This article first appeared in HOTPRESS (#16) AUGUST 2006
Mackenzie Crook is an accomplished actor and stand up comedian, appearing in Hollywood blockbusters, acclaimed BBC shows, and voicing cartoons. Yet, as he has realised, he will forever be known as The Office’s Gareth Keenan.
The Office, the BBC2 show filmed on a shoestring budget, has quickly shot into the history books as the definitive comedy of this era- a hilarious, poignant and brilliantly realised show about life in an office in the English working class town of Slough. MacKenzie Crook played Gareth Keenan, the assistant regional manager, or as he is often reminded, assistant to the regional manager. It is a character that will forever define him. However, rather than divorce himself of that particular albatross, it is something that Crook seems to recognise and is proud of.
“Honestly, I’m not sick of it. I fully accept that no matter what I do from now on, people will know me as Gareth, and to be sick of talking about it, well, that’s a bit ungrateful. The Office has absolutely helped me in America”, he notes. “Everyone in America in the industry is aware of the show. I don’t get noticed on the street in America, but The Office has opened doors in that it’s allowed me to see casting agents in Hollywood”.
Crook has more than taken advantage of the overseas opportunities that The Office has provided. As we speak, he is on a break between the two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, and he is now planning to do some theatre work. The vast difference between filming The Office and being on the set of a Hollywood blockbuster is one that Crook is more than aware of, yet he maintains that he found the translation less than difficult.
“There’s no bigger contrast”, Crook says. “The Office was very low budget- series one had only one hand-held camera- but (for Pirates) I wasn’t nervous in my performance. You have too much time to spare to be amazed. When you first enter and see the big sets, you are blown away. And then you sit on your arse for three hours”, he explains. “By the time you are on camera you are bored stiff. It’s not daunting. I was looking at the amazing sets thinking about people I went to school with, thinking ‘I wonder what they are up to now’”, he laughs.
“Both times, I knew I was working on something special”, he adds.
Another project Crook recently worked on was the animated comedy Popetown, which has built up a cult following in Australia, through regular screenings on Comedy Central. Crook however is surprised to hear this show mentioned.
“Popetown!” he exclaims. “Wow, that’s the first time anyone has mentioned that show”. He is genuinely surprised to hear that the show has a following, albeit a smallish one, in Australia.
“That’s great. I was called in to do some work on a script that they were having trouble with, and I ended up writing three or four episodes, as well as being a voice, then they didn’t show it. It’s never been shown on TV over here. It’s out on DVD, but of course, nobody knows it”.
Mackenzie Crook wasn’t interested in being an actor, until he was well out of school. His formative years were spent trying to blend into the crowd.
“I was very small at school”, he explains by way of reasoning. “ I was very skinny, so I just tried to make myself insignificant, rather than the classic story of being the attention seeking class clown. So I’m making up for that now”.
Indeed, MacKenzie only figured out that acting was his destiny by chance. Even then, he eschewed the tradition methods of getting into the field.
“I decided late that I wanted to be an actor. In my 20s I happened to realise that that was what I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to go to drama school, so I started on the stand up circuit, and through stand-up got into community TV then other roles”. This sounds like a chance series of events, however MacKenzie is adamant that this was the master plan. “It was always my intention to move into acting”, he states.
In what he describes as “just the story of a lucky break”, he landed the role of Gareth Keenan, and became a household name. I ask Crook about the audition process that saw him win the part.
“I went along with all the others and auditioned. I’d met Ricky (Gervais) a few times because I was hosting another show called The 11 O’Clock Show at the time, but I didn’t know him. I sat in a room with all these skinny blokes- and I got the job”.
But Crook’s destiny might have been quite different if co-creator Steve Merchant had his way. “It was down to two blokes”, Crook explains. “Ricky wanted me, and Steve wanted the other bloke. I don’t know how they sorted it, but they picked me. I have worked with the other bloke since, and he’s not bitter”, he laughs.
However it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be the slightest bitter feeling about such a lost opportunity. With good scripts coming quite rarely, Crook certainly wasn’t about to miss out on this one.
“When I first read the script, I was honestly blown away. At that stage I was going for hundreds of auditions, and I read the pilot script and immediately knew I had to get this one”.
An unfortunate side effect of the shows success is the Americanised version of the show, starring Steve Carrell as a watered down version of David Brent. Everything about the show is homogenised, including Dwight Schrute, the version of Crook’s character. Crook is surprisingly vocal in his opinions on the show.
“I’ve still got a slight problem with it”, he admits. “I was hoping they’d have been badly received and it got pulled off air early. I’m afraid that it will go on long enough that people will forget that they made an English Office”. Such a scenario is hardly likely, especially considering the obvious superiority of the original. Still, it is a topic that irks Crook.
“Why did they have to remake it at all”, continues Crook. “We did a good enough job on it. We enjoy US shows in their original form, without feeling the need to remake them”.
An interesting story is extracted from this conversation, which may hint at Crook’s dislike for the US version. Or perhaps not.
“When I watch back I notice little things where I ad-libbed, but mostly it’s all in the script. The main one I always remember is in the first episode, I say ‘one word, two syllables, demarcation’, and that was an ad-lib.
“I watched the first episode of the American series, and it was about the only joke they took out. I was like, ‘that’s my line’”, he says, with mock hurt in his voice. It is indeed, a touchy subject, so attentions are quickly turned to Gervais’ other television project, Extras. Crook has nothing but praise for this new endeavour.
“I think it’s great, although it’s not as accessible as The Office. Most people have worked in an office, where as very few people have experienced being on a film set”, he explains. “But they knew that when they were writing it. Steve and Ricky work together so well, and work so closely, that you can never tell who has come up with what. But it’s a great comedy”.
It has been years since shooting wrapped on the final episodes of The Office, and yet Gareth Keenan follows MacKenzie Crook like a ghost. “I have a soft spot for him definitely. I’ll have to live with him forever”.
With the way in which Crook delivers that message, it seems that he is more than happy for this legacy to stand. He maintains that he hasn’t yet gotten sick of talking about The Office, and that the only problem with answering questions is that it was so long ago.
“It’s hard to remember little things, but the nature of The Office means that people are interested in knowing little facts that I have long forgotten”. One memory, however, seems to have scarred Crook for life. Or at least for the distant future.
“I remember Ricky used to always give me electric shocks with his shoes. He would rub them on the nylon carpet then come over and give me shocks on the back of my ear, often in the middle of a scene”.