The Invention of Lyings Ricky Gervais believes that honesty is the best policy. But dont invite him to your party.
COMEDY ISNT PRETTY, to paraphrase Steve Martin, and Ricky Gervais knows that fact well. The 48-year-old Brit -- who created The Office and Extras, and who cowrote and codirected this months feature film The Invention of Lying, which he also stars in -- is an everyman of the first order, the anti Hugh Jackman, if you will. Nothing about him is perfect. Yet as a craftsman, Gervais achieves perfection time and time again by shining an empathetic (not to mention an unflinchingly hilarious) light on the imperfections of human beings, like with The Offices David Brent and Extras Andy Millman. We spoke to Gervais about his new movie, his successful career, and little white lies.
Your new film is called The Invention of Lying, so Id like to know what the first lie you ever told was. When I was little, I used to drink milk from the bottle in the fridge. My mom said, You should never do that, okay? But one day, I was doing it, and the bottle slipped and spilled milk everywhere, and I thought, Oh my God, Im going to get in trouble. So I quickly rubbed milk all over the cat, as if my mom would believe any of it. She said to me later, Oh dear, it must have been the cat. And I said, Yeah, yeah, bloody cat. And she said, I cant believe how good hes gotten at opening the fridge. It was a very bad lie. I was about five or six. If only cats could open fridge doors, Id have been overjoyed and scot-free.
It is so hard to tell the truth sometimes, isnt it? Not anymore. Now, I only tell the truth, outside of white lies. The only time I lie now is for the peace of mind of myself and others. I lie two or three times a week, and this is the only lie Ive told for, probably, the last 20 years: Can you come to my party Saturday? No, I cant. Im busy. Its so much easier -- and nicer -- than saying, Dont know you enough, dont like you enough, would rather sit at home in my pants watching television than be anywhere near your party. Thats when the truth is worse than a lie.
After years of doing your own thing in England, youre now working in Hollywood, where no one ever tells a lie. How is that going? I thought it was going to be a studio nightmare, but it has been great, just great. With The Invention of Lying, they let us shoot it our way, cut it our way. Ive gone an entire career, from The Office to Extras, without a note given. Its almost too good to be true.
When a studio is working with someone whose work is as consistently good as yours, its probably good business sense for it to just get out of the way. And also, I didnt want to make an overtly art-house movie that no one would see. Some of my favorite films are big, accessible Hollywood stories. I love The Godfather and Casablanca -- great stories, acted well, made well. I dont want to make depressing, gritty, urban stories that are depressing to watch. I want to give people something to enjoy. When people think Im a control freak and an ogre, which I am, its only because I want my work to be accessible and everyman, in a way.
For all the awkwardness and hilarity of your characters, your stories are, basically, hopeful. One thing thats always resonated with me, that Ive understood more as Ive worked more, is redemption. And I think forgiveness is possibly the most wonderful virtue you can give yourself or another. Everyone can forgive. So we watch films and we feel good when someone has changed for the better -- and possibly through a random act of kindness. We live through both sides of that -- the person who has granted forgiveness and the person who has received it.
The most important thing about comedy and drama for me is empathy. Without empathy, youve got nothing. I cant laugh at someone I dont like. I cant care about someone I dont like. You have to find the human being behind the horror and the soul behind the funny business, and then youre already winning as a storyteller. Maybe hope comes from that.
Lets go back to truth and lying. Tell me one thing thats true about you. Ive started wearing pajamas out because theyre more comfortable than trousers. [Laughs] I started out with jeans and then went to sweatpants about 10 years ago. Now, its just pajamas. Ive gone whole hog. I wore them to the White House.
Tell me one good lie about yourself. That defeats the object of lying, doesnt it? Then people will know Im lying. [Long pause] Im not very good at this, am I? Ill tell you something that I dont know if its true or not, shall I?
Perfect. Here we go, then: Im a people person. I havent decided that either way. I really dont know. [Laughs]
One last question: Would you come to my party? I cant. When is it?