Rowan Atkinson speaks about his two most famous, and diametrically opposite, characters, the bumbling Mr. Bean and the devious Blackadder.
By Colin Covert, Star Tribune
Rowan Atkinson’s character Mr. Bean is a man of few words, but the actor himself is as articulate and thoughtful as he is entertaining.
Atkinson took an unusual route to comedy stardom, earning a degree in electrical engineering and moving on to postgraduate work at Oxford, where his work in sketches led to a position on the BBC’s satirical “Not the Nine O’Clock News.” Soon after he found his breakout role as a sharp-tongued, scheming 15th-century nobleman in “Blackadder.” The series, which mixed witty dialog with Shakespearean parodies, launched three sequels and several specials in which Atkinson played devious descendants of the original character through the ages.
His next character, the bumbling and nearly silent Mr. Bean, was a creature of pure physical comedy, the sort of hapless fellow who would set out to stuff a turkey and wind up with his head stuck in the cavity. Bean, too, enjoyed numerous TV incarnations, spinning off an animated series and two feature films. The third, “Mr. Bean’s Holiday,” which sends him on vacation to France, opens nationwide Friday.
Q In the finale of your new film, Mr. Bean makes a mess of the Cannes Film Festival. What do you think of festivals and awards ceremonies where the moviemaking community celebrates itself?
A I tend not to have a lot to do with them, to be honest, which is why I found it quite easy to take a satirical position of them and the kind of movies that get shown at them. Willem Dafoe plays a film writer/director/star [with] a film being presented at Cannes which is ruined by the fact that Mr. Bean manages to play a holiday video in the middle of the presentation. I visited Cannes merely as a sort of research mechanism for this movie, and apart from that, I haven’t been. And I’ve not been to any other film festival, because the kind of movies I’ve been involved with are not the kind that film festivals are remotely interested in.
Q You have one line of comic performance that is highly verbal and another that is mute. Why?
A I’m happy in both modes. The good thing about verbal comedy is you tend to have more companionship. Because the very nature of mute comedy, and Mr. Bean as a character, is insularity. He’s a lonely man, really, just living his own self-centered life. I’ve always preferred the verbal stuff because you spend more time talking to other people.
Q You’re best known for the innocent Mr. Bean and the snide Blackadder. Which is closer to your personality?
A I definitely do not have the wit of Blackadder. And I don’t think I’m as dark or cynical as Blackadder is in his view of the world. Probably I’m somewhere in between but closer to Mr. Bean. You know, the nice bits of Mr. Bean, because Mr. Bean has a very vindictive and selfish and nasty side to him. I hope I don’t have too much of that.
Q Was Mr. Bean created as an homage to silent comedians or as a means of entry into international markets where verbal comedy doesn’t translate?
A He was just a persona I seemed to naturally become as an actor in comedy sketches without words. If I’m denied words, Mr. Bean’s physicality and attitude to life [are] what I seem to acquire. In 1989 we put him on TV and there was no doubt the motivation was a belief that we had a character that could live in other markets and other countries. Latterly, he was pursued because we thought it would have a global acceptance, which it turned out to have.
Q You have a rather intense demeanor. Have you ever considered exploring drama in an entirely serious role?
A I’ve come close to it. I made a movie last year called “Keeping Mum” with Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas that had quite a serious role, kind of semi-serious, semi-comic. I’ve no great manic ambition to do it. I don’t feel as though I need to be serious in order to prove something or to derive satisfaction from life. I’m very happy doing silly things. I think that’s as difficult a task as you can set yourself.
Q. Many actors avoid watching their performances. Is that your practice?
A. The funny thing it, with all the Mr. Bean movies, I’m intimately involved with all the processes and the editing so I watch my performance for month after month every day. But I detach myself entirely from it. There’s nothing about my performance that worries me. The things that consume me are all to do with story, which is why I like to sit in on the directing and editing. That’s what’s going to make things funny or not as long as I do my bit during shooting, which generally I feel I do.