Ricky Gervais is one of the creative minds behind some of Britain’s most classic comedies – Extras, The Office, Derek, to name a few. With Netflix series After Life, he took on a topic altogether more vulnerable, playing a man struggling with intense grief after the death of his wife. With the third and final season of After Life streaming now, we caught up with Ricky and co-star Tony Way to talk (in fairly spoilerific detail) about the show’s emotional ending, cake continuity problems, and that belly-busting cafe scene. Read the highlights below, and listen to the interview in full on the Pilot TV podcast.
Warning: Some After Life Season 3 Spoilers Ahead
Pilot TV: Ricky, I’m going to get straight into it with a scene, possibly the scene of the series, where you end up in a cafe with a hipster cunt wearing an orange beanie. And you start blowing on Lenny/Tony’s belly, and calling him a cunt.
Ricky Gervais: Right. I’d written that scene, and that was an afterthought. I even thought that it might not work, that it might be too mad for this, too out there. But I thought we’d do it anyway, that we’d do one with it and one without. What you’ve got to remember is, when I do that, that’s not one take. I’ve then got to do it from every angle, 15 different times. I mean, it wasn’t great for Tony either. And it was during COVID, so I’m thinking, can you catch belly COVID after this? Then the first time, I went ‘Oh, you’ve got aftershave on’. [laughs] So I was actually blowing raspberries, on his naked belly–
Tony Way: I believe it was Sure deodorant.
Gervais: [laughs] I mean, yeah, it did make me laugh. And why I went with it, even though it seems sort of a bit mad, was that this situation obviously made [Ricky’s character] Tony so angry. And when people are angry they sometimes do funny things, because they’re not in control. He’s trying to hurt this guy’s feelings, he’s frustrated. And he uses Lenny as a prop to get back at this guy. There’s a lovely little bit where I when I sort of say to Lenny, “Yeah, all right, fine”, and he thinks he’s got away with it. And then I’m like, “who’s a big fat cunt?”, and he’s like ‘Oh, I haven’t got away with it. Here we go’. It’s an observation that I wanted to get in about this hipster being really loud in a cafe about his two-year-old liking quinoa. I’ve been there.
We’ve all been there. The hipster is wearing an orange beanie, and I see so many of them wearing orange beanies. That is such a great observation. Was that from you, or the costume designers?
Gervais: I auditioned him [Tom Andrews] on zoom. I said [for filming] – and it probably sounds like an insult, but I think he actually dressed up like that for the audition – I said come as you are, come dressed like that. I told costume, ‘He’s got his own things’. But I don’t think he is that guy, I think he just thought that he’d audition camera ready. It was just perfect. His attitude was perfect, and his passive aggression was perfect. Sometimes you get those things – you go ‘That’s the guy in my mind. That’s exactly the character’. He absolutely nailed it. The only thing we were worried about was that we had to do it without the kid there, because I’m shouting the f-word and c-word.
Lenny is Tony’s human stress ball. He accepts it. He makes him feel good.
Way: It’s the only scene, I think, where you’ve said out loud to everyone in the room – halfway through blowing a raspberry on my belly, you suddenly stopped and looked up and went – “have I gone too far?” Your actual words were, “Have I gone too far? Is this too mental?” And everybody went, “It’s all right, it’s fine.”
Gervais: [laughs] Yeah, that’s true. I do remember that. I didn’t want it to look like it wasn’t part of the show. I didn’t want it to look like it was suddenly slapstick, but hopefully it is in character for Tony. Because Tony, my character Tony, he is an acerbic bloke. He used to be fun and muck around. So he always had that in him, and now he uses it as a weapon. So I think it’s totally justified that he went crazy and lost his temper in a funny way. But yeah, I think people have got to realize that behind the scenes, I am really blowing a raspberry on a big man’s belly. That’s what you’ve got to remember.
Way: There’s no faking that. That happened.
Gervais: Lenny is Tony’s stress ball. He accepts it, he’s a mate. I thank him at the end of it. He is my human stress ball. He makes me feel good. And it’s clear that I love him. I love him as a mate.
Way: He laughs a lot more. I think the main difference is – and we won’t just talk about raspberries on the belly – but normally, the person directing that isn’t doing it, and hasn’t written it as well.
Gervais: [laughs] That does seem odd now, doesn’t it.
Yeah. Fincher’s not doing that.
Way: Yeah. They’re all comparable though. They’ve all got a similar thing. Good directors have got a good eye, and they basically all want it to be great. They want it to look good. They have an eye for detail. I think that’s something all those directors share.
Gervais: It’s not the worst thing that’s happened. Ethan [Lawrence] had to be in the bath. Joe [Wilkinson] had to have a bath. You know, that’s not good. I had to go in the sea. I had to play tennis and squash all in one day. I couldn’t walk the next day. We all suffer for our art.
What’s funny about a town full of wonderful, successful people? You want a bunch of losers that fall over, for our pleasure, but they get back up again.
Ethan had to be in the bath while David Earl was on the toilet. That scene struck me as being like your version of a British horror. It was so grimy.
Gervais: I mean, think of that – you move in with someone, because of your situation… I love that though, out of the frying pan and into the fire. I love that. He wants to get away from his mother, and then it gets even worse for him. I love the anger that Ethan has in the bath. To be naked, with all the crew around you and shouting. That’s a tiny bathroom as well. That’s for real, that wasn’t a set. That was a real bathroom where we all had to cram in. I wanted it to be a bit like Laurel and Hardy, you know, when it gets out of hand and everyone’s suddenly there. I do like those silly moments, those slapstick moments, that are real life as well. Everyone does all these things. They all have baths and go to the toilet, it’s just putting it in this context that’s a little bit awkward. People often say to me, particularly American journalists, ‘Oh, it’s like a bunch of crazy characters, and they’re all so weird-looking”, and I think, ‘I know. That’s England. That’s how most people look’. Most people are like us. Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp – they’re the weird ones. This is what England’s like. We look like Brian Gittins [Earl’s character] and Joe and me.
Yeah. There’s no slick, beautiful people in it.
Gervais: No. And also, those people aren’t funny either. I don’t mean those actors – I mean a town full of infeasibly wonderful, successful people. What’s funny about that? You want a bunch of losers that fall over, for our pleasure, but they get back up again. That’s the thing about it: they get back up again.
Do you remember the first season, when I showed you Tony’s desk? He liked the fact that he was sitting down. And he had snacks everywhere, right? But then after about a week, it was filled with flies, because they were sort of half-eaten snacks. And so we had to start again, because it was this disgusting environment. [laughs]
Way: It was a nice idea that Harry, the lovely props guy, and I had, which was that each episode there should be more empty wrappers from the episode before but with a bit more added on top. But obviously you can’t just leave a load of half-eaten biscuits.
Gervais: No. This is how filming works. So, the scene in series two where Brian and James have to eat cake, right? There’s no reason for that to be there other than it’s funny and that it went on for ages. But filming that, because David kept laughing every time, it took ages. Now at one point I thought I’d killed a man, where he was gonna overdose on cake. After about the 10th take, he was spitting the cake out afterwards, because you know, he’d eaten a fucking whole cake right? We couldn’t get it. That was a Friday, and this has never happened before, but we didn’t get it. So I said “We’ll have to pick it up Monday.” And that’s never happened before. But with continuity, they kept our costumes in the fridge! So we had to put back on these clothes covered in cake for that! And it stank!
Way: I don’t think mine ended up in the fridge. I think mine was left out in the sun. It was disgusting. A side note to that, by the way, is that them eating a cake wasn’t even in the scene. That was something you came up with on the day. We’d shot the scene. The scene was done!
Gervais: Yeah. So it was just for my amusement.
The two of you together, over the three series, have many of my favourite scenes. I love the scenes where the two of you, as writer and photographer for the newspaper, visit these freaky people – whether it’s the swingers, or the guy dressed like a baby. Tony, do you have a favourite of those?
Way: For this series, I think the swingers one. There’s two favourite things with this – the favourite filming experience of a scene, and there’s the favourite in terms of watching it back.
Gervais: Tony likes those scenes because usually, his line is “Smile.”
Way: Usually I take a picture and I say “Smile.” That’s it.
Gervais: He’s there to be very reactive. But it wouldn’t work without him. And you do have quite a lot of lines actually, but what I liked about that was, that one line that he usually says comes back at the end and is really poignant. And you don’t see it coming. Because it’s all about their friendship. They don’t have to be there, being nice to each other. They’re already friends. They’re mates. I put that bit in about “Nothing will ever be normal again. Normal used to be getting drunk and you sleeping on the couch” because I just wanted people to remember that there’s a history. This is not just a work mate. This is my best mate, who’s been through everything with me and lets me get away with murder.
The strapline on the billboard this time is ‘Every end is a new beginning’, and the ending itself is about that; that life goes on.
Yeah, that’s a really moving moment. That one line fills in the history. I spent much of those episodes welling up, but that got me a lot, because friendship is part of what the whole show is about, isn’t it?
Gervais: It’s about friendship and the world changing and moving on. Even the strapline on the billboard this time is ‘Every end is a new beginning’, and the ending itself is about that; that life goes on. And nothing lasts forever, but you’ve got to appreciate it while it’s there. I think we do take friends for granted. We don’t keep calling up our friends and saying ‘Thanks for being a mate’. We don’t do it. But it’s there.
Especially British friends, and British men. So that one line felt like a way of those guys acknowledging their friendship and love.
Gervais: Right. That’s exactly right.
Way: Lenny and Tony’s relationship is like every other male friendship I’ve got in that they don’t talk about anything like that. Which is probably good for Tony, that they don’t talk about it all the time. But it’s really even better for him when they do now and again check in with each other. We’re an awkward bunch, British men.
So, the ending. Tony – Lenny plays a key role, because he takes that photo, which is a significant moment. And there’s a shot of you kind of having a think, when you see Ricky walking off.
Way: I think I’m being the viewer there. With the ambiguity of the end, it’s left open. It’s left like it should be, which is that not everything is resolved. Loads of stories are resolved at the end of this series, but they’re all beginnings – someone gets a puppy; someone’s in a new relationship. So none of it’s ended. It’s just that a part of their life is ending and it’s moving on.
Gervais: That’s right. That smile is a lovely way to… you know, he’s never taken a picture of me before. Why would he? It’s usually someone else. So that’s nice, that I’m now at the Tambury Fair along with anyone else, so I’m going to be part of that record. Me saluting him is what worries him. He thinks, ‘He’s never done that before. That was a lovely, sincere thing to do. He doesn’t do that. He usually grabs the back of my neck or calls me fatty’. So what’s that? Why has he done that? And so you are meant to worry – is that a goodbye? But it’s not. I will say now, the ending is not that. As I said before, the ending is – everyone dies but not today.
Way: Also, that’s the only time I think I’ve ever actually said to Ricky on a job, “What happens to Lenny in this scene?” Because with all of the people’s final scenes, you were writing quite late on, if I remember rightly. I remember like a week before the end, saying to you “Where’s Lenny? What’s he doing?” And you said “Don’t worry.” And then I think it was the week before, I got an email from you with that scene.
Gervais: I remember. I was so excited.
Way: I was like, this is amazing. People are gonna have a breakdown. I think I’ve got the best ending.
Gervais: It’s very sweet how important that relationship was. Very important.
What kind of stage directions did you have for that final scene?
Way: It was literally as it’s filmed. That’s the reason that Lenny roams quite a lot in the fair. It’s exactly as you see it with the little salute – it cuts back to me smiling, cuts to you saluting, cuts back to me. It’s exactly that. You clearly had an idea or a picture in your mind of that, Ricky.
Gervais: It was just the mood. The tricky bit was whether I did that bit in slow motion or not, because I’d started the slow-mo on the fair, and I didn’t know whether to go back to natural things for that, or keep it going. I think I did a bit of a hybrid, so you don’t see the join. I did want it to be a bit dreamy, as well. Not to the point where people wondered if it was happening or not, but I did want it to be a little bit dreamy. Particularly because I knew what music I was using [‘Both Sides Now’, by Joni Mitchell]. I knew the pace of the music as well, so that dictated the pace of the dolly. We filmed it at 50 frames, to slow it down. These things are probably boring to most people, but it matters. The fact that you know the song that you’re filming for is a big bonus. Usually in TV, the music budget is what’s left over. But I got these things cleared before we filmed. And that’s rare as well, because I knew I could afford them and get them. So I was shooting to the music. The crew knew what the tune was. So that really made a difference in those tiny little moments.
Way: I think that makes that whole end scene – the way you shot it, and with the music – it makes it feel oddly timeless as well. It doesn’t feel like it’s necessarily happening then. It’s got an almost reminiscence about it as well.
Gervais: Particularly the ending, where – if people notice, I think they might – in the walk away, the leaves change colour and fall from the trees with CGI. So that’s meant to say, you don’t know how long this walk away is.
Your two characters have developed that relationship so much over the three series. Tony – did you have any inkling at the start that it was going to end up like this? Or has it constantly surprised you?
Way: I had no idea really. I loved the idea of the show, and I really wanted to go and work for Ricky, is the truth, at the beginning. And that’s all I really thought about. I don’t think I got it into my head that it was a Netflix show. It wasn’t until the end of the first series that I cottoned on to the fact that 100-and-something countries are gonna watch this. It was dropped to millions of people. And I saw the potential there. The reaction to the first series was… you can’t even hope for that. You can’t even pray for that sort of reaction. And the second series just seemed to completely double down on it. I think being in lockdown helped, because people wanted it. People are desperate for it, they properly love it. So no, there’s no way I could have known. I knew it was gonna be a good show. I didn’t know how good it was gonna be. I was happy when I first saw it, but the reaction is just extraordinary.
After Life Season 3 is streaming on Netflix now.