Lee Evans: Evans knows he's miserable now

Lee Evans says that his life is a painful search for meaning, and that, for all his success in Hollywood, he still thinks of himself as an 'idiot from a council estate'. Fiona Morrow meets the rubber-faced loon on the set of his new film
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The Independent Culture

I can't say I've ever really laughed at Lee Evans. His Norman Wisdom-esque tumbledown comedy leaves me completely cold. I admit I've never seen his stand-up live – just on telly a couple of times – and his film roles in Mouse Hunt and There's Something About Mary were fine, but generally I just don't get the joke. So I find it especially hard to believe that when a movie starring Christopher Walken hits town, it's Evans the crowds turn out for. Well, we are in Wales...

Today's shoot is in a former-miners' recuperation home; once a spectacularly grand gothic pile, it's slipping into disrepair and now makes money as a film set. The film is a British comedy – Plots With A View – directed by Nick Hurran and starring alongside Walken and Evans are Brenda Blethyn and Alfred Molina.

On arrival I hear that there's been an accident on set in which Evans narrowly escaped puncturing a lung when he fell on an inch-long nail. The atmosphere is muted, and the concern palpable.

Evans quietly fetches himself a cup of coffee, stopping to chat with the various crew members hanging around a pile of sugary doughnuts. When we sit down, he quickly shrugs off his earlier trip to hospital as "one of those things". Dressed top-to-toe in black for his role as Delbert, hapless assistant to insanely ambitious funeral director Frank (played by Walken), Evans adds his own Joe-90 heavy-framed specs. In contrast to his India-rubber comedy persona, he appears introspective, attentive to questions and thoughtful in response.

He says he can't believe his luck to be working with such a talented cast: "For me, this is all a learning curve," he explains in his high-pitched, sing-songy voice. "So to work with people like Christopher, Alfred and Brenda is amazing."

He's worked with Walken before, of course, on Mouse Hunt and his admiration for the American remains undimmed: "He just makes me laugh on a daily basis – a lot of people are scared of him but I find him really funny. He has such incredible screen presence: I'm looking at him and I'm wondering what I must be like; my eyes going everywhere." He pauses, sighs a little and continues: "He must be thinking, 'There's way too much mugging going on here.' "

Despite the self-doubt, Evans is enjoying himself: "It's brilliant to work on a set where no one's flipping out or throwing a tantrum," he smiles. "Everyone's concentrating on the work, and I love that sort of environment. There's none of that crap going on." So his experience in Hollywood wasn't so great? "I don't know," he shrugs. "That stuff doesn't really affect me. I've always been me own man and done me own thing, so anyone shouting a loop about the coffee not being hot enough – I just let them get on with it. As long as it doesn't affect me..."

At this point, the sound engineer enters the room with an elderly woman in tow and Evans leans forwards and starts whispering in my ear: "It's me mum. Never talks. Always ignores me..."

Interlopers excised, we return to our main topic: Evans. "All I'm interested in," the 37-year-old confides earnestly, "is being creative and working with creative people."

When he tells me that's what he "yearned" for when he left school, he imbues it with such heartfelt emotion, I can barely stop myself giving him a hug.

"I went to art college for two years and I absolutely loved it," he recounts, brightening up. "I was this shy, kind of fuzzy-haired idiot from a council estate – and to some extent I still am." He pauses and drops his eyes: "I still have to fight with that. I've still got a chip on my shoulder about that."

Where he came from, in Kettering, art college wasn't the regular choice: "My family thought I was gay because I did art and wore freaky socks," he says with a rather hollow chuckle. "But it's all I'd ever wanted – to paste something on a wall or paint – it's a very exciting and emotional experience."

He still paints, holing up in the garden shed till the wee small hours determined to make his mark. His wife, he tells me, is his foundation: "She thinks I'm completely bonkers, and I love her to death. We met at school – she knows me very well – and she's lovely."

He's thrilled that his seven- year-old daughter has taken after him, with the caveat that "she's got my wife's brains, which is really fortunate".

School, he admits, wasn't much fun: "I was really quiet, I spent many hours just in the corner. I was like an idiot. Crap at sport..." he recalls. He takes a moment, collecting his thoughts then continues, his voice gaining more force: "I think that's what drives me. I bang out of bed in the morning and I think 'I must do something', and I think I'll be like that until the day I die – I'll just keel over doing something, looking for whatever I'm searching for which probably doesn't exist."

He looks away and mutters softly to the empty room: "It's just really odd, kind of painful, bollocks."

He has no career plan: "You tread a path of always pushing yourself, if you can, or if you've got an opportunity to learn – learn." He never gets bored on movie sets: "There's always something to do. I pace in my trailer – it's always kind of rocking."

Gearing up for a mammoth 70-gig stand-up tour beginning in the spring, Evans has been using his exile to Wales to try out material, writing between scenes, following a day on set to appear at local comedy clubs: "Some of it has worked; some hasn't," he shrugs. "But I'm willing to go down a corridor and let it be a dead end – I don't really care."

This will be his first tour in five years: "I'm just remembering what it was all about," he says, eyes lit up. "It's a real buzz. I had three hours' kip yesterday because after the gig I stayed up an extra two hours because it was so brilliant – I was sitting going 'Wow, that worked...' "

Not everything does: "Television," he grimaces. "I just don't work on television – I tried that and it was bad."

Later, on set, Evans uses the time it takes to sort out the technicalities to come up with a better way of doing it. It's a silent scene in which, on trying to organise something electrical, Delbert (Evans) manages to set fire to the room.

Without bothering anyone, Evans moves the props about until he's satisfied, then politely suggests to the director that this way might prove funnier. It is, and that's the way it's played.

What's interesting, however, is how abruptly Evans' demeanour changes once shooting begins. Between takes of increasingly incendiary moments, he leaves Evans, the funny man, turned on, making sarcastic comments about the danger he's in, having everyone in genuine, unforced hysterics – even me.

Earlier, I had remarked to Evans how he wasn't at all the person I had expected to meet, and he had replied – loading his words with a perfectly reasonable level of irony – that he was sorry to disappoint me. I'm about to proffer some kind of olive branch to cover my lack of tact but Evans' thoughts have already moved on. "Well, comedy is therapy really, isn't it?" he suggests. "I think you do it because you're just crying out for some kind of attention, because there's something you need to be able to say somehow.

"I suppose it's just that something, somewhere in my life's gone for a loop."

'Plots With A View' will be released later this year