Stephen Merchant isn’t expecting the James Bond call

Creating 'The Office' put him on the map. In the twenty years since, the actor, writer and director has shown he might be even better flying solo.
  • PhotographerCharlie Cummings
  • WriterAmber Rawlings

When Stephen Merchant joins our Zoom call, I’m surprised to see a poster for Extras – and a photoshoot with Ricky Gervais – adorning the wall behind him. His work with Gervais, which spanned film, TV and radio, is what the Bristol-native is still best known for. And though he recently stated that he regrets ending The Office a little early, he’s also spent the best part of ten years trying to carve out a solo presence within the industry. 

But maybe he can enjoy those posters because he’s done just that. Alongside creating two series of crime comedy The Outlaws (with another on the way), he’s directed Florence Pugh, Vince Vaughn and The Rock in Fighting with my Family, and taken on dramatic roles that have seen him embody everything from mutants to serial killers. 2024 Stephen Merchant, to put it simply, is a far cry from the hapless talent agent who belted out the lyrics to ‘Mustang Sally’ with Barry from Eastenders.

We’re chatting today about the upcoming series of The Outlaws, which Merchant co-wrote with American filmmaker and former gang member James Elgin in order to remedy, as Merchant put it himself, his pervasive “middle class lens”. The series, which begins airing at the end of this month, will be the third instalment of The Outlaws, an achievement in itself given that TV shows are not just commissioned at an unrelenting pace, but cancelled at one too. 

The show features a blend of crime and comedy that suggests Merchant might have been a tad limited by  his previous arrangement with Gervais – their collaborations always focused on the comparatively humdrum, whereas The Outlaws takes it up a notch. He’s still exploring the oddities of human emotion (“Those things are evergreen,” Merchant tells me), but is now supplanting them into Bristol’s criminal underworld. “The idea of a girl dumping a guy on a train, and then having to see him again […] It’s a very human situation,” says Merchant. “And if you’re disposing of a body, it’s doubly awkward”. The Outlaws also gives a clue as to what Merchant might feel about Gervais’ penchant for stoking the fires of contemporary discourse. Rather than appealing to one sector of the political spectrum, The Outlaws focuses on “letting people have their very different views” and giving each a “fair shout,” as Merchant puts it during our interview.

Stephen wears glasses by Oliver Peoples, jumper by Ermenegildo Zegna and jeans by Acne Studios.

When he’s not behind the camera, it’s Merchant’s dramatic roles in films like Logan and TV series like Four Lives that have proved he’s capable of transcending cookie-cutter roles that play off the nerdy demeanour we saw in Extras and The Office. It’s his turn in Four Lives, in particular, that solidifies Merchant as someone with serious acting chops. As the real life serial killer Stephen Porter (often dubbed the “Grindr killer”), Merchant is understated and subtle, and when we talked about the role, it was clear from his understanding of the craft that he’s been criminally underused throughout his career. When asked if playing Porter caused inner turmoil, Merchant explained how he never wanted to portray the man (whom he called a “malevolent piece of shit”) as a “deliciously intriguing villain.” But even when our conversation turned to the serious and, in the case of Four Lives, tragic, Merchant would come back with something pithy that underscored why he’s such a respected presence in comedy: “You can’t deny that you’re drawn to the challenge of it from an acting point of view,” he said regarding the controversial role. “I’m not sure that you’re going into it thinking, ‘I hope I win a BAFTA for this.’”

Here, HUNGER sits down with the actor to talk about the upcoming series of The Outlaws, Christopher Walken, and (not) becoming James Bond.

Amber Rawlings: The third season of The Outlaws is released at the end of this month. Even at this point in your career, do you have any nerves before something is released to the public?

Stephen Merchant: I think I would if it was series one, and I had no idea how the audience was going to receive it. But by series three you know people either enjoy it or they don’t. I feel a lot more relaxed. I don’t read reviews, and I haven’t done for many, many years. I tend to ignore that side of things. As long as they keep letting me make stuff and I’m not pissing the audience off.

Stephen wears glasses by Jacques Marie Mage, coat by Ami Paris, T-shirt Stephens own and trousers by Ermenegildo Zegna.

AR: You co-wrote all three series with Elgin James, a filmmaker and former gang member, to get the crime down. Did you always know you’d be collaborating in this way for The Outlaws?

SM: I think whether it was Elgin or someone else, I like the idea of collaborating full stop. You arrive at decisions quicker. If it’s just you staring at the computer screen, the world is your oyster. But if someone else is there, they can go, ‘No, that’s terrible’. But like you say, in this instance it was more like, ‘Well, what do I know about gangs beyond TV?’. Elgin has run with gangs in the past and he’s done some jail time. On the surface, we couldn’t be more different — this might be a shock, but I’ve not been in a lot of gangs, and I’ve done very little prison time, yet we hit it off immediately. The pleasure of working with him was the discovery that for all our very different lives, there’s so much common ground. We just come from different perspectives.

AR: Was it hard marrying Elgin’s experiences of US gangs to the world of The Outlaws, which is set in Bristol? I guess that’s where you come in.

SM: It’s interesting. You ask questions and you get answers that a middle class guy like me just wouldn’t get. Like one time I said to him, ‘Would a gang just start shooting at regular people?’. And he’s like, ‘Yeah’. And I said, ‘Wouldn’t they worry about the consequences?’. And he said, ‘They don’t think about the consequences. That’s why they’re in a gang’. It’s obvious when you think about it, but until you put yourself in that headspace, you see things through a cosy, middle class lens.

AR: You’re really putting Bristol on the map with The Outlaws. But it’s subtle, and not like a pastiche of the city. Tell me a little more about that.

SM: The idea originated from my parents, who used to be involved with community service in Bristol. My mother would like to point out that she was a supervisor, not a criminal – she’s adamant I make that clear. But the idea was always floating around, and when I met Elgin in the States we spitballed it, talked about it as a film, and thought about setting it in LA. We even spent time with community service people over there. But somewhere down the line it circled back to Bristol. I know the city very well, and it’s not a city that features as itself very often. I just felt it would be a good home for The Outlaws because I like the idea that these were very ordinary suburban people in an ordinary city that ended up in a sort of extraordinary situation. It’s also such a visual city, you know. The Banksys, and all the other street art that’s there.

Stephen wears glasses by Alexis Amor, blazer by High Society, T-shirt by Spoke, trousers by High Society and shoes by Ermenegildo Zegna.

AR: Jessica Gunning is having a moment thanks to Baby Reindeer, but she’s been in The Outlaws since season one. You seem to have a knack for collaborating with actors who go on to “blow up”, so to speak. Do you get a little kick out of that?

SM: I do in the sense that all the people I’ve worked with early on in their career who’ve gone on to great success are genuinely brilliant. It’s not a fluke. Martin Freeman, Jessica Gunning and Florence Pugh – they’re immense talents. Certainly I’m jealous that I don’t get a little cut of their future earnings, like a boy band manager. I’d love a bit of Martin Freeman’s Hobbit money. But no, I’m certainly not surprised by their success. The thrill is finding new actors full stop. There’s such a buzz when someone comes into the room and they elevate what you’ve written, and take it somewhere else. Jessica is just so funny. She captured the character from the moment I saw her audition tape. No notes – it was bang on. The idea that she’s super successful off the back of that is no surprise. I’m just concerned I won’t be able to get her on the phone for future projects, or I can’t afford her.

AR: How is it being on set of something like The Outlaws, where it’s such high calibre talent working with relative newcomers?

SM: I try to create an atmosphere that’s collaborative and fun. You know, I wouldn’t say I’ve necessarily experienced it myself, but I’ve heard stories about sets that are very tense, and everyone’s feeling like they’re being judged. I want it to be a fun atmosphere, so the barriers get broken down quite quickly. Every actor’s got their own different way of working. Some hit it in that first take and never quite get that magic back, and others don’t hit their prime until take ten. You just have to work out the ecosystem, and that takes you a week or two. But once you’re in the groove of things, even someone like Christopher Walken at some point just becomes your work colleague. At some point it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s having his bacon sandwich and a cup of tea like anyone else’.

Stephen wears glasses by Jacques Marie Mage, coat by Ami Paris, T-shirt Stephen’s own and trousers by Ermenegildo Zegna.

AR: I think because of your previous work partnerships, you often get asked about cancel culture. I’m not going to ask, don’t worry, but I would be curious to know whether the character of John in The Outlaws plays into that at all. Is there some form of catharsis in the writing of his dialogue?

SM: Whenever I’m asked to comment on cancel culture, it’s like I have a strident opinion on it, but I don’t. I give an opinion because I’m asked, but I’m not lying awake thinking about it. It’s not something that concerns me, and I’m not someone who sets out to wade into edgy territory. Sometimes I find myself in it, but I’m not someone who seeks out controversy. With the character of John, it wasn’t catharsis. It was simply the idea of letting people have their very different views. Like, let’s have him over there as this right wing guy, and have this left wing woman over here. Let’s put them together and give each of them a fair shout. Not try to pick a side. If anyone appears to win an argument, it’s normally because we haven’t got the time to keep the argument going. I have no agenda. My dream would be that you wouldn’t know what political stance the show took.

AR: I think I surprised myself because I did agree with John in many ways.

SM: Well, I think that’s the ultimate dream. The ultimate dream is to make someone agree with someone that they wouldn’t normally agree with. When we were developing it was around the time of Brexit and Trump, and there was this feeling that everyone had retreated into their bubble, and that everyone was just throwing shit at each other. But it’s like let’s not forget that everyone has a story. No one’s a villain in these things. It’s trying to peel back the layers and say, ‘Look, you may not like this guy on the surface, but you should see what brought him to that point’. That’s a much more enticing idea to me than trying to pick a side.

Stephen wears glasses by Alexis Amor, blazer by Nigel Curtiss, trousers by Nigel Curtiss and T-shirt Stephen’s own.

AR: How do you reflect on these kinds of ideas now? Series three ends on a note of togetherness, but there’s also the idea that some differences can’t be overcome. In the case of Rani and Christian, for example.

SM: I like the idea that these people wouldn’t have met had it not been for community service, and now each of them has found these unlikely friendships. You know, John and Myrna come from very different political views, but they’re in cahoots now. With the third series, it was just about making sure that the characters didn’t stagnate. The idea of a girl dumping a guy on a train, and then having to see him again – it invites this drama and humour. It’s a very human situation. And if you’re disposing of a body, it’s doubly awkward.

AR: The Outlaws is a very zeitgeist-y show. It’s got lots of contemporary references. Do you ever have concerns about it standing the test of time?

SM: I think we’re in such a fast moving culture. Things date so rapidly. I mean, technology, like this Zoom we’re on now will seem out of date in about eighteen months. So, I think trying to cling on to timelessness is really hard. The only timelessness I’m aiming for is in terms of the core human emotions, and I think those things don’t really change. People falling in and out of love, the difficulties of raising families, finding some meaning in life – all those things are evergreen subject matter.

AR: The Outlaws feels like something Stephen Merchant would be involved in. Fighting with my Family feels less so. What drew you to the story?

SM: It’s not an obvious subject for me. I wasn’t interested in wrestling and I didn’t know anything about wrestling. But I watched the documentary it’s based on [The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family] and I was immediately enamoured by this very real relationship between the brother and sister, both of whom loved wrestling and had been raised in the wrestling world, but only one of whom got the opportunity of a lifetime. The other one got left behind. Since I was very young, I’ve been moved by stories of the person left behind. Maybe it’s that fear of being excluded or a fear of missing out, but I’ve always had empathy for that person. Also, there’s always something in my work about the fear of a life unlived. Of not living the life you wanted for yourself , and waking up one day and going, ‘Fuck. How did I end up here?’. Fighting with my Family isn’t really about wrestling. It’s about family dynamics and ambitions. They could have been a band, or they could have been running a restaurant.

Stephen wears glasses by Oliver Peoples, jumper by American Tall, T-shirt Stephen’s own and jeans by Spoke.

AR: It could be said that your roles in Logan and Four Lives are playing on your physicality. Does that ever get frustrating? Do you feel it limits the roles you get offered?

SM: Possibly, although I wonder if it’s my accent and my associations with comedy. Sometimes people can’t see beyond that, and you tend to get pigeonholed slightly. Then again, if you had said to me when I began my career that I would play a real life serial killer or a mutant in a Wolverine movie, I would have been very shocked. I’m just excited that those things have come along at all, and I’d happily do more of them. And no-one’s owed anything, right? It’s not like, ‘Oh, you get to be James Bond now’. James Bond is a dashing and debonair guy. He’s probably not six foot seven and from the West country, and that’s just the way it is. It’s no good me being annoyed about that.

AR: Something I noticed about Four Lives is that subtle element of comedy in your performance. Do you think your mastery over comedy lends itself to your dramatic roles? Is there an overlap?

SM: Yeah, 100%. I think there’s a close connection between drama and comedy. The darkest subject matter looked at from a different perspective could be funny. That’s why, for me, there’s almost no limits to the territory that comedy can explore. In the end, it’s about human nature, and it’s about the foibles of people. You’re constantly walking a fine line in dramas. It’s the reason why drama movies that take themselves very seriously but don’t quite pull it off become laughable. But I think where it does inform you is that as a comedy writer your job is to try and psychoanalyse even funny characters. You need to give them depth and make them beyond cartoons. They need to be three dimensional. Like, in Four Lives, I was thinking about what’s going on in his brain when he’s in that courtroom? Does he know he’s lying? Has he fooled himself? You end up having to create this internal logic for the character to make sense of them.

AR: Playing Stephen Port must have been very emotionally charged. What drew you to the role? Was there a pressure around it?

SM: There was a pressure, but there was also a great responsibility to the real story. The families were consulted and involved, and I think it was trying to do justice to that. And there was anxiety because I didn’t want to make people laugh, being associated with comedy. I didn’t want to disrupt the tone of the show. Luckily, my character was circling around the story. He was this threat at the edges of the story, but it was more about the families. I thought they did an excellent job. I was worried it would feel salacious or exploitative, but I don’t think it did.

Stephen wears glasses by Jacques Marie Mage, coat by Ami Paris, T-shirt Stephen’s own and trousers by Ermenegildo Zegna.

AR: There’s a controversial aspect in portraying real life figures connected to trauma, but these roles can also be star-making. Did you feel inner turmoil about this?

SM: I know what you mean. You can’t deny that you’re drawn to the challenge of it from an acting point of view. But I was genuinely moved by the story, and I was shocked that these young men had died and that the investigation had not been conducted properly. There was a feeling of, ‘This is a story worth telling’. I’m not sure that you’re going into it thinking, ‘I hope I win a Bafta for this’.

AR: It heavily focuses on the four boys who lost their lives. Did knowing this is how it was going to be structured influence how you played the role? Did it make you take it back a notch?

SM: I was always imagining I’m like the shark in Jaws. I’m not the main character as it were. What I didn’t want to do was make him a deliciously intriguing villain. That’s where you start giving him too much credit, and he becomes a fascinating anti-hero, like Hannibal Lecter. The truth is, as far as I could tell, he’s quite a mundane man, and he doesn’t deserve some Oscar-winning actor turning him into a fascinating conundrum. Like, he’s a malevolent piece of shit, and fuck him. I was trying to do everything I could to make him almost banal.

AR: Your career has evolved significantly over the years. Where do you want to go next? Is there a type of role you’re chasing?

SM: It feels like I have a list of things. I’d love to do more projects in different genres. I’ve done this crime thriller show now, but I’d like to do an action movie at some point. I feel like it’d be nice to have this shelf of different scripts you’ve written that are just completely different tonally. The only thing I’ll probably avoid is a folk album. I don’t think I’ll be doing that. 

The Outlaws starts on BBC One and iPlayer on the 30th of May. 

  • ProducerSarah Stanbury
  • Production CoordinatorAbby Rothwell
  • Photographic AssistantOlly Dundas
  • StylistMorgan Hall
  • Stylist AssistantJade Kingsman
  • Stylist for Stephen's WardrobeTiffani Moreno
  • GroomerCiona Johnson-King at Aartlondon using Cellmen from Cellcosmet, Color Wow and Charlotte Tilbury
  • Social and Content EditorMelissa Springall