The eyes bulge like a man about to explode. The jaw is sunken and charmless like the loneliest guy at a dance. He scrunches himself up and leans forward to sip a cup of breakfast tea, then rubs his close-cropped hair with the flat of his hand, not unlike a cat grooming itself.
We meet Rowan Atkinson during a brief visit the British actor is making to Los Angeles and we wonder if he’ll fall apart on sight, or slither under the table from an overdose of muscle relaxant, or puff up his cheeks and exhale like a train whistle leaving Paddington station. Anything that makes a crowd bust a gut guffawing just with a wink, or a nod, or the twist of a neck.
For this is one of the world’s great funnymen, a reed-thin, elephant-eared, dark-browed oddity whose persona seemingly sprang from the mind of a demented scientist or, perhaps, the inbreeding of British royalty. His features define nerdy, a Humphrey Bogart for idiots, an expression so dour he’s like the saddest conductor on a trolley to nowhere.
But the fact of the matter is that Atkinson -- the real Atkinson, not the wildly popular screen persona -- simply isn’t that funny. Oh, he deadpans a few lines here and there and he has a few stories to tell, like how he is often confused by typesetters writing headlines for British papers with the archbishop of Canterbury, who is also named Rowan (Williams, for the record), but all in all, let it be known the real Rowan Atkinson is something of a bore.
But on TV and in the movies, the 48-year-old actor mutates into a creature so odd and dippy that the characters he has created have spawned all sorts of crazed fans around the globe who can’t seem to get enough of the Blackadder, that arrogant, cynical ex-aristocrat, or the ridiculous Mr. Bean, a man who never grew up, causes mischief, seldom talks, and whose constant companion is a teddy bear.
So who is Rowan Atkinson really, you ask, and what about this new character he plays in the spy comedy “Johnny English,” which debuts in the U.S. Friday and which audiences overseas have already embraced? One thing Atkinson knows is who he’s not in the movie. He’s not James Bond, and he’s definitely not Austin Powers.
“ ‘Austin Powers’ was a sendup of the 007 franchise, not ‘Johnny English.’ ‘Austin Powers’ is really a spoof, whereas I don’t think we are,” Atkinson noted. “We are lightly parodic, I would say, but it’s sort of a conventional British spy story with slightly dafter jokes and a more ridiculous central character, which is not the same as a parody. Clearly, we rely on people’s foreknowledge of the genre and, of course, the plot is fairly absurd -- the monarchy aspect, the whole idea of a Frenchman wanting to take over [the throne].”
In the film, Atkinson plays a bumbling desk clerk at Britain’s spy agency who is suddenly called upon to save the crown jewels when every other secret agent is blown to smithereens by a dastardly criminal played by John Malkovich, who has the most over-the-top French accent this side of Pepe Le Pew. While the humor in “Johnny English” is somewhat juvenile (sophisticated critics in England loathed it, fans adored it), the film is actually family friendly and its unsubtle nature is aimed at pleasing everyone from squirming 8-year-olds to the Fixodent crowd.
Some scenes are particularly memorable, like the one in which the archbishop of Canterbury is about to crown Malkovich’s French master criminal as the new British king when Johnny English literally swings into action as he attempts to grab the crown before it is placed on Malkovich’s head. In the ensuing chaos, the archbishop is thoroughly embarrassed when he winds up standing with his naked rear exposed to the assembled guests inside Westminster Abbey.
But do jokes about the queen or the archbishop of Canterbury easily translate to American audiences? Universal Pictures, which is releasing the movie domestically, certainly thinks so. “We did two test screenings here in Los Angeles to a pretty broad audience,” the actor said. “They didn’t seem to have a problem with [the British humor].
“It’s very simple family entertainment. It’s a slightly old-fashioned movie, I think, with simple, identifiable themes.”
While there is much about daffy royalty that comedians like Atkinson find irresistible for skewering, he is actually a big defender of the British crown and its traditions.
“I love the monarchy, and I love to see the richness and intrigue which surrounds it,” he said. “I think it gives light and color that would be sorely missed if it wasn’t there anymore. But it’s also a fantastic source of comedy. The whole thing is medieval and irrational, but that’s what is good about it. Rather than saying, ‘It’s medieval and irrational, let’s get rid of it,’ I say, ‘Let’s keep it and make it even more medieval and irrational.’ ”
Inspired by Jacques Tati
Watching Johnny English manipulate his face and take pratfalls, one is reminded of Peter Sellers and Atkinson’s hero, the French comic actor Jacques Tati, whose 1953 comedy “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” is considered a classic. Atkinson’s Bean is very much along the lines of Tati’s Hulot, a tall, angular man who rarely speaks and causes endless mishaps and calamity.
“Jacques Tati was a big inspiration for the world of Mr. Bean,” Atkinson said, who noted that he was 17 and in charge of his school’s film society when he first watched Tati’s film. “I got ‘Mr. Hulot’s Holiday’ and I was able to show it to myself five times in one weekend,” Atkinson recalled. “It just opened a window on the world that I had never seen before. The idea of wordless comedy -- which is about not very much. It’s the sort of ordinariness of it, the blandness of the situation. Just a guy playing tennis a bit wrong.”
Compare that sort of character to the manic, often unscripted characters played by Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, whose characters are extremely vocal and whose humor evolves from slapstick. Atkinson is much more in the vein of Sellers, a master of the controlled performance who was adept at accents and multicultural characters. As Hrundi V. Bakshi in “The Party” and Inspector Clouseau in the “Pink Panther” movies, Sellers played the fumbling fool to perfection.
“There are only so many comedy characters,” Atkinson observed. “You are divided between two: those who look stupid and turn out to be clever, and those who think they’re clever and turn out to be stupid. And Inspector Clouseau certainly turned out to be the latter. Johnny English is from that side of the tracks. Of course, Mr. Bean, I think, is from the other side. He looks stupid but turns out to be an idiot savant.”
For a man who looks like everything he does is spur-of-the-moment genius, quite the contrary is true. “I’m not an improviser, at least, not on the set,” he said. “If I do have flights of fantasy, it’s in rehearsal or during the writing process when you are working with the writer and throwing ideas around.”
While he is a phenomenon overseas, Atkinson has achieved only cult status here in America. Many U.S. moviegoers caught their first glimpse of him as a nervous priest in 1994’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (written by his longtime collaborator Richard Curtis), in which he tells the groom to take the bride as his “awfully wedded wife.”
Although American viewers loved his British TV series “Mr. Bean” when it aired in the 1990s on HBO and PBS, his star power, particularly in films, has not migrated to America. While his 1997 feature film, “Bean,” did blockbuster business overseas, it grossed a lackluster $45.3 million in North America. The 2001 ensemble comedy “Rat Race,” in which he played an Italian narcoleptic goofball who joins others in a mad-dash search for a hidden fortune, grossed a so-so $56.6 million domestically.
Still, Atkinson is reportedly one of the richest stars in Britain, worth in the neighborhood of $100 million. Not bad for the son of a cattle and sheep farmer who majored in electrical engineering in college. His rubbery face is now as familiar to Britons as Queen Elizabeth or Prime Minister Tony Blair (oddly enough, Atkinson and Blair each attended the historic Chorister School in Durham, England, although Atkinson was a couple of years younger and remembers Blair only vaguely from those days as someone who smiled a lot).
Off camera, Atkinson relishes his privacy. He lives in an 18th century rectory in in Oxfordshire with his wife, former makeup artist Sunetra Sastry, and their two children, and admits you won’t often see him at movie premieres, charity balls or clubs.
Ask him an elementary question about his family and he replies firmly: “I don’t talk about them.” Is that because he is afraid they might be hounded by the press or fans? “I can’t comment.” Why can’t you comment? “Don’t even ask me why. There is only one thing more important than not talking about your domestic life, and that’s not talking about why you’re not talking about your domestic life.”
So you ask him about an intriguing news story that appeared on the BBC. It mentioned that Atkinson had averted an air disaster in 2001 by taking the controls when his pilot collapsed. “There was an incident, but I never talk about it. I can’t.” Why can’t you? “There is only one thing more important than not talking about it, and that’s not wanting to talk about it.”
Unlike some comic actors -- Carrey and Robin Williams come to mind -- Atkinson said he has no ambition to do drama. “I’m quite happy doing comic roles,” he says, although he points out that as a student he played dramatic characters, usually villains, on the stage.
For now, Atkinson is content to make an occasional movie and race his sports cars.
“I’m not really good at working, because I like not working,” he says. “I’m someone who has never been pessimistic about the future. It means that I’m not someone who feels he has to do three movies a year in order to fulfill my career goals.”
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Comical ambassador with portfolio
Rowan Atkinson has played a variety of film and TV roles, from Nigel Small-Fawcett in the James Bond thriller “Never Say Never Again” (1983) to the voice of Zazu in Disney’s 1994 animated blockbuster “The Lion King” Here are a few of his more familiar ones:
‘BEAN’: Atkinson in his signature role in the film based on his TV character. “He looks stupid but turns out to be a idiot savant,” the actor says. The film was a huge blockbuster overseas but grossed a lackluster $45.3 million domestically.
‘FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL’: As the nervous vicar, Atkinson had a scene-stealing turn, telling the groom to take the bride as his “awfully wedding wife.” The film was written by his longtime collaborator Richard Curtis.
‘JOHNNY ENGLISH’: Grappling with the archbishop of Canterbury (Oliver F. Davis) in “Johnny English,” aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds and parents. The film has grossed well over $100 million overseas already.
‘RAT RACE’: As a narcoleptic Italian in the ensemble comedy, with Wayne Knight. In the film, which grossed a so-so $56.6 million in North America, Atkinson’s character joins others in a mad-dash search for a hidden fortune.
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A definite penchant for cross-dressing
British comedy performers have learned that humor doesn’t always cross the Atlantic. Sometimes Yanks get the joke and sometimes they don’t. For example:
“Beyond the Fringe,” and later, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The pair, who came out of Oxford (Moore) and Cambridge (Cook) universities, joined with Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller to create the satiric revue “Beyond the Fringe,” a 1961 hit in London that later played on Broadway. After the quartet broke up in 1964, Cook and Moore formed a comedy team that lasted for nearly 12 years, after which each pursued solo careers, Moore with the greater success.
“The Benny Hill Show.” A throwback to the music hall tradition of an earlier generation of British humor, Hill’s slapstick, pantomime and bawdy humor was a staple of British TV for four decades. Reruns shown in this country found a small audience.
Monty Python. The TV series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” originally ran on the BBC from 1969 to 1972 and was later rebroadcast on PBS, where it had a devoted following that led to films (from “And Now for Something Completely Different” in 1971 to “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life” in 1983). The sketch humor featured Pythons Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and John Cleese in multiple roles (and dresses).
“Fawlty Towers.” The anti-sitcom about the dysfunctional life of a seaside inn, starring one-time Python John Cleese. Times critic Howard Rosenberg has written of its “wicked slash and bite” that “gave vent to the grotesque and nasty within the recognizable format of the traditional sitcom.”
Eddie Izzard. Perhaps best known for his ‘90s one-man shows “Circle” and “Dress to Kill,” Izzard’s is a lacerating deadpan wit delivered in drag. He’s found an audience among the comedy intelligentsia in the U.S. Also acts in film (“Shadow of the Vampire”) and onstage; nominated for a Tony this year for “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.”
“The Play What I Wrote.” A tribute to the British television comedy team Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, the broad comedy of this three-man review, directed by Kenneth Branagh, was a hit on London’s West End and moved to Broadway this past spring. Without any Tony wins, it closed after 89 performances.