SYDNEY, Australia — Surprise, surprise! I am face-to-face with Mr. Bean and he’s wide-awake, smiling…and talking!
It’s an early Monday afternoon and in one room of The Intercontinental I’m trying to figure out if the man in front of me is somebody else and not Mr. Bean, the eternally sleepy character well-loved especially by kids around the world. Could he be the bungling secret agent Johnny English? But he’s not brandishing a gun as he does in his latest movie, Johnny English Reborn, where he saves another head of state, this time the Chinese Prime Minister (a fictitious character, of course!). In the first Johnny English movie (shown in 2005), he saves the Queen from the murderous hands of a mad Crown Jewels thief (brilliantly played by John Malkovich) dying to also steal the throne.
Oh well, I guess he’s simply Rowan Atkinson today, comfy in dark blue suit over blue-and-white finely checkered shirt and, believe it or not, without his ubiquitous tie.
I tell him that I’m excited to meet “The Man with the Rubber Face” and he casts me a deadpan look.
“Did you like the movie?” he asks.
Of course, I did, I assure him.
Before I left Manila Sunday last week, the guys at Solar Films (which is releasing the movie, produced by United International Pictures, on Thursday, Sept. 15, simultaneously with Sydney and other Asian countries) invited me to a preview and I came out of the screening room with a bellyache from laughing. Why, Johnny English Reborn, like the first one, is even more entertaining than a James Bond movie, maybe because it doesn’t take itself seriously and the characters (including the Chinese actress who reminds me of Lotte Lenya in From Russia With Love) mean to kill you not with bullets but with laughter.
Now, did you know that Atkinson’s film career began in 1983 with a supporting role in Never Say Never Again, touted as the “unofficial” James Bond movie? He did several other movies before he became Mr. Bean, the character that has become second skin to him. (He was perfect as Fagin in the 2009 West End revival of the musical Oliver!)
Atkinson, 56 (born on Jan. 6, 1955 in County Durham, England, United Kingdom), is an Electrical Engineering graduate from The Queen’s College, Oxford, where he cut his teeth as an actor by performing in early sketches for the Oxford University Dramatic Society, the Oxford Revue and the Experimental Theater Club where he met Richard Curtis, the screenwriter who created the character Mr. Bean with Atkinson. Mr. Bean is described as a “somewhat modern-day Buster Keaton.”
In 1990, he married Sunetra Sastry, an Indian-British BBC make-up artist whom he met in the ‘80s. They have two children.
A month before I interviewed him, Atkinson suffered a minor shoulder injury in a single-car collision at Haddon, Cambridgeshire, when he lost control of his McLaren Fl and crashed into a tree and then a lamppost before it caught fire. I think the tree was to blame for getting in Atkinson’s way, don’t you think?
I’m glad to see you safe and sound after that freak car accident.
“Yes, I am. I’m fine. I’m okay.”
I wonder, were you Rowan Atkinson or Mr. Bean or Johnny English when you were driving that car?
“Hmmmm, I was trying to be a sensible Rowan Atkinson. That’s what I was trying to be.”
You’re not wearing a tie now, unlike what you do in all of your movies.
“Normally, I do, actually. I was wearing a tie last night during the premiere. I like ties, actually, but ties are going out of fashion. You know…” (Referring to his current get-up)…”This is the look. You know, the tie-less suited look is more common now.”
Do you mean to say that I’m out of fashion (wearing a Marilyn Monroe tie)?
“No, no, I think you are wearing what you should. I like ties and I like what you’re wearing now. Where did you get it?”
Oh, from a bargain souvenir store in Hollywood. By the way, I notice that in most of your movies your tie gets caught either in the elevator door, in the kitchen door or in any door, as it does in some scenes in Johnny English Reborn…
“That can happen. In Johnny English Reborn, my tie gets caught in…well, you saw the movie and you know where it got caught in.”
How many pairs of ties do you keep in your wardrobe?
“Not that many. Hmmmm, 20.”
Oh, very few! What other valuables do you keep in your closet aside from ties?
“What do you mean valuables?”
I mean, valuables like maybe accessories such as expensive shoes, etc.
“I’m not going to tell you what kind of valuables I keep in my closet. All I can tell you is that I have 20 pairs of ties in there.”
Speaking of Johnny English Reborn, did you watch a lot of James Bond movies or movies of the same genre before you started the shoot?
“Oh yeah. I like spy movies, you know. I grew up on James Bond movies and, recently, Bourne Identity movies. They show a fun and very glamorous world, and I find it very exciting.” (Note: It is said that the Johnny English character was based on “the hapless and error-prone espionage agent” Atkinson played in the long-running series for Barclaycard.)
Do you derive funny situations in your movies from your real-life experiences?
“Ahhhh, not really. No, not consciously. Sometimes…hmmm, maybe I do, slightly. I can think of one or two moments in Johnny English Reborn that were based on real-life experiences but they were not directly taken. You know, you see something in real life that goes into your subconscious and then it comes out in your movies and you’re not aware where it comes from. You know, it’s the very nature of life experience. Whatever you can create must be based on something that you’ve seen or heard but you can’t remember what it was.”
I hope the scene in Johnny English Reborn that you’re talking about is not the one where you mistake the queen for the old Chinese lady spy and you nearly strangle her to death.
“Oh no, not that scene. That’s not from real life.”
I understand that you’re a friend of the Royal Family, specifically of Prince Charles and you were among those invited to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. When you’re with the Royals, are you Rowan Atkinson, Mr. Bean or Johnny English?
“Well, whenever I’m not onscreen, I am myself.”
And your self is very serious and very shy?
“Yes, hmmmm, not that shy but quite serious.”
Serious in a funny way or funny in a serious way?
“Ahhhh, usually serious in a non-funny way.”
How did you come up with the Mr. Bean character who is loved by kids (and kids-at-heart) all over the world?
“I don’t know. It was a character that I and my screenwriter friend Richard Curtis created. We used to do shows in the late ‘70s. He wrote very good sketches. One day, he thought it would be a good idea to try to create a sketch with no words and we came up with the idea of a man who cannot stay awake…who needs to stay awake but can’t. And we set it in church where there was a sermon going on. That was the very first Mr. Bean sketch which was rather contrived. And then we thought of several more situations and the character just evolved.”
Who are your role models?
“Peter Sellers in particular (Sellers was famous for his Pink Panther spy comedies. — RFL) and the ‘50s French comedian Jacques Tati who was a very important influence after I saw him when I was 17. And there’s Charlie Chaplin whom I admire a great deal.”
In the first Johnny English movie you save the Queen from being assassinated. In this new movie, you save the Prime Minister of China. Which head of state are you going to save in your next outing as Johnny English?
“I don’t know. You know, even though we save the Prime Minister of China in this film, still China regards the whole film as very controversial.”
Really? People will surely find the film very funny. But controversial? I doubt it.
“Yeah, I don’t know. It’s very strange but we’re having a lot of difficulty getting a Chinese release even though they like to have the film. But the censors, the authorities, find it very difficult to accommodate the idea of a film which as much as mention the idea of assassinating the Chinese prime minister. We thought it was a fairly uncontroversial subject.”
(Postscript: After doing two Mr. Bean movies, Mr. Bean and Mr. Bean’s Holiday, Rowan hinted that he might not do another one anymore. In a magazine interview, he insinuated that he felt that he has outgrown the character who will anyway live on in DVDs and TV reruns.)
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