‘I’m too selfish to have kids’: A refreshingly honest Stephen Merchant reveals he loves his life jetting between homes in LA and London too much to be tied down
- Stephen Merchant, 47, says he loves his freedom too much to have children
- The actor resides between London and LA with his girlfriend Mircea Monroe
- The second series of his crime comedy The Outlaws starts this Sunday on BBC1
Yes, it’s true. Stephen Merchant really did get Hollywood legend Christopher Walken to destroy a real-life Banksy painting worth millions.
‘It just seemed like a funny gag,’ he says, laughing, having somehow persuaded the world’s most famous guerrilla artist to spray-paint one of his iconic rats on a wall just so it could be painted over by the star of The Deer Hunter, who was playing a dodgy pensioner called Frank in crime comedy The Outlaws.
‘I love it. Even the maddest ideas are potentially achievable, there is no locked door you can’t knock on.’
Maybe not if your shelves groan with Emmys and BAFTAs, you created The Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais, have sold out stand up tours and appeared in a Marvel movie. The Outlaws, created by Stephen, won acclaim last year as a funny yet gritty BBC comedy-drama about misfits brought together to do community service.
Stephen Merchant (left) with his girlfriend, American actress Mircea Monroe (right). The comedian, 47, resides between London and LA and says he loves his freedom
They include influencer Lady Gabby (Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson), security guard Christian (Gamba Cole) and nervy lawyer Greg, played by Stephen himself.
The show is set in Bristol, home town of both Merchant and Banksy, so it was apt to have Frank unwittingly splosh paint over the priceless rat as the climax of series one. ‘I went to Christopher Walken in his trailer and said, “How about destroying a Banksy today?”
He knew who Banksy was. We had one shot and there it was.
Surreal as it must have been, that starry moment of destruction shows how far Stephen Merchant has come since the days in the 90s when ‘I died on my a***’ telling jokes at the Bristol Comedy Box.
Something about this 6ft 7in gentle giant appealed to the head of speech at the radio station XFM when he gave Merchant a job there in 1997.
The new boss was called Ricky Gervais and together they made a short film that became The Office, one of the most successful sitcoms of all time.
Fans would love an Office reunion, so could it happen? ‘I’d love to work with Ricky again but I don’t know if bringing back The Office is the way to do it.
‘I feel that’ll never be as delicious as everyone thinks it would,’ he says. ‘What’s an office existence going to look like now anyway?
‘David Brent talking on Zoom and everyone else working from their back bedrooms?’
He and Ricky both have homes in north London, so are they still mates? ‘We’re still in contact, but we never really socialised.
‘I’m younger than him. His joke was that I was just discovering my favourite hip-hop album and he’d discovered his favourite chair. He never was one for late-night ribaldry.’
For the last four years Stephen, 47, has been with American actress Mircea Monroe, who starred in Episodes. They met at an awards ceremony, so what was his chat-up line?
‘I don’t operate with the line, “Hi, I’m Stephen Merchant. Would you like to see my BAFTAs?” It’s not as sexy as you think. We just got talking, then we hit it off.’
Stephen with Ricky Gervais on Comic Relief. The pair made a short film that became The Office, one of the most successful sitcoms of all time
Today we’re at their home in the hills above Los Angeles, a spectacular mansion once owned by the chat show host Ellen DeGeneres. While Ricky Gervais made a huge noise about conquering Hollywood, appearing as a leading man and roasting fellow celebrities as host of the Golden Globes, Stephen did it by stealth, behind the scenes.
‘Most of my life is writing, really,’ he says, but those credits include Life’s Too Short, An Idiot Abroad and the reality show Lip Sync Battle, as well as executive producing the US version of The Office. He’s been in The Big Bang Theory, Hot Fuzz, Gnomeo & Juliet and a West End play, as well as Wolverine sequel Logan.
So is he sipping cocktails by the pool with Tom Cruise every night?
How I got Christopher Walken to destroy a real-life Banksy
In The Outlaws, Banksy agreed to produce an artwork that Christopher Walken’s character (pictured) could paint over
Because both Stephen and the famous graffiti artist both hail from Bristol, Banksy agreed to produce an artwork that Christopher Walken’s character could paint over in The Outlaws. But the piece would be worth millions, so Banksy was very clear, says Stephen.
‘The deal was that after we painted over it we had to grind away what was left and send film of that to his people, so they knew it was destroyed, because the intention was only for it to exist for the show.’
‘Oh yeah, I’m Mr Hollywood,’ he says, sarcastically. ‘I’m not hanging out with Tom Cruise every five minutes, no.
‘I’ve encountered people like Tom Cruise and had a perfectly pleasant evening. I like him very much, but you end up with the friends that you end up with.
‘Some of them are showbusiness people and some are not.’
When I ask how he and Mircea manage to run working lives on both sides of the Atlantic, he says, ‘I’m lucky I don’t have kids. My partner and I can do what we want, in terms of which country we’re in.
‘I love London and I love Britain. I also like coming here for the sun, for the people I know, for the city’s creativity.’
Would he want kids?
‘I’ve never particularly had that desire. I have nothing against children, but I’m probably quite selfish. I like the life I have and the freedom to do what I do,’ he says.
‘I liked writing before I was paid for it, so why wouldn’t I do it all the time? Performing was always fun to me, so why would I not do that?
‘I think there’s part of me that’s like, “Children will just stop me doing what I want.” He pauses for a moment, perhaps thinking about how this may sound to others.
‘I’m not saying they don’t bring in any other rewards.’
The natural caution that makes him say that is reflected in his style on social media, so is he worried about cancel culture? ‘It plays on my mind in the sense it’d be very sad if my career was over because of a glib remark I made on a talk show,’ he says.
‘The mob mentality has taken hold. When you stop letting people speak their mind, it doesn’t feel healthy.
‘It’s the idea you can’t retract or apologise, you can’t learn or educate. I understand things now in a way I didn’t a year ago.’
Back then he was preparing to play the Grindr killer Stephen Port in the drama Four Lives, a career swerve that won him great praise. ‘I’d like to do more serious acting.
‘My plan was to try to make him seem awkward and childlike, and any eeriness would come from that.’ Port himself said he should have been played by someone more handsome like Kevin Bacon.
‘It’s funny how weirdos always want handsome leading men to play them. No! The fact is they should let us weirdos play he weirdos, and handsome leading men play handsome leading men.’
There’s an irony in that, given he somehow persuaded one of the great Hollywood leading men to play weirdo Frank in The Outlaws. ‘We always liked the idea there was this character like The Man Who Fell To Earth [David Bowie’s movie about a stranded alien] who feels other worldly, then we reveal him to be a petty criminal, another small person among others.
‘Christopher Walken was at the top of the list, because he can do funny and charming, but also scary and mysterious.’
Getting the script to him was a challenge. ‘He doesn’t have a mobile phone or a computer. I think we faxed him.’
Once Walken was in Britain, Merchant took him on a day trip. ‘If you told the 14-year-old me, aspiring to be in showbusiness, that one day I’d visit Stonehenge during a break in filming with Christopher Walken, I’d have laughed at you.’
The Covid lockdown happened just a few days into shooting, so they chose to make another series while everyone was still there. Will they make a third?
‘We’re working up stories. We just have to wait for the powers to authorise it.’
The show’s second series, which hits screens this week, has the community-service misfits drawn into the world of drug dealing to help their friends. It’s a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of drug dealers.
‘I find the idea of demonising criminals without trying to understand what leads them there a very reductive process,’ says Merchant.
‘Yes, we have our Mr Big at the top of the chain [played by Dracula’s Claes Bang], but otherwise it’s about what has led people to the positions they have in life, the choices they’ve made and how they’ve been exploited. It all comes from a well of empathy.’
There is a laugh-out-loud moment when a character condemns ‘lefty hypocrites’ who buy organic vegan food but don’t care where the drugs they snort come from. ‘Oh, who do we think is buying these drugs that are criminalised and that people are going to jail for?’
He’s talking about the middle-class customers whose money keeps gangs in business. ‘It’s preposterous that we’re still not even having sensible debates about drug policy, and the government has just closed its ears to even the proper legalisation of cannabis.
‘I’m not suggesting I have the answers, I’m just saying we can’t keep pretending that it’s about good and evil.’
He smiles, remembering that we also want to laugh. ‘Alongside all that there’s a couple of d*** jokes and me hitting my head on a chandelier, so something for everyone!’
- The Outlaws, Sunday, 9pm, BBC1.
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