Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Most of Stephen Merchant’s survival skills involve being tall

Most of Stephen Merchant’s survival skills involve being tall

Photo: GreggDeGuire/Film Magic, Graphic: Natalie Peeples

In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.

Stephen Merchant is impossible to ignore, and not just because he’s 6'7". The co-writer and co-director of the British incarnation of The Office, Merchant’s introduction to Hollywood was winning a Golden Globe for the series in 2004—an experience he remembers as one of the most surreal moments of his life in our 11 Questions interview. He was thrown into the deep end of the entertainment industry, but as we mentioned earlier, Merchant is a tall man, and he’s maintained success as a writer, director, actor, and stand-up comedian with his own awkward sort of grace.

Nowadays, the American spin-off of The Office is a beloved Netflix staple, and Merchant is co-starring as a Gestapo officer (but, you know, a funny one) in Taika Waititi’s anti-Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit. Answering our 11 Questions, Merchant casually dropped Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s full name like it was no big deal, revealed himself to be a diehard physical media collector, and pitched a job for himself as Bruce Springsteen’s human stepladder.

1. What’s your favorite fast food menu item?

Stephen Merchant: I think it’s just a classic burger from any of your classic fast food outlets. I don’t want to get too fancy. I don’t need to be adding different sauces. I don’t want barbecue sauce. Just keep it simple. Whatever the classic burger is, you must know what you’re doing. That’s why it’s your in-house burger. I trust you guys. Bring it on.

I’ll obviously add fries with it, maybe even sweet potato fries, because in my mind that’s healthier. I suspect it’s not. And this’ll shock you, but I don’t go with the soda. Sometimes you can get that as part of the deal, but I don’t like soda, so I’ll just have water. I know that seems mad because you’d say, “Why? Just take the soda anyway. It’s free. It’s all part of the package.” And I’m saying, well, what am I going to do with it? I’ll leave it on the table, then it’s just getting thrown in the garbage.

And I like to kind of save my burger consumption. There are a lot of gourmet burgers out there, but I tend to avoid them. I’ll wait and eat some trashy burger from a fast food place at two in the morning when I’m drunk.

AVC: Do you have a favorite burger place, either a standalone shop—anywhere in the world—or a chain?

SM: I am embarrassed to say that, like many people who spend time in California, I have become won over by the In-N-Out burger, which on the surface does not seem that exciting. It doesn’t seem glamorous, and yet they’re doing something right. I don’t quite know what it is, but they’ve stuck with me. Seems like an awful cliche, but that is the case.

AVC: Are you one of those people that goes to In-N-Out on the way back from the airport?

SM: No, I’m not that desperate. But I know that there are some people that—they land, and they immediately have to get there. I just like them as a periodic treat. There are quite a few of them that are near highways, so it’s quite a nice thing to stop there before a long journey. I’ve fueled up there a few times.

2. If you could relive any event or moment in your own life, what would it be?

SM: Am I doing it differently the second time?

AVC: I think you’re more savoring the moment.

SM: This is going to seem very vulgar, and I do remember enjoying it, but retrospectively I would’ve enjoyed it more. I remember when Ricky Gervais I did the original British version of The Office, we were invited to the Golden Globes. The BBC said to us, “Look, there’s absolutely no chance you’re going to win. Just go there and enjoy the free food.” And then we did win. And I was so bamboozled and surprised, I didn’t really take it in. I remember looking out into the audience, and I saw Clint Eastwood turn to the person next to him and say, “Who the fuck are those guys?” We could read his lips. And even though he was saying that, it still made my day.

Then people came up to us, and movie stars came out and were complimentary and said nice things. I just think it was all a bit confused, you know? It was like people who can’t quite remember their wedding day because [they were] swept up in a moment and they were stressed or drawn in different directions. So I think it’d be quite nice to go back and just enjoy that more. Because we won two Golden Globes for our first TV project, I think we thought that would be what happened with every TV project. And then it turns out it’s actually quite hard to win awards [Laughs.].

And then the second time we won [for Extras], it was the year that [the Golden Globes] were canceled [because of the 2008 writers’ strike]. They just mailed it to us. So I missed out on the experience the second time.

AVC: Did someone call you to tell you you won, or…?

SM: I was in England, and I woke up the next morning and there was an email from someone saying, “You won a Golden Globe last night. Well done.” When it arrives in some bubble wrap in an envelope, it’s not quite as cool.

AVC: Clint Eastwood wasn’t there, for one.

SM: At the very least, Clint could have hand-delivered it.

3. Who’s your favorite fictional villain?

SM: I do like a villain who’s smart, so I’m partial to Professor Moriarty. And I’m fond of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He’s from the James Bond books, but I really only know him from the movies. In the movies, sometimes he’s bald with a scar, sometimes he’s got full head of hair, sometimes he’s in a wheelchair, and in recent years, he’s somehow James Bond’s brother?

I like those Bond villains because I liked the fact that they are always far too complicated in their methodology of killing James Bond. A quick shot between the eyeballs, and boom, your arch nemesis is out of the way. But no, instead you’re going to trap him in space or whatever.

I also like the fact that he runs an organization, SPECTRE. I like the idea that a lot of Blofeld’s time is taken up with committee meetings. Just bureaucracy, deciding on what the letterhead font is going to be for SPECTRE, or if they’re going to buy a coffee machine. I guess there’s a lot of recruitment. I don’t know if they have a HR department. I imagine he’s got a lot of disputes.

I just like the idea of a villain giving themselves that that kind of infrastructure. Really committing to their villainy. You’ve had someone build a missile base in a volcano, that can’t be easy. There’s got to be a lot of planning and permission you need from the authorities for a project like that.

4. What’s a line from film or television that you’ve incorporated into your personal vocabulary?

SM: There’s one I use quite a lot, which is from the movie Swingers. There’s this scene in Swingers where all the guys go to this really happening bar. It’s full, it’s going off. There’s music, there’s partying. It’s a wild place. And they say, “Let’s go somewhere else.” And one of the guys says, “Yeah, this place is dead anyway.” I use that line quite a lot. “Yeah, this place is dead anyway,” is my default when I’m leaving somewhere. But often, I misuse it. I use it when the place is dead, which is not the way it’s used in the movie. The irony is lost.

It’s funny, because you start off saying those things ironically, right? You say it as a nod to the movie, and then at some point no one remembers it from a movie, so that’s just a thing you say. I’m kind of conscious that people may just think I’m an asshole.

AVC: Are you ever disappointed when someone doesn’t realize that you’re quoting a movie?

SM: I think I’ve offended people! I’ve gone to someone’s house, and they’re having a party, it’s the end of the night and quite a lot of people have left. And then I say—in my mind, ironically—“I’m leaving, this place is dead anyway.” But they’re thinking, “He’s right. It is dead. It’s been a really bad party.” That’s why I’m not invited back to many parties.

5. Who would play you in the movie of your life?

SM: It’s tricky, that. Obviously, I would be lobbying for myself as an actor.

AVC: Sure.

SM: It’d be a shame to lose out on that role. But also, it’s quite tricky to replace me because I’m 6'7", and there aren’t a lot of 6'7" actors. I’ve also got quite a specific face. So I think you’d need to get Andy Serkis to do a motion capture version of me, generated through Peter Jackson’s technology. Basically, I’m like Golem. I need to be played in the same way they did Golem in The Lord Of The Rings.

6. What’s a movie that you’ll always stop and watch if you’re flipping channels?

SM: There are a lot of movies that I will stop and watch. I’ll always stop and watch one of the Jason Bourne movies. I feel like I can jump in at any point in a Bourne. It’s actually very difficult if you’re flipping through the channels and one of them is on to know which Jason Bourne movie it is. It’s always him walking through a crowd, avoiding some other people who are chasing him. Nevertheless, I always enjoy those.

I’m partial to any good action movie. I will stop and watch any of the Die Hards—well, that’s not true. [I’ll watch] the first two Die Hards, the other ones I don’t like as much. I’ll stop on, like, a Con Air or The Rockthe movie The Rock, not the actor. Although if Dwayne’s on TV, I’ll definitely be watching as well. I’ll pretty much stop and watch anything that’s got a bit of action and thrills.

AVC: Yeah, totally. You see an explosion and you’re good.

SM: I’m into it.

7. What possession can you not get rid of?

SM: Some people have said to me, “Why are you still rocking the DVD and Blu-ray collection? Shouldn’t you be taking that to the charity shop?” But I don’t understand that at all. I have a nice DVD collection that I built up over many years, some of them quite obscure titles that are not always easy to track down. So I’m happy to keep the DVD collection. I like it as an archive of movies I’ve enjoyed over the years, and when people come over, they can browse and they can pick a film [to watch]. I like having the artifact on my shelf.

AVC: I was a video store clerk for many years, so you’re speaking my language here.

SM: My VHSes, I did get rid of, I have to say. But my DVDs are still there, and my CDs, actually.

AVC: What’s your prize DVD?

SM: It’s hard to say, because some of them were hard to get ahold of at the time. I used to buy them mail order—like, for instance, the Criterion Collection wasn’t available in the UK for a long time. So my Criterion edition of The Rock, actually, I’m very pleased with, because it wasn’t available in the UK. I’m one of the few people that listened to the entirety of Michael Bay’s commentary on The Rock.

AVC: What do you like about his commentary?

SM: He was very thorough. He explained in great detail how he made the movie, which was very useful. He talked a lot about the staging of the car chase sequence. He was very perceptive about that, which I thought was good.

I heard a rumor, actually, that Michael Bay paid Criterion to include The Rock in their series.

I have no evidence that that’s the case. Someone told that to me. But regardless, I appreciate it, because I very much enjoy [that DVD].

AVC: The Rock, I could see being part of Criterion anyway, but their release of Armageddon was a bit puzzling.

SM: I was never partial to Armageddon. In terms of apocalypse movies of that period, I’m more of a Deep Impact kind of guy.

8. What specific skill would you bring to a post-apocalyptic society?

SM: Well, my chief skill is being 6'7". I can reach things from high up, like fruit that’s a little hard to reach. But that’s sort of it. In fact, I have thought on occasion if there was a post apocalyptic situation on the horizon and they’re choosing who could go in the bunkers—who’s going to be useful after the bombs drop—I really don’t think there’s much I can do. I’m not terribly practical. I find it hard to remember useful scientific information.

I do sometimes think if we had to rebuild society and it was left to me and my friends, none of us know exactly how a car works, or how to build a microwave oven. The most I could offer with the car thing is, there’s an internal combustion engine, but I need someone else to build that or explain that. I don’t really know how to tie knots. I don’t know how to forage. I don’t know which berries you can eat. I’m quite a good cook, so I could do that. But again, I like to have my oils and like spices and my pans. Whereas if we’re just scratching around in the forest, I don’t really know what to do with that stuff.

So yeah, I think you might as well just leave me outside with the zombies. But be careful, because as a zombie, I can grab you even if you’re up a tree.

9. Who is the most underrated person in your industry right now?

SM: I’ll be honest with you. I think I am.

AVC: Okay. Why?

SM: I think I’m very undervalued. I’ll tell you what annoys me. Why have I not been given a knighthood? In the UK, you win some award, they give you a knighthood, or at the very least, some kind of medal from the queen. You win an Oscar, you get a knighthood, or you get a medal from the queen. If you’re a sporting success, let’s say you win a medal in the Olympics, you get knighted, or again, another medal from the queen, on OBE or CEB. And for some reason, it’s not happening for me. And like I said, I won two Golden Globes! [The Office] was the first British sitcom to win a Golden Globe! There should have been an open-top bus ride around my hometown when I go back to England. Nothing!

AVC: Really? They just didn’t care?

SM: They didn’t care! Whereas Bradley Wiggins, who rode a bike on the Tour de France or something, he’s Sir Bradley Wiggins! What the hell happened there?

AVC: Is there any way to petition the Queen about this?

SM: Please. I don’t know how much pull A.V. Club has with the British government, but we’ll see if we can work some connections.

10. If you could be in any band, past or present, which one would it be?

SM: I’d be in the E Street Band. I love Bruce Springsteen, I think he’s just amazing in every way. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to be Bruce. Just let Bruce be Bruce. But I’d be more than happy to be in the band, maybe drumming, or keyboards, or guitar. I’m not taking away from any of the existing E Street Band members; I love them all. But I’m just saying, if there’s an extra space for me, I’d very much like to be there. They always look like they’re having fun on stage. They’re playing great songs, which I as a listener never get tired of, so I certainly wouldn’t get tired of playing them. Bruce is doing most of the heavy lifting—he’s doing the singing, he’s writing the songs—so you essentially just show up to rehearsals.

And he’s the one that gets slagged off by Donald Trump. I don’t know if you saw, but recently Donald Trump referred to Bruce Springsteen as “little Bruce Springsteen,” which is amazing to me. First, I was upset that he attacked Bruce. I thought that was completely uncalled for. Of all the things that Donald Trump’s done, please, firstly, lay off Bruce. Secondly, is that really your best attack? That he’s “little” Bruce Springsteen? He thinks that he can call people little cause he’s 6'2"; I am 6'7", and to me, Donald Trump is “little Donnie Trump.”

11. What would you do during The Purge?

SM: You know what I’ve always wanted to do? Just because it looks fun? I’ve seen it in many, many movies, and it looks exhilarating. I want to drive a car through a shop front. You know, you drive through the window, you knock over a bunch of tin cans that are standing up in the front. I don’t know why that looks fun to me; it’s probably quite dangerous. I’d probably go through the windshield and it’d kill me. But assuming I’ve taken requisite health and safety precautions—helmet, padding—driving a car through a shop front window looks like it would be fun. I would leave the car there and go buy my beer and go about my day.

AVC: This is a bit of a side note, but I do know a woman who did that once. She went to court-ordered rehab after that.

SM: Well, that’s it. I think it tends to happen in real life if you’re drunk, or if you’re an assassin who’s chasing someone. But this would be different, because it would be the Purge.

Bonus 12th question from Ken Jennings:

AVC: Our previous 11 Questions interview subject was Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy champion. His question for you is, “What would be your dream category on Jeopardy?”

SM: I think it would be “the life and times of Stephen Merchant.” I could get at least five out of 10 on that one.

AVC: And lastly, what question would you like me to ask the next person that does this interview, not knowing who it is?

SM: My question is, if you could go back in time to any historical event, which would you go back to, and why?

AVC: Do you have an answer to this question? Have you thought about this?

SM: I told you before about my love of Bruce Springsteen, and there’s a famous concert Bruce did in 1975 at the Hammersmith Apollo. It was his first appearance in London, he had never performed there before.

And the British press really had the knives out for him. They were like, “who’s this Bruce Springsteen guy?” Everyone’s raving about him, there were posters up all over town. He was a bit overhyped, so they all went [to the concert] ready to write a damning review. And by the end of the concert, they were giving him a standing ovation. He won them over with the strength of one concert. And that concert is available in film form, but being there and seeing a musician convert a potentially hostile crowd through sheer talent would be exhilarating.

And as we know, I would be in the band, of course. Or, given that I have no musical ability, I’d be one of the roadies, just reaching things down from high shelves.