Ricky Gervais explores a villainous role with The Muppets, says Stephen Jewell.
"I can explain it to you as opposed to it being just my weird foible." Clad from head to toe in a strikingly furry animal suit as he sips coffee in a cramped dressing room just down the corridor from Pinewood Studio's D Stage, Ricky Gervais almost hits me with his impressively bushy tail as he turns around to say hello. Known for memorable performances such as hapless clerical manager David Brent in The Office and deluded background artist Andy Millman in Extras, the 52-year-old is appearing alongside 30 Rock star Tina Fey and Modern Family's Ty Burrell in the Muppets' latest big-screen outing, Muppets Most Wanted. Revealing only that his character Dominic Badguy is a master criminal and a lemur, the fast-talking comedian is clearly in his element.
"This is my costume for the film, it's not my own," he laughs. "It's like a babygrow or a onesie and it's actually quite comfortable. I often go around in pyjamas so this is fine with me. I'm having great fun."
Following on from the irrepressible puppets' sensational comeback in 2011's The Muppets, the big-budget sequel finds Kermit, Miss Piggy and friends embarking on a sold-out world tour that takes in Berlin, Madrid and London, although it was mostly shot at Pinewood's sprawling Buckinghamshire movie lot.
Juggling his television series Derek and Life's Too Short with his latest live arena show when he was approached about the role, Gervais was reluctant to add a Hollywood blockbuster to his already hectic schedule. "I was worried about letting people down and not doing justice to everything else I was doing," he admits. "I felt like I'd be doing three things lightheartedly as opposed to one thing at a time. But I read the script and I loved it, which I suppose isn't a surprise because I love The Muppets."
A fan of the loveable puppets since he saw their variety show The Muppet Show while growing up in the late 1970s, Gervais is now relieved that he accepted the challenge. "I kick myself sometimes, thinking I nearly turned it down, which would have been one of the biggest regrets of my life because every day on set is so funny," he says. "I've loved The Muppets for about 35 years as I used to watch them every Sunday. I've got older brothers and sisters and even when I was young I saw them laughing at what we thought was a kids' show. So I thought there must be something else about this kids' show. Then I saw John Cleese do an episode and he was still doing his own thing."
Like its predecessor, Muppets Most Wanted is helmed by Flight of the Conchords director James Bobin and comes with a score by Bret McKenzie, who won the Best Original Song Oscar at the 2012 Academy Awards for the infectious Man or Muppet. Sharing a slyly subversive quality with the hit HBO series about a pair of feckless Kiwi musicians living in New York, The Muppets' multi-layered humour enables them to appeal to all age groups.
"There's a bit of deconstruction to it as the comedy certainly works on more than one level," says Gervais. "It's not just a straight-down-the-line family movie with heroes and villains. Mind you, I don't know what adult means as I've never grown up. I'm laughing all the time when I'm on set as I'm spending most of the day with a talking frog."
With an intriguing list that includes Tom Hiddleston, Celine Dion, Lady Gaga, Salma Hayek and Christoph Waltz, Muppets Most Wanted continues The Muppets' tradition of boasting eclectic guest appearances. However, according to costume designer Rahel Afiley - another Flight of the Conchords veteran - it is another familiar face that Kiwis will be the most pleased to see. "Jemaine Clement is in this film as well because he's one of the actors who does a cameo," she says, revealing that Flight of the Conchords was an excellent training ground for the demands of a considerably larger scale production like Muppets Most Wanted. "That was a fun show to do and I really enjoyed it as our crew were like a little family. Doing Flight of the Conchords prepared me for this madness."
An unscrupulous associate of the film's main villain Constantine - who is also Kermit's mysterious doppelgänger - Gervais' character also participates in several spectacular song-and-dance sequences. "The big number is me and Constantine - the evil Russian frog who pretends to be Kermit - where we have to go on to fire escapes and do some tap-dancing," says Gervais, who was one half of little known British New Wave duo Seona Dancing in the early 80s before turning his hand to comedy.
"I'm okay at singing and for a failed pop star I'm a pretty good singer, so that doesn't faze me at all.
"It's dancing that sends chills down my spine and if you remember the way David Brent dances, that is the peak of my powers. That is as good as it gets but luckily in this film, it's written that it's meant to be awkward.
"Dominic doesn't like doing it but Constantine bullies me and makes me dance, and it's easy to play awkward when you're feeling awkward yourself. So I think I got away with it as it's meant to be fun and it's a joke as well."
Muppets Most Wanted is screening now.