Transcription by Katrina King. Katrina can translate British to American faster than anyone!
Anthony Head gained initial fame in a series of coffee commercials in the UK and US, which were unusual for following a continuing narrative. He has appeared in a wide variety of genre shows including VR.5, Highlander: The Series and Doctor Who. Perhaps best known for starring as Rupert Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Head has also gained acclaimed for roles on series such as Manchild and The Invisibles. He currently stars as King Uther on the hit series Merlin in England, but is about to make a big splash once again in the US. Free Agents is a new sitcom on NBC, based on a British comedy of the same name. Head is in the enviable position of starring in the US version playing a character he originated on the UK show. I talked to the accomplished actor by phone this week to talk about what it’s like to bring the same character across the pond.
POP CULTURE ZOO: Hi, how are ya?
ANTHONY HEAD: Good man, how’s it going?
PCZ: Great! So to start off with, congratulations on bringing Stephen to the US!
AH: Thank you!
PCZ: For many of us US viewers who have unfortunately not seen the original, what can you tell us to prepare us for Stephen and for the show?
AH: The show is about two people who… they’re kind of soul mates. They’ve discovered each other at very difficult times in their lives, when everything is kinda telling them that they should sort of be together but they probably shouldn’t be together because it’s the wrong time in their lives. And they are struggling to work this out in a work place that is literally all glass. As the producer said, it’s a fishbowl. And they work in PR, corporate PR, so they sort of spend their days generally sorting out other peoples’ lives and doing damage control while wrestling with their own little problem in front of everyone. The various people who they are surrounded by have different takes on life and definitely different takes on relationships.
One of them is their boss, Stephen, who has a sort of schoolboy fascination with porn, with vicarious sex, with just all the wrong take on everything, as far as they’re concerned. He just throws that into the mix, as well as being an oddity. You just don’t know which way he’s going to bounce. He sort of pops up at different times and suddenly will throw in his opinion about something which is completely left of field. It’s about them trying to work this out. And the thing that’s very clever about it is because it’s written from the heart, it sort of has this great soul. You completely understand these people. You want to know about their lives. You like them, which is an essential part, I think. When you identify with the main protagonist, you want to see what happens next week. It’s more than just the kind of “oh I enjoyed that, let’s tune in again”. It’s actually, you want to tune in, because you want to know how they resolve this.
PCZ: So it’s a little bit meatier than a regular sitcom where you laugh for twenty minutes and you know, rinse repeat next week. This one’s got a little bit more to it then?
AH: Yeah, I mean, when we did the TCA [Television Critics Association], one of the journalists asked, “Is this Mad About You?” because that had a sort of a similar drive, they were together as husband and wife, but you cared about their relationship. This is kind of the anti-Mad About You because they’re not in a relationship, but you kind of want them to be but you know that they maybe shouldn’t be. It’s a very interesting kind of imponderable. You sort of look at them, going, well, you should make it but every time you do make it, it makes it worse! [chuckles] And at the same time, the humor is very fast, very witty, very sharp. As Todd, our producing director said, it’s like 1940s His Girl Friday. It’s that really sharp, you don’t have time to breathe. It sort of drives it through. It’s good stuff!
PCZ: What’s very interesting about this, of course, is you’re bringing your character from the original British show here. How was that, having to rethink this character in sort of a new light?
AH: It’s interesting, it’s still evolving as we sort of find out what we can do with Stephen, as opposed to what we can’t do. I mean, ultimately, he is the same but he’s actually grown a little. It’s not so one track. You have NO idea what he’s going to say. You don’t know where he’s coming from at any one moment. He’ll probably have an odd, left of field opinion about everything. And it’s fun, it’s great fun. He was fun to play to start with, and now there’s more fun sort of exploring more about him. D’you know what I mean?
PCZ: A chance to add to what you’ve done before…
AH: Yeah! I mean, he’s not just a written character that I’m given every week. It’s actually evolving and we’re finding more about him. We haven’t been to his apartment, yet, and we actually haven’t been in his office yet. I can’t wait to get to his office, [laughs] to find out what’s going on in his head! It’s great fun actually being part of that creative process, ’cause they’re very good about listening. I’ll throw in lines and odd things for ideas, and even if they don’t take my original idea, they will then take that and run with it and develop it. It’s a great production crew, basically, it’s very open. It’s lovely when you put an idea out there, and then you see it, two weeks down the line, actually materialize in a script. It’s one of those gigs that you want to do. And I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have sort of gravitated towards sets like this. I dunno. I think it also stems from your leads – and Hank and Catherine are WONDERFUL, wonderful leads. Not only is their chemistry fascinating, it’s brilliant; I sometimes just go on set, and I’m not filming, just to watch them working. Because they are just consummate, perfect. They’re just very funny. And they’re really lovely, lovely people. You can’t want more than that!
PCZ: Have there been times in the US version where you’re doing the scene, and you’re thinking you’ve got to rein him in a little bit? There’s harsher language in the original and that doesn’t work so well on the American networks. Has there been times when you’ve wanted to push it a little bit but you couldn’t?
AH: No, actually, it’s been more about the pursuit of what I can say. We’ve all sort of found words that really don’t mean very much or have one meaning but we’re just using it because they sound rude. And there’re a lot of words that seem to have sexual connotations which actually don’t. I’ve been online and found lots of euphemism sites and that makes it fun. It’s great fun! So no, there’s never been a point of regret, of oh, I can’t say something rude. It’s much more fun finding something you can say that sounds rude, but actually isn’t.
PCZ: [chuckles] That’s very good! And I think there’s quite a few people that’ll read this that are wondering, is there any chance of doing any more episodes of the original version?
AH: Of the original? No. I mean the original was a small, perfectly formed, critically acclaimed gem. But it is, as far as this is concerned, it’s given us a jumping off place. It wouldn’t make sense now to go back and try to recreate something. If it served to create this, then it’s done a great job.
AH: So many English series end up… it got picked up for a second series, but at the time, Channel 4 didn’t have any money, and basically the onus was on the production company to find more money and I think past that, they found NBC, and that’s how this grew into what it’s become. I use the word “evolved”, it has grown into something bigger and possibly better, I dunno. The original series was lovely, but I think this has legs. And it’s still got a really good soul, and a really good heart, and it’s very funny.
PCZ: It sounds like, smartly, the producers of this version have sort of taken the basic premise, but have run with it in their own direction, instead of trying to recreate what went before, so that bodes well.
AH: Exactly, they’ve taken the essence of as I say, of it’s heart, but they’ve then sort of created a couple more characters who allow it to grow, they’ve changed the workplace, it’s now corporate PR, so it makes logical sense that they are dealing with damage control day by day, but can’t actually deal with their own damage control. It also has given more of a sort of drive to their work. Their work is much more thinking on their feet, and so consequently the storylines can be driven by what’s going on with the client, while still addressing their issues.
PCZ: Excellent, well, I’m definitely looking forward to the show. I’ve always said more Anthony Head on TV is never a bad thing. So it’s great to see you even more!
AH: Thank you! Thank you very much!
PCZ: Thank you very much for your time today, and much luck with the show.
AH: Thanks man, take care.
FREE AGENTS premieres tonight, September 14 at 10:30 PM, then airs regularly on Wednesdays at 8:30 PM on NBC