Eight years on from Johnny English, Rowan Atkinson’s hapless secret agent returns, this time trying to prevent the assassination of the Chinese premier. Johnny English Reborn improves on the 2003 original in leaps and bounds, thanks to an injection of Bourne-style action and a great cast including The Wire’s Dominic West, The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson and former Bond girl Rosamund Pike. The film’s director, Oliver Parker, spoke to Time Out in Sydney.
Oliver, what appealed to you about the Johnny English Reborn script?
I thought the first film had lots of very good jokes [but] Hamish McColl, the writer, with Rowan’s encouragement, has gone for something with much more of a genuine thriller structure – to create a world where Daniel Craig could walk in, and you wouldn’t feel he was out of place. From the casting to the international scale of the storytelling, the exotic locations, I just wanted to make it feel it had these elements of a thriller.
What is Rowan like to work with?
He’s an extremely intelligent and articulate man – a terrific analyst of comedy. His deconstruction of a joke is very interesting. He was interested in a director who was going to open it up a bit more and make it a bit more cinematic.
Johnny English isn’t as silly a character as Mr Bean is he?
You don’t have the repetitive klutz joke because, actually, this guy’s not bad! He can do some things outrageously well. His main problem is that he’s not quite as good as he’d like to be [laughs]. He’s not an idiot – he makes mistakes sometimes out of vanity. But it’s not that he’s stupid. He just keeps falling short of his own expectations, which is the essence of a good comic hero, I think.
Rowan is a bit of an action man in real life isn’t he? He loves fast cars.
Yes and his mind is the mind of an engineer. He loves engines and cogs and he loves the gadgets. The actual construction of a joke is similar for him.
And he did a lot of his own stunts we hear.
Quite a lot. And we discovered early on that it’s hard to double him because that body has joints in different places from normal bodies!
I was watching a lot of the Roger Moore Bond movies, and some of their charm is the blatantness of the [stunt doubles]. There’s one film where Roger’s meant to be running up the stairs and it’s like he couldn’t be bothered [laughs]. But that doesn’t help in trying to create the authenticity. Rowan was on the skidoo and Rowan was on the wheelchair, racing along the Mall. Universal’s insurance people were horrified, but Rowan wants to do it. He was very game for it and believes in it. He’s a skeptic of CGI.
Was it a tongue-in-cheek decision to cast Rosamund Pike, who was in Die Another Day with Pierce Brosnan?
Well, partly, but it wasn’t the main reason we cast her by any means. It’s quite difficult to find British actresses who have glamour. There are lots of very fine actresses – and a lot of them are my friends – but they almost deliberately eschew the glamourpuss thing. Rosamund, there’s something very Grace Kelly about her. She’s got a kind of luminosity.
You know, it’s very difficult to get a kind of chemistry with a clown. Romance and comedy don’t really go together. It’s odd – you almost don’t want to see it! [laughs] But there was something interesting about her character being a behavioural therapist in that she will help us to like and understand Johnny more. She’s very interested in his weaknesses.
Gillian Anderson as the head of MI7 is interesting casting.
Gillian was a great sport in this – easy going and up for it. She’s got the glacial sort of persona but as a woman she’s so down to earth. It’s a tough thing to act opposite Rowan – you’re not quite sure where you fit. Are you allowed to be funny? And the director’s saying "no, I think it’ll be funnier if you play it straight.” I really enjoyed working with her. We’ve sort of adopted her in Britain. She was great in the BBC’s Bleak House.
You’ve directed a lot of Oscar Wilde on film – An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest, Dorian Gray…
That came from the urge to take something that I loved to a wider audience. I played Earnest on the stage and I was frustrated by this feeling that everyone was listening to these lines and laughing but no one knew why. It was so cosy and it was the opposite to what Wilde did. Wilde was wonderfully rebellious, stirring everything up. So how do you make it feel alive? …
I wasn’t going to do Dorian Gray actually, but at that point I’d worked on the script with the writer and was like, “I don’t want any other bastard doing this!”