It’s a showbiz truism that behind your typical comic genius lies a shy recluse, but British actor Rowan Atkinson, the man who plays Mr Bean, takes it to the extreme. While Bean will unwittingly make a total fool of himself in public, Atkinson would rather curl up and die than do anything that might draw attention to himself.
He’s the classic case of the introverted extrovert, a person who will willingly play the idiot in front of an audience of millions, but who’s far too shy to play charades with just a handful of friends at home.
Richard Curtis- who wrote Four Weddings And A Funeral and used Atkinson as the hilariously inexperienced vicar – has been friends with Atkinson since university days and reckons the rubber-faced actor is like a cushion at parties because he sits in the corner and says nothing.
All his life this timid man has tried to avoid fame, as though he’s scared the spotlight will burn him. But now, with the release of Bean, the worldwide hit movie which is at last on circuit in SA, Atkinson’s been forced to crawl out of his hiding hole – actually, a R4-million 18th-Century country mansion – and face the press.
Masterfully, he’s ducked some of the interviews by insisting on doing them in character as Bean, but fortunately he granted Personality this rare interview with himself, as himself…
Up close, Rowan Atkinson is a rather ordinary, 42-year-old man in a black suit (which fits him). Although his odd looks earned him the affectionate nickname of Moonman back at school, his features are not as pronounced in the flesh as they are on screen. In fact, he looks quite normal… until he gets nervous, and then things go horribly wrong. He stutters and his lips contort uncontrollably, his eyes bulge in horror, his eyelashes flutter faster than a hummingbird’s wings, and his caterpillar eyebrows threaten to crawl right off his face. And all this just to say “hello.”
“Don’t tell me your name or which country you are from. I prefer not to know anything.” he pleads when we meet at a top London hotel.
Atkinson is painfully shy, seriously serious, and fiercely protective of his private life.
He has degrees from Newcastle and Oxford Universities, and he would have become an engineer if it hadn’t been for one day in 1975 when he looked in the mirror for a little longer than usual, thereby causing his destiny to change gear and bolt off at a tandem.
“I’d been invited to do a comedy sketch in one the student shows,” he recalls. “I couldn’t think of anything to do and was just standing in front of the mirror, messing about, when suddenly these faces began to evolve and I started to explore my face for the first time. So I was already 20 before I noticed that I had a particularly expressive face in terms of comedy.”
The discovery that he had an innate ability to entertain others didn’t transform the reclusive, academically inclined Atkinson into a social butterfly. While bean would shamelessly blow peanuts out of his nose to show off, Atkinson is the last person on the planet who’d be such an exhibitionist.
“I can only perform in a performance context. There has to be a stage and an audience and they have to be seated in rows; and I’d rather not see their faces. That’s why I quite like the camera – you never see the audience.”
Atkinson says his approach to humor as “quite clinical” and not like the spontaneity of comedians such as Robin Williams. “I’m not like that. To be funny I have to have a script, and it has to be well-rehearsed.”
The business of being funny is a very unfunny affair fro Britain’s highest-paid comic.
“Being funny is agony. The longer I spend in the business, the more depressed and uncertain I get. It’s painful, serious and lonely craft.”
Atkinson’s agony is compounded by his addiction to perfectionism. This means he rehearses each scene a multitude of times before he comes close to being happy with it. Even then he’s not totally satisfied “because you’re constantly convinced that what you’ve done is not as good as it could be. Perfectionism is more a disease than an admirable quality.
“It’s important for me to have it – to be like a dog with a slipper – but it’s an illness which is really quite debilitating and which slows you down more than it speeds you up. It makes the process of work very unenjoyable and quite a strain.”
Fortunately the pain is bearable enough to guarantee that Atkinson will keep us rolling in the aisles for a few years to come.
Bean, which smashed box-office records in New Zealand and Australia within days of its release, sees Mr Bean not merely causing chaos in cuddly English suburbia, but wreaking havoc in Los Angeles. Bean’s transition from small screen star to movie star was inevitable. The multi-award winning TV series is broadcast in 94 countries, sales of the Bean videos top 7-million, and more have been sold around the globe. A movie was a must, and Bean is the result.
Touted as the ‘ultimate disaster movie,” it sees Bean dispatched to LA as an art expert to return the famous Whistler’s Mother painting to an American gallery. Instead of sending its best scholar, the National Gallery send its most inept employee – Mr Bean – in a desperate attempt to get rid of him. England’s loss is certainly not America’s gain.
For fans who have watched the silent Mr Bean for five years, and wondered what his voice would sound like (unless you count those obscure grunts that sound as though he’s talking from the bottom of a fish tank), wonder no more.
In Bean, he not only utters audible words, but even delivers a rather remarkable speech to a bunch of art lovers – including Bean fan Burt Reynolds, who begged to be in the film.
“With film you can’t be quite so uncompromising with the character as you can on TV,” explains Atkinson. “We had to five Mr Bean a voice and present a more three-dimensional character.”
The film reunites Atkinson with his old friends director Mel Smith – on of his co-stars in the legendary 70’s comedy series Not The Nine O’Clock News – and screenwriter Richard Curtis, whom he met at Oxford 22 years ago. Curtis and Atkinson have collaborated on various ventures, including the hugely successful Blackadder TV series of the 80’s and, of course, the Mr Bean TV series this decade.
The Bean character is an extension of some of the sketches Atkinson has been performing live ever since his Oxford days, though in those days the character had no name. In fact, before making his official TV debut five years ago, bean was almost called Mr White, or Mr Cauliflower.
Atkinson attributes the TV series’ appeal to the fact that Mr Bean is so rude to everyone. “It’s his childishness that make me laugh. As a child trapped in a man’s body he does things no adult would dare do, because most of us are controlled by social conventions.
“Children, of course, identify with him tremendously, while adults, I think, are congratulating themselves that they’re no longer like that. At the same time, it’s fun to see an adult behaving badly because sometimes he does things you wish you could do.”
Atkinson reluctantly admits that Mr Bean’s roots are probably from somewhere within himself.
“Maybe he’s like I was when I was nine – I grew up on a farm and farms are full of mechanical devices, so maybe that’s where Mr Bean’s fascination with devices comes from.”
As a child, Atkinson would polish tractors on the family’s farm and take his mom’s old Morris Minor apart and then fix it. A lasting passion for cars has lingered. He has a priceless collection of classic and sports cars, including Aston Martin’s and Ferrari’s. He also hosts TV documentaries about cars and writes for Britain’s Car magazine. His happiest moment was when he passed the test to drive heavy-duty trucks.
“The thrill of making 2000 people laugh is but a light breeze compared to the tornado of excitement I felt at that moment,” he affirms.
Rowan Sebastian Atkinson was born on January 6, 1955, in Newcastle, England. He grew up in an affluent suburb with his two older brothers, Rupert and Rodney, and attended a larney private school where he was in the same class as Britain’s new Labor prime minister, Tony Blair.
Atkinson is not forthcoming with revelations about his personal life. It’s known, however, that he married former BBC make-up artist Sunetra Sastry in New York in 1990 and that they lived in the Oxford-shire mansion and Chelsea apartment with their children Benjamin (4) and Lily (2).
Atkinson will only say: “I don’t ever discuss my family at all, I’m afraid. But what I will tell you is that they haven’t been exposed to Mr Bean.”
As personal as Bean is to Atkinson, he resists accepting any praise for the show’s phenomenal popularity, putting the success down to luck and good timing.
Right now his sights are set on taking a year off from show business to concentrate on his other passion – racing cars. And when he returns to the world of comedy, it’s unlikely, he says, that he’ll take on another Mr Bean TV series.
“I feel we’ve done it all, really. We’re now thinking about an animated series.”
Noting my crestfallen face as we say our goodbyes, he adds hastily: “But never say never, so I’m not saying never again…”
PERSONALITY December 12 1997