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TV Goodness Q&A: Ricky Gervais Discusses Netflix’s Derek [INTERVIEW] 

Photo Credit: Netflix
Photo Credit: Netflix

In a departure from his usual fare, creator, writer, director, executive producer and star Ricky Gervais takes on the role of a home care worker in Derek. TV Goodness participated in a press call with Gervais, where he discussed working on the show, how he cast the actors, and what makes this show different from anything he’s done before.

From Netflix:

A bittersweet 30-minute comedy drama about a group of outsiders living on society’s margins. Derek Noakes is a tender, innocent man whose love for his job shines through. Working in a retirement home, Derek cares deeply for the old people, because they are kind and funny and tell him stories of what life used to be like. Alongside him works Dougie, his landlord who is one of life’s unlucky individuals; Kev, a loveable train wreck; and Hannah, a care worker in the home and Derek’s best friend. She is smart, witty and hard-working, but unlucky in love, and, like Derek, always puts other people first. The uncaring outside world popping in and out will boil your blood and the residents inside will break your heart.

I’ve heard your inspiration for Derek was a lot of your family members that work in the care industry.

Ricky Gervais: “Yes.”

Did you pull any actual stories from real life events or was it more of just the spirit of things?

Ricky: “Much more just the spirit of things, but I have pulled a few stories. They’re not so much as you say stories as things in general. I’ve got over 20 or 30 years of hearing stories – some funny and some really sad. I just thought it was such a rich, fertile ground because these people have lived ordinary yet extraordinary lives – every  one of them. I find it fascinating that you’ve lived on this planet for 80 years and what you’ve seen, the changes you’ve seen.  And Derek – it’s just the best backdrop for him because it’s sort of a show about kindness, I suppose. It’s about forgotten people and people on the fringes of society that we sort of sometimes dismiss. I’ve always been fascinated with what’s their story. It’s also nice to return to ordinary people because in recent years I’ve done a lot of studies of fame and Hollywood, [like] Extras. I did a stand-up called Fame. I did the Golden Globes.I know most people in the world are Derek and Kev and Dougie and Hannah. They’re not Brad Pitt and Madonna and Johnny Depp. Real life is fascinating for me. There’s nothing more fascinating than real life. That plays back into the fake documentary format as well because I’m still obsessed with realism. Not only real stories that reflect in real references of society and stuff, but also naturalistic acting. I think that’s best captured in a documentary format because people know what they’re watching.  They’re watching something that’s meant to be real. That helps me really. That helps me get my point across.”

Did you have any trouble balancing the light and the darker, more emotional moments of the show?

Ricky: “Yes. It’s because it helps me get my point across and I think it’s all about empathy when you’re watching something like this and I’m sort of obsessed with realism. I always have been because I’m also telling stories that I want people to think could be true. I don’t really deal in the broad or the surreal and I want it to connect as hard as it can really. I think that fake documentary really delivers it. You know it sort of hits you in the heart. Even body language hits you without you knowing it really. You pick up these signals. As I’ve said, you know when you’re dealing with ordinary people. That connection is greater, fi you think this could be happening. Some documentary team is capturing it as opposed to being actors. I know that’s hard because you know if you’re a successful actor you’re probably a famous person. It gets harder and harder to explain your disbelief. I mean, I think some big Hollywood stars have a problem that you can never really see them in the role as a construction worker because you’re thinking, ‘Well, he’s the biggest star on the planet.’ So, I’ve never held that back. But I have in The Office where no one knew who any of us were. But you know people are smart. I think if they know what they’re meant to be watching, then you know they sort of get it right. But anything that helps really and certainly that format really helps people suspend their disbelief.”

I love this cast of characters. I’m wondering how you went about casting for this?  Did you know them?  Did they audition? 

Ricky: “Yes, in nearly every case with the main cast. Obviously I managed to get through my rigorous casting to let me play Derek. I secured that role early on. I wrote [Dougie] for Karl [Pilkington], because I wanted to bring out that grumpy misanthropic guy that was sort of right. In fact, after I’d filmed I told Karl that Dougie was based on Karl if you’d never met me and that really annoyed him. He said, ‘You cheeky bastard.’ Kerrie [Godliman] I’d worked with a couple of times before. A smaller part in Extras and a small part in Life’s Too Short and she was very, very natural. I wanted her to be strong and caring like all the women folk I knew growing up in my family. They were very sentimental and they loved kids and animals, but they also had to be like lionesses. I’ve always been fascinated with strong female characters because I think women are often props, particularly in comedy. It’s still like a male preserve for some reason. Women are usually props to make the bloke the central character particularly and in Hollywood as well. They’re either sort of airheads who just want to find a man or they’re after money or something or they’re bitches because they’ve got a career in mind. So I’ve always tried to treat them as equals to the male characters. And Kev [David Earl] – I’ve worked with David a few times. Again, he had a part in Extras and he’s a great character actor in his own right as well. So, yes, I suppose that I did have the four main cast in mind when I wrote the series. Then the rest I cast in the usual fashion.”

When you created Derek and knew you wanted to work on something like this, were you aiming to do something much more serious?  Did you want to show the real aspects of something like this?

Ricky: “Yes, exactly. Whatever I do – as I said before – I’m certainly obsessed with realism in possibilities of story. I like making the ordinary extraordinary, not starting with the extraordinary and the realism in acting as well. Because I think it connects more and I think it resonates more. There’s so many things you watch and you forget it immediately. You don’t talk about it the next day, you don’t care about it, you don’t need to watch it again. Well, I do like the idea that some[thing] hit[s] you a week later. Do you know what I mean?”

Yes.

Ricky: “I like it to get under your skin. And this does and it is more sincere. I’ve left behind the veil of irony that inhabit[s] most of my other work and most people’s comedy work I think. There’s always usually a veil of irony. That’s what makes it a bit different and a bit more dramatic – that there’s a sincerity in the characters. We’re not laughing at the characters now. Like with David Brent. We looked at the blind spot with David Brent. We’re laughing at the difference between how he sees himself and how we see him. There’s not that chasm in these characters. But, now I sort of got addicted to the sweetness and the kindness because it brought out the best of Derek and the other players. Also, you know it’s still a sitcom I guess because for me a sitcom is always about a family. Either a virtual family like Bilko or an actual family. Here, obviously, the family is the people that work in the care home. The outside threat is just an uncaring world. I wanted it to be sort of infectious that when you walk through the door, you’re sort of infected by kindness. Do you know what I mean?”

I do, yes. I think you can feel that.

Ricky: “Thank you.”

What led you to Netflix rather than a traditional network and what were some of the benefits of producing the show that way?

Ricky: “Well, I always try and keep my status as a free agent. I never take handcuff deals with anyone. I wanted to try them out and I genuinely thought they might be the future. I think that’s sort of coming true. TV habits have changed so much in the last 10, 15 years. Ehere’s a generation of kids now that don’t understand this concept of the common consciousness – what do you mean we have to sit down at 9:00 on a Thursday and watch it with the family?  No I don’t, I can watch it on the way to school tomorrow. And everything’s on demand. When Derek went out in the UK, it doubled its figures the next day on demand and that’s very interesting. I also heard little whisperings in the industry that some cable – premium cable and networks were getting worried about this new kid on the block called Netflix which has excited me. So I got Ted’s e-mail and I sent him a personal e-mail just saying ‘Hi, Ted, I think Netflix is the future. I’d like to do a show with you.’ And he sent back an e-mail saying, ‘We’ll take it.’”

In the past, British humor has been characterized as somewhat difficult for American audiences to fully grasp. That probably changed a lot with The Office. Even though this show is a bit more on the serious side, what do you think about it makes it sort of more inherently relatable to everyone?

Ricky: “I think people don’t know they want it, but they do want sincerity. I think they do deep down. I’ve noticed on Twitter as well, I can do snarky jokes, I can do this, I can do weird stuff and it gets lots of re-Tweets. But if I do a sincere Tweet that’s down the line, it connects with ten times the amount of people. I think people are quietly tired of the vulgarity that inhabits everything. You know, like they liked living in the student house. Every post is ironic. You want to say, ‘Put up a post of something you actually like. What do you actually like?’ I like that. I like that you sometimes grow out of that. You ask someone their top 10 albums and they don’t want to put Backstreet Boys and Sting. They try to think of really obscure, underground things because they think, ‘I can’t put that.’ I think sooner or later people relate more with honesty than anything else. And I did so consciously want to leave behind the veil of irony. I think that’s what makes it slightly different from my previous work and slightly different to most comedies is that sincerity. We’re not laughing at the characters, we’re not laughing at their blind spot. We’re laughing with them. We’re rooting for them from the outset because they’re doing a good job. Whatever fault someone’s got, whatever mistakes they make, if they were doing it to help someone, they’re forgiven. It’s all about motives. They just seem right really. It just seemed right.”

Can you talk about where this character began? How did you first get the Derek character?

Ricky: “I’ve actually had Derek as a character knocking around actually pre-Office. Originally it was an autograph hunter and it was to be about a group of autograph hunters that was sort of on the fringe of society – those people that you see in the street you sort of dismiss.  They were going to [go] for that and meeting famous people. I thought I’d drop that aspect of it because I’d just done enough about fame. Extras and even The Office was about fame. It was about ordinary people trying to be famous. I do a stand-up show called Fame, the Golden Globes, et cetera and so I dropped that aspect of it. Then it just clicked that I’d put these old nerds, these strange little outsiders doing something worthy. Then they can do what they want, really. I think the idea of a care home came to me because half my family work in care homes. Basically all the women folk in my family growing up do volunteer work or work in care homes. So I’ve got sort of 30 years of stories.  So it just – I just fused the two really.”

Can you talk about the blend of drama and comedy and how you go back and forth between the two?

Ricky: “Yes, I think real life is, for me, as exciting as it gets, really. There’s drama – everyone’s got drama, you know. Also, real life is a mixture of comedy and drama. You know? You muck around then you find a lump and you know you have to get through it. Humor gets you through that. We all have traumas, we all have heartaches where a brother is dying, but life goes on. It’s sort of about that really. It’s about having to be strong nod Hannah is probably the center of the piece – the heart of the piece. Because I sort of think that women, they sort of take care of the world really. As much as men think they probably do. Certainly in my family, the women held it together. They made ends meet. I’ve always tried to make the women count in my stuff, as three-dimensional as the men because I think often, particularly in comedy, women are props for the men to be funny and the women to look at them with disdain or – and that’s a theme that I’ve always liked as well – I’ve always explored is men as boys and women as adults which, again, I think is true. So, yes, I think that it’s seamless really. If you’re dealing in something that’s real, it can go from comedy to drama and back again because real life does. You have an argument, then you laugh about it. I’ve always liked that. I’ve always tried to be as real and honest. Comedy is real life with a thorn that’s taken out. It’s condensed. This is 25 minutes of a day in the life of. But, yes, it was worrying if people would accept it, that they were laughing about these weird little characters – then they have to take them seriously when they were crying. But I think if you set out that as a possibility from the outset, then you’ve earned it. You have to earn it. You do have to earn it. You can’t just have outrageously broad, silly characters doing ridiculous things all the time and then expect us to care about them.  So you do always have to hit the ground with the possibility of drama and you do that by just making the characters real and recognizable. That’s all – it’s as simple as that. I think that I don’t really want to try and get a laugh by making a character so outrageous that it loses all empathy, that you don’t care what happens to them. You know? I don’t want it to be a cartoon, I think.”

This is a very real portrayal of death and on reflecting on how people see their lives and fears. Did you view this as your kind of statement on death in a way?

Ricky: “No, I think that it’s always there and I think that if I’d have had a death in the The Office, you can’t get over it. A 30-year-old dying is just too traumatic. You can’t then go back to work and laugh about it. Whereas, if it’s the natural cycle of things, you understand a 90-year-old is going to die one day. Do you know that I mean? And it’s doesn’t make it any less sad, but you accept it more. You know, that’s the natural order of things. The old people die, young people don’t. That’s what we’ve come to expect. It’s how you die that matters. If you’ve got your loved ones around and if – I want there to be a respect. I want there to be respect about it, really. You know it happens. That’s what happens. We lose our grandparents, then we lose our parents. That’s happened to me.  I remember at my dad’s funeral, we were mucking around and we were doing funny things and celebrating. The vicar even looked worried when he saw us laughing because my brother had stitched him up and put in false information just to make us laugh in the funeral. It was fantastic. My brother thought it real interesting that the vicar came over and said, ‘Are you all right?’ He went, ‘Yeah, we were laughing about something else,’ and he said, ‘You know, he was 83.’  If he had been 50, we wouldn’t have been laughing.  And I just thought that – that that summed it up. Do you know what I mean?  We were saying he lived a great life and that’s it. So, yes, it’s sort of what he would have wanted.  Definitely.  Definitely. ”

Derek seems like one of your more challenging roles.  You got to really stretch your acting abilities. What was the most difficult thing about bringing him to life and would you say it’s your most challenging role to date?

Ricky: “I only think it’s challenging for the public because I think you know any diversion worries people. They think, ‘What is this?  This isn’t what we expected.’ For me, it’s not challenging at all. I feel that I can inhabit Derek as easy as being myself. In fact, I think it might even be easier for me to be Derek because he’s an easier person to be. It’s liberating saying what’s on your mind, saying ‘I love chimpanzees. I love them, want to cuddle them.’  It’s so – it’s so sweet and childlike. Children don’t have these restrictions. They don’t worry about what they say, they don’t worry about people think of them. They don’t care whether someone else likes what they like. So for me it’s easy to shuffle around. Also, I must say that some of those clothes were my own. That’s what people don’t realize. It wasn’t a big costume designing job. So I am comfortable shuffling around and saying things. So, no, it was a joy for me. But of course, you are always aware of the fact that it’s a challenge to the audience but it should be. It should be. I don’t want the audience to be that comfortable. I want things to worry them.  I want them to think about it.”

All 7 episodes of Derek are available now on Netflix.

Edited for space and content.

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1 Comment

  1. Amy

    This comment might be coming late, but something I don’t think was mentioned in the interview was the music. Every episode obviously had music meticulously picked. The music was so well matched, down to the word and tune, it created an emotional bond to the moment. I, too, am in a family of caregivers. This series was done exceptionally well and will be forever grateful to Ricky for creating it.

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