Meeting Rowan Atkinson, he is the first to admit he’s not the funniest person in the room. “I’m not a naturally funny man,” Atkinson told Movie Fanatic. “I tend to be quite serious.”
But one thing is for sure: Atkinson is hilarious once the cameras are rolling. The British comedic actor has been making audiences laugh hysterically for decades. He first came to America's attention for his portrayal of Mr. Bean. In his latest film, Johnny English Reborn, he is continuing the adventures of one of his other character creations, the James Bond parody spy of the title.
The James Bond-ish parody film Johnny English first appeared in 2003 to international box office success. In our interview with Atkinson, he talks about his bankability and how he feels it is largely due to his Mr. Bean character. See, Mr. Bean doesn’t say a word. It’s easy to be universally funny when there is no language barrier.
Atkinson took that international goodwill and created a character that not only talks and walks like a certain British superspy whose actions are always true in the name of protecting the crown but also manages to wreak havoc humorously in the process.
Johnny English is back in Johnny English Reborn and this time out he has to stop an assassin from killing the Chinese premier while in London for a diplomatic mission. English tells Movie Fanatic about his co-stars including Gillian Anderson, channeling a little Mr. Bean in Johnny English and what he thinks lies at the secret of his success.
Movie Fanatic: As opposed to some of your other comic characters, would you say you have to do a little more to get inside Johnny English?
Rowan Atkinson: You’ve got to get a sense of any character that you play. It’s not something you often do in comedy as your characterizations come more from the comedic situations that you’re presented with -- fairly facile, silly or fun. You’re bound to feel the dilemma of the character that you play. If you don’t feel it, you’re not acting the part as well as you might. He’s an enjoyable character to play. He’s fun. He’s rather human. He’s a rather realistic character, perhaps more so than James Bond. James Bond is just a superman. It’s rather fun to play someone with more faults and foibles.
Movie Fanatic: What is it about your humor that transcends cultures and regions?
Rowan Atkinson: Obviously, I’m very dependent on places like the Far East, Europe, where thankfully so far, the film has done well. I think it’s because of Mr. Bean. Mr. Bean has established me, my reputation if you like, in these territories. He’s a very easy sell on the international stage because he doesn’t say much. There’s very little verbal dimension to what he says and does. With Johnny English, it’s a little more complicated. But, there’s still a very strong visual element to him. I think the tone of the comedy is very similar. It’s very simple [laughs]. It’s very accessible comedy. I’m afraid it’s not very sophisticated. Occasionally, it’s sophisticated… I hope [laughs]. Of course, it’s clean! It’s family comedy. Johnny English movies are that rare thing that is a family comedy which isn’t animated. In this day and age, there aren’t many of those. So much comedy in the last five years has been so much adult, in the American Pie, Hangover tradition. We’re not in that tradition.
Movie Fanatic: What was it like to film in Hong Kong?
Rowan Atkinson: I haven’t been there since 1987 when it was still a British colony. The atmosphere had changed. It was a slightly less interesting place in many ways. It was a little more sanitized, a little more contrast between rich and poor in the old days. It’s sort of like a huge shopping mall. It’s why all the Chinese come over from the mainland. Not everyone’s allowed over, just certain people. It is a great place, such a great history.
Movie Fanatic: Talk about working with Daniel Kaluuya, who plays your sidekick in the film. What was it about his humor that worked for you? You auditioned a dozen actors for that, didn’t you?
Rowan Atkinson: We actually auditioned 40 or 50 male actors for the part. He was the only one who was absolutely right. He’s got a fantastic face. He himself is naturally funny, but tremendously empathetic. It’s a very difficult role to play, the sidekick. It’s not an enviable role. In the end, it’s terribly important. The role of the straight man is as difficult, if not more difficult, than the role of the funnyman because it’s a matter of dancing around a situation. You’ve got to make your relationship believable, and yet he has to have a character of his own. He’s got to have a personality of his own, which Daniel has in spades, luckily. My only regret with Daniel is that we didn’t get to do more with him.
Movie Fanatic: While the final credits of Johnny English Reborn are rolling, there’s a wonderful scene where you’re cooking a meal without saying a word to the symphonic stylings of In the Hall of the Mountain King. It felt like it could have been an old Mr. Bean sketch. Where did that emanate?
Rowan Atkinson: Yes, I originally thought of it as a Mr. Bean sketch many years ago. It seemed to adapt well to Johnny English. It’s basically making a lamb carousel in two minutes, 12 seconds -- which is how long it takes for the Hall of the Mountain King to play. For some reason, it had always been in my head. I don’t know why. It was originally in the body of the movie. But we moved it because it had nothing to do with the progress of the story. It was always a very popular scene, so we decided to put it at the end of the movie with the credits. I hope people stay through the end credits to witness it.
Movie Fanatic: Do you think you’re funny?
Rowan Atkinson: [Laughs] I don’t know, maybe this interview is proving I’m not.
Movie Fanatic: [Laughs]
Rowan Atkinson: I can be reasonably light-hearted when I’m in the company of good friends. I’m not a joke-smith. I find I can only be funny if I become somebody else. That’s what I need to do.
Movie Fanatic: What was it like working with one of our favorites, Gillian Anderson? What did you make of her English accent? It’s not her first…
Rowan Atkinson: It was great to have her. We didn’t think of her of being not particularly English. I think she was born in Britain and moved to the U.S. But, she gives a great English accent. It’s funny actually, when we went to Australia for the premiere, sometimes when she was talking to Australians or Americans, she was talking to them in an American accent. When she was talking to English reporters, she was talking to them in an English accent. It was extraordinary. Like Dominic West and Rosamund Pike, Gillian’s challenge was -- which is also the challenge of any serious or proper actor -- coming into a comedy movie: How much are they being leant on to provide the comedy? Sometimes it’s very difficult. Is their character supposed to be funny? Are their lines funny? I suppose you have to feel that even though it is a comedy, you hope to be a truthful, comedy story. It’s not about larking about. You can leave that to me.