Seated on a plush loveseat and wearing a zipped-up hoodie and dark-washed skinny jeans, Stephen Merchant looked rather casual considering the circumstances.
He had recently arrived in Chicago after attending a special screening of his new film, “Fighting with My Family,” at the Sundance Film Festival. The polar vortex, with its negative 50-degree wind chill, didn’t stop the director/writer from making his scheduled press rounds.
Merchant sat with hunched shoulders — his large stature dwarfing the small cup of tea he was cradling in his hands. In between sips, he casually compared the brutal weather in Chicago to that of his home country, England. All the while, he seemed unfazed by the arctic winds pummeling the hotel windows behind him.
Merchant’s career covers more than two decades, during which he performed stand-up comedy worldwide on his tour, “Stephen Merchant Live: Hello Ladies,” starred in films and plays, co-hosted a radio show and co-wrote some of television’s most successful series. Alongside his comedic partner-in-crime, Ricky Gervais, he co-wrote the U.K. and American versions of “The Office,” as well as “An Idiot Abroad” and “Life’s Too Short.”
Co-produced by Merchant and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, “Fighting with My Family” takes audiences inside the real-life story of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) wrestler Paige Bevis (Florence Pugh) and her wrestling family in Norwich, England. The film chronicles Paige’s ascent into the upper echelons of the wrestling world, capturing the hilarious vulgarity of the rest of her family, which includes her parents, Julia (Lena Headey) and Ricky (Nick Frost), and brother, Zak (Jack Lowden).
When Paige and Zak audition for entry into WWE, Paige is the only applicant chosen, leaving her brother behind in dull, gloomy Norwich. Under the guidance of her harsh, yet humorous wrestling coach, Hutch (Vince Vaughn), Paige navigates the WWE as a female wrestler who can easily take on her male counterparts.
Carefully balancing hardships and humor, Merchant delivers an endearing, thoughtful illustration of a fascinating family and a young woman with an inspiring amount of grit.
Don’t assume Merchant’s burgeoning career has made him pompous. In fact, he could be described as slightly self-conscious — particularly in terms of his height, which is a noticeable six-foot-seven-inches. Above all, he discusses his extraordinary life and career in the most humble, non-aggrandizing terms.
That said, it’s no surprise Merchant had some reservations when it came time to watch his new film premiere at Sundance.
“It seemed to go terrifically — I think it was great,” Merchant said. “I, actually, was too anxious and nervous to sit through the screening. I had already been through that with the test preview screenings, and that’s an incredibly tense moment because you’re sat there at the back of the room, and you have to watch this audience kind of give a verdict, like in ‘Gladiator,’ on whether or not they like the movie. And so, the thought of doing it again seemed too much for me, so I snuck off and got something to eat. So, Dwayne and the rest of the crew stayed, and they reported back that it had gone really well.”
Merchant said his friend and former co-star, Johnson, got the idea for the film during a restless night in a London hotel. After flipping through the local channels, Johnson came across a British documentary called “Fighting with My Family,” which was based on Paige’s life. Once he decided to make a film based on the story, he reached out to Merchant, who he felt would be the best person to write, direct and co-produce the movie.
While Merchant shared enthusiasm for all the film’s cast members, he had a special story behind casting Vaughn, which revealed how his interest in film took hold.
“One of the reasons I got into this business was because I used to do … film reviewing in a local magazine in Bristol, my hometown, and I used to get sent by these more senior critics to see films which I’d never heard of — weren’t interested in — and one of them was ‘Swingers,’ with Vince in it, which I’d never seen before, and I was just like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’” Merchant said. “And that was the film where I really felt, ‘Well, maybe I could do this,’ you know? … And so, the idea that, all these years later, Vince was interested in doing this, was just an amazing thrill for me.”
Despite winning three British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards and a Primetime Emmy award, Merchant still seems in awe of his achievements. Reflecting on the enormous success of the U.K. version of “The Office,” Merchant stressed his amazement and excitement over the show’s popularity.
“I remember Ricky [Gervais] and I having a conversation that we’d be happy if it was a million people’s favorite show and anyone else — we just never imagined it getting more than that kind of audience, but if a million people just loved it, then we were happy,” Merchant said. “And certainly, when it first aired in the U.K., I’m not even sure there was a million people who liked it. And then, they once did a test screening at the BBC for our version, and it had the lowest audience rating ever except for women’s lawn bowls. That was the only thing that scored lower. And so, its fate was kind of — it seemed like it was doomed, and then for whatever reason, it just started to catch light.”
Despite his modesty, it could be said Merchant was destined for greatness. Merchant said an involvement in comedy and films was something he desired from a young age.
“I had weirdly grand ambitions as a kid,” Merchant said. “I mean, I was interested in comedy and movies and stand-up from a young age, just as a fan. And one of my comedy heroes was a guy named John Cleese, who was in ‘Monty Python,’ and he did a show called ‘Fawlty Towers,’ which was a much-loved British sitcom, and he was very tall like me, and he was very funny, and he was from Weston-super-Mare, which is near my hometown, so for some reason I was like, ‘Well, maybe I’ll be him!’”
As is often the case with talented minds, Merchant’s skills were underestimated by those around him. And yet, his inner drive compelled him to keep striving for what he wanted.
“I used to tell people, I’d like to do comedy and make movies and things and people would just — even teachers, even career advisers would be like, ‘What are you talking about? That doesn’t happen to people like you,’” Merchant said. “And for some reason I just never — my confidence was never shaken. It was so weird. I don’t know where that came from because I never — I wasn’t terribly confident in all aspects of my life. I just thought, ‘I may as well have a go,’ you know?”
While writing and co-producing “Fighting with My Family,” Merchant took a break from his acting and stand-up careers. Yet, he said his acting experience has helped him more fully understand the minds of actors during production.
“As far as acting goes, I used to be slightly dismissive of actors,” Merchant said. “You know, you’d hear them say things like, ‘What’s my motivation? Why am I walking across the room?’ ‘Because you’re getting paid! Just do it.’ And actually, since I’ve acted more, I realized that actually, sometimes you don’t know why you are crossing the room. You’re kind of in the head of the character and you’re like, ‘This doesn’t make any sense.’ And so, I kind of respect actors more now. I listen to them more, and I often think, ‘If something’s not working, they’re probably going to tell me what’s wrong.’”
In terms of any future films or projects, Merchant said he doesn’t have one in my mind just yet — but he certainly has a list long enough to help him find one. That is, if one of his famous friends feels inspired again.
“Well, I did a list recently of my 500 favorite films because I’m a film nerd with time on his hands,” Merchant said. “It covers movies from [around] 1920 to now, and it’s such a broad list … So I look at this list and I’m like, ‘Well, I’d have to make anything from this list, and I have no idea what to do next,’ so I’m just waiting around for ideas. I just need another giant movie star like Dwayne to see a documentary and then send it to me, and then I’ll have the next thing.”
“Fighting with My Family” hits theaters nationwide Feb. 22.