Merchant in LA
Click here to listen to Mike Trudell's
interview with Stephen Merchant
Stephen Merchant is an Emmy and Golden Globe-award winning writer, director, and comic actor who’s best known for collaborative work with his mate Ricky Gervais on British sitcoms “The Office” and “Extras,” as well as the most popular podcast of all time, “The Ricky Gervais Show.”
Merchant, who’s currently filming a role as the sidekick in a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson family film called “The Tooth Fairy,” was courtside for his first professional basketball game Sunday night as the Lakers took on the Toronto Raptors in preseason action.
We brought Merchant into the tunnel after the third quarter to talk hoops, “The Office” and more.
MT: Stephen, what many Americans might not know while laughing at “The Office” or “Extras” is that you’re one of the tallest men in Great Britain, all of 6-7 or 6-8? It must be nice sitting next to the Lakers bench.
Stephen Merchant: I am 6-7 and it’s great to be amongst tall people here. I’m trying to pass myself off as like an English player that’s really well known over there but not here. That’s what I’m trying to do.
MT: If I were making an English basketball team, I’d go with you, Peter Crouch (Portsmouth striker), Luol Deng and … Um …
Merchant: There aren’t many tall British people. There’s not much of a British basketball scene as you probably well know. I played a little bit in school, but the glasses were always a problem. The ball was always knocking my glasses off and people were trampling on them, so I never much played.
MT: I know from listening to your podcasts that your mother got in the way of what was clearly a bright future in sports.
Merchant: Listen, the raw talent is there, but yeah, the first time I went to play rugby my mother said “Be careful, I know a guy who broke his back the first time he ever played,” and that made me a little bit nervous. I generally looked to stay on the sidelines and would have been happy being a cheerleader, to be honest.
MT: At 6-7 you’d better be able to dunk? Right?
Merchant: Uh, if there’s no one trying to stop me I could maybe have a go at it. But yeah, watching these players – this is the first time I’ve been at a basketball game –up close and personal, it’s extraordinary to see them at work. I mean really breathtaking. Knowing a little bit about the game, having played a bit myself, it’s remarkable to see them.
MT: And from your courtside spot the (Lakers) are right in front of your face. How about the athleticism?
Merchant: Not only that, but I’ve sat next to Kobe Bryant when they were taking a breather, and it’s extraordinary just to be in the (area) with these people. They just seem so relaxed, that’s the thing that really amazes me, watching them in between plays. They’re just people that want to play ball. It’s sort of second nature to them. It’s in their blood, you know?
MT: Who would win a 1-on-1 hoops game between your cohorts Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington?
Merchant: Well, Ricky would play dirty. He’d come in for the ankles, he’d be biting the knees, but I think Karl is a bit taller than Ricky. He would hold him with his hand on his head like in a cartoon when someone is holding a dwarf at bay … And the dwarf’s trying to punch him but they can’t? That’s kind of how it would be.
MT: It’d be interesting to hear Karl’s thoughts on the game…
Merchant: He’s a man who just has an amazing outlook on the world. I think he would come to a game like this and just think the whole thing was pointless. He’d be like, “Why are these people bothering,” “Why are they being played this much money,” which I’m sure of the non-sport fans feel the same way. But yeah he would find the whole thing baffling and wouldn’t understand what was happening.
MT: Maybe he’d be on the lookout for insects?
Merchant: He’d always be looking for insects. I mean this is a man who famously said, “What are those things in the film “Gremlins” called. Gremlins, Karl. He’s just an extraordinary guy. He would not enjoy this.
MT: As the co-creator of the original BBC “The Office,” who’s your favorite American “Office” character?
Merchant: I really like the Ed Helms character (Andy), I think he’s really very funny. I dunno, I just directed an episode and to work with them was great. To work with Steve Carrell particularly, who’s an absolute gentlemen and really such a funny man – he can improvise sketches that would have taken Ricky and I months to write. He’s really an extraordinary talent.
MT: Where and when can we find your next piece of work?
Merchant: You’ll soon see me playing the sidekick to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a forthcoming film that he’s doing, a family comedy called “The Tooth Fairy.”
MT: Wow, you’re Hollywood now…
Merchant: I am Hollywood now. Within six months people who don’t know me know will be having their kids run up to me asking for autographs. It’s going to be a whole different world.
MT: Were you surprised to be recognized immediately here at the Laker game?
Merchant: Particularly in Los Angeles I get noticed quite a lot. It’s surprising. I think because a lot of our show “Extras” was about the movie industry, so a lot of people in L.A. respond to that. Mostly in supermarkets…
MT: Mostly ladies, of course…
Merchant: It’s never ladies. It’s never beautiful women. It’s always, dare I say it, nerdy guys like yourself.
MT: Ha! Fair enough. Now one thing about Ricky (who’s become massively famous) … Do people realize you’re the mastermind behind the operation?
Merchant: I would not want to make that claim at all. If that’s your presumption, then so be it. But for the sake of decorum, I’d say it’s 50-50.
MT: Will we see you at STAPLES Center again?
Merchant: Oh I would love to come, I’d love to be here for a game that really matters. I’d imagine the atmosphere is electric.
MT: Much like an English football game…
Merchant: I think you’re right. When it’s their team playing and it’s an electrifying atmosphere when it’s unlike anything else – a sporting environment when people are totally tuned into every moment … There’s nothing else like it is there? It’s just extraordinary.
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