TV

MacKenzie Crook: "At 16 I I had no chance of getting a girlfriend"

MacKenzie Crook on the 'excitable' Ricky Gervais, the 'gruelling' Game of Thrones, and the mysterious childhood moment that changed his life

At 16 I’d just joined the local youth theatre in Dartford and I was having this massive revelation; I’d found all these people I wanted to be friends with. I didn’t have lots of friends at school, then suddenly I met all these like-minded people and I was in love with all of them. I didn’t have a traumatic time at school but it was a very academic all boys’ grammar and didn’t have much interest in the arts. I’m in touch with no one from my school days but still in touch with about a dozen people from that youth theatre.

I was deeply into pop music. I loved Bros and I had the full-on look – Grolsch tops, DMs, spiky hair. It’s really odd to think back on that part of my life but I refuse to be ashamed because it’s obviously a big part of who I was then. I think perhaps I saw it as being alternative because everyone else in my school was into Pink Floyd or very serious rock. They were all trying to be different but ended up looking the same. I was the only one who really looked different, truly alternative. I haven’t thought much about this but looking at it now – to be in an all boys’ grammar school and claim that you love a girly boyband was quite a brave thing to do. Maybe I should take some pride from that, tell my younger self he should be more proud of himself.

I hadn’t thought about acting until one day when, for some reason, a teacher at my school handed me a leaflet about the theatre. He wasn’t a mentor or anything – I only have a vague memory of Mr James, this very old teacher – but I remember vividly him coming to find me to give me this leaflet. It’s a mystery – he didn’t know me that well but he must have seen something in me, I don’t know what. If I could go back in time I’d go and find him and shake his hand. Looking back, that was a big turning point in my life. If I hadn’t got that flier, would I be here now talking to you about acting?

It’s a mystery – he didn’t know me that well but he must have seen something in me

One of my biggest regrets is not going to see Nirvana when I had the chance. I had tickets to their seminal gig at Reading festival in 1992. For some reason I can’t remember, I didn’t go. I assumed I would get another chance to see them. So I’d kick my younger self up the arse and tell him to get to Reading.

As a teenager I was certainly a worrier but isn’t everyone? I wasn’t especially deep – it was all about girls. At 16 I looked about 12 and that was a massive pain in the arse. I had no chance of getting a girlfriend of my own age and that was constantly on my mind, for years I think. I’ve got two sisters so girls were around but I was just the cute, funny kid.

MacKenzie Crook in Pirates of the Caribbean

If I wanted to impress my younger self I’d tell him I’d done two Broadway shows and runs in the West End. And had parts in big movies. I could drop names like Johnny Depp, Al Pacino, Steven Spielberg and he’d be amazed. And it would feel good to tell him.

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The Office definitely changed my life. I’ve been working ever since. If it hadn’t come along, how much longer would I have persevered? I didn’t know what a phenomenon it would become but I knew as soon as I saw the script for the pilot that it was really important I got this part, and I worked really hard to get it. I could see Ricky [Gervais] and Stephen [Merchant] were going to be the next big thing. I know Gareth was originally imagined as a much more macho guy but I came along with my take on it and they decided to go with that instead. I had some great lines, like in the training session [in a ‘trust exercise’, Gareth is asked his ultimate fantasy and he says: “Two lesbians probably, sisters. I’m just watching.”] And that moment when I leave the nightclub in the girl’s side-car. I remember Ricky phoning me up when they had just written that bit, all excited, and he described it to me and it became lots of people’s favourite moment.

I’d tell my younger self to take my work seriously. There have been times when I’ve probably been quite lazy and got lucky. I think it was a long time before I took my work seriously and felt it was a proper skill rather than just mucking about. And I’d prepare myself for becoming a recognisable face. I’d rather not have to deal with that but I accept it as part of the job. I’d tell myself not to stare at the ground so much because now I have a bad neck.

I understand the phenomenon that is.Game of Thrones but I haven’t been to any of the conventions. I was only in five episodes as Orell, a small part. But it was incredible to join that family. It was the most gruelling, exhausting thing I’d ever done. I’m probably most proud of Detectorists, though [the BBC Four comedy about metal detectorists he writes, directs and stars in], because so much of me has gone into it. It’s the first time I’ve created something by myself. It was hard to explain to other people what I was doing – on paper the idea doesn’t leap off the page as the most exciting proposition. But I knew there was space for a low-key comedy with air in it.

mackenzie-crook-the-office
MacKenzie Crook as Gareth in The Office

I’d tell my younger self not to give myself a hard time about losing touch with people he’s worked with. I tend to make these very intense relationships and friendships when I’m working on something. You find yourself away from home and you come to rely on someone, your new best friend, your soul mate, over the period of that job. Then when the job finishes you drift apart. I used to beat myself up about that but now I realise it’s just the nature of the job.

If I could go back to any time in my life, I’d go back to when I was nine or 10 and we used to go and visit the family farm in what was then called Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Those were some of the most special times. Me and my cousin had this vast African farm to explore by ourselves. We were given free rein – we went fishing, we went camping down by the dam, we went to look for pythons, and we were given a motorbike and a rifle to protect ourselves. We had absolute freedom and complete trust. They were magical times.

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