Despite an Emmy and a pair of Golden Globes for The Office, breathless reviews for his HBO series Extras, and an inspired guest turn on The Simpsons where he tried to seduce Marge with an acoustic love song about ”Lady Di,” Ricky Gervais isn’t a celebrity in America yet. Not in the Brad Pitt sense of the word at least. So it’s a little strange that he feels the need to check in to hotels here under a fake name.
When Gervais — or, should we say, ”Paul Anderson” — answers the door of his suite at the Four Seasons in New York, he doesn’t look much like a celebrity, either. He looks like a traveling salesman who’s just been shaken out of a nap. He’s wearing a black T-shirt and baggy sweatpants. His face is covered in stubble. A half-finished bottle of red wine, presumably from the night before, sits atop the minibar.
When he’s asked right off the bat who Paul Anderson is, Gervais takes a seat on the sofa and shifts around uncomfortably. He didn’t know this was coming and he wants to explain, because he knows that if he doesn’t, he’ll come off like an arrogant jerk for using an alias. On the flip side, it means that he’ll also have to come up with a new fake name to use in the future. A future when, perhaps, he will be famous enough in the States to need one.
After a few stammering moments, Gervais sighs. ”He’s a guy I used to work with at a radio station in England. I just thought it was such a wonderfully generic name…Paul Anderson. It’s got nothing to do with the director. I haven’t seen There Will Be Blood, although I’m sure it’s great.” With that settled, Gervais asks for help hatching a new identity. When it’s suggested that he go with something flashy, like Johnny Depp’s infamous hotel pseudonym, ”Mr. Donkey Penis,” Gervais mulls it over: ”It’s a very brave man who calls a hotel and says ‘I’d like to speak to Mr. Donkey Penis.’ So I see how that would be effective. But let’s see…maybe Scott Houston?…Brad Cockmore?…Bob Crunt?”
Gervais likes this last one. A lot. After repeating the name a few times, chewing over all of its funny textures, he lets loose a high-pitched girly squeal of a laugh. Even funnier, though, is the fact that there may soon be a lot of people calling to speak with ”Mr. Crunt.” Because after revolutionizing TV comedy from the sleepy outpost of the BBC with his squirm-inducing, awkward-silence-filled anti-sitcom The Office (which Gervais co-created, co-wrote, and co-directed with Stephen Merchant, and starred in), the 47-year-old is now betting his short but unblemished track record that a self-described ”fat, middle-aged British comedian” can become a leading man. And not just any leading man, but a leading man in the wheeziest and most cliché of Hollywood genres, the romantic comedy.
In his new film, Ghost Town — which was co-written and directed by Steven Spielberg’s go-to screenwriter, David Koepp — Gervais plays Bertram Pincus, a misanthropic dentist who, after briefly flatlining on the operating table during a routine colonoscopy, wakes up with the ability to see dead people. One of them, a former cheating husband (Greg Kinnear), won’t stop haunting him until he agrees to woo the man’s widowed wife (Téa Leoni) away from the self-righteous do-gooder she’s planning to marry. Think of it as The Sixth Sleepless Sense in Seattle.
NEXT PAGE: ”I got a call from one of the studios during the first season of The Office, and they said, ‘We’d love for you to be the lead in this film.’ And I went, ‘Well, who’s going to see that?’ It was just quiet on the other end of the line. They’d never heard someone say that.”