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It is the coldest day in Chicago in recent memory, but that doesn’t stop British comedy legend Stephen Merchant (known, among other things, for creating The Office and Extras) from braving the weather to talk about his latest project, Fighting with My Family. The film, which Merchant wrote and directed, follows the real-life story of English pro wrestler Paige as she skyrockets to success in America.
When I enter the room, he is dipping a tea bag in a cup and saucer. He requests, “Please start with something like, ‘Merchant is so English, he’s dipping a tea bag in his cup and saucer as I arrived.’”
Merchant is so English, he’s dipping a tea bag in his cup and saucer as I arrived.
Wait, wait, wait—are you a pro wrestling fan?
Never watched it before this movie. Never had any idea about it. I never got into it and would never have thought about this as a project until my dear friend Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson sent me the documentary on which [the film] is based. He related to it cause he’s a wrestling person and also someone from a wrestling family. He sent it to me and I sat down thinking, Oh God, what’s this gonna be?” For the first few minutes, I was sort of laughing at this family, and then I got sucked into the emotion from this story and their passion for this thing. It won me over. And just was like, well, they care about it so much that now I care about it.
I also think that the triumph of what Paige achieved as this working class girl from Norwich is something to be celebrated. I was shocked and embarrassed that I‘d never heard of her, as a British person. And I was thinking that it’s interesting to me that, like, both Olivia Colman and Claire Foy–who I’ve both worked with before–are, yes, so amazing and I’m completely pleased for them that they have had all the success they’ve had, but it’s interesting to me that they’re from “legitimate” entertainment. They get written about in the UK all the time, and rightly so! But Paige is this working class wrestler and no one’s noticed! There’s a great snobbery there.
Snobbery in Britain?!
Can you imagine such a thing?
And so you saw this documentary, and from that, did you know you wanted to make a movie?
Well, Dwayne–I was gonna say Rock–well, Mr. Johnson, as he likes me to call him, had spotted the story’s film potential. At first, I was sort of unconvinced, really, until I met the family and I spoke to Paige. Then it was really the relationship with her brother that in the end that convinced me. There are lots of films about exceptionalism in sport and people who have to overcome triumph and succeed…but what about the people who get left behind? What happens to the people who don’t get to live out their dream?
The cast. They’re incredible. I mean, The Rock–
–Mr. Johnson, please.
I’m so sorry. Mr. Johnson.
Yeah, well, I already knew him, and it was him who really got the ball rolling. And, as I said, I’d had no interest in pro wrestling to begin with. So then I went to some matches. I went to WrestleMania with Dwayne–
–Mr. Johnson, please.
Mr. Johnson, yes, so sorry. I went to WrestleMania with him and was just won over by it. The theater of it, the spectacle, the audience is so invested in it… It’s really fun. Once you kind of give yourself over to it, it’s a real blast.
How much improv goes into your process?
I always encourage it. I love it. Probably the person to do it most effectively was Vince [Vaughn]. And one of the reasons I’m in this business is because I saw Swingers at a young age. I used to be a film reviewer in my small town, and I saw Swingers and I thought, oh, maybe I could do this! This is just a bunch of mates having a laugh! And so the fact that he agreed to do it…it’s amazing.
What’s your writing process like?
Well, this is the first time I’ve written on my own, except for stand-up. So previously, even with Ricky [Gervais] or with HBO with Lee [Eisenberg] and Gene [Stupnisky], I always had a collaborator. Ricky and I used to ad lib into a dictaphone and transcribe from that. It’s much harder to do on your own. I’ve tried it. I’m self-conscious just standing in my office talking to myself. It just feels weird. When you’re working with someone else, and you know this from doing a lot of improv, you arrive at something quicker because you shut down other options because the other person’s giving you—and taking you on–a path.
The best idea wins.
Right. Whereas, when you’re own your own, how do you decide what the best idea is? You’re just looking at the blank screen thinking, “Well, I could just go down a thousand avenues here.” And so that was the toughest thing for me.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten?
It’s something I read once that I try to stick by. The quote is, “I can’t tell you the secret of success, but I can tell you the secret of failure, and that’s to try to please everybody.” I think those are really wise words. The more you try to imagine some homogenous audience out there, that’s impossible. So I try and stick by those words.
Fighting with My Family opens in the US on February 14th. Watch the trailer:
For more from Maggie Smith, follow her at @ChiMaggieSmith.