Rowan Atkinson has one of the best and most memorable faces out there. With a slight change of expression he can go from serious to goofy, from Mr. Bean to Johnny English. Eight years ago, Atkinson gave life to Johnny English, a spy parodying, as Atkinson would say, Roger Moore‘s James Bond. English director Oliver Parker, whose credits include An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest and Dorian Gray, took on the task of reinventing this outrageous character by adding a cast that he imagined would actually be cast in a Bond film. We got to talk to both Atkinson and Parker about Johnny English’s humor style, the film’s tone and more. Check it out.
What is it about your brand and style of humor that transcends different cultures?
Rowan Atkinson: [Mr. Bean] is a relatively easy sell on the international stage because he doesn’t say much. There’s very little verbal dimension to what he says and does. Johnny English is a little more complicated because he’s a bit more verbal but there’s still very strong visual elements to him. I think the tone of the comedy is very similar, it’s very simple, it’s very accessible. It’s not very sophisticated, occasionally it’s slightly sophisticated, but not very much. And it’s clean. It’s family comedy. Johnny English movies are that rare thing. It’s a family comedy which isn’t animated. In this day and age, there aren’t many of those. So much comedy in the last 5-8 years has been far more adult – American Pie, Hangover. We’re definitely not in that tradition.
Does Rowan’s comedy style mesh with your own idea of what’s funny?
Oliver Parker: Yes, he’s extremely rigorous mind, Rowan. He trained as an engineer at Oxford and was apparently a superstar at it. Really superior being in terms of the intellect. He could analyze anything, he was fascinated in the mechanics of anything, whether it’s a car or a joke. He really likes to break it all down. When I took the job, one of the things was the script and then meeting Rowan and seeing his absolute relentless pursuit of trying to raise the standard of every joke that he’s doing. It’s quite fascinating. In some ways, he’d been surfing a comedy wave for decades in the U.K., he’s been up there playing different characters, not many of them, but he keeps at them and keeps refining them. In some ways I think he’s honed a particular approach to it. There’s never really any improvisation for him. Occasionally I would try to sneak a few frames without him watching. He would do a lot of improv in the writing process because Hamish, Rowan and I would sit around an try to different things and start all over again. Sometimes it would just be him playing, things would come out and Hamish would jot it down, we did quite a lot of work there and that’s always fun.
I think one of his golden moments was “Blackadder” when he was working with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. I think that collegiate environment was something that completely suited him where people were bouncing ideas off one another. He really enjoyed that. I think he had a good time, as much as he allows himself to be a good time. He’s got a puritan ethic in terms of really focusing on the work. He has a great sense of responsibility to achieve what is his best. He has to carry so much of this stuff. People sometimes think, “Is he a humorless guy?” No, he’s not humorless at all. Take him out of that environment, he can be extremely witty and very dry, but when he’s working he’s pretty serious. There are times when you want to try different ways around it and I think you can get that once you nail the bit as he’s perceived it or imagined it. Then there’s a little room to play a bit more. Dominic West is an extremely free actor, very loose and open and spontaneous. It’s very exciting putting those two together. Rowan likes to nail it and Dominic would just be, “Throw it at me, and I’ll come up with something else.” That might not work, but they were really good and respectful towards each other.
Rowan, you’re funny in your movies even when you’re serious, what about in real life, are you funny?
RA: No, I’m not a naturally funny man. I find I can only be funny if I become somebody else, that’s what I need to do. I need to act a part and then I can be funny. I can reasonably funny, reasonably lighthearted when I’m in the company of good friends, but I’m not a Jokesmith. I tend to be quite serious.
When you’re playing Johnny English, do you get a sense of being that spy, being that guy?
RA: You’re bound to get a sense of any character that you play. It’s not something you often do in comedy because one’s characterizations or the situations that you’re presented with are fairly facile or silly or shallow or fun. If you’re a serious actor, it’s when you know you’re going to die tomorrow which is when you really start to feel it – You’re bound to feel the dilemma of the character that you play. If you don’t feel it then you’re probably not acting the part as well as you might. He’s an enjoyable character to play. He’s fun and rather human. He’s rather realistic, perhaps a more realistic and believable character, in many ways, than James Bond because James Bond is just Superman. It’s rather fun to play someone with more faults than foibles.
Can you talk about working with Daniel Kaluuya and developing that dynamic between your characters, and what was it about his humor as Tucker that was the perfect compliment to yours?
RA: It’s a very difficult role to play, the sidekick. It’s not an enviable role and yet it’s terribly important. The role of straight man, in many ways, is as difficult if not more difficult than the role of funny man because you’re dancing around a situation – Tucker has to make his relationship with Johnny English believable and yet he’s got to have a character of his own. He can’t just be a sap, a ‘yes’ man, he’s got to have a personality of his own, which Daniel has in spades. We auditioned 40 or 50, 20-something male actors, for the part, and he was the only who was absolutely right. He’s got a fantastic face. He himself is naturally very funny and very able, but also tremendously empathetic. My only regret is that we didn’t do more with him. I don’t think his character is well introduced. There were a couple of scenes at the beginning of Hong Kong that were cut for the usual reasons (the movie just felt too long), but the regret was that that meant that Daniel didn’t get off to the strongest start as he would’ve done if we would’ve had those scenes in. But by the end of the movie, he establishes himself extremely well and that was gratifying.
What was it like to work with Gillian Anderson? What did you think of her English accent? Was there ever any thought of hiring a U.K. actress to play her part?
RA: We didn’t think of her as not being English. I think maybe she was born in Britain and then moved to the U.S. I think that’s what she did. She has a very good English accent and she does a very good American accent as well. I thought it was funny when we went to Australia for the premiere, sometimes when she was talking to Australians or Americans, she was talking to them in an American accent and when she was talking to English people she was talking to them in an English accent. It was quite extraordinary how she tended to adapt. We all tend to do that is adapt to our way of speaking to those with whom we’re speaking. But it was great to have her. She was very good, very strong. One of the reasons why we wanted to cast her because she’s strong, but also a very attractive woman.
There was a scene, ironically from the movie, at the end when Johnny English first walks into her office at the beginning of the movie, and his old sidekick from the first movie (Buff) is in the room and he assumes that it’s his office and Gillian is his secretary, so he comes on to the secretary. And says, “Oh what are you doing for dinner tonight?” and not knowing that she’s actually the head of MI7. Then it’s all revealed. It was funny, but yet again we felt it was holding up the story so it was cut – but like Dominic West and Rosamund Pike her challenge, like any challenge of a serious, proper actor coming into a comedy movie is how much are they going to be lent on to provide the comedy. It’s sometimes very difficult. Are they suppose to be funny? Are they suppose to be obviously funny? Are their lines funny? Are they not funny? They look straight and serious as they read them and you have to convince them that even though it is a comedy, we hope it’s a truthful character story comedy… All you have to do is play the part straight and serious.
Also, you’ve got to fit in with the story. You can’t appear to be too detached from Johnny English. You can’t pretend he’s not there or pretend that he’s not doing what he’s doing. You’ve go to find your own reality. They all did it extremely well. One of our ambitious was to cast the movie as if we were casting a James Bond movie and I think all those people, including Rosamund who was cast in a James Bond movie, would do extremely well in James Bond movies. I always believe that the more serious and believable our British Secret Service world, the funnier Johnny English’s mistakes would appear in contrast to them.
How did the casting of the other characters contribute to the tone of the film?
OP: When I read the script I saw that Hamish was trying to do something perhaps a little more ambitious [than the first one]. Trying to create an authenticity to the environment which would put genuine pressure on the character and hopefully allow small varieties to the responses so that we root for him at certain moments. We want him to do well rather than slip on the banana skin occasionally to duck it and then run into the wall. You give a little more surprise. It seemed more and more important really that we had to construct a world where we believed this secret service worked. Gillian Anderson who isn’t actually a Brit but we’ve adopted her and Rosamund Pike had been a Bond girl herself, but all these characters, in particular Dominic West playing Agent Ambrose, you feel like he could’ve have a shot at Bond at a certain point. All of these characters create a world where in some sense there is genuine pressure exerted on the main character. I think with that there’s more chance for us to feel for him, as well. Hamish had a phrase, “Make sure we’re not nibbling on the comedy cake.” It’s quite hard to act with Rowan unless you’re secure in your performance because you’re thinking, “This is a comedy film, am I meant to be funny here, what do I do?” In fact, the discipline I was trying to place on it was that no, you don’t have to be funny. Comedy comes into the response to what he’s doing and how you have to move on despite what’s going on in the corner of the room with the cat going out the window or whatever it might be. It felt like the only one who had a little room for that was Tucker because he seems to breathe the same air as Johnny. On the whole, the intention was to keep this as credible environment as possible.
Can you tell us about the process of casting old Chinese woman?
OP: She lives in Shropshire, England, a very pleasant county. We looked in different directions for that character. There was a time when I thought there was quite a lot of physicality so do we have a physical actress who has done a lot of physical comedy or circus. How much do we give her to do? We met various people, but when I came across her, I liked the slightly exotic feel married to the sweet old lady that she was. I think this was the last question I asked her because you’re talking to a lovely older woman and how you’re going to take this on, the acting was good, but I thought she’s got to throw herself around so just as she was leaving I said, “Quick jump on my back!” And I turned away and she ran after me and jumped on my back. I thought, “Okay, she’s up for it.” That nailed it really.
Rowan, which Bond character is your favorite and do you take anything from them?
RA: My favorite Bonds are Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig, but the character from which I think Johnny English takes more is probably Roger Moore. There’s something about Roger Moore’s Bond which is that slightly smarmier, more eye-brow raising, just more smug character that I think is more Roger Moore. I always felt that first Johnny English movie was a bit like the Roger Moore James Bond movie with more jokes. What interesting, what’s happened in the last eight years since the first Johnny English movie, the spy genre has moved on a bit. Jason Bourne movies have come and established a different style. We were going to do something a little more Jason Bourne at one stage and then we decided not to. Jason Bourne is a different character, more of an American character, less of a British character. Also a lot of the distinguishing features of Jason Bourne is the editing and the shooting style which is very energized, very dramatic. I never thought that that would suit comedy. Comedy, I think, needs oxygen, needs space and time. A wider shooting style and less cutting… We had all sorts of ideas of parodying Jason Bourne but we kind of abandoned them. Jason Bourne has also moved Bond into a more serious realm. The new James Bond movies are more serious in tone, which I think was a good decision for them, but what it’s also quite good for us because it’s left the arena of more lighthearted espionage to us. We can have more fun because so few other people are being funny or even witty with the spy genre.
When did you finally decide that you were going to make Johnny English more based on Bond than Bourne?
OP: I’m not sure we ever really decided, let’s just go for Bond. We just went for Johnny English. Bond was always there. I think it’s in our grain really, but the Bond reference was a little more contemporary in style, some of the action sequences have a little bit more of that green grass feel. His character is much more connected to the classic English spy.
Was there a lot of improvisation?
RA: Unless Oliver Parker remembers it differently, [there was] very little improvisation on the floor of the studio actually. There was improvisation in the writing meetings. Most of the writing took place with myself and the writer and Oliver Parker, and the three of us threw around ideas, deciding on the funniest bits and trying to put them into a story. Sometime you started with the story and tried to find some funny bits to go with the story. On the studio floor, not much improvisation – The only thing I feel sorry for Oliver for, and he was fantastically patient and brilliant as a director, in my opinion because he was so tolerant of me and my peccadilloes, the wost once being is that [I'm] never happy with what I do. Whenever I did anything I wanted another take. I wasn’t sure whether it was good enough. It’s very difficult for a director who can see when something working well and the actor just says, “No.” He was very patient with that particular challenge.
Which gag exceeded your expectations?
OP: The chair scene certainly does. We spent a lot of time trying to get the plot right. Nobody listens to the bloody plot at all when we get to that scene. You know it’s a good idea you just don’t know if it’s going to pay off, not until you’re actually shooting it do you get a sense of that. Rowan was quite surprised on the day we had this lovely moment where you’re asking if you’ve got it. The first take of it on a relatively wide three-shot. Rowan was working with absolute typical dedication to the moment and we worked very hard in getting the layout, this chair had to be drilled into the ground. At the end of the take, the other actors hadn’t scene any of it, just burst into hysterics. Rowan was quite taken back, he had no idea. He was saying, “Was that funny then?” He was so involved in keeping it absolutely authentic to the moment, which is what his real approach is, you have to buy that the pressure is on the character. He’s always conscious of comedy, he’s not conscious of the comedy in the room, that was a huge bonus. It surprised Rowan too. There were several. I think beating up granny was always fun. There was a moment of electricity when we set about that scene and suddenly, although Rowan does most of his own stunts, there’s a particular jump that the stuntman does, and it launched the room into a kind of chaos, “Can he do that to granny?” We didn’t say cut once or twice just to see how far they would take us. That added an exhilaration to it. There is an element of magic in the shooting which does take it further off the page than you imagine.
What’s the risk of cracking up?
RA: Not me, I don’t have any trouble at all, sadly, which is why whenever they are trying to produce a bloopers reel for movies that I’m involved with they have a lot of difficulty because I never really laugh at anything on set. I’m like that I’m afraid. But there are some, they scraped together a few lighthearted moments for the bloopers stuff which will be on the DVD. Others do. Sometimes I couldn’t understand what they were laughing at and then I saw that they were laughing at what we were doing, at what I was doing. But yes, not much of that for me.
OP: I found [Rowan] fascinating to work with. You can’t help but admire that inexhaustible energy in turning over every stone in pursuit of another little joke or one other little nuance. It really is astonishing. More dedication that any other actor that I’ve ever worked with, in that respect… He would keep going at the same thing, wanting to try another few takes and sometimes we’re all thinking we’ve got this. Sometimes he would go, “Okay, let’s move on,” but other times he would come up with something which none of us could see or sense. It’s snuffling for truffles occasionally. It’s lovely when it happens. It’s undoubtedly hard work because that level of rigor is taxing on a lot of people. It’s very rewarding though.
Johnny English Reborn opens in theaters October 21.