INTERVIEW: Marc Wootton On La La Land

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Marc Wootton is rarely himself on screen; truth is the British comedian spends most of his TV days masquerading as mad men in an attempt to make you laugh. His latest character inventions, for BBC Three comedy La La Land, are of three British wannabes in Hollywood: aspiring actor Gary Garner, psychic Shirley Ghostman and filmmaker Brendan Allen.

TV.com: What is it that you like so much about character comedies?
Marc Wootton: I'm obsessed with real-life characters, I love people, and that's probably where my love for reality-based comedy comes from; because I think there really is nothing funnier than folk. It's no surprise that one of my favourite comedies is Curb Your Enthusiasm: Larry David's improvisations are based on people he's met and funny stories he's heard. Generally, that's how the writing process works. I think real folk are funny--they're a lot funnier than when you're just in a room trying to think of something funny.

OK, so who inspired the La La Land characters?
I can't tell you because they'd hate me! What I can say is that little flourishes and particular ticks come from people that I know really well, because I can relate to how they navigate their way through life. Also, in a broader sense, they come from things that I'm interested in; Shirley's character, for instance, came about after I visited a psychic with somebody I love. I got to see the trick--you know when you're watching a magician from afar and you can see what's going on. I remember watching this psychic and thinking: "Oh my god, you're lying to this person and they're hanging on your every word!" I was pretty disgusted with what I saw to be honest; I went as moral support and it infuriated me to watch [a psychic] not only tell a load of crazy lies, but also mislead the person I went with in a very irresponsible way and then charge them for all that as well! Those types of things send you on journeys where you start researching. So for Shirley we started seeing real psychics. We got miced up and recorded sessions to figure out how it's done.

Has anyone ever worked it out and confronted you?
Normally what happens is that the person who's inspired certain character traits never sees it in themselves, because we're all deluded creatures at the end of the day, aren't we? The La La Land characters are pretty extreme when it comes to being deluded--they all believe they're something they're not. I find that area really interesting. I might get the odd friend or family member say "I think you've used a bit of 'blah blah blah' in that" and they'll get it right because they can see it from the outside, but the person themself is never going to see it; the funny little characteristics that I may have stolen aren't apparent to them, which make it funny.

Were the any characters that didn't make the final cut?
Oh gosh… yeah! It all comes down to the funnel affect, where I like to explore every possible avenue and whittle it down. We started with about seven or eight characters, which quickly came down to six. Then, I tend to take characters out and about: there was one character called Robin, who I even had the suit made for, we got quite into the detail and then I spent days on the dry runs. It sounds a bit warped and weird but it's a good way of seeing if the character can be believable for a whole day and not have people asking "is this a joke?"

The best way is to get out there and be the character. Right up until the last minute we trialed Robin, who was a man-child character, a bit like Steve Martin's Jerk. People were way too nice to him and felt sorry for him, and that dynamic would never have gone anywhere good because it would have been really mean-spirited to have people really feeling sorry for me pretending to be someone I'm not. So we ended up killing him off, cutting his hair shorter and doing Gary.

Which character would you say brings out the best responses from people?
That's a really difficult question; I'm probably going to start talking about what's easier to play. Gary's the easiest to play because he's so warm and pleasant; he's got a heart of gold, which he wears on his sleeve. He's a complete buffoon but he means well and I think he's an easy one to play because of his energy.

Someone like Shirley who's a really mean, twisted individual is quite knackering because he's quite biting and sarcastic and it's a tougher character to play. I think the one that gets the best reaction--the most extreme reaction--is probably Shirley. It's always the things you do that gets a reaction, isn't it? And if you're going to put a drug in someone's drink [as Shirley does] it's going to get a reaction.

It's a difficult question to answer because the whole point of them is to get reactions, but the one who gets the biggest reaction is Shirley because he does the most extreme things in the real world.

And you managed to get Ruta Lee involved too...
She's so lovely! She's a proper old-school Hollywood actress; she's been in Seven Bride to Seven Brothers and she's been on Broadway. Not only does she look wonderful for her age but she's a fantastic dancer, singer, actress… she's just brilliant. I think at one point she was really worried she'd be made to look stupid, but once the show had come out she was happy. She wrote a lovely e-mail because she obviously realised what we were doing--which was to make Gary look really stupid. Ruta Lee's not a target, there's no satirical aim--perhaps like there is with some of the psychics: there's a reason to undermine what they're doing because there's an agenda afoot. But with someone like Ruta Lee it's about telling the story of Gary and making him look silly--a way of playing out a story so that you, the viewer, can go on a journey with this guy and find out about his mother, where he's from and where he's going.

Some of the scenes are quite cringe-worthy, do you ever get embarrassed?
No, I'm in the zone. I don't want to sound like a donkey because I can't bare it when actors say "I'm so deep in the character". Obviously there's the producer part of me that wants to make the scene work, so there's one part of my brain doing that--to make sure we've got enough beef to make a story--and there's another part playing a character. Probably, because my brain's doing both those things to make a story, it's enough. As you know, us boys: we're not very good at multi-tasking so you know I can't start worrying about whether this is personally embarrassing or not.

I think my brain must bypass that part because as me, Marc Wootton, I wouldn't do any of those things--I'm very boring. Sometimes people stop me and say: "I'd love to spend a night with you, it must be crazy!" And I think, "God, if only you knew just how dull my existence is, in the sense that I'm not really someone who scurries about, freaking people out. I just get my head down and get on with it." It may be part of my personality, I don't know, but it certainly bypasses the embarrassment zone.

What do you make of the comparisons between yourself and Sacha Baron Cohen?
You mean our gardening?

Hah. No, I mean when La La Land began it was frequently compared with Borat and the like...
I dunno; it's a big enough sandpit for us all to play in isn't it? I think Borat's fantastic, and I think the character's fantastic. I loved Ali G too, but I think [both Sacha Baron-Cohen and I are] quite inspired by Chris Morris. There's probably more of a comparison to draw between us and him in the sense that we're both inspired by Brass Eye and The Day Today. Then there's Norman Gunston, the guy in the 70s who sat people like Mick Jagger down and pretended that he was John Lennon. He's an Australian guy--he's worth checking out--he used to do the one-on-one wind-up of celebrities.

What do I think about the comparison between Sacha and I? It's inevitable. I think the public have been exposed on such a huge level to a man from England pretending to be someone he's not in the real world that it's inevitable that people will join the dots. I would hope that what we're doing is pretty different, within the same genre: I think ours is a bit more about storytelling and a scene that goes somewhere; it's not just about saying funny lines at someone else's expense.

So what's next for you? Would you consider doing a film like Sacha?
We were in talks actually about doing a possible film. I might take one of the characters off somewhere else. We're doing a sequel to Nativity, which is a big Christmas film I did here. I'm writing a thing with Julia Davis [from Gavin and Stacey] so that may come off. I'm just about to zone in on something.

And the character you might take somewhere else, that wouldn't happen to be Shirley would it?
I don't think so. I quite like Gary. Who's your favourite?

I'd pick Shirley, probably.
I do like Shirley, I wonder if that's a woman thing… I was asked to do Loose Women but I was far too frightened by the fact you have to sit in the middle of them: You have two women on one side and you look out the corner of your eye and there's another two on the other. It's a weird way to be interviewed. Taking Shirley out to the real world to be interviewed again is a bit scary,but I think ladies like Shirley because they're a little bit more spiritual. Boys are the big buyers and watchers of comedy though and I don't think they get Shirley in the way a woman does. Gary kinda seems to have gone down the best in the series; he's the one that's the easiest to play because he's just an idiot who believes he can do anything. I'm deeply intrigued by those types. He probably thinks he can go and train mountain gorillas. I think that level of ignorance is great, I'm kind of jealous of it because it's linked to happiness, isn't it? That's a good place to be.

La La Land continues on BBC Three every Tuesday at 10:30pm.

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