Fighting talk with Stephen Merchant aka ‘The Merchant of Menace’

How do you find your wrestler name? Co-creator of The Office Stephen Merchant got up to speed with the protocol of the ring for his film, Fighting With My Family, about a working-class girl who makes it to the top of the WWE – with a little help from Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson

The Big Issue: At school were you bullied or were you the bully?

Stephen Merchant: I don’t feel I was in either of these camps. It’s difficult when you’re six-foot-seven but I tried to keep my head down.

Have you ever been in a physical fight?

Well, I don’t want to encourage people to suddenly pick one but no, I’ve never been in a physical fight.

Are there any work-related disagreements that stick in your mind?

There are differences of opinion I’m pleased I won. I remember when we did The Office we shot that scene where Ricky does the funny dance. He thought it was too silly and was convinced we should cut it out of the show. I had to lobby quite hard to persuade him to keep it in. That became a signature moment in the show so I’m quite pleased I won that particular fight, if you want to call it that.

Did he thank you?

I don’t know that he has. If he wants to send me a bouquet of flowers he’s welcome to.

How do you go about confrontation in your own life?

What’s tricky is that without some kind of mediator passions run high very quickly. Everyone is the judge and jury on social media. There’s seemingly no space for discussions or grey areas and it quickly descends into mud throwing. Probably what you need is an independent third party. It’s a shame we don’t have roaming judges that wander the countryside like I imagine there was in Medieval times.

Are you over the battle you had with Roopam and Claire on Blockbusters?

I have got over it, just. I showed up with the intention of being on the team of two. I’d actually gone along with my friend who was a Cambridge smartarse and his sister drove us to the auditions, she came in because she needed a glass of water and they went, oh you’re brother and sister? We’ll put you on a team! I was left on my lonesome like a bloody idiot.

You’ll be appearing in Taika Waititi’s  Hitler focused comedy Jojo Rabbit, playing a Gestapo officer. Is humour the best way to tackle great dictators?

I’m very convinced of the opinion that humour is a great way of undermining dogma and extremism. The one thing that any extremist or dictatorial person fears is mockery. Power is built on intimidation and threat and if you undermine that through laughter and mockery that person’s power is sucked from them, which is one of the reasons why humour and literature and art is oppressed in dictatorial environments.

You wrote and directed Fighting With My Family. You weren’t a wrestling fan beforehand, but did you come to appreciate it?

When I was growing up wrestling would occasionally be on TV. My grandfather would watch it, and even as a kid I didn’t understand. That was the likes of Big Daddy and Kendo Nagasaki. It looked like middle aged men having a fight in a Wetherspoon’s car park which they happened to put on the telly. To make the film I had to immerse myself in that world. I went to Wrestlemania with Dwayne [‘The Rock’ Johnson, who appears in and produced the film] and I have to say I was won over. It’s basically like panto but with physicality, crazy choreography and real showmanship.

Lena Headey, Florence Pugh and Nick Frost in Fighting With My Family

What would be your wrestling name and persona?

Dwayne told me the best way to develop a wrestling persona is take a part of yourself and dial it up to 100. I’m a British writer so I would come up dressed as Shakespeare – white ruff around the neck but shirtless, obviously. Maybe a quill and some parchment. And as a play on the Merchant of Venice I’d be called the Merchant of Menace. Pretty pleased with that.

You’re one of the few people who can look down on The Rock.

I think he’s about two inches shorter than me, so pretty embarrassing for him. He prefers shorter British people like Jason Statham to be onscreen with.

He may or may not have an ongoing beef with Fast & Furious co-star Vin Diesel. How would you settle it?

I’d like to see it settled in the ring. Maybe not a WWE ring, more Greco-Roman style. Two guys greased up, first to submit. Maybe we could combine that with a big pay per view event. Everyone’s a winner.

Besides the wrestling, at the heart of Fighting With My Family is the struggle of a working class girl to succeed.

One of the things I felt a little bit ashamed of was I just did not know this story. You and I may not care about wrestling but in that world, the WWE is as big as it gets and her success was as meteoric as it gets. In this country we are generally keen to celebrate success, whether it’s sporting success, Olympic heroes, or acting success, Eddie Redmayne or Olivia Colman. It’s interesting that here’s another success story but because it’s a working class passion it’s not covered by the broadsheets or discussed on Radio 4. It’s completely overlooked by me and millions of others.

Why do you think these stories about working class people aren’t told?

People like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh do explore those people but they tend to do it in brilliant but often quite gritty and bleak films. We’ve got a working class success story here and it would be quite nice to champion that in the way that American movies are quite proud of championing their Rocky-style underdogs.

Maybe Ken Loach should cast The Rock in his next movie.

I’ll certainly put a word in if Ken needs Dwayne’s number.

Fighting with my Family is out to download now and on DVD/Blu-ray 1 July


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