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Interview with Stephen Merchant

"I never set out to make people cringe; cringing is a weird byproduct of the things I find funny." - Stephen Merchant

HBO

Is Kimberly genuinely interested in Stuart?

Stephen Merchant

I think she's pleased to see him. She was weirdly charmed by him at the wedding. I'm not sure that she went on the beach with the intention of anything happening, but I think she follows her own whims and moods. She's the sort of girl who's used to getting what she wants whenever she wants it, but not in a mean-spirited way, just in that she lives in her own universe.

HBO

Why is Stuart so fixated on models and actresses?

Stephen Merchant

He's sort of running away from the person that he was when he was 16. He was the awkward, nerdy guy at school who probably did not have any success at girls. There's heartache in his past. I think he made a little bit of money in the UK and he thought, "Dammit. I'm going move to LA, I'm going to show those people that I grew up with." The best revenge is living well.

But he's too old. He already won, in a way, by being successful. Until he can let go of this feeling that he's got to somehow punish the past, he'll never really grow up. But hopefully we see a little evolution in him towards the end of this season.

HBO

What's Stuart's number one problem when it comes to picking up women?

Stephen Merchant

He's trying too hard. He's right in as much as you have to present the best version of yourself to whomever you are with -- whether it's a model or an actress or the girl you work with in your office. The idea that the only advice you need is to "be yourself" is wrong. We've got all of our weird little quirks, neuroses and anxieties -- all these things that make us human. You can't present that side of yourself to the other person right off the bat because it would scare them away.

The problem is that Stuart's constructed too much of a persona. He's trying so hard to not be himself. He can't relax and just let the evening go where it wants to go.

HBO

Does he know who he is behind this fašade?

Stephen Merchant

I think he knows where he's more comfortable and when he's happier, but he gets confused how to relax into that. You become confident in your own skin when you feel validated by other people. He's not quite felt that. But you see him being himself when he's relaxed with Jessica. In those moments you know he can be a good soul. It's just trying to get to that point more often. If he can be that person to the world, then he can be happier.

HBO

A lot of the show came from your stand-up material -- did any scene come from a real-life incident?

Stephen Merchant

Stuart's awkwardness is drawn from real life. I was at a party in LA a couple of months back and I ate some chocolate with some pot in it unwittingly and walked through an 8-foot plate glass window. I grazed my hand and I cut my head, but otherwise was miraculously fine. Two hundred people were staring at me.

As for my real life, the scene of the wedding with the baby on the table actually happened to me. I was told that I was at a table of single women but I was sat at a table with a family. They had a toddler who threw his shoe in his soup and it went all over me.

HBO

Was it cathartic to write that into the show?

Stephen Merchant

Very. In reality, I didn't call the baby a "c*nt," but I did think it.

HBO

You relocated from England to LA for the show. What is the strangest part of LA culture to you?

Stephen Merchant

When I first came to LA, it felt like the entire city was phony. I don't mean people were shallow--it literally was like the whole place was a set and if you pushed on a building it would just collapse and there would be nothing behind it. Like one of the studios had made a fake back lot and it had just kept expanding. That confused me.

Plus, the first time I had come over to LA was to interview porn stars, so that sullied my image of the city for a while. You don't want to go straight off the plane to the Valley and talk to Ron Jeremy.

HBO

What were you interviewing porn stars for?

Stephen Merchant

It was for a short-lived British TV comedy show called 'Porn Crackers' that was made from outtakes and bloopers from porno movies.

It took me a long time to rinse that out of my system. But I have started to feel more comfortable there. I don't know if that's healthy. You should always feel a bit like it's a strange place. If it sucked you in too far, what does that say about you?

HBO

What about the city was important to convey in the show?

Stephen Merchant

It's a lonely city when you don't really know anyone. Any city is, but there's something particular about LA, maybe because you spend so much time in your car. We tried to make the loneliness of the place feed into the show.

HBO

Do you get second-hand embarrassment when you're filming these cringe-worthy scenes?

Stephen Merchant

Not only do I not get secondhand embarrassment, but I sometimes lose sight of how cringe-worthy it will be for the audience because we're just having fun trying to push each other on further and make each other laugh. I never set out to make people cringe; cringing is a weird byproduct of the things I find funny. I hope it's a testament that people invest in the world and that it feels real enough that they feel sorry for the characters.

HBO

Stuart is often frustrated by not knowing "the rules" of certain social situations. Do you share those feelings?

Stephen Merchant

I do share his frustration; I often don't know what the rules are. What are the rules of texting? How long do you wait to text someone? It seems to me, particularly in LA, you're not allowed to show that you're interested too much to the other person.

I feel like there should be some sort of cosmic justice; like if you're a good person and you meet and like someone, the rule should be that they like you in return and want to see you and it evolves naturally from there. Instead, you have to play all these complicated mind games. All this sort of stuff is exhausting.

HBO

What was your most awkward date?

Stephen Merchant

In England, you have to become a member of a casino to gamble. I had recently joined because my agent was having a birthday there. I was on this date and trying to seem really cool and sophisticated, I said to this girl, "Should we go to the casino?"

We put like 45 pounds on a cab ride just to get there, and I grandly walked in, threw down my membership card and said, "Hey, we'd like to gamble." They scanned my card and said, "Oh no, you can't come in. You're barred." And I said, "What do you mean? I've only been once." And they said, "We don't have to tell you why you've been barred; it's a private club."

I remember having to turn around and look at that girl all dressed up, expectant, and having to say, "Yeah... We can't go in there." I remember thinking that you could tell how well the relationship was going to go; she could either laugh or be really embarrassed. She chose the second one. I didn't see her again.

HBO

Do you have any advice for someone trying to pick up a single lady?

Stephen Merchant

I don't really walk up to girls in bars and say, "Hello ladies." That's a whole different ball game. Although one time as an experiment, I did approach a girl and used the line, "I noticed you've been talking to losers all night. Well, if you like losers, I'm the biggest loser here." That worked, so I would use that.

Interviews