Comedy can be a dreadful business, even for a gifted funnyman like Rowan Atkinson.
Consider âJohnny English Strikes Againâ â starring this rubbery-faced, Gumby-limbed comedian as a bumbling would-be James Bond â which arrives seven years after the franchiseâs second installment and 15 after the first.
What took so long, you ask?
âIâm someone who finds filmmaking, I suspect like many people in my line of work, incredibly stressful and not enjoyable at all,â Atkinson said. âI enjoy the fruits of the filmâs success if they do well, but I donât enjoy the process. I find it really, really, really hard.â
So hard, in fact, that after a false start that revolved around a Romanian orphan and his evil twin, Atkinson and the screenwriter William Davies went back to the drawing board. The result: a âSkyfallâ spoof, in which a cyberattack on MI7 compromises the current agents and necessitates that Johnny, now a geography teacher, be brought out of retirement.
But in taking down a digital villain, Johnny opts to go Luddite, shunning a smartphone in favor of old-school gadgetry like exploding Jelly Babies and magnetic boots, all packed in a flirty red Aston Martin V8 Vantage that Atkinson bought for the film himself.
For nearly four decades, Atkinson, 63, has put his signature eyebrows â like quivering Roman arches â to sidesplitting use as a time-traveling Blackadder, a verbally constipated Mr. Bean, a tongue-tangled clergyman in âFour Weddings and a Funeralâ and an overzealous gift-wrapper in âLove Actually.â In a phone interview from London, he spoke about the allure of the spy, the power of free speech and why being humorous is often no fun at all.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
In its opening weekend in Britain, âJohnny Englishâ came in second to âVenomâ in box-office grosses, but beat out a âA Star Is Born.â It looks like Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have some competition.
Yeah, finally. [Laughs] Itâs held up quite well just because the weather is terrible here, so that helps everybody trying to sell tickets to movies.
That thing about the process being âreally, really, really hard.â Please explain.
Whatever I do, I think I could do better. Iâm fairly notorious for wanting another take and another take and another take and another take â and another take. And sometimes thatâs good, but very often it becomes counterproductive. The sitting around in an office in London thinking about wouldnât it be funny if Johnny did this or did that â thatâs fun. And then the editing and the music and the sound dub â that I enjoy very much. But the meat in the sandwich, where you actually have to make it work in front of the cameras, I really dislike.
You actually appeared in the Bond film âNever Say Never Again.â Is Johnny modeled on Sean Connery?
Iâve always thought that Roger Moore is more Johnny Englishâs inspiration. I think heâs slightly more the raised eyebrow, more ironic, more just having a lot of fun in the world in which heâs found himself. And that is Johnnyâs view. Heâs quite a self-centered, self-regarding individual. Johnny is not remotely interested in anybody else or their lives. Heâs just thinking about the adventure that heâs on and in the end, he just wants to drive the fast cars and wear the sharp suits and go to the exotic locations. And of course garner plaudits if he can.
Emma Thompson, who plays the prime minister in âJohnny English,â has called you a modern-day Charlie Chaplin. How do you see yourself?
I donât think about myself very much in the pantheon of comedy history. But Chaplin was certainly an inspiration. The French comedian Jacques Tati was very important for Mr. Bean. I saw âMonsieur Hulotâs Holidayâ when I was 17, and it just had a tone and an attitude and a slowness that I had never seen in a comedy movie before. That idea of expressing yourself entirely visually rather than verbally was inspired by him as much as anything else.
Mr. Bean is staggeringly popular, with more Facebook fans than even Taylor Swift. Any plans to bring him out of retirement?
No plans to bring him back. If you look at the 80 million Facebook friends that Mr. Bean has, an awful lot of that is in China and India and Venezuela and Malaysia and Europe and the Far East â and far less general interest in the U.S. We only ever made 13 half-hour TV shows, and 13 shows are not going to get you onto any American terrestrial TV network. But the good thing about the internet is that itâs just a matter of people clicking, and they can see anything and everything that Iâve ever done.
A reviewer in The Guardian asked, âCanât the British film industry give Rowan Atkinson a role that really does justice to his talent?â
Itâs an interesting question and I havenât a clue. I mean, itâs the age-old dilemma of being known for doing a certain thing in a certain way. And even if people think, âWell, we could cast him in this role,â then they say, âHe just brings a lot of Mr. Bean baggage with him and would people take it seriously?â I can see myself in some Dickensian role, those sorts of characters. But I think I might have burnt my bridges with the outright silliness of so much of what Iâve done.
In August, you defended Boris Johnson, Britainâs former foreign secretary, after he wrote that women who wear burqas look like âbank robbersâ and âletter boxes.â Were you serious?
Partly so, partly not. Iâm not a supporter of Boris Johnson. I have no interest in him or his political ambitions. [But] I do defend people who make jokes about religion. I was part of a campaign to oppose a Parliamentary bill [the Racial and Religious Hatred Act] in 2006 because I draw a distinction between race and religion, and I think religious practices and beliefs can and should be lampooned. Itâs been quite a British tradition for many hundreds of years.
But it sort of bleeds through into the challenges of free speech in the modern era, and this new definition of free speech â which is free speech is fine as long as it doesnât offend anybody. And free speech to me is completely meaningless if you canât offend.