The Outlaws co-creators Stephen Merchant and Elgin James on why their odd-couple partnership works
One is a former gang leader who was in and out of juvie in his teens and later spent a year in prison for extortion. The other is a Bristol-born "awkward, bespectacled nerd" who, at the age of 23, was handily defeated on the UK quiz show Blockbusters.
On paper, Elgin James and Stephen Merchant are total opposites. But both men built successful careers in TV and film — James as co-creator of Mayans M.C., and Merchant as co-creator of The Office — and that Hollywood connection brought them together for Amazon Prime Video's comic crime caper The Outlaws, which returns for season 2 on Friday, August 5.
The hour-long dramedy centers on an eclectic group of minor offenders in Bristol — Ben (Gamba Cole), a young security guard trying to stay on the straight-and-narrow; Rani (Rhianne Barreto), a studious kleptomaniac; Myrna (Clare Perkins), a progressive activist; John (Darren Boyd), a conservative businessman; Lady Gabriella (Eleanor Tomlinson), a flighty social media influencer; Greg, an inept lawyer; and Frank (Christopher Walken), a smooth-talking con man — who are thrown together for mandatory community service. While the gang initially has no interest in getting to know each other, they're ultimately forced to bond after finding a hidden bag of drug money.
Season 1 was such a delight (read our review here), EW asked Merchant and James to join us for a deep-dive conversation about their unusual partnership, what fans can expect in The Outlaws season 2, and why the very British Merchant really needs to make a cameo on James' Latino biker drama.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Stephen, when you were trying to develop this show, you asked your agent to pair you with another writer who was "from the completely other side of the tracks to me." Why was that important to you?
STEPHEN MERCHANT: Well, I just felt like it very important to have a different perspective on this show. In the very loosest form, the idea was could you bring very disparate groups of people together and see them interact? So the fact that Elgin and I come from very different walks of life was sort of the perfect encapsulation of that, really. Elgin describes us as — what's your phrase for us, Elgin?
ELGIN JAMES: Like we're the billboard for our own show. Who's Mel Gibson and who's Danny Glover? That's the question.
MERCHANT: Please don't make me Mel Gibson. [Laughs] But yes, we were developing the show during the rise of Trump, and there was Brexit in the UK. It was a very divided time socially and politically, and we wanted all the characters to represent all the different pockets that we were seeing. In the media and social media, it felt like everyone was being characterized, labeled as one thing or another — so [the idea was], could you take those archetypes, those stereotypes and then peel back the layers. And Elgin and I coming from very different walks of life seemed like a good jumping off point for that clash of cultures.
JAMES: We found out how much we actually had in common and how similar we actually were. Maybe from the outside, you wouldn't have thought that. At that time, this crack was happening in both of our countries, where you started to just miss people. There were just people that you couldn't talk to anymore, that you couldn't relate to anymore. You had to just jump on a side, so this was pretty healing.
When you first started fleshing out the idea together, how did the concept surrounding the show evolve?
MERCHANT: We met up a lot and we talked about the types that we were seeing around us — again, not so much in real life, but the way they were being characterized through [media] commentary [and social media], you know? There was the right-wing person, and then there was the left wingers. and the idea was that you had to pick a lane. There can be no common ground, you just put up the drawbridge, you're in your camp and that's it.
It seemed to us like, what if you get to meet those people and talk to those people? Everyone has arrived at their particular belief system because of circumstances, because of life stories. My dad was pro-Brexit; I'm less Brexit-y, but I like my dad. So there's some common ground that can be found. Whether it's people of color, young men, older women — there's assumptions made. That was what was interesting to us. Let's let the audience make the same assumptions and then hopefully we can start to dispel some of them.
JAMES: It's so funny, when people talk about this industry and what we do, they think it's actually such a bubble, and that's not the truth. If you're on a TV set or a film set, you have everyone from your Teamsters to your actors, to your craft services, to the execs that come. You're hanging out with the Teamsters, and maybe you have completely different political views from them. And the executives, maybe secretly they have these fiscally conservative views, but they're not gonna talk about it. That's only in the voting booth.
How did your different backgrounds manifest itself as you were creating the characters?
JAMES: Mostly it was just sitting around talking sh--, telling stories. [Laughs]
MERCHANT: With Elgin's backstory, I think the interesting eye-opener for me was about finding the humor in what was often very dark times and dark experiences. Elgin, I don't know if you remember when you told me about how you didn't like people knowing that you were a reader. [Laughs] That you would hide that from other people, you know?
JAMES: Yeah, totally. It was the whole thing of keeping journals and hiding my books underneath like my mattress. We're, like, squatting in a place with all the different dudes in my gang and being so embarrassed that I was into like, Steinbeck or whatever. You could have pornography or something else…
MERCHANT: Yeah, but to have Pride and Prejudice… [Laughs]
JAMES: I had an Irwin Shaw short story collection, and that was just humiliating. [Laughs]
MERCHANT: To me what was interesting was thinking about, had I known Elgin back in those days — coming from a very cozy, lower-middle-class family — how would we have interacted at that time in our lives? What would the assumptions have been, would there have been tensions, or would we [have discovered] that we have a very similar sense of humor, a similar outlook on the world? [The idea behind the show is] really a suburban crime story in which gritty urbanness infiltrates.
Every writer has their own process. How do your work styles differ?
JAMES: His terrified me! For me, like, each word is gold, because it takes so much to write it, each syllable, each consonant. With Stephen, we'll just spend a whole day working on something, like pages, and then he'd just cut it. I learned so much from that — [the story] just keeps coming. This has actually been the greatest collaboration I've ever had, because [I learned], it'll keep coming. It's not just that one little drop of blood from the stone.
MERCHANT: I'm very much of the "kill your babies" school, let's keep grinding away and reworking it. I'm quite ruthless in that way. Obviously as a performer, I always have faith that the actors will bring a new dimension [to the script]. I'm quite relaxed about lines being changed on set, or the actors finding a way of saying it that feels more true to them. So I'm not precious about it. I don't know how you are about [changing] lines, Elgin...
JAMES: I'm a complete fascist about it. [Laughs]
Season 1 ended with the group narrowly escaping capture by the drug gang and saving Ben from being charged with murder. What can you tease about season 2?
JAMES: Stephen had said that in season 1, you chase your characters up a tree, and in season 2 you set that tree on fire.
MERCHANT: Yeah, it's an old writing adage that we picked up along the way somewhere. And that's what we're doing this season. One of the things that I really like about a lot of high-class American dramas, including Elgin's show and things like Breaking Bad, is that they never run away from a problem. If there's a body in the trunk, it's not just miraculously gone by the next season.
That was important to us. We've given these characters problems, and, as you say, they appear to have gotten away with it — but actually those problems are coming back to haunt them, and this time with even more threats and more jeopardy.
Part of the fun of this show are the odd-couple character dynamics — John (Darren Boyd) trying to teach Myrna (Clare Perkins) how to drag and drop something on a computer in episode 2 nearly did me in. Who are your favorite character pairings to write for?
MERCHANT: Well, the Myrna and John [dynamic] is terrific. These are two characters who were obviously the antithesis of each other initially — and [now we're] seeing them having to work together and a friendship is developing.
There's a sequence [this season] where they're buying drugs that need to be cooked into crack. And just the mechanics of them turning up at a gas station to do a swap with a drug dealer in the middle of the day with no knowledge of the terminology, the cost, the process, how it's done — I love that stuff. That's my favorite kind of stuff to write. It's taking ordinary suburban people and putting them in these extraordinary situations.
JAMES: For me it's Gabby [Eleanor Tomlinson] and Greg [Merchant]. That's definitely my favorite, and Eleanor and Stephen just have a great chemistry together. I could watch them all day.
Speaking of Gabby and Greg, in episode 2 she calls him a "rake with a face" and a "bug-eyed beanpole." What were some of the rejected Greg insults that you brainstormed in the writers' room?
MERCHANT: I don't think there are any rejected ones. [Laughs] We've had "haunted pencil," I think we've had "Harry Potter's pedophile cousin." What's interesting is when you open that up to the writers' room, no one wanted to suggest anything too mean, because they think I'm gonna get upset or I'm gonna fire them. It's like, "Okay, now insults for Greg!" And everyone's like, "Um, tall guy?" [Laughs] The crueler they are, the better for me.
Have you talked about doing a third season?
MERCHANT: We've definitely been thrashing out some ideas for that. Once you've established a world and characters that the audience has warmed to, it seems a shame not to keep running with it. If you remember, Elgin, we talked originally about the idea of doing a couple of seasons, and then you could have a whole new group of offenders in another town with a whole new crime story. It's a nice idea, but I really like these characters.
JAMES: Yeah, you fall in love.
In the meantime, Elgin, I think you need to get Stephen a crossover role on Mayans M.C.
MERCHANT: [Laughs heartily]
JAMES: Oh yeah. I agree.
MERCHANT: How does an English guy show up in that world?
JAMES: You could be our diversity hire, bro. We'll throw that idea around together and figure it out.
MERCHANT: It would have to be like —I don't know if you're familiar with that documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux. [I could play] a documentarian coming from the BBC doing a film about the biker gang.
JAMES: That's actually a great idea! I'm in. It's the only way I can hang out with my friend. I'm down. [Laughs]
Finally, even though this happened at the end of season 1, I still have to ask about it: WHY did you destroy the Banksy?
JAMES: [Laughs] Ah, so good.
MERCHANT: That was the deal we struck with him. Banksy's art originated in Bristol where the show is set, and so we thought, "Wouldn't it be funny if they found one whilst renovating that building and painted it over?" We thought that would be a nice gag. And then someone said, "What if we reach out to the real Banksy and see if he'll do a piece of art, especially for the show that we can paint over?"
We found some go-betweens [to contact him]. We didn't meet him, never spoke to him directly, but he was into the idea. I think he liked the idea of it only existing within the show. So, we came in one morning and there it was. He had snuck over the fence in the middle of the night, and he had done this Banksy painting. We kept it hidden from everybody for six, seven weeks.
And then I went into Christopher Walken's trailer and said, "How'd you feel about destroying a Banksy this morning?" We only had the one shot, you know, and I mean, God bless Christopher, but he's like 78 and has to really go at it with that paint roller for the gag. But we managed to get it done, and we also managed to keep it hidden from people and from the media, which was great. So, it was a real surprise, which is sort of quite rare nowadays, isn't it? When I think back, I think he must have been scoping out the set. Like, if we had looked around there must have been like a street sweeper with a fake beard. [Laughs]
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