Rik’s Movie Mayall-Strom

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

By Anwar Brett for Film Review, October 1991

How TV funnyman Rik Mayall overcame a fear offilm to make his Hollywood movie debut in madcap imaginary-friend comedy Drop Dead Fred – out this month’

It’s no accident that Rik Mayall’s Hollywood debut sees him getting up to much the same brand of mad antics that shot him to fame in The Young Ones.

For his role in madcap comedy that of an imaginary childhood friend who comes back to haunt Phoebe Cates when she suffers the adult stress of divorce – was specially tailored to suit him.

And the tailoring offset thefunnyman’s fears that he might not be able to translate his small screen success to the big.

“I told the writers about the reservations I had about film,” he explains. “I felt I was a telly and theatre man really, because I pull big faces and shout a lot of the time.

“I wasn’t quite sure that I could be Clint Eastwood and raise an eyebrow and make people cry.”

“So they came back to me with the idea of this imaginary friend, which gives me licence to hit Phoebe over the head with a shovel and shout and scream, without it seeming out of place. Being an imaginary character gives me the freedom to do that.”

“I wasn’t asked to do any Young Ones-type material because Ate (DeJong), the director, didn’t know my work at all except for what he’d seen on a showreel, and I was presented to him by the writers, who only knew me from The New Statesman.”

“All the people from production company Working Title knew me, but they were all English. It’s really a British film in disguise. It looks like an American film because it’s made in America with American actors and actresses. But it’s actually a British production. So it’s a British film really. But don’t tell the Yanks!”

Despite his enormous popularity at home, Rik found that very few people in the States knew who he was. Or, as he pulls-no punches puts it: ” Nobody knew who the fuck I was.”

“The one question I kept getting asked by journalists was how did I get the part. I felt a bit insulted. I felt like saying: ‘Because I’m good. That’s why!'”.

“It’s unheard-of in America for someone with no track record to get a semi-lead in a big movie, although I was pleasantly surprised by the scale of the Young Ones cult over there. We only made 12 programmes, but it was shown incessantly on MTV for about two or three years, so there is quite a hard core of fans.

“I did the David Letterman TV show, which has about 200 hip New Yorkers in the audience, and it was terrifying. When he said ‘this is a real funny guy from England who you may have heard of from The Young Ones’, they seemed to know who I was, so I was on reasonably safe territory. But, most of the time, people didn’t know who I was or why I was in the part.”

As a newcomer to film, Rik also found it more comfortable to devote himself entirely to his role, rather than getting involved with any other aspects of the production.

“It was a whole new experience for me, and I just wanted to keep my head down and work out what I was doing. I mean, just look at the line-up of actresses I was working with. Carrie Fisher, Marsha Mason. Even little Ashley (playing Phoebe Cates’ character as a little girl) was brilliant – and she’s only six!

“She’d say: ‘You’ve got to stand there. That’s your mark’. I’d say: ‘No, no, Ashley, I was here’. And she’d tell me: ‘No, you stood there on the other angle’. I’d ask the crew, and they’d say: ‘She’s right, Rik’. ‘Thanks, Ashley’ (whack).

“But I’ve learned an awful lot, I know it’s a cliche, but I really have. Because ! was quite scared of the medium. My main reservation about film is that there isn’t an audience there, and I tend to respond best to a live audience.

“If you know your character, and you know what you think is funny about the character, and you go to rushes and you can see what you’re doing and adjust it, then it is a much more manageable medium than I thought.

“Theatre and TV are performance mediums, and I’m a performer. Whereas film is a director’s and an editor’s medium, and I think that lack of control did scare me. But you can gain that control if you know what you’re doing.

“I’m a very cautious performer. Although this sounds very wanky and celeby, I don’t want to let my audience down, because there’s a certain thing they expect and want from me.

“When you’re doing film, people watch you much more closely, inevitably, so there has to be much more reality and truth to your performance than there might be in a more theatrical medium like TV. So you have to stick closer to a characteristic that you’re selling, and I’m not quite sure what mine is.”

If Drop Dead Fred does well, there is a strong possibility of a sequel – something Rik would be very happy to do, despite the unexpected physical toll this first film took on him.

“I always knew that the Drop Dead Fred character had red hair, but I’m still trying to get rid of it now. The colouring had to be green, with red hair, because there’s something kind of violent to it.

“And the hair girl was just brilliant. She said: ‘You’ve got to have red hair for seven weeks, so you’re going to have red hair for seven weeks’. And I’ve had it for a year now!

“I must have been worried about the film, because when it grew out it was going grey!”