Ricky Gervais cast himself as a background movie actor in the HBO comedy series Extras. But in real life he has been top-of-mind since The Office, which he co-created, wrote and starred in. It burst onto British TV in 2001, and a remake blossomed into a hit on NBC.
Gervais, 45, has small but standout roles in Night at the Museum and the Oscar-buzz sendup For Your Consideration, both in theaters. This month, he starts a sold-out U.K. stand-up tour (titled Fame). He'll appear in next summer's Stardust— based on the graphic novel — with Robert De Niro. He's a sometime TV actor (Alias), children's author (Flanimals) and Simpsons writer, for an episode suggested by his longtime girlfriend that's a Homerian take on Wife Swap.
Now, in Extras' six-episode second season starting Sunday (10 ET/PT), he's back as Andy Millman, surrounded by a star-studded lineup: De Niro, David Bowie, Orlando Bloom, Daniel Radcliffe, Coldplay's Chris Martin, Ian McKellen and Diana Rigg play themselves, adding verisimilitude to his behind-the-scenes showbiz tales.
How did he do it? By combing press clippings on the British Office for quotes from famous fans, then approaching them. "We thought we could cash in some of our chips" from praise for that series, in which Gervais stars as David Brent, the self-important loser that Steve Carell adapted for NBC. "It was never really, 'Look at my Hollywood chums!' We needed them to add realism."
So Bloom rips Johnny Depp while pursuing Andy's friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen, who also co-stars in Ugly Betty). Radcliffe — shunning his Harry Potter persona — is something of a ladies' man. Bowie takes a turn humiliating Andy, and De Niro cools his heels with Andy's inept agent, played by Stephen Merchant, Gervais' creative partner in Office and Extras.
De Niro is "a hero of mine. I have a chance to have a meeting with him, and I don't turn up," says Gervais, who "worked up the courage" to ask De Niro after filming Stardust.
Though De Niro was game, and last season Ben Stiller played himself as a megalomaniac, American Idol judge Simon Cowell turned down an Extras role. In the season finale, Andy appears on a talk show in which Cowell was to have been glimpsed singing karaoke. "He said, 'I'll do anything else. I can't sing; I think that clip would be shown forever.' I went, 'No, that's the offer. It's meant to be embarrassing.' "
This season, Andy gives up his bit-player status in tony films to play an addled boss on When the Whistle Blows, a silly British sitcom about factory workers.
"He chooses fame over respect and then has to live with it" by enduring the close scrutiny of fans, the press and even a panhandler.
Playing Brent was "more fun" ("It's always fun to play the idiot," Gervais says), but he gave himself more of the straight-man role in Andy to distance himself from his breakout character.
"Andy's brutally self-aware, and David is blissfully unaware. David's in denial; Andy knows what lot he's been handed and doesn't like it. David craves popularity, (while) Andy doesn't care about popularity, because he's not a people person. Andy's cleverer," but unlike David, has a split personality: "When he's surrounded by the idiots, he's in charge, but when he's faced with a director or producer who could help him, he's a fool."
Extras is a co-production between HBO and BBC, which aired the new batch of episodes last fall. But like The Office, it will end after two short seasons.
"We get in and out," Gervais says. "Also, I want Steve Carell to do a remake. He can do 50 episodes where I can do 12."
Next up, Gervais and Merchant are mulling a sketch-comedy series, "but not recurring characters, not catchphrases, just one-off pieces, almost like Monty Python without the surreal aspects," and a long-gestating period dramedy called Men at the Pru, about "a group of twentysomethings in 1970 in a small seaside town where the sexual revolution didn't hit."