Spoiler alert: Stephen Merchant wrapped up his one-season wonder Hello Ladies with a movie Nov. 22 on HBO. His character, Stuart, finally learned to appreciate his real friends (as opposed to men who could get him closer to models) and ended up with his roommate, Jessica (Christine Woods). Merchant answered a few of our burning questions about the movie’s most memorable scenes:
EW: How did you get Nicole Kidman to cameo as herself, someone who Stuart claims he dated to impress his ex?
Merchant: How did we get Kidders involved? Nicky K, as I call her. I actually did a standup show in New York City some time ago, and I’d heard that she’d been in the audience. I don’t know if she paid for tickets. I suspect she got them for free, which annoys me. But yes, I discovered that she had come to the show, and I suspected maybe that meant she was a fan, and so I asked her if she would take part, and she very graciously did. As we were writing, it just seemed right to us that if you’re going to try and impress people in LA, you’re going to do it by pretending to be associated with a celebrity. She just seemed like the perfect choice. She was more than happy to improvise and play around and let me say whatever. Her husband came along to the shoot. I’m making these cracks about having been in a relationship with her, and he’s there behind the monitor laughing. So that was good. I was anxious to see in case he thought I was being disrespectful. They seem to be fans of the show. In a way, I always feel a bit bad when we take very talented actors and don’t give them great work to do, we give them silly things to do. She’s got this natural dignity that’s always lovely to play against in these things.
The bedroom scene between Stuart and Jessica is so hilarious. How did you approach it?
We were determined to try and make one of the funniest sex scenes we could. There’s something inherently comic about sex, I think. As soon as you stop and just consider what you’re doing [Laughs] it’s quite a bizarre thing. There’s two people, things are going into other others. We wanted to have fun with that. So it was scripted, but then we started improvising. One of my other producers said, “Why don’t you start dirty talking?” Lines just came out of nowhere. I was like, “I’m gonna take the penis, mine, and flap it against your leg…” That would just set us going, obviously, for hours. The sex scene took up all morning because we were just doing so many different versions of it: Versions where we were arguing, versions where we were having fun together. Because there’s just two of you and you’re in very tight proximity, as soon as someone laughs, you have to start again because you can’t cut around that. We had lots of other stuff we couldn’t fit in. She says that the condoms have expired, and I’m like, “They’re not milk. They don’t expire, surely.” We basically pulled together all of our experiences of sex over the years and sort of put it all together.
Stuart and Jessica get together in the end. But if you had an extra season, or a few extra seasons, how would it have unfolded?
I think we certainly had the idea that they would at some point get together. Whether or not that relationship would last would remain to be seen, but certainly at some point we would bring them together. People will often say things like oh well, it was so inevitable, but I think equally, you’re very dissatisfied if two characters who have a good rapport and chemistry don’t try at all. I think Christine and I have a very good chemistry on screen and a very easygoing rapport. It was fun for us to play that stuff. We weren’t going to rush to that conclusion if we had done more seasons. We were going to have Stuart get into a relationship with someone other than her, and explore that, and see his anxiety about being with a girl who’s maybe out of his league and fearful of if she’s cheating on him—just the mechanics of him maintaining a relationship. We had these ideas, which we touched on in this movie, of Jessica having a sort of slightly premature mid-life crisis. Not quite knowing where she slots into the world. She’s given up acting, which is something I noticed a lot among my female friends, also some of my male friends, but particularly my female friends when I was in my early thirties. I noticed a few of them not yet settled down in a relationship, not necessarily wanting to define themselves with a relationship, but also unsettled in their careers, not quite knowing where they were heading, and sort of trying to figure it out, comparing themselves with their friends. She’s married with a kid. Should I be in that position? That girl is high-flying at her job. Should I be doing that? It just seemed like an interesting area of the modern sort of career crisis or life crisis that people have way earlier than perhaps they used to in the fifties.
Do you think they stay together?
Well, the thing about romantic comedies is they normally end just as things are getting fraught, right? The reality of a relationship is, yes, you can kiss in the rain, but then you’re soaking wet and you got to catch a cab or something, and you’re probably arguing over that. The toughness of a real relationship is the moment from after the kiss. My hope is that they’ll stay together, because they’ve already been through a lot together. They already know each other. As my character says, it’s not about bells ringing and birds singing, it’s more about percentages. In any relationship, the most you can hope for is that there’s a decent amount of percentage that you like the other person. I think he likes her, like, 82 percent of the time, and that’s good for him. But one of the great problems with romantic comedies now is that technology has made it very difficult. You think about all the great rom-coms where they run to stop the girl at the airport. Well now with the mobile phone, [mimes calling], “Don’t get on the plane. I love you. I’ll see you in a minute.” “All right.” It’s so undramatic. So technology has made it really, really difficult to be heartfelt and passionate.
You do a keg stand in the movie that goes horribly wrong because you are too tall. Has that happened to you in real life?
I’d never done an actual keg stand. We don’t have keg stands in England. That actually is a bit of a cheat. But funny enough in shooting that scene for the movie, I want to be known as the comedian who does his own stunts. Everyone always says, “Oh, Tom Cruise does his own stunts.” Yeah, fine, whatever. All right. But there’s not many comedians who do their own stunts anymore. This guy, he does. And so I was very determined to do that one. But there kept being technical problems, and so I did it about 12 times. And on about the sixth or seventh time, I missed the mat, and I slammed hard on my back, and I’ve not been the same since. So I’d like people to be aware of the effort and pain that I’ve been through to bring them entertainment.
The moment that is true, based on a real event, is when Wade catches his tie a light. You see in that flashback, he and I are hitting on some girls in the bar and his tie catches on fire. That was based on an incident that occurred when I was at university. I bought this new shirt. It was kind of a silky, red shirt. I thought, yeah, I’m looking pretty good. I went to a party. I was talking to this woman. It seemed to be going really well. I thought there was a vibe. She was laughing at my jokes. She said to me, “Hey, Stephen, you’re on fire!” And I said, “Thanks,” and she said, “No, you actually are on fire.” My sleeve had caught a light. I’m not at my sexiest when I’m rolling on the floor screaming, “Put it out! Put it out! For the love of God, put it out!” So we did a version of that in the show. People will say, no that would never happen, but it did.
What about Jessica’s awful yogurt commercial audition?
I didn’t have that exact experience, but I did a yogurt commercial back in England. It was the first and only time I’ve ever auditioned for a commercial. We had a whole bit that we didn’t have time in the show to do, but we wanted this whole thing where you see all these girls in the waiting area, and they look almost exactly like her. When you go to those commercial auditions, they want a particular type. So you sit there, and you’re with other people who look like you. You go in, and the people who audition you for those things take it really seriously because why not. They’re getting paid to do a good job. I went in there, and I seem to remember I had to be frightened by an imaginary thing. It’s a pretty humiliating experience because it’s sort of surreal. You go into an audition for a movie, and you go in with the script and you understand what those characters are. Often with commercials, they don’t tell you much about what it is. They’d hate for it to leak out because you know the world wants to know what’s going to be in the next yogurt commercial. You have to keep it top secret. I think it’s something that a lot of actors go through, particularly actors who haven’t quite broken through. It just seemed like the perfect way of being the final straw for her just to quit the business. They do treat you a little bit like a piece of meat because they don’t have much time, and they’re seeing 40 actors in an afternoon and they just have to get you through. It’s like a cattle call.
Was the yacht party as expensive to film as we’d think?
[Laughs] The boat scene was expensive. We had two days on this boat. Stuart is desperate to get on this yacht. He gets on this yacht, and there’s all these beautiful women. We were floating around in Marina del Rey, and it was very pleasant. And then we had to get a helicopter shot of the boat, and we couldn’t do that in the bay. We had to go out in the ocean. So as soon as you pass out of the harbor, the waves are like this [huge], and I’ve got all these models and actresses in high heels, and the waves are crashing, they’re coming over the sides, the ship is rocking, the girls are screaming. I’m like, I just need to get the shot. I’m like, [screams] “Just eat some oysters! Look sexy! Come on!” I thought there was gonna be a model mutiny. I thought it was gonna be like that scene in Captain Phillips. “I’m the captain now.” But it was gonna be like California models. “I am like totally the captain now.” I was really worried. But you know, that’s the thing, the money’s ticking away every second that you don’t get the shot. [Screams again] “I don’t care if you’re cold. Dance! That will warm you up!” “Oh, you might fall overboard? You’re in a swimsuit!”