Ricky Gervais Talks “Derek,” Mockumentaries, and Death

The comedian dials up the drama in the new Netflix series, which he created, wrote, produced, directed, and stars in.

Set in a British home for the elderly, Derek centers on the daily lives of the residents, employees, and volunteers – most notably, the simple, sweet (and to some, controversial) title character, played by Gervais. Filmed in the same mockumentary style as The Office, Derek – though it has plenty of humorous moments – marks a more dramatic turn for the comedy actor. Can he pull it off? See for yourself; all seven episodes are currently streaming on Netflix.

Where did you first get the idea for the character of Derek?

Well, I’ve actually had Derek as a character knocking around pre-Office. But originally it was an autograph hunter, and it was going to be about a group of autograph hunters who were sort of on the fringe of society. Those groups of people who you see on the street and you sort of dismiss, and we were gonna follow them, you know, meeting famous people. And I thought I’d drop that aspect of it because I had just done enough about fame with Extras – and even The Office was about fame, it was about ordinary people trying to be famous… So I dropped that aspect of it and then it just clicked. I put these little nerds, these strange little outsiders doing something worthy, and then they can do what they want, really. The idea of a care home came to me because half of my family worked in care homes, all the women folk in my family growing up. I’d do volunteer work or work in care homes so I’ve got sort of 30 years of stories, so I just fused the two, really.

Did you pull any actual stories from the real-life experiences of your family, or was it more just in the spirit of things?

Much more just in the spirit of things. I have folded a few stories in, but they’re not so much strict stories as things in general. I’ve got 20 or 30 years of stories, some funny and some really sad. I just thought, it’s such rich, fertile ground because these people have lived ordinary yet extraordinary lives, every one. 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 it’s just the best backdrop for Derek because it’s sort of a show about kindness, I suppose, and it’s about forgotten people, and people on the fringe of society that we sometimes dismiss. I’ve always been fascinated with their stories. It’s also nice to return to ordinary people because in recent years, I’ve done a lot of research on fame and Hollywood. [I did] Extras, [and] I did a stand-up [special] called “Fame,” and I did the Golden Globes… And I know most people in the world are [like the characters] Derek and Kev and Dougie and Hannah – they’re not Brad Pitt and Madonna and Johnny Depp. There’s nothing more fascinating than real life.

Can you expand on how that relates to the documentary style of the show?

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. I’m sort of telling a story that I want people to think is true. I don’t really deal in the broad or surreal, and I wanted it to connect as hard as it can, really. And I think that documentary really delivers it; it sort of hits you in the heart, you know, human body language hits you without you knowing it, you pick up these signals, so that’s sort of why I’ve done the documentary. And, as I’ve said, when you’re dealing with ordinary people, that connection is greater if you think that this could be happening and some documentary team is capturing it as opposed to them being actors. I know that’s hard because if you’re a successful actor, you’re probably a famous person. It gets harder and harder to suspend your disbelief. I mean, I think some big Hollywood stars have a problem, you know, you could never really see them in a role as a construction worker because you’re thinking, “You’re the biggest star on the planet.” I had that on The Office when nobody knew who any of us were. But you know, people are smart. If they know what they’re meant to be watching then they sort of get it right. But anything that helps really – and certainly that format helps people suspend their disbelief.

Derek has a great cast of characters. How did you go about casting for this? Were these parts written for these actors?

Yes. In nearly every case, actually. For the main cast, obviously I managed to get through my rigorous casting to let me play Derek. I secured that role early on. Karl [Pilkington, who plays Dougie] I wrote in because I wanted him to bring out that grumpy, misanthropic guy that was sort of right. In fact, after I filmed I told Karl that Dougie was based on Karl if he’d never met me, and that really annoyed him. He’s a cheeky bastard. Kerry [Godliman, who plays Hannah] I’d worked with a couple times before – she had a smaller part in Extras and a small part in Life’s Too Short – and I liked her because she was 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 male-preserved for some reason and women are used as props to make the bloke the central character, particularly in Hollywood as well. They’re either sort of airheads who just want to find a man, or they’re after money, or they’re bitches because they’ve got a career in mind. So I’ve always tried to treat them as I do the male characters. And as for Kev, I’ve worked with David [Earl] a few times, again another part in Extras, a great character actor in his own right as well. So yes, I suppose I had the four main cast in mind when I wrote the series, and the rest I casted in the usual fashion.

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

Well, I always try and keep my status as a free agent. I never take handcuff deals with anyone. And I wanted to try them out and I genuinely thought they might be the future, and I think that’s sort of coming true. TV habits have changed so much already in the last 10 to 15 years, and there’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 o’clock on a Thursday and watch it with the family? No I don’t, I can watch it on the way to school tomorrow.” 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 networks were getting worried about this new kid on the block called Netflix, which excited me. So I got [Netflix’s chief content officer ­Ted Sarandos’] email and I sent him a personal email just saying, “Hi Ted, I think Netflix is the future. I’d like to do a show with you.” And he sent back an email saying “We’ll take it!”

British humor is often characterized as difficult for American audiences to fully grasp. Derek may be more of a drama, but it still has that trademark wit; what makes it inherently relatable to all audiences?

I think people don’t know it, but they want sincerity.  I think they do, deep down, and I’ve noticed it on Twitter as well. I can do snarky jokes, I can do weird stuff and it gets lots of retweets, but if I do a sincere tweet that’s down the knife, it connects with 10 times the amount of people. I think people are quietly tired with that veil of irony that inhabits everything. You know, if I live in a student house, every poster is ironic. You want to say, put up a poster of something you actually like. What do you actually like? I like that you sometimes grow out of that. I think because people are worried that what they like is cool, they worry about saying what they like. You see that in every walk of life. 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 music, and I think that sooner or later people relate more with honesty than anything else. And I did sort of consciously want to leave behind the veil of irony, and I think that’s what makes it slightly different to my previous work and slightly different to most comedy is that sincerity. We’re not laughing at the characters, we’re not laughing at the blind spot, we’re laughing with them. We’re rooting for them from the outset because they’re doing a good job. Whatever faults someone’s got, whatever mistakes they made, if they’re doing it to help someone, they’re forgiven. It’s all about motives. And it just seemed right.

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

Real life is a mixture of comedy and drama, you know. You muck around and you find a lump. And you have to get through it, and humor gets you through it. And we all have traumas, we all have heartaches, we have brothers dying, but life goes on. And it’s sort of about that, really. It’s about having to be strong. So, yeah, I think that it’s seamless if you’re dealing with something that’s real; it can go from comedy to drama and back again because real life does. You have an argument, and then you laugh about it. I’ve always liked that, I’ve always tried to be real and honest. You know, comedy is just real life with the boring bits taken out. That’s all it is, really. It’s condensed; this is 25 minutes of a day in the life of. But it was worrying if the people would accept it, that they were laughing about these weirdo characters and then they had to take them seriously when they were crying. But I think if you set that out as a possibility from the outset then you’ve earned it. You have to earn it. You can’t just [write] silly characters and then expect us to care about them. You always have to hit the ground with the possibility of drama, and you do that by making the characters real and recognizable. That’s all. It’s as simple as that. I don’t really want to try to get a laugh by making a character so outrageous that it loses all empathy, and you don’t care what happens to them. I don’t want it to be a cartoon.

Derek offers a really interesting portrayal of death, not only in terms of elderly residents dying in the course of the series, but also in terms of people seeing death as a way to reflect on their lives. Did you view this as your statement on death?

I think that it’s always there, but if I’d had a death in The Office, you can’t get over it. A 30-year-old dying is just too traumatic. You can’t go back to work and laugh about it. Whereas, it’s a natural cycle of things, you understand that a 90-year-old is going to die one day. It doesn’t make it any less sad, but you accept it more. That’s the natural order of things, you know. Old people die and young people don’t. That’s what we’ve come to expect and it’s how you die that matters, and if you’ve got your loved ones around. I want there to be respect around it, really. You know, it happens. That’s what happens. We lose our grandparents and then we lose our parents. That happened to me. I was at my dad’s funeral and we were mucking around and we were doing funny things, and the vicar even got worried when he saw us laughing, because my brother fixed him up and put false information [into the service] just to make us laugh during the funeral, and it was fantastic. The vicar came and said, “Was that alright?” And we said, “Yeah, we were laughing at something else.” And my brother said, “He was 83; if he had been 15 we wouldn’t have been laughing.” And I thought that summed it up. He lived a great life, and that’s it. It’s what he would’ve wanted, definitely.

What was the most difficult thing about bringing Derek to life?

I only think it’s challenging for the public because I think any diversion worries people. They think, “What’s this? This isn’t what I 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 being Derek because he’s an easier person to be. It’s liberating saying what’s on your mind, saying, “I love chimpanzees, I’d love some, I wanna cuddle them.” 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 what 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 I wore as Derek 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 playing dark 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. I don’t want the audience to be that comfortable. I want things to worry them. I want them to think about it.