Rowan Atkinson, the venerable British comic actor, is know 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, he 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.
Have you been tempted to revisit some of your other characters, like the Black Adder?
Yeah, Black Adder would be fun. But it’s very difficult, reproducing the creative conditions which created the Black Adder. I mean, everyone’s still alive who did it, but everyone’s quite a lot older now — particularly on the acting side. But we might do it. You know, one day it might seem like a funny idea, but there are certainly no plans.
And Mr. Bean?
Mr. Bean, I think, is dead and gone — well, not dead. Just retired. I don’t want him to get old, really. I’d rather that he’s as I remember him rather than as he would be now if I played him, because I’m definitely older than I was. I don’t think it’s because I couldn’t physically play him. I could probably still physically do it, but I feel as though his time as passed.
Giving himself the chair
One of the biggest laughs in “Johnny English Reborn” is also one of the simplest. During a tense briefing with the prime minister, Atkinson fails to control the raising and lowering of his office chair. It’s a classic bit of physical comedy, but, as Atkinson explains, a lot of thought goes into something so simple. “There are a number of things at play there,” Atkinson says. “One is the simple contrast, really, between a very serious meeting between the prime minister and his intelligence advisors — including Johnny English — and the ludicrous ineptitude of someone who’s not controlling their pneumatic chair. And yet no one seems to stop the meeting and say, ‘Would you stop playing with that chair!’ There’s something about the formality and the seriousness of the scene which means that no one would ever dare do that or say that, that they’d just pretend it’s not happening.
“I think it’s indicative of is an old Charlie Chaplin adage that I subscribe to very enthusiastically, which is life is a tragedy in closeup and a comedy in long-shot, when it comes to shooting style. The more you sit back and the less you cut — the less you edit — the more funny things become. When you use the camera as the voyeur, as a static, unmoving observer of a scene, it’s a perfect kind of theatrical presentation of a joke, and that always, I think, builds an audience’s laughter much more effectively — as long as what you’re doing is funny enough.”