In new film The Invention Of Lying, which he wrote, directed and stars in, Ricky Gervais plays loser Mark Bellison who, though unlucky in love and work, is also the only person who can lie in an alternate reality where everyone tells the whole truth.
So when Mark goes to meet a beautiful blind date and asks her how she is, she takes one look at him and states matter-of-factly: “Depressed and pessimistic about our date.“
Surely even Gervais, known for playing socially awkward characters like David Brent in The Office and Andy Millman in Extras, can reach saturation point, when the insults start to hurt?
“No,” he laughs. “I love it and I don’t know if that’s because I’ve got no ego at all or such a big ego that nothing can hurt me. Someone insulting me makes me laugh,” he adds, suppressing a squeaky giggle.
The film boasts a talented cast, including rising star Jonah Hill as Mark’s suicidal neighbour, the “genetically-perfect“ Rob Lowe as his work and love rival, and cameos from Jason Bateman and his comedy writing partner, Stephen Merchant.
For all his success, Reading-born Gervais still finds it amazing that he’s become one of Hollywood’s golden boys.
“I can’t believe these people want to work with me. Truth is, I’m a bit of a chancer,” he adds, flashing that famously cheeky grin.
“I’m very lucky to be in this position and no one’s found me out yet!”
While the film marks his directorial debut, the 48-year-old has long been writing his own material. He broke into Hollywood after Extras and the US version of The Office became hits across the pond.
Since starring in last year’s Ghost Town, he’s lost some of the David Brent paunch through hitting the gym in the States, but he insists he won’t change in other ways and will not be sucked into the LA movie machine.
“I don’t think I play the Hollywood game as such – I’m not really an actor for hire. I’ve done the odd bits, but they’re either returning the favour or just for a laugh.
“I sort of create my own work really so I don’t feel that I’m quite part of that mill yet and I don’t know if I ever will be or want to be.
“I still see myself as a bit of a cottage industry, being in a room, creating this stuff and seeing if anyone wants it as opposed to going to work for someone.
“And it felt like that for us on this film, that we were doing something that was ours and then we’ll see if anyone wants to show it.”
Gervais teamed up with American newcomer Matthew Robinson, 31, to write and direct the film. “The most important thing about collaboration is the more you see eye-to-eye fundamentally, the fewer clashes and compromises there are. There’s none of this tit-for-tat ’I’ll put that joke in if you put this joke in’ – we were fans of the same thing.”
His character works for a film company, but in the alternate world where lying, and therefore fiction, is inconceivable, the films are simply people reading out lists of facts.
“It’s things like Napoleon, The Invention Of The Fork and Mathematics. Mark is lumbered with the 14th Century and no one wants to see that, it’s depressing,” Gervais explains.
“It’s just the Black Plague. Then he gets fired. But when he discovers he can lie, he can tell the greatest stories ever told.”
A world without lies is also a world without advertising slogans, where casinos reveal the true odds of a win and Mark’s favourite bar is simply called Cheap Place To Drink.
When Mark realises his incredible power, he uses it to become wealthy and successful, but deep down he’s a nice guy.
“He’s only trying to do good – he’s telling white lies,” says Gervais.
“I think it makes you think about how often you lie and if you’re a decent person who tells white lies every day to save people’s feelings.
“I’ve always used comedy as a Trojan horse to deliver bigger ideas,” he continues.
“We thought of everything that may or may not happen and the spark was the lovely lie I tell my mother when she’s dying, to make her feel better about where she’s going. She doesn’t want to enter a world of nothingness.”
Serious ideas aside, Gervais found it hard to keep a straight face on set and admits he interrupted takes time and time again when he got the giggles.
“No one else ruins the takes – I do. If someone says something funny I laugh, even if it’s the 15th time they’ve said it. I think, ’That was funny’ and I laugh and I ruin the take,” he says, barely able to stifle his cackling laugh even now.
The Invention Of Lying is released next Friday.