'The Office' made him Britain's most famous nerd. Now Mackenzie Crook is starring with everyone from Al Pacino to Johnny Depp, and Kate Winslet to Keira Knightley. He tells Nick Duerden about his curiously brilliant career
He walks into the room at London's Dorchester Hotel all wide-eyed and wary, as if unsure whether he should be here at all. His introductory, "Hello", comes out as little more than a whisper, and is so h-h-hesitant that your heart immediately goes out to him. Mackenzie Crook will tell you himself that he is twitchy by nature and rarely at ease in public, so the hour we spend together is a pronouncedly awkward one, me feeling increasingly guilty in my role as inquisitor, him squirming in his responses, the majority of which fizzle out into silence as he studies the floor for inspiration that just won't come.
In the flesh, he is pencil-thin and looks less like Gareth Keenan, the character he played so beautifully in The Office, than he does a nervous schoolboy, albeit a well-dressed one. Today, he is done up in a pinstripe suit, a pair of earrings, and some lovebeads that hang tight against his neck. As he sits on the overstuffed sofa, he asks whether I mind if he smokes, before very carefully rolling his own. Unfortunately, the nicotine appears to do little to calm him and, once finished, he places both hands under his thighs, then entwines his feet around one another. And there he sits, wrapped up in all manner of private anxieties.
"I actually, um ... I don't mind these kind of things," he says, in reference to our chat. "It's better than ... well, than TV interviews." He looks up, pale and gaunt. "I don't ... you know ... I don't perform well in TV interviews."
Last week, Crook appeared on Richard & Judy to plug the DVD release of last year's The Office Christmas specials. It was, he says, torture.
"I thought I was doing my best at concealing it, but Richard clearly picked up on it, because the next day he said, on camera, that he'd never seen such a nervous character in his life." There follows a painful pause. "That was ... that was nice of him, wasn't it?" Slow-motion agony passes across his face, and it's awful to bear witness to. "Sitting on a couch on live TV facing Judy - Judy Finnegan ... well, it's difficult. Not only didn't I know what to say, I wasn't sure there was anything to say in the first place. It's different for somebody like Ricky [Gervais]. Ricky could entertain you all night long, but me - well, I'm not particularly funny in real life."
A room-service trolley full of sandwiches arrives. Crook, momentarily animated, picks his way through the tuna, the egg and the ham.
"They look nice," he says, a few minutes later, his mouth full, "and you think they would be, this being the Dorchester and all, but they're, you know, they're not."
Mackenzie Crook turned 33 this year. Until recently, he was just another jobbing stand-up comedian, forever travelling the length and breadth of the country's university circuit making, he says, "gradual steps up the ladder" but waiting for the big break that, in truth, he wasn't sure would ever come. As a child growing up in Kent, he first wanted to be a graphic artist, but when, at the age of 18, he failed to secure a place at art college, he suddenly felt very lost indeed. And so the one-time Pizza Hut employee turned to the only other thing he felt mildly competent at: writing comedy sketches.
"I was never the kind of stand-up who just faced an audience with nothing to hide behind but a microphone," he says. "I suppose I ... I lacked the confidence for that. And so I tended to hide behind a bunch of characters instead. But I did OK at it, I made a living - just not a particularly healthy one."
I ask him to tell me his favourite characters, and he names two: Charlie Cheese, an old-school, end-of-pier comedian, and a hapless teacher called Mr Bagshawe, whom he says may one day enjoy a resurrection. It was at the Edinburgh Festival in 1997 that the dreamed-about big break finally arrived. Bob Mortimer saw his one-man show, and was convinced he'd be great on television. Intermittent appearances on sketch shows followed, as well as a role in a film called The Man Who Fell In Love with a Traffic Cone. When I tell him I've never heard of it, he says, "Good", and looks palpably relieved.
And then, in 2001, he landed the part of Gareth Keenan in The Office. While he rightly credits its success to the script, whose genius lay in its subtlety, its pathos and its very dark edges, Crook shone in his role as the geek, a man whose pudding-bowl haircut spoke volumes about the person hiding gawkily beneath it. Running for just two series, the programme made stars out of all its principal characters, and there isn't a day that goes by now when somebody doesn't bring it up in conversation.
"I could never get bored of talking about it, though," he says, his eyes suddenly alive, "because I'm just so glad I was in something that made such a connection."
When Ricky Gervais and co-writer Stephen Merchant decided to pull the plug on The Office last Christmas, Crook could easily have disappeared into substandard sitcom hell. Instead, he turned to the big screen. Unlikely as it may seem, Hollywood rather adores him.
At this point, he stutters with embarrassment, cheeks flushing red, Adam's apple bobbing. Once again, your heart really does go out to him, and you feel gripped by the strangest notion that, just perhaps, you could adopt him, and keep him safe.
"I'm very ... surprised by my ... my, you know, my success," he says, running a hand through his blond hair repeatedly, and studying the stripes on his pinstriped leg. "I have to pinch myself sometimes, because I really have had an extraordinary stroke of luck. Everything I've done since can be traced back to The Office in some way." He nods his head, almost smiles and then chooses not to. "I've been ... well, I've been fortunate."
It all started, he says, with Finding Neverland, a film about the Peter Pan creator J M Barrie, which stars Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. Although only recently released, it was made a couple of years ago; its director, Marc Foster, cast Crook in a minor role after watching an episode of The Office during a transatlantic flight. This in turn led to Depp recommending him for the role of Ragetti in Pirates of the Caribbean, a film so successful that, in early 2005, Crook will decamp to St Vincent to film not one, but two sequels. Earlier this year, former Monty Python actor-turned-film-maker Terry Gilliam was thrilled by watching Wernham Hogg's Gareth Keenan, and promptly requested the actor's services in The Brothers Grimm, alongside Matt Damon.
And later this month, he can be seen in two new releases, a lavish costume drama, and a loony comedy. Michael Radford's succulent adaptation of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice sees him playing Launcelot Gobbo, humble manservant of Shylock (played, with typical shouty theatrics and an awful lot of flying saliva, by Al Pacino).
"Al ... I mean, Mr Pacino," he says, grinning, "is, well, he's great. Initially, you are terrified of him because of his reputation, but he's actually very quietly spoken, very gentle and really generous. The film was an amazing experience, and I love the results. It looks like a painting."
His second, another supporting role, is in Churchill: The Hollywood Years, a ribald and often ridiculous comedy directed by Peter Richardson (erstwhile performer with the Comic Strip, the early-1980s comedy group that also spawned French and Saunders and Rik Mayall). It stars Christian Slater as the wartime PM reborn, effectively, as Bruce Willis in Die Hard, and also features a whole slew of British comedy talent including Vic Reeves, Bob Mortimer, Harry Enfield and Leslie Phillips. Crook is happy with the film but, he admits, only cautiously so.
"I think it's really funny, but then I thought Sex Lives of the Potato Men was funny, so what do I know?"
In the middle of last year, a time when he was receiving umpteen scripts a week and was consequently spoilt for choice, he plumped for Potato Men, a Lottery-funded homegrown comedy, deeming it the funniest. Upon its release, it was immediately hailed as the worst British film of all time.
"I don't know quite what went wrong with it," he shrugs, "but something clearly did. If that film taught me anything, then it was to be very wary about my own ability in choosing scripts. I don't want to be in too many turkeys if I can help it."
The conversation then turns to the theatre, apparently one of his abiding passions. He tells me he loves to perform.
"I know it's probably hard to ... to believe, but I'm very confident on stage," he says. "Really, I am."
The following night, I go to see him in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, the West End play in which he stars alongside his friend Christian Slater and Frances Barber. He plays the part of tragic Billy Bibbitt, a young man so henpecked by his mother and society in general that he is driven to the point of insanity. His performance is all in the eyes and hands, which twitch and flex constantly, and is so softly nuanced that, while Slater chews the scenery, Crook very quietly steals the show.
"It's weird," he begins, "the prospect of doing live television scares me to death, but I feel absolutely no nerves whatsoever walking out on to a stage in front of a thousand people every night. I've never been nervous in a performance, not even remotely. It just doesn't happen."
I ask him why and the response takes upwards of three minutes to come.
"Well, it's ... I don't know, maybe ... maybe it's because I've got my lines, my direction, and, well, it's because I'm not me, am I?" He looks up, but fails to make eye contact. "I'm, I'm somebody else."
And it is precisely this - his eagerness to play a role, to become somebody else - that has made Crook rather uncomfortable of late. The huge success of The Office has brought him fame, so much that whenever he leaves the house these days, he feels compelled to disguise himself with hats pulled down low, collars up, and sunglasses on. He worries terribly about the pressure it puts on his wife, Lindsay, and their two-year-old son, Jude.
"You know, they never asked for all this," he says, "and sometimes it is difficult, especially when people barge right past my wife and child just to get to me. Gareth seems to prompt this strange hysteria in people at the moment, and because I've got such a recognisable face, it's hard to hide from. I really don't know how to deal with it."
He tells me that pubs have effectively become no-go areas because, "being in a boozer at 10.30 at night can be pretty dangerous for Gareth Keenan. It's funny - if people see Christian [Slater], they will sort of do a double take, not completely sure it's really him, and not sure how to act. But as soon as they see me, they point and laugh and ask me to 'do' Gareth down the mobile phone to all their friends. They are never nasty, and, you know, I do appreciate it, but I suppose I'm easily ... well, easily intimidated."
He begins to frown.
"But I ... I don't want you to get the wrong idea here," he says. "I don't want you to think I spend my life complaining about my fate, because I don't."
And, as if to compensate, he tells me that he loves his life, and he copes, in his own way, just fine. He and his wife have just bought a dream house in north London (one that used to belong to Peter Sellers), and he is developing a love of gardening, when his workload permits. Which, these days, isn't often because he's much in demand right now. He recently failed an audition for Roman Polanski's adaptation of Oliver, and was so gutted that he is now determined to do Dickens elsewhere because "the characters are so rich, and it would be nice to do something more meaty". Then there's the comedy series, set in the "world of rock", that he's developing for Five. Most of next year, however, will be taken up with the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3, and he is keen to do more theatre. Fame, he professes, is something he is learning to adapt to, and perhaps eventually even to welcome.
"Lots of actors I know never read the interviews they give, and I can see their logic," he says, "but I'm still somehow drawn to reading about myself. I can't help it. It's a ... a strange experience, really, especially when I feel I've been misrepresented. Sometimes, a journalist will quote something I've said, but they'll finish the sentence with an exclamation mark, which makes me sound wacky. For some reason, that really bothers me, because I know that I wasn't trying to sound wacky at all. I was trying to sound dry and ironic."
He clasps his hands together, his eyes, perfect "O"s, full of worry.
"I don't really speak in exclamation marks," he says.
'The Merchant Of Venice' and 'Churchill: The Hollywood Years' are out on 3 December. 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' runs at London's Gielgud Theatre until 22 January