[24 August 2007]
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)
Rowan Atkinson’s character Mr. Bean is a man of few words, but the actor himself is as articulate and thoughtful as he is entertaining.
Atkinson took an unusual route to comedy stardom, earning a degree in electrical engineering and moving on to postgraduate work at Oxford, where his work in sketches led to a position on the BBC’s satirical “Not the Nine O’Clock News.” Soon after he found his breakout role as a sharp-tongued, scheming 15th century nobleman in “Blackadder.” The series, which mixed witty dialog with Shakespearean parodies, launched three sequels and several specials in which Atkinson played devious descendants of the original character through the ages.
His next character, the bumbling and nearly silent Mr. Bean, was a creature of pure physical comedy, the sort of hapless fellow who set out to stuff a turkey and wind up with his head stuck in the cavity. Bean too enjoyed numerous TV incarnations, spinning off an animated series and two feature films. The third, “Mr. Bean’s Holiday,” which sends him on vacation to France, opens nationwide on Friday.
In the finale of your new film, Mr. Bean makes a mess of the Cannes Film Festival. What do you think of festivals and awards ceremonies where the moviemaking community celebrates itself?
I tend not to have a lot to do with them, to be honest, which is why I found it quite easy to take a satirical position of them and the kind of movies that get shown at them. Willem Dafoe plays a film writer/director/star (with) a film being presented at Cannes, which is ruined by the fact that Mr. Bean manages to play a holiday video in the middle of the presentation. It was an enjoyable opportunity to do a movie within the movie, which is an amusingly pretentious Cannes film entry. I visited Cannes merely as a sort of research mechanism for this movie and apart from that, I haven’t been. And I’ve not been to any other film festival, because the kind of movies I’ve been involved with are not the kind that film festivals are remotely interested in.
You originally studied electrical engineering. Did you move into comedy to escape that methodical and detail-oriented kind of thinking, or did it teach you conversely to approach humor with a disciplined and logical methodology?
I think probably more the latter. I do tend to be quite methodical and slightly perfectionist about things. Mechanical sounds as if it is just an engineering process, when I think it is more a creative process. But I don’t know what it gave me besides a slight sense of discipline and doing things to their natural end.
Were you a born performer?
No, I don’t think I was. I remember standing up as an 11-year-old in front of my school friends and classmates in the sports changing room and performing an impersonation of a teacher or something. That was the first and almost the last time when I stood up in front of friends and performed. As soon as adolescent self-consciousness set in I never really did that again. I’ve always required a formal setting, a stage or a film or TV studio in which to perform. And above all I need to become somebody else. I’m certainly not a standup comedian in any sense. I think I’m more an actor than a comedian though a little bit of both.
You have one line of comic performance that is highly verbal and another that is mute. Why?
I’m happy in both modes. The good thing about verbal comedy is, you tend to have more companionship. Because the very nature of mute comedy, and Mr. Bean as a character, is insularity. He’s a lonely man, really, just living his own self-centered life. I’ve always preferred the verbal stuff because you spend more time talking to other people. It’s a more social thing.
You’re best known for the innocent Mr. Bean and the snide Blackadder. Which is closer to your personality?
I definitely do not have the wit of Blackadder. I definitely require scriptwriters to provide that. And I don’t think I’m as dark or cynical as Blackadder is in his view of the world. Probably I’m somewhere in between but closer to Mr. Bean. You know, the nice bits of Mr. Bean, because Mr. Bean has a very vindictive and selfish and nasty side to him. I hope I don’t have too much of that.
Was Mr. Bean created as an homage to silent comedians or as a means of entry into international markets where verbal comedy doesn’t translate?
He was just a persona I seemed to naturally become as an actor in comedy sketches without words. If I’m denied words, Mr. Bean’s physicality and attitude to life is what I seem to acquire. In 1989 we put him on TV and there was no doubt the motivation was a belief that we had a character that could live in other markets and other countries. I was always envious of the fact that so many British musical artists in the late `80s, Phil Collins or David Bowie or Duran Duran or someone like that, assumed an international marketplace for their product, whereas British comedians don’t. And I thought we have a tool here that will enable us to do that. So latterly he was pursued because we thought it would have a global acceptance, which it turned out to have.
Does making comedy get easier or tougher with experience?
Certainly one’s perception is that it becomes more difficult. Largely because the more success you have the more pressure you feel to make things to a good standard, for movies you make to make money and that sort of thing. One misses those days when you were 19 or 23 and you just did what made you laugh. What you and your friends thought was funny. And you did it, and if they laughed, great, and if they didn’t, it didn’t matter. As you get older you always think about everything so much, you’re so concerned that what you do should be good and should be successful that it’s the success you’re pursuing rather than the fun of doing it, which is what’s so great when you’re younger. So I don’t think the business of being funny gets more difficult. What gets more difficult is the context. What’s difficult for me on a movie is not playing Mr. Bean. The problem is the scripts. The problem is the shaping of the shots. The problem is the editing. The problem is all those things surrounding the character, the whole business of filmmaking, and that certainly doesn’t get any easier.
Is there sometimes a distinction between comedy that you believe can succeed commercially and what you personally think is good?
I find the two factors to be inseparable, really. I keep thinking I’m going to come across a joke or an idea or a story or a situation in which I’m going to say, `I’d really love to do this but I don’t think the mass audiences will enjoy it.’ But my sentiments are always towards entertaining as many people as possible. It is from that that I derive my satisfaction. I’ve never done anything I didn’t believe was funny, but the mass audience would find it funny, so I’ve reluctantly done it. I don’t think I’ve ever been in that situation. Instinctively I always err towards making things as accessible as possible.
You have a rather intense demeanor. Have you ever considered exploring drama in an entirely serious role?
I’ve come close to it. I made a movie last year called `Keeping Mum’ with Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas that quite a serious role, kind of semi-serious, semi-comic. I’ve no great manic ambition to do it. I don’t feel as though I need to be serious in order to prove something or to derive satisfaction from life. I’m very happy doing silly things. I think that’s as difficult a task as you can set yourself.
Many actors avoid watching their performances. Is that your practice?
The funny thing it, with all the Mr. Bean movies, I’m intimately involved with all the processes and the editing so I watch my performance for month after month every day. But I detach myself entirely from it. There’s nothing about my performance that worries me. The things that consume me are all to do with story, which is why I like to sit in on the directing and editing. That’s what’s going to make things funny or not as long as I do my bit during shooting, which generally I feel I do.