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Gervais - 'I never craved fame, I feared it'

In his first starring film role, Ricky Gervais plays an obnoxious loser seeking redemption. Sound familiar? He talks to Gaynor Flynn

Ricky Gervais is having a David Brent moment. The comedian is trying to quote Keats and failing miserably. He's muttering something about a "gleaming brain". Then he stops and scratches his head. The line he's trying to remember is: "When I have fears that I may cease to be,/ Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain."

Gervais brought up the poet to make a point: that Keats was only 21 when he wrote that, and was already worried about running out of time. "I feel like that," says Gervais, who's 46. "I think, 'Oh my God, I don't want to die with any ideas." He laughs when he realises how that sounds. "I mean unfinished business."

That's why he doesn't read novels. He hasn't even read his partner, Jane Fallon's, two books. "It's like I have attention deficit disorder when it's not about me creating it," he says. "I open a book, I'll read the first line, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...' I think, 'Ooh, that's a good starter', then I'm off on my own ideas."

He's a "late trier", he says, and his ADHD is a symptom of his need to make up for lost time. He was 35 when he got his break at the London radio station XFM. Being employed as "head of speech" on a music station gave him little to do, so he DJed and hired an assistant "who I could boss around all day". That's how he met Stephen Merchant, now his chief collaborator. From there, he was asked to fill a spot on The 11 O' Clock Show when Ali G pulled out. Soon after, The Office was born.

Success came relatively easily to Gervais, once he applied himself. "I wasn't struggling [to break in], because I wasn't trying," he says. "The only thing that I tried and failed at was being a pop star, but that wasn't a struggle because I was enjoying myself. So I wasn't going around going, 'Oh, I'm 36, I should create the most successful British comedy of all time.' It just fell into place. But when it happened, that's when you go, 'Do not blow this.' And I've worked harder in the last three years than the rest of my life put together."

In that time, Gervais finished The Office, launched his other hit TV show Extras, popped up in a few films, wrote some children's books and did some stand-up. Now, he's about to direct his first film, This Side of the Truth, starring Jennifer Garner and Rob Lowe. He also has a film due out, Ghost Town, which is his debut as a leading man.

A few years ago, Gervais described how he hated it when a British comedian became popular: "The first thing they do is appear in four films and they're all terrible, lottery-funded, tacky shit," he said. Given that he's impossible to avoid these days, what's his view now? He laughs and scratches his nose (he does that when he's uncomfortable).

"The difference with me is that I've never said yes to anything to up my profile. I've never said yes because I was flattered. I've probably been offered two films a week for the last four years, but I turned everything down," he says. "I always thought my first film would be written and directed by me and Stephen, because I've always done my own thing. I've taken three cameos: I took a Christopher Guest cameo because he's my hero; I took a Ben Stiller cameo because he sent me an email saying, 'Can you return the favour from me doing Extras?'; and I did Stardust because it was Robert De Niro and I got him in Extras."

Gervais must be supremely confident. Hollywood is knocking, and he won't let them in? "It's not that," he says. "It's because I know I'll never regret saying no but I might regret saying yes. And it's not like I'm not working. I have to take time out to do these films. I mean, my favourite thing in the world is being in a room with Steve, coming up with the idea. I love that more than acting, more than the awards. So all these things are diversions and it really has to scream at me, 'You've got to do this.'"

Ghost Town hollered, apparently. Gervais plays Dr Bertram Pincus, a man who dies for seven minutes during a routine operation. When he recovers he can see dead people, and they all want something from him, particularly Frank (Greg Kinnear) who wants Pincus to stop the impending marriage of his widow (Tea Leoni).

Gervais calls the film "very me", and he's right. Pincus is an obnoxious loser in need of redemption. "Redemption's my favourite thing. I never understood, growing up, why someone was more forgiven because he failed and of course as you get older you think, well, great. And playing screwed-up people is more interesting. I think comedy is about empathy and I don't think people want to see unfeasibly handsome, successful people doing well. It's boring."

Perhaps that explains why the tabloids regularly try to take him down a peg or two. Gervais might not be "unfeasibly handsome" (he describes himself as round-faced, short), but he is undeniably successful and he's been accused of turning into one of the self-involved celebrities he sent up on Extras.

"It's ludicrous," he says. "If I got cocky my friends would be like, 'Who do you think you are?' We laugh at people who are vain or egotistical. And what could I be arrogant about? That I'm rich? That's never been anything to be proud of. I grew up on fairy tales. There was nobility in poverty."

Gervais is no longer part of that aristocracy. He and Fallon [his partner of 25 years] live in Hampstead and he's no doubt worth millions. Talking about money embarrasses him (more nose scratching). He grew up in Reading, on a housing estate. He was the youngest of four ("the mistake") and money was tight. But he didn't want for anything.

Despite the A-list friends, Gervais says he never craved fame, he feared it. "You're not anonymous any more," he says. "People looking at me, it gives me the creeps. I always knew I'd hate that. I despise people who'd do anything to be famous. There's a difference between Robert De Niro and someone who wins Big Brother, and I want to be in the first count."

He also feared the press, bad press especially. And then it happened. A journalist slated his performance at the Diana concert last year. "He said, 'He died on his arse. The Office was over-rated, Extras was awful. This is the last of Ricky Gervais,' and I just thought, 'Fuck.' Then I thought, 'Why am I scared of what you think? You haven't done anything.' And I realised, only you can ruin your career. I think that's the best thing that's happened to me."

On the subject of demons, Gervais has a few, which of course is how David Brent came into being. "There but for the grace of God go I," he laughs. "I worked in an office. Everyone's got a bit of Brent in them. Everyone wants to be loved. And Andy Millman: what if I'd been given that dilemma? You either put on a funny wig or you go back to being a nobody? So my stuff is usually about opportunity. It's quite existential, really. It's about leading a good life. I'm an atheist and I'm as good a person as you could be. I want to go around thinking I haven't hurt anyone because that's what would keep me awake at night."

It's an odd comment, given that Gervais's humour is about as non-PC as it could be. "But it's a character, isn't it? I'm very politically correct. I shouldn't say it much; it ruins my image," he laughs. "I think there's a big difference between me and those comedians who go out and say, 'Why are there so many immigrants?' and they get a round of applause. Well, that's not comedy. That's spreading hatred."

When you ask Gervais if he's political, he says he's not, but he has opinions. "I like paying tax," he says, "because the welfare state meant that a working-class kid like me could get to university. So I believe in fairness."

If Gervais ever wanted to run for office, he'd probably do quite well. Last year, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most powerful people in the world. This year, he was 83rd on a newspaper's list of 100 Most Powerful People in British Culture list. "Well, power is good as long as it's artistic power as opposed to military," he says, laughing. "I quite like being a powerful comedian because I'm not going to invade anywhere. So, when power means artistic freedom, I can't get enough of it. I want 100 per cent power."

'Ghost Town' opens on 24 October