In the comedy/spy thriller “Johnny English Reborn,” Rowan Atkinson returns to the role of the most unlikely intelligence officer in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The accident-prone secret agent has retreated to a Tibetan monastery to hide from his shameful Mozambique cock-up eight years ago. But when English receives the call from MI7 to lead a mission that only he can handle, he realizes it’s his one shot at redemption and uses every trick and hi-tech gadget in his playbook to stop a group of international assassins before they eliminate a world leader and cause global chaos.
MoviesOnline sat down with Atkinson at a press conference in Los Angeles to talk about his return to action in the iconic role of MI7’s top spy. He told us what it is about his style of humor that transcends different cultures, how he worked with Daniel Kaluuya to develop the dynamic between their characters, and which James Bond actor inspired his character. He also discussed the directing process with Oliver Parker, the impact of the Jason Bourne movies on the evolution of the spy genre, and his comedic collaboration with fellow actors Gillian Anderson, Dominic West and Rosamund Pike.
Q: How fun was it for you to get back into this character? When you’re playing Johnny English, do you get a little bit of a sense of being that spy?
RA: Yes, you’re bound to get a sense of any character that you play. It’s not something you often do in comedy, because generally speaking, I suppose usually one’s characterizations or the situations that you are presented with are fairly facile or silly or shallow or fun so you don’t. I think 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. I remember I did a situation comedy in Britain for the BBC called The Blackadder and the fourth series of that was set in the trenches in France in the First World War which was a pretty unfunny environment by any measure. But, it was actually a surprisingly good context in which to set a sitcom because it meant that almost any joke shone out in sharp contrast to the tragic context in which it was set. I remember in the very final, final episode, at the end of it we had to do what was called go over the top which is when you have to leave your trench and go out into No Man’s Land and tackle the German enemy. Basically, the belief was that you were going to die because of the number of casualties that was suffered every time a platoon or squad went over the top. It was so high. So, it was that feeling as we were rehearsing for the five days before we shot the episode in the studio on the sixth day. It was a strange sort of feeling in the pit of your stomach that you were going to die at the end of the week or at the end of the recording session. It was something that I had never experienced before because it was a very unusual comic situation in which I found myself.
I’m not sure why I started talking about that because you asked me about the context of playing this part. All I’m saying is I think you’re bound to feel the dilemma of the character that you play. I mean, that’s a rather extreme example of it, but nevertheless I think 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 he’s rather human. I think he’s a rather realistic character, perhaps a more realistic and believable character in many ways than James Bond because James Bond is just a superman, whereas it’s rather fun to play someone with more faults and foibles.
Q: What do you think it is about your brand and style of humor that transcends different cultures?
RA: Obviously, I’m very dependent on places like Hong Kong and the Far East and Europe and all these places where thankfully so far the film has done well on Mr. Bean because Mr. Bean has established me and my reputation, if you like, in these territories, and of course, he’s 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. I mean, Johnny English is a little more complicated because he’s a bit more verbal, but there’s still very strong visual elements to him and I think the tone of the comedy is very similar. It’s very simple. It’s very accessible comedy. I’m afraid it’s not very sophisticated. Occasionally, it’s slightly sophisticated but not very. And, of course, it’s clean. It’s family comedy. As I was saying to somebody earlier today, Johnny English movies are that relatively rare thing which is a family comedy which isn’t animated. In this day and age, there aren’t many of those and so much comedy in the last five, eight years has been far more adult, far more in the American Pie, Hangover kind of tradition, whereas we’re definitely not in that tradition.
Q: What was it like to shoot in Hong Kong?
RA: It was great. I hadn’t been there since 1987 when it was still a British colony. The atmosphere had changed somewhat. It was a slightly less interesting place in many ways. It felt a little more sanitized, a little more cleaned up, whereas there was a lot more contrast I think in many ways between rich and poor in the old days and there was less of that now. It’s sort of like a huge shopping mall actually which is why all the Chinese come over from the mainland. That’s what they do. They come over to [shop] and not everyone is allowed over. It’s only certain people that are allowed over from what I gather even though it’s part of China. You’re not allowed in there unless you fulfill whatever requirements. But anyway, it was a great place and interesting because it’s got such an interesting history.
Q: Can you talk about working with Daniel Kaluuya in developing that dynamic between your characters and what it was 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. It’s like it’s always said, the role of straight man in many ways is as difficult if not more difficult than the role of funnyman because it’s a matter of dancing round a situation. Tucker’s got 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. He can’t just be a yes man. He’s got to have a personality of his own which Daniel has in spades luckily. We auditioned forty or fifty 20-something male actors for the part and he literally was the only one who was absolutely right. He’s got a fantastic face. He’s naturally very funny and very able but also tremendously empathetic, and my only regret about Daniel is we didn’t do more with him. I feel particularly at the beginning, I don’t think his character is well introduced. It’s all very brief and there were a couple of scenes at the beginning of Hong Kong that were cut for the usual reasons that the whole movie just felt too long and the Hong Kong section felt too long. But the regret was that it meant that Daniel didn’t get off to as strong a start as I feel he would have done if we’d had these scenes in. But by the end of the movie, I think he establishes himself extremely well and that was gratifying.
Q: There’s a wonderful scene at the end of the film where you’re preparing a lamb casserole to the tune of The Hall of the Mountain King. Can you talk about the inspiration for that scene?
RA: I don’t know where it came from except that I’d thought of it as a Mr. Bean sketch many years ago. I’d thought it was quite a sort of Mr. Beany thing and it seemed to adapt quite well to Johnny English. He’s basically making a lamb casserole in 2 minutes, 12 seconds which is how long it takes for The Hall of the Mountain King to play. For some reason, it had always been in my head. I don’t know where it came from or what the inspiration was. But it was, of course, in the body of the movie. It was in the scene in Kate’s flat in the film. But yet again, with it in there, because it’s irrelevant to the plot, it’s a complete branch line. It’s nothing to do with the progress of the story. We felt it was risky, just before your Act 3 as they say in your story, it’s a risky place to have a scene that has no relevance to anything even if it’s funny, even if it’s fun to watch. It was always a popular scene so we thought of just putting it as a DVD extra which it is or will be when the DVD comes out four days after the movie’s released. But we liked it enough to think why don’t we just stick it on at the end of the credits, even though not many people will see it because it’s quite a long way down the credits. I think most people will have left the theater but it’s a fun thing. But, as I said, it was in the main body of the movie and for good of the reel we decided to move it.
Q: You’re funny in your movies even when you’re serious. What about in real life? Are you funny too?
RA: I don’t know, maybe this press conference is proving the fact that I’m not. 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, but I’m not a naturally funny person. I can be reasonably funny, reasonably light hearted when I’m in the company of good friends, but I’m not a jokesmith. No, I tend to be quite serious.
Q: What was it like to work with Gillian Anderson and what did you make of her English accent? Was there ever a thought given to hiring a U.K. actress?
RA: I can’t remember if we thought of hiring a U.K. actress. I mean, we didn’t think of her as being not particularly English. I can’t remember what her background is. I think maybe she was born in Britain and then moved to the U.S. I think that’s what she did. Sorry if I’m not remembering it 100 percent. But she gives a good English accent. Obviously, she’s got a very good English accent and she does a very good American accent as well. I thought it was funny actually because we went to Australia for the premiere there and 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, she talks to them in an English accent. It was quite extraordinary how she entirely, unconsciously I suspect, tended to adapt to however she felt. I think we all tend to do that a tiny bit is adapt our way of speaking to those to whom we’re speaking.
But it was great to have her. She was very good, very strong. In fact, one of the reasons why we wanted to cast her was because she’s a very strong but also very attractive woman. There was a scene which was cut ironically from the film in the end when Johnny English first walks into her office at the beginning of the movie and his old sidekick from the first movie – he was called Bough – is in there in the room and he assumed obviously that this is Bough’s office and Gillian is his secretary so he comes onto the secretary and says ‘What are you doing for dinner tonight?” not knowing that she is actually the head of MI7 and then it’s all revealed. It was quite funny. But yet again, we felt as though it was holding up the story so it was cut. One of the many qualifications, if you like, that Gillian had, we didn’t use in the way that we had hoped. But like Dominic West and Rosamund Pike, her challenge is the challenge of any serious proper actor I would say — that’s how I describe them – proper actors – coming into a comedy movie. How much are they going to be leant on to provide the comedy? It’s sometimes very difficult. They don’t know. Are they supposed to be funny? Are they supposed to be obviously funny? Are their lines funny? Are they not funny? They look straight and serious as they read them. I suppose you’ve just got to convince them that even though it is a comedy, actually we hope it’s a kind of truthful character story comedy. It’s not where you have to lark about, or what larking about there is you can probably leave to me. All you’ve got to do is play the part straight and serious. But 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 that he’s not there or pretend that he’s not doing what he’s doing. So you’ve got to find your own reality and they all did it extremely well in the end simply by playing them very straight. One of our ambitions was to cast the movie as if we were casting a James Bond movie. I think all those people, including Rosamund who was cast in a James Bond movie, would do extremely well in James Bond movies because I always believed that the more serious and believable the British Secret Service world, the funnier Johnny English’s mistakes would appear in contrast to them and I think that was borne out. Sorry, I’m giving very long answers. Shorter answers, please!
Q: How do you collaborate with your fellow actors like Dominic West and Rosamund Pike in a comedic scene?
RA: I think most of the scenes and drama, and that’s a good thing about setting a comedy in a very serious world like the world of espionage, is that it’s a serious and proper and important world and all their characters have got to come across as serious, important and believable, you know, credible characters. I think all I tried to say to them was just do it for real and do it properly as if it’s a very serious drama and the jokes will work – not despite that but because of that.
Q: I assume there was a fair amount of improvisation throughout the production. Can you talk about what it was like working with director Oliver Parker?
RA: Very little improvisation unless Oliver remembers it differently. Very little improvisation on the floor of the studio actually. I mean, there was improvisation in the writing meetings. Most of the writing took place in a room with myself, the writer and Oliver Parker, the three of us just throwing around ideas and saying wouldn’t it be funny if this happened, wouldn’t it be funny if that happened, and then deciding on the funniest bits and trying to put them into a story. Or sometimes you start with the story and try to find some funny bits to go with the story. But on the studio floor there was not much improvisation. Obviously you’ve got to work things out like the chair scene in which the chair is going up and down and the scene with the Prime Minister. But we knew roughly that there was this serious scene with serious dialogue and Johnny English has a problem with a pneumatic chair and that’s all we knew about what the scene was. So really we had to be actually shooting it to work out the timing of the chair. How fast is it going to go up and down? Is it going to go slow? Is it going to go fast? Is it going to go down-up-and down or is it going to go up-down-and up? Where’s it going to end up? Is it going to end up here or is it going to end up there? All those kind of basic decisions which you can only do when you’ve got the actual appliance in your hand and you’re actually shooting it. Only then can you properly work it out. But, generally speaking, I think 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 worst one being never being happy really with what I do. Whenever I did anything, I always wanted another take. I wasn’t sure whether it was good enough and I think it’s very difficult for a director who can see when something works and is working well and the actor just says no or not well enough. It worked well but not as well as I think it could work or something. He was very patient of that particular challenge.
Q: Which Bond character is actually your favorite and did you take anything from them?
RA: My favorite Bonds are probably Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig. But the character I think from which Johnny English takes most is probably Roger Moore because there’s something about Roger Moore’s Bond which is that slightly smarmier, slightly more eyebrow raising, just a little more smug character that I think is slightly more Roger Moore. I always felt that the first Johnny English movie was a bit like a Roger Moore James Bond movie with more jokes. What’s interesting and what’s happened in the last eight years since the first Johnny English movie is that the spy genre has moved on a bit. The 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 suddenly we decided not to. Jason Bourne is a quite different character, more of an American character, less of a British character. Also, a lot of the distinguishing features of Jason Bourne are the editing and the shooting style which is very energized and very cutty, very dramatic, and I never thought that that would suit comedy. Comedy, I think, needs oxygen, needs space and time and a wider shooting style and less cutty. What’s conspicuous about the chair scene, for example, is how long we hold on a single three-shot of just the Prime Minister, Johnny English and the guy next to him, and just his chair going up and down and the camera never moves. It’s the perspective of the voyeur. It’s the kind of cheeky arrogance, if you like, of the camera’s view which is saying I’m just going to look at this and I’m not going to move. It lends this theatrical kind of tension I think when you think the camera’s not going to move so I’m just going to have to watch this as it is, and whatever is developing in the scene you’re kind of more involved with, I think. So we had all sorts of ideas about parodying Jason Bourne but we kind of abandoned them. What’s also quite good though is about the way that Jason Bourne has moved James Bond into a more serious realm. Now the new James Bond movie is more serious in tone which I think was a good decision for them. But it’s a good decision for us as well because it’s left the arena of more light hearted, more likely touching espionage to us. We can have more fun because so few other people are being funny or even witty really with the spy genre.
Q: On set, what’s the risk of cracking up if something funny happens? Do you have any trouble with that?
RA: Not me. I don’t have any trouble at all sadly which is why whenever they’re 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 actually. They have managed to scrape together a few slightly lighthearted moments for the bloopers stuff which will be on the DVD. But no, I don’t. I mean, others do, the other actors in the chair scene were laughing quite a lot, but sometimes I couldn’t understand what they were laughing at and then I realized that they were just laughing at what we were doing, at what I was doing. So yeah, not much of that for me.
Johnny English Reborn opens in theaters on October 21st.