The seven-episode first season of Derek follows the slow but lovably positive Derek as he works in a nursing home, and the relationships he creates with the staff and tenants. The sweet and melancholy series from the mind of Ricky Gervais is now available to stream in-full on Netflix, and I had the opportunity talk with Ricky about his foray into more dramatic waters, his personal family connection to the show and the inspiration behind the mind of his newest creation. Here are the highlights:
So I’ve read that your inspiration for Derek comes from the fact that a lot of your family members work in the care industry. Did you pull any actual stories from real life events or was it more of just the spirit of things?
Much more just the spirit of things. But, you know, I have pulled a few stories, but they’re not so much as you say stories as things in general. And I’ve got over 20 or 30 years of hearing stories – some funny and some really sad, you know. And I just thought it was such a rich, fertile ground because these people have lived ordinary yet extraordinary lives – every one of them – I find it fascinating that you’ve lived on this planet for 80 years and what you’ve seen, the changes you’ve seen.
[pullquote_right] It’s also nice to return to ordinary people because you know in recent years I’ve done a lot of studies of fame and Hollywood.[/pullquote_right]And Derek – it’s just the best backdrop for him because it’s sort of a show about kindness, I suppose. And it’s about forgotten people and people on the fringes of society that we sort of sometimes dismiss. And I’ve always been fascinated with what’s their story, you know. It’s also nice to return to ordinary people because you know in recent years I’ve done a lot of studies of fame and Hollywood, you know, from Extras, I did a stand-up called Fame. I did the the Golden Globes. And I know most people in the world are Derek and Kev and Dougie and Hannah. They’re not Brad Pitt and Madonna and Johnny Depp. And real life is fascinating for me. There’s nothing more fascinating than real life.
And also that plays back into the fake documentary format as well because I’m still all obsessed with realism. Not only real stories and that reflect in real references, you know of society and stuff, but also naturalistic acting. And I think that’s best captured in a documentary format because people know what they’re watching. They’re watching something that’s meant to be real. And that helps me really. That helps me get my point across.
Did you have any trouble balancing the light and the darker, more emotional moments of the show? Did the faux documentary aspect of the show help with that balance?
Yes. Because it helps me get my point across and I think it’s all about empathy when you’re watching something like this, and I’m sort of obsessed with realism. I always have been because I’m also telling stories that I want people to think that could be true. I don’t really deal in the broad or the surreal and I want it to connect, you know, as hard as it can really. And I think that fake documentary really delivers it. You know it sort of hits you in the heart. Even body language hits you without you knowing it really. You pick up these signals and so that sort of way I’ve done the fake documentary.
[pullquote_left]I think some big Hollywood stars have a problem that you can never really see them in the role as a construction worker because you’re thinking “well, he’s the biggest star on the planet.”[/pullquote_left]And as I’ve said, you know when you’re dealing with ordinary people, that connection is greater, if you think that this could be happening and some documentary team is capturing it as opposed to being actors. I know that’s hard, because if you’re a successful actor you’re probably a famous person, it gets harder and harder to explain your disbelief. I mean, I think some big Hollywood stars have a problem that you can never really see them in the role as a construction worker because you’re thinking “well, he’s the biggest star on the planet,” you know.
And so, you know, I’ve never held that back. But I have in The Office where no one knew who any of us were. But people are smart. I think if they know what they’re meant to be watching, then they sort of get it right. But anything that helps, really, and certainly that format really helps people suspend their disbelief.
In terms of the more heavy drama in this series, when you created it and knew you wanted to work on something like this, were you aiming to do something much more serious? Or you just wanted to show the real aspects of something like this?
Yes, exactly. Whatever I do – as I said before – I’m certainly obsessed with realism. Both in possibilities of story, I like making the ordinary extraordinary, not starting with the extraordinary. And the realism in acting as well. Because I think it connects more and I think it resonates more, you know. There’s so many things you watch and you forget it immediately. You don’t talk about it the next day, you don’t care about it, you don’t need to watch it again. Well, I do like the idea that some – a little bit hit you a week later – do you know what I mean? I like it to get under your skin.
And this does and it is more sincere. I mean, I’ve left behind the veil of irony that inhabits most of my other work, and well, most people’s comedy work I think. There’s always usually a veil of irony. And that what makes it a bit different and a bit more dramatic – that there’s a sincerity in the characters. We’re not laughing at the characters now. Like with David Brent. We looked at the blind spot with David Brent. We’re laughing at the difference between how he sees himself and how we see him. There’s not that chasm in these characters.
But, now I sort of got addicted to the sweetness and the kindness because it brought out the best of Derek and the other players. And also, it’s still a sitcom I guess, because for me a sitcom is always about a family. Either a virtual family like (the nursing home) or an actual family. And here, obviously the family is the people that work in the care home. And the outside threat is just an uncaring world. And I wanted it to be sort of infectious that when you – when you walk through the door, you’re sort of infected by kindness. Do you know what I mean?
How did you go about casting the characters on Derek? Can you talk about that process?
Yes, in nearly every case actually with the main cast, obviously I managed to get through my rigorous casting to let me play Derek. I secured that role early on. Karl [Pilkington], I wrote it for Karl, because I wanted to bring out that grumpy misanthropic guy that was sort of right. In fact, after I’d filmed I told Karl that Dougie was based on Karl if he’d never met me and that really annoyed him. He said “You cheeky bastard.”
Kerry [Godliman] I’d worked with a couple of times before, a smaller part in Extras and a small part in Life’s Too Short and I liked – she was very, very natural. And I wanted her to be strong and caring like all the women folk I knew growing up in my family. They were – you know they were very sentimental and they loved kids and animals but they also had to be like lionesses.
[pullquote_right]I’ve always been fascinated with strong female characters because I think women are often used as props, particularly in comedy.[/pullquote_right]And I’ve always been fascinated with strong female characters because I think women are often used as props, particularly in comedy. It’s still like a male preserve for some reason. And women are usually props to make the bloke the central character. They’re either sort of airheads who just want to find a man or they’re after money or something or they’re bitches because they’ve got a career in mind, you know. And so I’ve always tried to make them – treat them as equals to the male characters.
And Kev – I’ve worked with David [Earl] a few times. Again, he had a part in Extras, and he’s a great character actor in his own right as well. So, yes, I suppose that I did have the four main cast in mind when I wrote the series. And then the rest, I cast in the usual fashion.
What led you to Netflix rather than a traditional network and what were some of the benefits of producing the show that way?
Well, you know I always try and keep my status as a free agent. I never take handcuff deals with anyone. And I wanted to try them out, and I genuinely thought they might be the future and I think that’s sort of coming true. TV habits have changed so much in the last 10, 15 years, you know, and there’s a generation of kids now that don’t understand this concept of the common consciousness – what do you mean we have to sit down at 9:00 on a Thursday and watch it with the family? No I don’t, I can watch it on the way to school tomorrow, you know.
And everything’s on demand. You know when Derek went out in the UK, it doubled its figures the next day on demand. And that’s very interesting. I also heard, you know, little whisperings in the industry that some cable – premium cable and networks were getting worried about this new kid on the block called Netflix which has excited me.
And so, I got Ted’s e-mail and I sent him an e-mail, a personal e-mail just saying “Hi, Ted, I think Netflix is the future. I’d like to do a show with you.” And he sent back an e-mail saying “We’ll take it.”
British humor has been characterized as difficult for American audiences to fully grasp. I think that probably changed a lot with The Office, but even though this show is a bit more on the serious side, what do you think about it makes it sort of more inherently relatable to everyone?
[pullquote_left]I sent him an e-mail, a personal e-mail just saying “Hi, Ted, I think Netflix is the future. I’d like to do a show with you.” And he sent back an e-mail saying “We’ll take it.”[/pullquote_left]I think people don’t know they want it, but they do want sincerity. I think they do deep down. And I’ve noticed on Twitter as well, I can do snarky jokes, I can do this, I can do weird stuff and it gets lots of re-Tweets, but if I do a sincere Tweet that’s down the line, it connects with 10 times the amount of people. I think people are quietly – I think people are quietly tired of the vulgarity that inhabits everything.
You know like, they liked living in the student house. Every post is ironic. And you want to say “Put up a post of something you actually like. What do you actually like?” And I like that. I like that you sometimes grow out of that and I think because they are worried whether what they like is cool so they’re worried about saying what they like. You ask someone their top 10 albums. And they don’t want to put Backstreet Boys and Sting, they try to think of really obscure, underground things because they think
I can’t put that.”
And I think, you know, sooner or later people relate more with honesty than anything else. And I did so consciously want to leave behind the veil of irony and I think that what makes it slightly different from my previous work and slightly different to most comedies is that sincerity. You know we’re not laughing at the characters, we’re not laughing at their blind spot. We’re laughing with them. And we’re rooting for them from the outset because they’re doing a good job. You know, whatever fault someone’s got, whatever mistakes they make, if they were doing it to help someone, they’re forgiven. It’s all about motives. And they just seem right really. It just seemed right.
The show overall was inspired by your family, what exactly inspired the actual character of Derek himself?
I’ve actually had Derek as a character knocking around pre-The Office. Originally it was an autograph hunter and it was to be about a group of autograph hunters that was sort of on the fringe of society – those people that you see in the street you sort of dismiss. And they were going to sort, of you know…we went for that and meeting famous people. And I thought I’d drop that aspect of it because I’d just done enough about fame.
[pullquote_right]It just clicked that I’d put these old nerds, these strange little outsiders doing something worthy.[/pullquote_right]So with Extras and even The Office it was about fame. It was about ordinary people trying to be famous. So I dropped that aspect of it and then it just clicked that I’d put these old nerds, these strange little outsiders doing something worthy. Then they can do what they want, really.
The idea of a care home came to me because half my family work in care homes. Basically all the women folk in my family growing up do volunteer work or work in care homes. And so I’ve got sort of 30 years of stories. So it just – I just fused the two, really.
Did you view Derek as your kind of statement on death in a way?
No, I think that it’s always there and I think that if I’d have had a death in the The Office you can’t get over it. You know, a 30-year-old dying is just too traumatic. You can’t then go back to work and laugh about it. Whereas, you know, if it’s the natural cycle of things, you understand a 90-year-old is going to die one day – do you know that I mean? And it’s doesn’t make it any less sad, but you accept it more. You know, that’s the natural order of things. You know, the old people die, young people don’t. That’s what we’ve come to expect.
And it’s how you die that matters. If you’ve got your loved ones around and if you, you know, I want there to be a respect. I want there to be respect about it, really. That’s what happens. You know, we lose our grandparents, then we lose our parents. And that’s happened to me, and you know, I remember at my dad’s funeral, we were mucking around and we were doing funny things, and celebrating, and the vicar even looked worried when he saw us laughing because my brother had stitched him up and put in false information just so to make us laugh in the funeral. And it was fantastic.
And my brother thought it real interesting that the vicar came over, said “Are you all right?” He went, “Yeah, we were laughing about something else,” and he said, you know, he was 83. If he had been 50, we wouldn’t have been laughing. And I just thought that – that that summed it up. Do you know what I mean? We were saying he lived a great life. And that’s it. So, yes, it’s sort of what he would have wanted. Definitely. Definitely.
Derek seems like one of your more challenging roles. You got to really kind of stretch your acting abilities. What was the most difficult thing about bringing him to life, and would you agree that it’s your most challenging role to date?
I only think it’s challenging for the public because I think, you know, any diversion worries people. They think, “What is this? This isn’t what we expected.” For me, it’s not challenging at all. I feel that I can inhabit Derek as easy as being myself. In fact, I think it might even be easier for me to be Derek, because he’s an easier person to be. You know, it’s liberating saying what’s on your mind, saying “I love chimpanzees, I love them, want to cuddle them.” It’s so sweet and childlike. Children don’t have these restrictions. They don’t worry about what they say, they don’t worry about people think of them. They don’t care whether someone else likes what they like.
[pullquote_left]I only think it’s challenging for the public because I think any diversion worries people.[/pullquote_left]And so for me it’s easy to shuffle around. Also, I must say that some of those clothes were my own. That’s what people don’t realize. It wasn’t a big costume designing job. You know, some of those clothes I wore as Derek were my own clothes. So I am comfortable shuffling around and saying [unexpected] things. So, no, it was a joy for me. But of course, you know, you are always aware of the fact that it’s a challenge to the audience but it should be. It should be. I don’t want the audience to be that comfortable. I want them to – I want things to worry them. I want them to think about it.
All seven episodes of Derek are currently available to stream exclusively on Netflix.