Welcome to Metro.co.uk’s The Big Questions, where we ask, well, the big questions (and the smaller ones too) and this week, we’re jumping straight in with Stephen Merchant.

Stephen, 47, has led an incredibly varied career, best-known for his comedy and co-creating The Office with Ricky Gervais as well as being one of the brains behind programmes such as An Idiot Abroad and The Ricky Gervais Show.

The actor was unrecognisable in the 2017 film Logan as mutant Caliban opposite Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, while he also recently appeared in Taika Waititi’s comedy-drama film Jojo Rabbit.

Stephen’s series The Outlaws – about a group of mismatched strangers in Bristol who are forced to do community service together after committing various crimes – premiered in 2021 to critical acclaim, and is set to return for season 2 this June.

We caught up with him to find out what fans can expect from the second season, as well as how surreal it was to direct Christopher Walken, his thoughts on the great The Office UK or US debate and whether he would work with Ricky again in future.

The first season of The Outlaws was such a massive hit. How would you say season two takes things up a notch in terms of the humour and the drama? What can we expect?

It’s quite rare to have that opportunity to do two series, not only film them back-to-back, but write them at the same time. Therefore, you can plant seeds and lay things in place in the first series, which you can start to expand on and pay off in the second, and that’s what we had the opportunity to do.

The group are back for more shenanigans in season two (Picture: BBC)

Years ago when I got into TV, someone said with good TV, comedy and drama, you want to chase your characters up a tree, and then throw rocks at them. I feel like we chased them up the tree in the first series, and we’re throwing rocks at them in the second. We just keep turning the heat up.

There’s that idea of the frog in a pan of water, right, and you slowly turn up the heat, and it doesn’t realise it’s being boiled alive – that’s what I’ve tried to do with the characters.

With the comedy of it, it’s the same as we did in the first series, which is just letting it come out of the characters and the situations they find themselves in. I always like the mix of humour alongside drama or thriller, I like that mash up of styles and flavours. It feels to me reflective of real life, that you can have great jeopardy, and great tragedy and great silliness, all existing side by side.

Speaking of the cast, Christopher Walken is such an icon in cinema. What has been the highlight of working with and directing Christopher Walken?

If you told my 14-year-old self, who was a big movie buff, that one day you’d visit Stonehenge with Christopher Walken during the filming of a show in your hometown, my 14-year-old self would have laughed, or perhaps arrogantly would have said, “makes sense”.

Stephen found it surreal that Christopher was part of his cast (Picture: Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

What I always find interesting is how quickly even actors as iconic as him quickly just become another work colleague.

You’re enthralled or you’re intimidated when you first encounter them, and by sort of day four, it’s just another person you’re working alongside and having a laugh with or stressing with. Or you’re sharing anecdotes about… in his case, he’d been flipping through the channels on his hotel TV and come across the TV show Naked Attraction, and was clearly baffled by full nudity was on British TV. Everyone’s kind of normalised at some point in the process.

Yes – Christopher Walken has seen Naked Attraction (Picture: Rachel Joseph/Channel 4)

Given that the second season of The Outlaws is now coming out, are there plans for a third season?

We’ve talked about the third series, and we’ve started thinking about stories for it with the writers. We just have to wait for the money people to sign off on that. All the ideas are in place for where we can go next.

One of the things that was most pleasing about the first series going out, particularly in terms of social media, was the way that the feedback I got was people that warmed to the characters, even characters who they perhaps wouldn’t necessarily like if they met them in real life, and they were still rooting for them or empathetic towards them.

That’s the most you can hope for in a way, that people engage with the characters. To have accumulated this cast, not only of good actors, but of characters that you enjoy writing for, to be able to bring them back and keep on throwing rocks at them as it were, turning that frog heat up, it’s pleasurable, because it’s hard to create a world from scratch and populate it and all the rest of it.

Over the past two years, many people bingewatched TV shows in the pandemic, so lots of people either returned to or discovered The Office UK and US for the first time. There’s a continued rivalry pitting them against each other. What are your thoughts on that debate of the UK version versus the US version?

Well, I’ve always thought of it more like a song that can have a great cover version, and be equally beloved as the original song. They both have their favourites, but they don’t cancel each other out. So for me, I love the American version, and I’m very proud to have had some involvement with it. I love the fact that it’s still a hugely viewed thing, and people are finding it and same is true of the British version.

The UK and US versions of The Office are constantly compared (Picture: BBC)

So I don’t see them as rivals. I remember when the American version was first mooted, there were articles in the British press that were like, “How dare the Americans make this our beloved show? They’ll ruin it. How dare they?” And then when it aired, they were kind of like, “Yeah, it’s not as good, it’s rubbish. It’s American pandering.”

Then over time, it was like, “Wow, this American version, I think it might be better than the British.” And then it’s like, “the superior American version.” At some point, when Ricky and I are kind of regarded as national treasures, then it will come back to, “We’d like both of them.” As long as people are watching and enjoying it, it doesn’t bother me what the general consensus is on what’s better.

Speaking of Ricky, would you ever consider doing another project with him in the future? And if so, do what kind of project you would want to explore?

Yeah, but I think it’s interesting, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t know what two middle aged white blokes like us are gonna come up with that people want to see now? I don’t know whether we had our moment as the unit.

Could another Ricky and Stephen project be on the cards? (Picture: Frederick M Brown/Getty Images)

I don’t know. I think maybe we’d end up as kind of grumpy old men characters. That would be that seems like the best fitted thing, two miserable on blokes whinging about the world seems like the best fit for us as we get older. I’d happily do another project, it’s just finding the right thing.

Looking at your career, on the whole, what have been some of the most surprising roles that you might have been offered in the past either roles that you accepted or decided to turn down?

Well, I’ve always gone with things that seem interesting at the time and what sets seemed fun. One that I’m proud of because I think it was kind of left field was playing a mutant in a Wolverine film, with my head shaved and four hours of prosthetics and makeup every day. That was challenging and interesting.

More recently I played this killer, Stephen Port, in the BBC drama called Four Lives. That was a real tough high dive for me, because not only is it a real person, and you’re dealing with a very sensitive, true life story, but also just the actual mechanics of trying to play a killer and trying to understand how they think, and kind of render that on screen.

Stephen played killed Stephen Port in Four Lives (Picture: BBC/PA)

As someone who began as a comedian and as a writer to have broadened myself as an actor into that kind of territory, I’m quite proud of that really, and hopefully I’ll continue to do it. I feel like I’ve done so many different things and I kind of haven’t picked a lane. I keep on jumping lanes, acting and directing and producing and writing and then back to acting, and then some stand up and then to do some DJing… maybe I should just pick a lane and try and be good at that.

You once spoke on The Russell Howard Hour show about your dream of doing this Star Wars project with the Rock where you’ve voiced him and he doesn’t know until he gets to the premiere. Speaking of the fact that you were in Marvel, is Star Wars a franchise that you would want to explore in the future?

It is a franchise I’d like to explore, not just as an actor, but as a writer, or as a director. I think it’d be great fun, because one of the things I like about both the Star Wars universe and also the Marvel Universe is it’s a very good way of sneaking in some older film genres that slightly go out of fashion.

So like, the Boba Fett TV show and the Mandalorian are Westerns in space. And Spider Man has got a John Hughes rom-com quality to it and, and they’ve done conspiracy thriller, Marvel films, like Captain America: Civil War was for that. Ant-Man is kind of like a heist movie. I like the fact that you can take genres that are slightly old fashioned and people will engage with them. That’s the thing that seems appealing to me. Like, let me do a Star Wars where it’s like film noir, but they’ve all got lightsabers.

Stephen would love to join the Star Wars universe (Picture: Lucasfilm/Disney Plus/AP)

So a film noir in Star Wars would be your pick if given the option?

Well, I mean, I don’t want my hands to be tied tied. So when Disney come calling, they’re like, “Well, you said it was film noir, that’s your only choice.” But something like, finding a little sub universe, a little sub world of the Star Wars universe and being able to do something interesting with it. That does seem creatively very exciting. And there are all those wonderful toys to play with, and special effects.

Going back to The Outlaws, what real-life anecdotes can you share that were incorporated into the show?

There’s a moment in the first episode where I kind of I embarrass myself talking to a girl and I get myself caught up in a chandelier that’s hanging above the table I’m stood at. People will say, well, that wouldn’t happen and I say well, things like that have happened to me that are far more unlikely or embarrassing.

I remember when I was at university, I was talking to this woman at a party. I thought it was going quite well and she said to me, “Steve, you’re on fire,” and I went, “Thanks very much.” And she went, “No, you are on fire.” My shirt caught a light on the candle that was on this table, and I was wearing this odd 70s retro-style acrylic shirt, and it just went up in flames. That kind of real world embarrassment has occurred to me and always inspires some of the comedy in my shows.

With season two, are there any certain episodes, moments or performances from the cast – without going into spoiler territory – that you’re most looking forward to viewers getting to see?

Well, I think everybody has their moment in this series. I’m very proud of that cast. I like the fact that all of our relationships deepen in the show. Each of us gets to have a moment of emotion or a moment of connection, or sentiment or whatever. Christopher has a monologue that I just think he delivers beautifully, and it’s very touching and very sweet and tender.

I’m very proud of the final episode of the series, which without giving too much away, has a kind of a heist-style to it. We were inspired by Ocean’s 11 and things like that. I hope people will enjoy it, because it was very complicated to work those ideas out. Everyone’s got to be doing something different and it’s all interconnected. I think it’s come off very well, I’m very pleased with it. So I like the fact that there’s a lot of different flavours.

Like I was saying about Disney and Marvel and Star Wars, we’ve tried to sneak in some of our favourite genres into this show. So we’ll have some crime stuff, and we’ll have a foot chase or a punch up or, in that case a heist and it’s nice to be able sneak something like that into what on the surface looks like a kind of suburban show set in Bristol.

More: Ricky Gervais

What other projects do you have coming up and are there any more styles of films or TV shows that you would like to do in the future?

Well, I’d like to do a bit of everything. I’d like to do my European-style arthouse movie and win my Oscar. I’d like to do as you said, this big sci fi or superhero action thing as an actor or as a director. I’d like to do some more stand up. And I’d like to do some more serious acting where people go “the range this guy has is off the charts”.

My main objective in life is to make sure that I feature in the In Memoriam section at the Baftas. My great anxiety is that I will die and I will and for some reason, I won’t make it into that memorial. So as long as I’ve done enough to keep myself in the consciousness, so that when I drop dead I get into that year’s In Memoriam then I’m happy.

Stephen Merchant’s weekend

On a Saturday, where would we generally find you?

Generally you would find me lying on my couch watching cooking programmes. If I’m in the UK, then I will flit between the various cooking shows, which I find very relaxing. I occasionally will apply some of the recipes. I can happily do that for hours.

What would I do for the rest of Saturday? Occasionally there’d be some kind of event or dinner, but more often than not just a nap and maybe a film in the evening. I like to think of Saturdays as very much a leisurely day.

Do you sleep in or are you up and at ‘em at the weekends?

I don’t sleep in, but it’s not out of choice. I just for some reason can’t seem to stay asleep anymore. I feel like my grandparents got down to a point where they only had about five hours’ sleep, and I feel like I’m heading that way.

I play a lot of online chess as well, so that can suck up quite a lot of time before the cooking shows start.

How have your weekends evolved?

I think I used to not have any distinction between the working week and the weekend. As I’ve got older, I’ve tried to carve out the weekends. I enjoy what I do and so therefore if I’m writing something or working or something or editing something, I can do that all the time, I find it interesting and stimulating. But at the same time I know I’m also exhausted by it, and so that self-discipline of saying no.

What would be your go-to film to watch at the weekend?

That’s a very varied choice. If it’s Saturday, I’m looking for some kind of popcorn thriller. So I guess it would be something like any of those kind of solid Harrison Ford thrillers from the 90s. You know, I’m talking to The Fugitive. I’m talking Air Force One. I’m talking Presumed Innocent.

The Outlaws season two premieres on June 5 at 9pm on BBC One and BBC iPlayer.

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