
I could, but I’m very proud of my garden and don’t really want one of those things messing it up. Peter Sellers used to own the house and he planted one of the trees that’s still here.
Have you looked for pictures of his wife, Britt Ekland, perhaps hidden behind a bookcase?
I would love to find something. I read all his biographies and apparently he used to hide stuff, like money, behind panels or under floorboards. He was really eccentric about it, but pretty much all evidence of him has gone.
Back on the animals, haven’t you got a tortoise tattoo?
I had it done as a teenager. I’ve also got my son’s name and the Pirates Of The Caribbean logo – a skull over crossed swords. It sounds tacky, but it was four brilliant years of my life.
Who’s got the biggest ego: Johnny Depp or Ricky Gervais?
Depp is one of the least egotistical people you could meet. And Gervais doesn’t have an ego, it’s just an act. Something was reported in the press recently, which came across as him slagging off what I’d done in Pirates… He was straight on the phone and absolutely gutted.
Do old friends from the comedy circuit give you scripts to show Hollywood pals?
Yeah. That’s awkward, especially if it’s not a very good script. One person asked me to give their script to Johnny Depp, but I’m never going to go up to Johnny and ask that. It’s awful.
Aren’t you trying to get your ‘18th century gangsters’ script made into a movie?
Yeah. I’m writing with a guy in the States over Skype. Lots of people have had a look and come back with notes. Sam Mendes said he liked it, but it wasn’t for him. It’s a really long process and most people write six or seven scripts before they get anywhere.
What else have you got planned?
I starred in Chekhov’s stageplay The Seagull last year and a deal’s being done to repeat that on Broadway. But my wife hates me doing theatre as I don’t properly come out of character the entire time. When I’m playing someone who’s suicidal, that’s a problem.
Plus, you’re slightly neurotic anyway, as you’ve admitted yourself.
Things just worry me. A make-up lady called me Macauley by accident the other day and everyone laughed. She was really embarrassed. I should be able to shrug it off as an amusing incident, but I thought, “Damn, why didn’t I make that poor woman feel better?
Original interview by Andrew Hankinson in the May 2008 issue of FHM UK magazine