'Rob is probably more naturally funny than I am'
How easy a decision was it to agree to series three of The Trip?
Rob and I already have a modus operandi. We've done it twice before, we all enjoyed doing it and we knew how to do it so it was a very easy decision.
Is it as enjoyable as it looks to make?
Yes it is. I mean, you have to apply yourself. One part of you is shooting the breeze and thinking of things to say, but the other is planning things all the time. You have to be on your toes and realise what will be a fruitful area, because you're improvising within the structure.
So Rob and I will sometimes talk between takes about what we should speak about and also plan ways to react. Rob will sometimes suggest lines for me to say and I will sometimes suggest lines for him to say and ways to create funny barbed exchanges.
So it's a very organic process. It isn't just me and Rob eating food and talking. All three of us – director Michael Winterbottom, Rob and me – put our heads together and talk about what's most fruitful.
Michael always makes sure we stick to a kind of approximate narrative but we have a lot of free rein. We're much more cooperative behind the scenes than it seems on camera.
Do you enjoy being given a licence to improvise in this way, compared to having to stick to a precise script?
It's very enjoyable. You have way more scope than you'd have in a normal scripted film where you really have to stick to what you're doing. Rob and I really trust each other and if he goes off on a tangent, I will follow him, or he will follow me, so it's a lot of fun.
But I wouldn't like to work like that all the time. It suits that project, whereas when I'm doing a film where there's a script, or something I've written, then I like to stick very closely to that. It's just a different way of doing things. It's a nice change.
What preparation do you do? Do you brush up on certain impressions?
In between takes we might discuss doing a new impersonation or throw in a new one but I don't stand in front of the mirror practising impressions.
Rob does a good Barry Gibb which made me laugh a lot between takes so I said to him that he should do that on camera.
We were doing Tom Courtenay impressions for some reason which made us laugh. So we'll do those and coach each other in between takes try to perfect them. In terms of preparation, we might learn quotes from books that we're supposed to be referencing, like Laurie Lee, that we can throw into conversation the next day.
So occasionally we'll do a bit of prep.
How easy is it to make Rob laugh? Is that something you try to do?
Rob probably makes me laugh more than I make him laugh but I don't start by thinking, 'I want to make Rob laugh'. I do sometimes but he's probably more naturally funny than I am. I think it's more like we try to get under each other's skin a bit. To cause friction – and the friction can lead to comedy.
But we didn't want it all to be like that. We wanted to be able to agree with each other and have moments of cordiality and balance.
So it wasn't just bickering as it were. We play it more like a married couple. We have moments where we agree about things and moments where we're a bit tetchy, so we just try to give it some colour with light and shade, and sometimes I make Rob laugh.
But I'm the more cantankerous one and he's more flippant – although we exaggerate these things quite a lot.
Is it easy to switch from your character back to your normal self?
When the cameras aren't rolling we just have proper conversations that are quite dull. Sometimes we eat with each other in the evening and we end up having much more civilised conversations.
When the cameras are rolling it's almost like we're sparring. You put your gloves on and your gum shield in and we have a little round of sparring. It's quite frenetic, the pace of the whole thing, but it's also very enjoyable and we got to see a lot of Spain, so what's not to like?
Which locations stood out to you on this trip?
Andalusia was pretty spectacular. We went to lots of medieval towns that had their history in Moorish Spain. We visited lots of historic places and areas that I wasn't overly familiar with.
It was a revelation to be in such spectacular scenery. You had to remind yourself that you were in Europe. It seemed far more exotic, like parts of Africa.
What does the series say about ageing and being middle-aged?
There are a lot of universal issues. If it were just about Rob and me it wouldn't be as strong. It has to mean something to other people, so yes it's about middle age and getting older, life and family life, love and unrequited love.
For me, my character is a bit more settled and trying to rekindle an old relationship and bring it back to life. I'm more lost in this series. Rob is more settled, so we make sure there's a little emotional journey and an arc throughout the series.
Published: 15 Mar 2017