I was asked to write an article about television — American television, the best TV in the world. I felt I had nothing to offer, no insight of any value; the prospect was too daunting. So I decided to plug the second season of my HBO comedy series Extras, about struggling actors trying to make it big. Here's how I made it.
Work on Season 2 of Extras [premiering Sunday at 10 pm/ET]started straight after Season 1 finished in August 2005. I moved to new up-market offices in central London, and after decking it out (which included building a recording studio for our podcast) and putting up some pictures, cowriter and costar Stephen Merchant and I started chatting about plotlines, scenarios and characters.
Despite numerous trips to America, several awards ceremonies, and the fact that I only work between the hours of 11 am and 3 pm, by Christmas there were a few yellow Post-it notes on the wall behind my desk with phrases on them like "Bowie VIP lounge," "Maggie in mud" and "BBC interfere." Writing continued right up to the week of filming, but we had first drafts by May. And so we started casting.
Casting can bring the highest highs and the lowest lows. You can see hundreds of people who shouldn't really call themselves actors. As soon as they open their mouths, they give themselves away, and I just want to shout "Next!" But I can't. I feel sorry for them. I should be more like Simon Cowell. I believe him when he says he's doing people a favor when he's honest, but I'm not a brave man. I get someone to call them later. Well, I get someone to call their agent.
The flip side of this is that eventually, someone walks in and nails the part. They are usually an unknown who just needed the right role. We love starting from scratch. We've always done it, and it brings an energy to the piece that just using someone from three other comedies wouldn't. Also, with brand-new talent, people don't sit at home going, "Oooh, I like him. He was in what's-it, wasn't he?" It just helps suspend their disbelief. The casting was a dream this time around, and Stephen and I think we're working with the best cast we've ever put together. Watch out for David Earl as the weird fan in Episode 2. I think he's the new Mackenzie Crook, who played Gareth on [the BBC's] The Office.
Filming started on Monday, June 5, at 8:15 am. I don't know why you have to start so early.... Is it the light? We were filming inside. The fact that you pay the crew by the day? We were finishing at 4 pm anyway. Let's do 10 till 6.
It was a hell of a summer to be inside a studio for eight hours a day. I hate missing beautiful weather. But on the other hand, the only way I get a deep bronze tan is if my freckles all join. Oh, and I did get to write a song with David Bowie, as well as duet with Chris Martin, humiliate heartthrob film stars and Knights of the Realm, and work with some TV icons. And there was air-conditioning and tinted moisturizer.
Episode 1 opens with a clip of a Hollywood romantic comedy starring Orlando Bloom as a nonreconstructed barrister who comes up against his estranged wife in a courtroom battle. You only see one scene, but it's great fun to do. We even give the fake films titles that are never seen or mentioned — just for our own amusement. Ross Kemp's TV-movie in Season 1 was "Nelson — England Expects"; Ben Stiller's gritty Balkans drama was called "Do Angels Bleed?"; and Kate Winslet's war epic about nuns hiding Jews from the Nazis was titled "Sisters of Mercy." So what do you call a Hollywood romantic comedy starring Orlando Bloom as a barrister pitted against his ex? "Rejection Overruled," of course. Maggie, played by Ashley Jensen, is an extra on the film and throughout the episode finds out what the "real" Orlando Bloom is actually like.
Orlando was fantastic. He was very professional, approachable and, believe it or not, very humble. He said he was nervous about the role. Nervous? Britain's leading pinup actor from two of the biggest trilogies in history, nervous? Kate Winslet said the same. As soon as I had put them off a few times for my own amusement and ruined a couple of takes by corpsing, the nerves went. That's what a great director I am. Selfless.
Without giving too much away, the new season sees my character, Andy, getting his big break and filming his new sitcom, "When the Whistle Blows." He wanted it to be credible and real, and for it to stand the test of time and be a global hit. He wanted it to go on BBC 2 and have no laugh track. No studio audience, no dressing up, no catchphrases and no gratuitous guest stars to boost ratings. That's not exactly how things turned out.... He is at a crossroads. What does he do next? I know how he feels.
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