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Master of Disguise: Televisionary Talks to "La La Land" Creator/Star Marc Wootton

In addition to roles on such well-regarded British comedies as Gavin & Stacey and Julia Davis' Nighty Night and such series as The Eleven O'Clock Show and My New Best Friend, Marc Wootton truly made his mark on the British comedy scene with the eight-episode High Spirits with Shirley Ghostman, a Borat-like comedy confection in which Wootton performed a variety of eccentric characters--most notably egocentric psychic Shirley Ghostman-- while interacting with real people.

Wootton is set to migrate the comedic style of High Spirits along with its central character Shirley to the West Coast of America with his new series, La La Land, which debuts tonight on Showtime.

The series finds Wootton again performing an array of characters--in this case, outrageously awful psychic medium Shirley, desperate documentary filmmaker Brendan, and naive cabbie/wannabe actor Gary--as they attempt to find fame and fortune in Los Angeles, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

I caught up with Wootton via telephone in London to discuss La La Land, brushes with law enforcement, his methods for getting into character, why Brits love Los Angeles, what's up next for the comedian, and much more. (What follows is an edited version of the transcript of our 45-minute conversation.)

TELEVISIONARY: When you began developing this into La La Land, did you know at that time that it would be a sequel of sorts to High Spirits?

WOOTTON: The thing that was pitched was pretty much what we did--I mean, there were several characters actually originally and we narrowed it down to three--but it was a multi-character, kind of documentary format. There’s a show I’ve seen in England years ago called Paddington Green, which followed the lives of people who all shared the same postcode. Sometimes you can link characters through location or a theme [and that’s what] they’re trying to achieve. We were looking at possibly putting them all in the same motel; I think the working title at the time might have been Motel California. Bleh. And Shirley was in the mix and Gary and Brendan was in there along with some crazy blind chef. The blind chef would have really been good fun to do, so I’m hoping I’ll get to do it. [If there is a] second season, we will see the blind chef. He’s kind of a man-child.

If you saw High Spirits, there’s a character in that called Ian Jackson who was that kind of slightly remedial, a bit like The Jerk, there’s been lots of those man-childy type characters we’ve seen over the years comically. But we developed the character more like a Chauncey Gardner kind of affair, called Robin. We in the end, I think, once we got to dressing him and walking him around, I went out, because with characters, I still go out and test-drive it if you’d like, just go out and hang out with people, which is a bit absurd considering there’s no cameras. And when we took Robin out, I got in a lot of trouble, just with the way people were reacting to me. I think some felt really sorry for me; some people got really irritated by me. But I worried, I supposed, that it wouldn’t be in the best taste. So maybe that’s for the second season, too. It was fun. It was a really good fun character. I had this ridiculous suit on which was a bit too small for me, that looked incredibly tragic. And I think people—I don’t know what they thought. I don’t know if they thought I was some sort of [mental] that had escaped. It just didn’t flow in a way—I think people felt too sorry for me. And I like, I find that difficult to deal with in this part for television. I like the mix of the characters we’ve got on the show.

TELEVISIONARY: La La Land is obviously in the same vein as High Spirits with Shirley Ghostman. It is deals with mining comedy out of the awkward and uncomfortable, which I happen to find hysterical.

WOOTTON: Yeah, me too. I think that’s what laughter’s kind of all about, really… I’m a big fan of physical comedy as well and when you boil slapstick down—a guy slipping on a banana skin and pretty much hurting himself—I think we’re laughing-- Without getting too philosophical without it sounding like I’m disappearing up my own bum, we’re laughing because of fear. Monkeys when they smile and do that crazy laughing thing is actually fear that they’re displaying. They show their teeth and we do that when we feel a bit anxious. That’s why when we enter a room, we give that inane grin to everyone. But I think laughter is from those uncomfortable kind of situations.

A lot of really great slapstick, if you think about it, is incredibly painful and humiliating and stressful… I like to create characters and I hope we achieved that and if we didn’t, we’ll try better next time... I suppose I love it when you have people just go, "That guy’s a f---ing idiot" and people put my character in his place, rather than like I think happened with other characters like Robin, because people felt so sorry for him. The balance felt just a bit unfair because no one would put that character in his place at all. No one would actually say, “Hold on a minute, you’re an idiot.” I think that’s probably also why I like Gary as well, the actor guy, because people tell him what a buffoon he is.

TELEVISIONARY: How much are the people surrounding the characters—like Ruta, Kiki, or Chico—in on the joke or are they not in on the joke at all?

WOOTTON: They’re not in on the joke. It wouldn’t really work if they were, because then you’d get really horrible, schmuck-y, tease-y…I don’t know, that really kind of bad reality television where it all feels too manufactured. Chico would turn up in the morning to pick me up as Shirley, so I’d get into character, do my hair, coiffeur, get my bangs sorted out and I’d... jump in the back of the car. He’d phone me... on Shirley’s little iPhone, and I would pop down with the address of a location where we were filming. He was hired as my driver, so he’d pick me up from the airport when I, the character, arrived.

When we’re not filming, I can sit down and have lunch with everyone, relax and I’m not sort of going, oh, I’m Shirley now. But we do have quite a great time I suppose to make sure that nobody knows. With Chico, he picked me up from the airport, he was hired as a driver, but he was prepared to appear as part of a documentary-style program and he dropped me off at the airport in the end. He’s completely for real. If he was in on it, it would really stick out like a sore thumb and it would feel really cheesy, because I think the moment that you let someone in on it, it dilutes the whole show.

I did the same thing with High Spirits. Some people in the audience, they got it [and] we [put] them [on camera] as well. And some people got irritated like, why did you feature people who looked silly laughing? It’s because I kind of want people to know that no one’s in on it and some people are cleverer than others and work it out. But I never fix anything or use actors, because I think as soon as you do that, you dilute the whole thing and then as soon as you think “is he an actor?” you’re gonna think, “Eh, he’s an actor. Or maybe that PI, he’s an actor.” And then suddenly, you ask too many questions of the program… That’s why there’s a card on the top. If everyone knows from the beginning of the show, okay, Marc’s playing these characters in the real world and they get on board, and then hopefully it’s in there and you can tell. I can normally tell if you watch film or television in this genre. You get a real strong suspicion [and] sometimes you think, “God, this is definitely fudged. This doesn’t feel right. But hopefully, because of the way people react, I think you can tell it’s real because they wouldn’t give those reactions otherwise.

TELEVISIONARY: What is the most shocking thing to me is how long people actually stay with Shirley or Brendan or Gary given the craziness of the situations that they find themselves in.

WOOTTON: There’s a quote, isn’t there… if you turn the world on its side, everything loose ends up in Los Angeles. The people are quite eccentric and interesting, but they’re willing to sort of take the time… When I wasn’t filming, I fell in love with the place. I’d love to come back because people are so nice. You go to the grocery store and you’re involved in a conversation before you know it, or you’re on the street even and someone says hello and a genuine sincere conversation arises out of a chance meeting. I think because of that culture, people seem to be tolerant---maybe they’re tolerant of Brits, I’m not sure, but they definitely engaged... I don’t know what to attribute it to. I think there’s a part of me that thinks that the camera filming you makes you feel like you have to stay with it. And then there’s the character, which I’d like to think I don’t put my foot on the pedal too much. I take it off the gas when I feel that something is going to break and then I’ll ease off and just sort of coast along for a while, and a lot of it is about listening. Obviously, there’s a lot of footage you don’t see and there’s a lot of genuine conversation that goes on, and you’re totally in the moment. But no one punked out of it, everyone stayed with it. Maybe it’s because I’m getting advice from people, I don’t know.

TELEVISIONARY: I mean, the one that stands out the most from this is the minute man that performs, I think, 71 takes with Brendan for the single-take documentary.

WOOTTON: There’s obviously a mixture in this show. Sometimes there’s a satirical-- I don’t want to get too kind of intellectual. I’m pulling satire because some of it is just when you boil it down, it’s a knock and run game. What do you call it when you knock on someone’s house and you run around the corner and giggle, and then Mr. Jenkins comes out and asks, “Who knocked on my door?” Do you play that game?

TELEVISIONARY: I think it’s “ring and run.“

WOOTTON: “Ring and run.”

TELEVISIONARY: Yeah, something like that.

WOOTTON: Though in LA that would be a nightmare, you’d be running for miles.

TELEVISIONARY: Well, here you just drive up I think in your car and take off in your car. Since nobody will walk anywhere.

WOOTTON: [Laughs] Do they then chase you down in their car and pull you down on the hard shoulder and then 9 times out of 10, you’re running down a little cul de sac and you get trapped?

TELEVISIONARY: And someone beats you with an Oscar statuette. Yeah.

WOOTTON: That’s brilliant. But yeah, sometimes it’s that. Sometimes it’s a satirical agenda going on. Obviously with the minute man, there was a point to that, and also a little bit of a grievance with me about how that guy is with what he does every day in his life, which is to defend the borders of America. And I suppose his carrot was he was hoping to get his point across and I obviously explained in the beginning of that day in great detail how I’m this auteur filmmaker who wants to do everything in one take, it’s never been done and nobody’s ever achieved it, but I’m going to do it, and my reason to him was--which I think is in the show--that I wanted the truth. Because it won’t be cut, then everyone will see the truth, rather than a version of the truth… I have like researchers/film producers who are amazing people. They help to locate these folks that we work with and they then manage them, I suppose. I think the minute man thought that I would be making a good point and supporting him in what he was doing, what he was trying to achieve. So to go back to the beginning, I suppose it was to show off to everyone how he stops those “dreadful Mexicans.”

TELEVISIONARY: But what’s ironic to me is that he is obviously with two non-Americans and doesn’t seem in any way perturbed by that fact.

WOOTTON: Well, not with me, but he was with Kiki. There was one [exchange] that made me feel quite uncomfortable that we poured over in the edit. It just wasn’t funny; the whole tone of the piece changed it. Not that he was outrageously racist, but he definitely had an issue with Kiki.

TELEVISIONARY: Hmm. That doesn’t surprise me.

WOOTTON: He wanted her out. [Pause] He was lovely.

TELEVISIONARY: What’s ironic to me is that you do have people like Kiki, Chico, and Ruta, Each of them in their own way is absolutely fantastic and lovely and wonderful. I thought that was just great because you’re giving each of these off-kilter characters a grounded sidekick in a way that makes them somewhat relatable more to the audience.

WOOTTON: You make it sound really nice. That’s what we’re hoping to do. I rather want it to be real and I thought it was really important that each of those characters have someone we meet every week because, if it’s just me, you'll never get any—not necessarily the voice of reason, but Ruta, for instance, is a voice of reason, isn’t she every time she tells Gary in the nicest possible way that you’re an idiot, pretty much? But she’s so charming, she’s willing to tolerate me each time I go back with [some] new thing.

TELEVISIONARY: What is it about Los Angeles that intrigues Brits so much? There seems to be a distinct sort of romance between the Brits and LA.

WOOTTON: Yeah. Isn’t there a quote like 52-- maybe that’s too many--suburbs in search of a city? [Laughs] It is such a sprawling big place. But I fall in love with LA. It’s really strange, I’m desperate to come out again. I think just it’s such a populous place. What the intrigue is, I suppose is there’s a lot of very interesting diverse people that have all arrived somewhere. How do I say this without sounding like a freak? I mean odd characters, one of the things that links them is mummy and daddy and parental approval if you like, and I think there are a lot of people who are desperate for parental approval that are trying to make it or trying to get recognition for something, maybe me. I think it’s just a real interesting mix, and there’s a spiritual side going on, and there’s this harsh TV and film industry and God, I don’t know what the key to it is. I don’t want to beat on it, the actual state is amazing, I spent time in Yosemite hunting bears--I didn’t really hunt bears, but I was "hunting bears." I love it up there and I love San Diego. And I thought San Francisco has some of the most beautiful architecture I’ve seen for a long time. I just love, I love it, down to Monterey Bay, exploring down around Los Angeles and all the other lovely places in California.

I think it’s probably the fact that there is extreme people there, you know? [As] Gary, [I] went and saw this really very interesting guy who regressed me spiritually… and [I spent] the piece pretending to be a caveman. I was fighting dinosaurs and stuff. We did finish and shot an ending. But this guy is able to operate what he does for a living—he has an office, he’s able to get money in his pocket and pay his mortgage and live as well as a fantastic photographer and as well as a fantastically talented, beautiful Hollywood grandee like Ruta Lee, fittingly in her heels.

All of that talent is exciting, I suppose. All of that talent doesn’t exist as much anymore, does it? That’s what I love about Ruta, that she just represents someone like Gary as well, and that’s why we cast someone like that. She just represents so much talent and she’s an amazing dancer, she’s a brilliant singer, and accomplished performer, and that’s quite rare in an age of people winning [TV] competitions and becoming famous. Celebrity sort of changed. Back then it was people having raw amazing talent. And we thought, oh, she’s got a little star on Hollywood Walk of Fame. We thought we could cast her against Gary because Gary’s got nothing, he’s this cab driver. He’s the guy who will try out for this competition and thinks I can do that. Doesn’t matter which competition he’s on. He’s one of the people who sits in his armchair and looks at other people and says, “I can do that.”

[Los Angeles is] just such a weird mix… You’ve got just so much going on and there is this dream, I suppose. It feels like dreams can be achieved. There’s a real can-do attitude out there. I’ve spent some time down in Australia and it has the same sort of vibe. Of just making things happen, which is really exciting and really ignites your imagination.

TELEVISIONARY: Has the police ever been called? Has it ever gotten to that point?

WOOTTON: When I steal the silverware from Alan Thicke’s house, he’s really hardcore and you hear the police in the background, but then three police cars show up and they penned all the crew in. I managed to escape and the crew was all penned in for ages. It’s happened a few times. Obviously what happened in Episode 2, all the park rangers turned up and they penned us in. Three park rangers in the end all came and one guy was so angry. “I just left my dinner table, my kids, my wife, and you wasted my time.” I was in so much trouble. The problem that I have is that I’m in character, and all my identification is the character’s identification. So I’ve got a fake driver’s license and all the things that you would need to make you a believable rounded character other than a silly comedy thing.

In order to hang out with these people for such a long time, I have to live and breathe as the character. And the police want to see identification and you show them and you try and keep it going and then there’s that horrible awkward moment where you feel like you have to go, “Actually, I’m not really Brendan, I’m not really Gary” and that’s a tough one to call… I’d say the police have shown up 5 or 6 times during shooting and by the end of the Alan Thicke [incident], they were posing for photographs with the crew and everyone saw the funny side, including Alan, which was just great. It doesn’t always go that way. Sometimes statements are taken and I’ve had detectives ask me questions about what happened.... Luckily, I can say to the fact that the police think, okay, we don’t do anything truly naughty or illegal... There is no harm that comes to anybody or maybe I might be arrested for wasting time. But I feel the time we wasted with [the Spirited auditions] was with people who I have a bit of a personal problem with anyway, which are people who charge other people money to tell them stuff about dead folk. And that, I don’t know how that sits with me. It certainly feels like I’m out allowed to waste people like that, their time. But yes, police turn up lots. Lots and lots.

The reason we can’t speak to the police is because they never want to sign anything and they don’t want their face on the show. There’s a park ranger in there that we’ve blurred and when the police turn up at Thicke's, we had to stop filming because police generally is a time where they never go, “Yeah! Put me on camera.”

TELEVISIONARY: You mentioned earlier about the process that goes into creating characters and Gary goes to see a sort of method acting coach. How Method are you, actually? Obviously when you break for lunch, you’re Marc, not Brendan or Gary or Shirley, but how deep into these characters’ backstories do you go?

WOOTTON: Oh, backstories, massively. Because if you can’t look someone in the eye and answer a question about [them]… Like Shirley, I can tell you how he was brought up and what happened to him at age six. I will sit and explore on the hot seat, we’ll go right in and get the backstory only because these characters have to function in the real world… Obviously there is a certain amount of improvisation as well, but I feel I can only really, truly be believable if I am the thing I’m pretending to be.

However, I think some journalists before have said, “Marc never comes out of character and makes the crew call him…” Obviously the crew has to refer to me as the character I’m portraying at that point, otherwise the whole thing would be rumpled. But I’m not too precious. There are stories about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman, and Dustin only says just try acting, I think it was Marathon Man they were working on, and Dustin turned up having not slept and disappeared, but really deeply into the character. He’s acting isn’t he, but he’s pretending at the end of the day. And occasionally you get a little prize for pretending. We do it as kids. Kids slip out of it really well, don’t they? I think children are brilliant. I just made a film in the UK called Nativity, which is working a lot with children, lots of 7 to 10-year-olds, and they’re really good. Having the innocence to pretend to be the things they’re not. And that’s all it is. It’s not rocket science. It’s not brain surgery. It’s not anything that’s cute or clever.

So I do spend a long time, but I don’t think I take it too seriously. We film in blocks as well, so I’ll start with Brendan with that big beard and that’s actually my real beard and that’ll get shaved off, and then I’ll dye my hair—and this is going to make me sound like a freak-- and then I have extensions for Shirley and then all that hair comes off and Gary’s hair cut. Everything is obviously real because it has to be because you’re up close with people, whether it’s the paint on your nails or your shoes need to be worn shoes, because it would be awful if the bottom of your shoe, you put your foot up and had a beautiful shiny shoe with a big price sticker on the bottom… Luckily I have a great team, a fantastic director and some great writers. Liam who I write with, I’ve done a lot of shows with: My New Best Friend, High Spirits. We’re all into it, the people I surround myself with are all into detail and I think it probably is all in the detail as far as being believable and rounded. Having a suit that’s been worn… everything needs to feel lived in and real. The wallet needs to feel real when it comes out of my pocket.

TELEVISIONARY: I've been following this project since it first got announced and I’ve seen you turn up on things like Gavin & Stacey and Nighty Night--

WOOTTON: Oh wow, I’m actually working with Julia [Davis] next week! We’re doing a new thing. ABC Australia has just given us a bit of money to develop a thing, which we’ll have to put on hold if I get a second season of La La Land. But we’re getting together actually next week for the whole week to create and improvise some characters and to see what comes out of that. A week of work with Ms. Davis! Which could turn into something really nice, but it would definitely be long-term if I have to do a second season, and I think she’s doing something with Baby Cow too.

TELEVISIONARY: Julia is fantastic.

WOOTTON: She’s extraordinary. Really talented and brilliant, an excellent performer. She’s very gifted in writing. And that same sense of [finding] humor in the awkward. You’re kind of gnawing off your hand because it’s in front of your face and you’re thinking, Jesus, she’s so evil. Deliciously evil.

La La Land premieres tonight at 11 pm ET/PT on Showtime.


NicholasJ said…
Marc Wootton is fantastic! Thanks for the great interview. I'm a big fan of Shirley Ghostman and am looking forward to seeing him, and the other characters, in Marc's new show!
tommysize1 said…
this show made my face ache from laughing so much
szczurek said…
Brilliant,best comedy show for years.

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