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A Minute With: Stephen Merchant on dreaming and despairing in L.A

Stephen Merchant, cast member, executive producer and director of HBO's series "Hello Ladies" takes part in a panel discussion at the Televi
Stephen Merchant, cast member, executive producer and director of HBO's series "Hello Ladies" takes part in a panel discussion at the Televi

By Eric Kelsey

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Stephen Merchant, the gangly and bespectacled comedian best known for creating with Ricky Gervais the British and U.S. TV sitcoms "The Office," steps in front of the camera with his warped sense of reality in the HBO comedy "Hello Ladies."

The eight-episode series, which debuts on Sunday, is Merchant's first turn in a leading role on U.S. television. The 38-year-old Briton plays Stuart, a loser who is looking for love in Los Angeles.

The Emmy winner spoke to Reuters about how the show originated from his stand-up routine, the Hollywood dream machine and how his unusual height helps drive his humor.

Q: Did you believe your stand-up show could be a sitcom?

A: It wasn't a plan I had, and once they (HBO) brought that up, my mind started wandering, and they suggested to me the idea of him being in Los Angeles. That sort of appealed to me because I like the idea that Stuart is a fantasist in a way, who has bought into L.A. as this world of glamour, beautiful people and VIP parties behind red velvet ropes, and having dreamed in the suburbs of England about that fantasy life, trying to get access to it, and, of course, failing as so many people do.

Q: Stuart is a foreigner in Los Angeles, like yourself. Does foreignness help propel your comedy writing?

A: He's kind of a foreigner everywhere. I feel this in many ways: I'm too tall and I'm a little too pale and you know, I've always felt a little bit like an alien. But also I think it magnifies the disjuncture between his fantasy of what life could be and the reality. For some reason, that's very pronounced in somewhere like Los Angeles because of this disparity between the glamour and the beauty and normal people is very distinct.

Something that interests me as well is the idea of loneliness and the way that L.A. in particular is a very lonely city because everyone is in their cars and there's no real hub. But also this idea that the grass is always greener, this notion that, particularly in the Internet age, we are led to believe that the world is open to us and we can travel and we can experience things and it's there for the taking. The reality is, that it's not always the case.

Q: What were your impressions of Hollywood while growing up?

A: I think it was like many people. It was refracted through TV shows. Something we tried to give this character is the idea that he's got this picture of Los Angeles that's soundtracked by '80s saxophone music and beautiful women attending glamorous parties, and that was certainly my view of it.

Q: I don't want to say you're characters are desperate.

A: No, I think there is a desperation. You know, it's funny, I remember being a big fan of (comedian) Richard Pryor. In a weird way I was jealous of so much of the horrible tragedy he suffered, just because it seemed to fuel his comedy. He grew up in a brothel and his mother was a prostitute and he was a drug addict and he was navigating being a person of color in a very difficult time. All of that energy, and it felt like those were big emotions for him to fuel his work. I never really had that.

Q: What did you have?

A: I was very lucky in a cozy middle-class life. But the thing that always bothered me - and I used to see it in friends and family and people I went to school with - was this idea of not fulfilling your dreams and you sort of have one chance at life and what if you blow it? That seemed like a very real and very tangible thing and it's something that I've always responded to in music and in movies. So when I first discovered Woody Allen it seemed like a lot of that same area was fear, that kind of existential anxiety of "What do I make of my life?"

For some reason that idea seems very valuable in comedy because it gives the characters a drive and a goal that seems really important. For me, it makes it more comic when you're not fulfilling those dreams.

Q: You make much of your height, even as Stuart. Do you feel like you stand out in Los Angeles?

A: I feel like I stand out everywhere, particularly in L.A. where certainly most aspiring male actors are seemingly about 5-foot-2.

Q: People are often shocked how celebrities are shorter than they appear on screen.

A: Yes, I'm constantly surprised by that.

Q: How is that for you, being probably taller than you appear on TV?

A: There were a couple of instances where depending on what the script entailed, I did have to cast taller actresses alongside me just so I could fit both of us on screen at the same time without it being terribly wide.

The height thing is one of those things where, when I was a teenager it seemed like a curse and now as a comedian it's like a great asset because it allows me to be very physical. What I hear is always John Cleese, who was similarly tall and used his gangly frame in "Monty Python." Now I embrace it and use it for the comedy and I sort of walk tall with a bit more pride than I did when I was a kid when I was trying to kind of hide myself away and be less self-conscious.

(Editing by Mary Milliken)

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