He co-created two iconic British comedies, The Office and Extras; starred in Hollywood movies including Logan and The Girl in the Spider’s Web; and directed Florence Pugh and The Rock in Fighting with my Family. For his next trick, Stephen Merchant along with Elgin James has created The Outlaws, an ensemble comedy about a group of low-level offenders brought together via community service.
Merchant himself stars in the show alongside Rhianne Barreto, Darren Boyd, Gamba Cole, Clare Perkins, Eleanor Tomlinson and Christopher Walken as the misfit convicts.
We sat down with him to chat about British humor, comic book movies, and Christopher Walken’s cooking.
Where did the idea for The Outlaws come from?
My parents used to work for Bristol Community Service, and they would supervise offenders who were doing some time. I was always intrigued because it was such an unlikely bunch. There was an old guy who was always stealing cabbages from people’s allotments. But you realized over time that he was doing it because he was lonely and he liked the social aspect of community service. I mean, I thought you could just volunteer or take up bingo, but he obviously liked this aspect. I always thought it was an interesting idea, a way of bringing people together who wouldn’t otherwise associate with each other, and also you could lean into a thrillery criminal plot because they’re all convicts in one form or another. And I always like the idea of having a thriller aspect to a show.
Were you concerned about how US audiences would react to the Britishness of the show?
I think my concern is if you start to iron out the specificity and you don’t make any cultural references to specifically British things, I think it starts to exist in a no man’s land that’s not quite America or England. I mean even from the original version of The Office, yes, all right, it had a small audience in America, but it had enough of an audience that when they talked about remaking it, there were opinion pieces and actors and producers who wouldn’t go near it in Hollywood, because they’re like, “We’re not going to damage the original, we loved it so much.” I think my worry is if you start to try and make it too general, people can smell it. It’s like somehow it loses authenticity. Even going back to the British version of The Office people didn’t know where Slough was and they never worked in a paper factory, but it felt familiar enough.
How did Christopher Walken come on board?
Even in the earliest versions of it, we always liked the idea that there was this American doing community service amongst the Brits and he felt alien, like a “man who fell to earth.” And then you reveal that he’s as small and petty and a nobody like everybody else, but someone that could add a swagger and a kind of charisma. There are only certain people of a certain vintage who felt right for that and brought the charisma and were exciting as a proposition, and Walken was top of that list.
Did he sign up straight away?
We reached out to him. He’s quite hard to get hold of because he doesn’t have a phone or email or anything. Eventually, I went to visit him in his house in Connecticut. I went there and he made me an omelet. It was very sweet of him. I had just eaten a giant hotel breakfast so I wasn’t hungry, and he said, [attempts Walken impression] “Would you like some omelet?” I can’t do a Walken impression. And I said, “Oh, I’m good for omelet. Thanks, Chris.” And then I was there for so long, just chewing the idea and the story with him, and the character, and his ideas that by three hours in I’m like, “Any of the omelet left?” and luckily there was, and I ate some omelet. I read subsequently in an interview that he did, that he said, “Stephen ate some of my omelet and then asked for seconds so I knew I had to work with this guy.”
You’ve already shot season two—will this next season up the ante?
We’ve tried to do, I think, what a lot of those American shows do very effectively is you chase your characters up a tree and then you just start throwing stones at them. And then you pick up rocks for series two and throw rocks at them. And by series four, you’re machine-gunning at them up the tree, and I think it’s just turning the heat up all the time. We’ve tried to do that with series two, like just turn the screw on all these characters, all of the plates you’ve got spinning in series one, let’s just dial it up now for series two.
You’ve also been in some massive blockbusters, including Logan. What’s your relationship to comic book movies?
Well, when I was a kid, I was actually in the Bristol Evening Post for my comic collection. I was at comic fairs a lot and they interviewed me.
The idea of even being part of one of those seemed exciting to me because I loved the fact that it was Wolverine’s last stand. I was very thrilled to be involved with it. There was an audition process and they don’t tell you what character you’re playing or what the name of the film is or anything, so you’re just slightly going in blind. I think they might have said, “Are you willing to shave your head?” I think that was the only clue I had. I love the fact that I exist in that universe. I’d quite like to be brought back at some point. I could be in a prequel. They can bring people back, right? They can always bring a character back?
The Outlaws is out now in the US on Prime Video. In the UK, series one is available on BBC iPlayer.