Ghost Town is your first lead role. Why so long?
After the second episode of The Office went out I was getting sent offers of leads in films, and I was thinking ‘that’s ridiculous’. And to be honest, I was worried about overexposure. I didn’t want to pop up in loads of films as the quirky Englishman or the butler. I’d hear some actors say ‘I’m doing a film’ and I’d think, yes, but it’s a film that will be advertised on the side of a bus for a week and then go straight to DVD.
But you have appeared in other films.
Even the cameos I did had to tick a lot of boxes. I took the film with Christopher Guest (For Your Consideration) because he was my greatest influence. I did Stardust because it meant I would be doing scenes with Robert De Niro. What’s the other one I did? [laughs]. Oh yeah, with Ben Stiller (Night At The Museum) – well, I had to do that. He did Extras for me and later he sent me an e-mail saying ‘Do you want to return the favour?’
So why Ghost Town?
I want people to know that Ghost Town isn’t an out and out comedy – it’s not Monty Python, it’s not a wacky, goofy teen thing, it’s a sort of grown up, old-fashioned film with funny bits. It’s a throwback to films that Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant might have done in the ’40s or ’50s – and I know I’m nothing like either of those [laughs]. But what I’m saying is that it’s not a traditional comedy.
You play a very obnoxious character. What do you like about him?
I loved the script and I loved the character immediately… [In one scene] he is wheeled into the hospital and he says to the doctor, ‘Why are you so tanned?’ and I could hear me saying that. And when I really fell in love with it was when he goes around helping the ghosts. I thought he would never do that because he is such a horrible, misanthropic guy. Ghosts, misanthropy, redemption… he sounds a lot like Scrooge? It is very Scrooge, of course. But I think redemption is the greatest theme in any film. For a long time, I never understood why it was OK to be bad and then to be forgiven, but now I do.
As you get older you think, ‘Well he was hurt and he made a mistake’ and you forgive it. You usually write your own material. Were you involved much behind the scenes? David Kroepp (writer/director) was fantastic like that. He even let me help cast it, which was great. He came to London to do the script polish and he let me do that. It was very collaborative on set. Actually, I’m not sure that it would have been quite so collaborative if it had been one of those films I turned down a few years back. I would have been told where to stand and what to say.
You’ve just directed your first film, This Side Of Truth. Was this good practice?
Oh yes, I was taking notes. With a sitcom it’s all about pace but with a film you need to let people breathe because it’s all about the story.
Are there similarities between Ghost Town and your directorial debut?
This Side Of The Truth is set in a parallel world where the human race haven’t evolved a gene for lying. So it’s a world like this but everyone tells the truth and my character comes along and discovers he can lie. It’s fun to do a high concept film but within that – whether it’s got ghosts, time travel or alternative evolution – you need empathy. It needs to be rooted in the real world and the things you care about now, which is what you have in Ghost Town.
Your next project is the very English comedy Man From The Pru.
My English teacher always said ‘Write about what you know’. The first thing I did was about working in an office and I’d worked in an office for seven years. The second thing I did was be in the media [Extras] and now I’m writing about growing up in the ’70s, which I did, in The Man From The Pru. Well, I didn’t grow up, but you get my point.
Do you ever feel the need to change your comedy for a global audience?
The only things you have to change are the cultural references. So when I did my stand up I left out a reference to Jade Goody (British reality TV contestant) because you simply can’t explain Jade Goody.
Ghost Town is released in Dubai cinemas from November 21