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The Invention of Lying’s Ricky Gervais believes that honesty is the best policy. But don’t invite him to your party.


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COMEDY ISN’T 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 month’s 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 Office’s 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 I’d 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, I’m 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 can’t believe how good he’s gotten at opening the fridge.” It was a very bad lie. I was about five or six. If only cats could open fridge doors, I’d have been overjoyed and scot-free.

It is so hard to tell the truth sometimes, isn’t 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 I’ve told for, probably, the last 20 years: “Can you come to my party Saturday?” “No, I can’t. I’m busy.” It’s so much easier -- and nicer -- than saying, “Don’t know you enough, don’t like you enough, would rather sit at home in my pants watching television than be anywhere near your party.” That’s when the truth is worse than a lie.

After years of doing your own thing in England, you’re 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. I’ve gone an entire career, from The Office to Extras, without a note given. It’s almost too good to be true.

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When a studio is working with someone whose work is as consistently good as yours, it’s probably good business sense for it to just get out of the way. And also, I didn’t 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 don’t want to make depressing, gritty, urban stories that are depressing to watch. I want to give people something to enjoy. When people think I’m a control freak and an ogre, which I am, it’s 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 that’s always resonated with me, that I’ve understood more as I’ve 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, you’ve got nothing. I can’t laugh at someone I don’t like. I can’t care about someone I don’t like. You have to find the human being behind the horror and the soul behind the funny business, and then you’re already winning as a storyteller. Maybe hope comes from that.

Let’s go back to truth and lying. Tell me one thing that’s true about you.
I’ve started wearing pajamas out because they’re more comfortable than trousers. [Laughs] I started out with jeans and then went to sweatpants about 10 years ago. Now, it’s just pajamas. I’ve gone whole hog. I wore them to the White House.

Tell me one good lie about yourself.
That defeats the object of lying, doesn’t it? Then people will know I’m lying. [Long pause] I’m not very good at this, am I? I’ll tell you something that I don’t know if it’s true or not, shall I?

Perfect.
Here we go, then: I’m a people person. I haven’t decided that either way. I really don’t know. [Laughs]

One last question:
Would you come to my party? I can’t. When is it?