Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan chats with triple threat Ricky Gervais, who writes, directs, and stars in the Netflix black comedy After Life, now in its second season.
Ricky Gervais is known for being the caustic host of the Golden Globes, the one poking fun at everyone with a glass of lager in his hand, but in After Life on Netflix, audiences are treated to a completely different side of the writer/director/actor.
After Life follows Tony (Gervais), after he nearly decides to commit suicide following the death of his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman). The show deals with depression and mental illness in a very realistic sense, as Tony can’t seem to break the cycle of watching old videos of he and his wife and wishing she were still there. It’s heartbreaking. And yet there’s hope for Tony in the cast of characters around him, including his colleagues at the quirky newspaper he writes for, his postman, a sex worker he befriends, and the lady at the graveyard who’s also grieving.
In Season 2 of After Life, Tony attempts to be kinder to people and open himself up to new experiences (which includes a hilarious scene at a yoga class). But despite his attempts at getting over his loss, he still struggles to move on. The series is one of the best depictions of mental illness on TV, and Gervais proves to be more than his acidic off-screen persona, playing Tony with an open vulnerability that I don’t think audiences have seen before from the comedy icon.
I had the pleasure of chatting with him about his work on the show, now in its second season, including the religious undertones, the blonde casting coincidence, and why hitting the same episodic beats is purposeful.
Awards Daily: Much of the show involves Tony reminiscing over old videos of his wife. But he doesn’t seem like the sentimental type. Why do you think he keeps these videos? Why do you think he kept them in the first place? Do you think he is secretly morbid and was afraid of her death before his?
Ricky Gervais: No, I just think he’s a reflection of today. We film everything, and everyone’s got a camera on their phone. And he was always filming her and teasing her and they were mucking around. I wanted the relationship to be real. Not like a chocolate box or a fake romance. I wanted it to be real to show they were friends. And no, he’s not morbid at all. He just put all of his eggs into one basket. He says in Series 1, he just wanted to get home and spend as much time as he could. People think that if he did all of the same things he did with Lisa he would feel better. But that isn’t the point. He doesn’t miss doing things with Lisa; he just misses doing nothing with Lisa. He knows the one thing that he wants he can’t have, and that’s why he’s angry. He thinks his life is over; that’s where the title comes from. When she died, he died, in his opinion. And the other play on the title is the fact that he doesn’t even believe that she’s in heaven looking down on him; he doesn’t even have that comfort. He says he’d rather be nowhere with her than somewhere without her. He just doesn’t want to live without her. It’s a love story. That’s what it is. Obviously it starts out with grief, and it’s about depression and mental illness and anger and all of those things, but it’s a love story. That’s all it is, this show.
AD: Obviously to lose someone is awful, but do you think one of the reasons Tony struggles with her death is because he doesn’t believe in an afterlife?
RG: He’s a rational person. And he knows, he’s aware, he’s not delusional. He’s aware that he’s lost everything. And that’s why he was going to kill himself. And the reason he didn’t kill himself is because the dog was hungry. He tried everything to feel better. He tried to turn himself into a psychopath, so he wouldn’t feel pain anymore, but again he couldn’t because he’s not a psychopath. He’s a nice man who’s angry and in pain, in terrible pain. He can’t live with himself. He can’t live with the pain in his head and his heart, and so he doesn’t know what to do. At least he’s trying. He goes through the stages of grief. We hit the ground running in Series 1 with shock, anger, denial, and now he’s going through a negotiation. So it’s a man’s struggle just trying to get well.
AD: It’s one of the best depictions I think I’ve ever seen of depression on screen really. The show hits on the same beats a lot, but for good reason. He misses his wife, and depression is a cycle. How do you avoid feeling repetitive with Tony’s cycle of depression?
RG: Well, I have to embrace it. I have to embrace the repetition, because that’s what it’s about. After Series 1, I’d never had a reaction like it. And I don’t just mean the size of the reaction; I mean the emotional response, people coming up to me and telling me their own stories of grief. They’d lost their brother or their wife. And they’d say, “That was me.” So I realized I had to treat it respectively and realistically, and that’s why he doesn’t just get better and snap out of it. And he even says to the lady at the graveyard, “I remember what it feels like to be normal; I remember those days. I do an impression of that. But this is the real me all the time; I am absolutely broken. And I put on a brave face now and again, so people think that I’m doing okay.” You don’t get over it. You don’t just get better. It would be irresponsible for me for someone to come along and give advice, and he feels better now. Life’s not like that.
AD: That’s what I love about it. I’m obsessed with finding out what Tony was like before he met Lisa.
RG: He was fun, cynical, and snarky, and would tease his friends. He was just a normal bloke. He was quite smart. I don’t think he knew quite what he had until he lost it all. And I found that the happier, the more fun the flashbacks are, the sadder it is now. So yeah, we’re gonna find out more and more about him through what’s happening now and what happens in the marriage. I suppose the terrible tragedy of just living. Life is like that. Life is ups and downs, and even when he loses his dad, he says, it’s not like Lisa; it’s the natural order of things. He’s a rational bloke, but when you’re in terrible, terrible pain and grief, you lash out and you don’t know what to do to feel better.
AD: Do you think he ever feels guilty for all the pranks he pulled on her when he watches the videos?
RG: I don’t think he feels guilty about those, but he is riddled with guilt. He does say, “Was I kind enough to her? Did I hug her enough?” He does say all those things. He worries. He wants a clean slate; he doesn’t want to think he did anything bad or hurt anyone’s feelings. He’s still got guilt, because now he feels guilty about even the prospect of moving on. He wants to honor her in every way he can. He even says, she wouldn’t want this; she wouldn’t want me in this much pain. But it doesn’t matter, because life is a ball of confusion. As he says, we’re chimps with brains the size of a planet; no wonder we get drunk and kill people. It’s confusing. We don’t know to do. All we want to do is feel good about ourselves. We just want to live our lives guilt-free and be able to sleep at night. His mental illness or grief or depression, it’s a constant battle in his own head. That’s where he’s living. It’s like he’s living two lives. He’s living his public life, where he’s getting on with stuff, and then he’s going home every night and wishing he was dead.
AD: Do you think the nurse is a bit unfair to Tony? Grieving is a process, and it’s been less than about six months or less than a year since he lost Lisa.
RG: I think there’s a certain amount of tough love. I don’t think you can just let people do what they want, because they’re upset about certain things. You try to heal them and make them feel better. Try to give them the benefit of the doubt. I think she thinks she’s doing everything for the right reasons. His friends, they let him off an awful lot. There’s a point where you need to step in, and say, “We know you’re hurt, but this is unacceptable.” It’s not acceptable to threaten a 10-year-old kid with a hammer. It might be funny in the context of the show, but you know, it’s not acceptable behavior! (Laughs) But we know why he’s doing it.
AD: I’m thinking of the yoga teacher, too. I love that scene [where he walks out on the class].
RG: Again, he didn’t want to go. He did it as a favor. And it drove him mad. What he has got now is—which is where some of the comedy comes from—we’re living vicariously through his candor. We always wish we could say something like that sometimes. We always wish we could say, “That’s disgusting! How dare you!” But we don’t want to make a scene or we want to be popular or we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. It’s great to watch when he blows, when he says what we’re all thinking.
AD: I love that. I also love the episode where Tony and Matt go out for a drink, looking for “women” sort of—mostly Matt. I know you get a lot of shit from people on social media, but I have never seen a show from a man’s point of view that totally gets women in that situation. That women don’t want to be bothered when they’re having a nice conversation with friends. Juxtaposed against the psychiatrist and his friends, was it important for you to make a distinction of how women want to be treated in a bar?
RG: I’ve always wanted to treat women characters respectfully in my stuff. They’re half the population, and in my experience with women growing up, they were strong, they were smart, they nurtured, they helped us, they held the family and the community together. All of my female role models were strong, smart, funny people. My mum, she did everything. My dad was a laborer, and he worked hard. You know, men worked hard, but women worked miracles. When the men finished their job, women carried on working in my upbringing. My mum, she kept the home together, she grew vegetables, she cooked, she sewed, she decorated. She gave me everything, except money. And that made me realize that the most important things in life were free, which is in nature, learning, hard work, and you know, friends. So I never like women just being props in comedy shows. (Laughs) Honestly, I like to undermine all of the stereotypes, because people are a mixture of everything. I don’t even like it when I do discussions with good versus evil—evil people aren’t bad all the time. Sometimes they do a nice thing. Likewise, good people aren’t good all the time; sometimes they do a bad thing. So I really like mixing those things; I think it’s lazy just to do stereotypes all the time, whether it’s men, women, professions, whatever—I like to mix it up to make it three-dimensional and interesting.
AD: You do that so well. I love the female characters on your show, especially Roxy. I think it’s interesting that there are so many blondes on this show, who might be considered similar to Lisa, from Roxy to the Nurse to the blind date he was set up with in the first season. Did you surround Tony with blondes on purpose to really twist the knife so to speak in him grieving over his wife? Like he’s constantly reminded by it?
RG: No, I didn’t even think of that.
RG: No, I don’t get involved with the hair and makeup. (Laughs)
AD: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s just something I noticed. Everywhere he goes, he’s reminded of Lisa. When you’re trying to get over someone, you feel like you’re constantly reminded of them.
RG: No, the answer is no. It’s a true coincidence. I didn’t plan that.
AD: I know you are an atheist and so is Tony. And yet when you present the idea that there is no afterlife on the show, there’s a long pause from everyone, as if they don’t know whether you’re right or wrong. Do you try to be vague about that? The show doesn’t seem to take a stance.
RG: No, he doesn’t, because everyone’s different, and in any argument, in real life, if I agree with one side of an argument, I have to supply a counter argument. It would be no good if I just went around and all of my characters believed in exactly the same things as I do. There’d be no conflict. It would be boring. Same with politics. Even in stand-up, it annoys me when people think a joke is a window into a comedian’s true soul. I’ll pretend to be something I’m not to make the joke better. I’ll pretend to be right-wing or left-wing or no wing. Whatever makes the joke better or more interesting. I don’t use it as a platform to speak on my own personal beliefs. All of the characters are a mixture of my beliefs, and they oppose my beliefs as well. I try to keep it mixed.
Seasons 1 and 2 of After Life are streaming on Netflix.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.