Rowan Atkinson, the venerable British comic actor, is known as much for his bumbling, near-silent Mr. Bean as he is for the witheringly sarcastic Black Adder. He returns to cinemas this year with another of his characters, the blundering, very un-Bond-like British spy Johnny English. Bolstered by a surprising second life on DVD for the first film as well as Daniel Craig’s revitalization of the franchise it mocks, Atkinson is hoping his spy has staying power. And if overseas box office receipts are any indication, it does.
The film has already had some impressive success around the world.
Yes, thank you. When you hear you’re the No. 1 movie in Malaysia and Hong Kong and Indonesia and all these other places you think, Well that’s curious. You know, these cultures about which I know absolutely nothing. Isn’t it interesting that they can latch onto something like Johnny English Reborn and embrace it with as much enthusiasm as a British person would? Or Russia. I went to Moscow for a premiere there. That was fascinating — partly in fact from watching myself dubbed into Russian. I thought I sounded slightly effeminate, but maybe that’s how they see the British. It’s probably some kind of Russian subtext. “Make sure the Brit looks a bit effete.”
Given the success of Mr. Bean and Johnny English, do you find people expect you to be a bit more dimwitted in real life?
Dimwitted? I’m not aware of that (laughs). Maybe I disappoint them — either by not being dimwitted enough or being more dimwitted than they thought I was going to be. Sometimes you get a sense of expectation of comedy, of a comic persona. When they discover that you’re not Mr. Bean or anything like him, or even quite different — I hope — from Johnny English, as long as you can be polite and engaging, they might excuse you.
Where did the idea of revisiting Johnny English come from?
When the first Johnny English movie came out, people thought it was a bit cheap and cheerful. A “yeah, OK, three good jokes but then what?” sort of thing. And then it rather bizarrely established this reputation as a kind of DVD movie that children in particular can watch over and over and over again. The second re-exploitation, as they say; the TV screenings and the DVD sales. And that’s where Johnny English did surprisingly well. And I guess that was a lot of the justification for making a sequel, from a commercial point of view.
And Bond has been having a resurgence.
Yes, exactly. What’s good, actually, about the Daniel Craig thing is not only is he good in the part but because they decided — I’m sure, quite rightly — to move it into a more serious vein, it kind of opened up the field a bit for us. Johnny English Reborn is probably a little more — although only a little — like a James Bond movie of 10 or 15 years ago, when you had more fun with it and more silly jokes.