"Lenny's probably moved on more than most!"
One of the biggest TV shows of 2019 was Ricky Gervais' After Life on Netflix in which he plays Tony, a local newspaper writer coming to terms with the death of his wife of 25 years, Lisa.
Series one saw Tony contemplate taking his own life, before deciding that he would punish the world by saying and doing whatever he likes from now on because the worst thing that could ever happen to him already has.
But as After Life returns for a second series, whilst Tony continues to struggle with his grief he tries to become a better friend to those around him, realising that they each have their own problems.
Tony Way, who starred in the first series returns to play Tony's colleague at the Tambury Gazette, photographer Lenny, who after asked local resident June, played by Jo Hartley, out on a date is now living with her and her son James, played by Ethan Lawrence,
Earlier this week I caught up with Tony to discuss the reaction to series one, working on Lenny's backstory with Ricky Gervais and why a certain love scene between his character and June took more than one take...
Let's begin by talking about the reaction to series one. Did that take you by surprise?
It did! I knew it was going to be good and that Ricky's fans would love it but what I didn't expect was to be stopped by a whole range of people in the street coming up and saying "I lost my husband or I lost my parent and it (After Life) really spoke to me. It helped me." That was very surprising.
I should have guessed... Netflix is quite well watched isn't it? Also the combination of the critical praise and loads of people watching it, is rare. That doesn't happen very often, where you get praised in the press and by people watching it as well. It's normally one or the other.
Do you think the show's portrayal of grief is what really resonated with people then?
Definitely. People enjoyed watching a show that treated the subject of grief in a very real way. He's (Tony, played by Gervais) depressed and he's sad and he's grieving, but there's comedy in there too. Ricky's very good at not shying away from subjects that a lot of people would shy away from when it comes to comedy.
But that's the reality I think. People genuinely have good and bad moments when they're in those situations and I think people really enjoyed the honesty of the show.
It also really helps that we talk about it, or at least think about it. It's nice to see someone going through something that you've been through as well. We're really bad at talking about that sort of thing in the UK.
Because of the character you play in the show and the job he has, have you found that people are sending you local news stories that could feasibly appear on After Life?
(Laughs) I've been sent a few definitely! I get sent them here and there. I'm the sort of person that would go looking for that sort of thing anyway. I'm always looking those weird headlines. I live in Hackney and I had a clipping for ages from the Hackney Gazette which read - "We were here first" say noisy cake factory" - I had that pinned on my wall for ages, long before After Life.
Where do we find Lenny at the start of series two?
Lenny's probably moved on more than most! His life was very simple. He was very happy with being simple. Some would say he's a very simple man but he's suddenly living with June who you meet in series one, very happily. They're a very sweet couple.
The only sticking point is that he's got her son there as well who is not necessarily part of the deal he knew was coming along. He probably also didn't quite realise what an odd relationship James and June have.
So they have a weird triangle going on, not a traditional romantic love triangle... a tension triangle maybe. He's sort of stuck with James a bit who initially at least is probably one of the more annoying people in the show, on purpose.
But Lenny will do anything for June. He loves her so if it means having to spend even more time with her son, then he'll do it. Which is why he helps him get work experience at the paper. They even say in the show that it might be that June just wants to get her son out of the house for a bit so she can have time away from him!
There's that part in the show where Tony says to Lenny "He's your son now" and Lenny's quick to deny that...
Yeah exactly, although they've actually got much more in common than not. Lenny's not such a show-off or a performer as such, but when it comes to their three square meals plus a day and food they're both similar.
He's very keen that he's not called dad, which he does keep getting called! (Laughs)
What is it about June do you think that has made Lenny fall in love with her?
Jo (Hartley, who plays June) was saying earlier that she's quite nurturing. She loves looking after her boy and I think she feels the same for Lenny. I think the backstory for Lenny is that he's always been single. He's always been a bloke that just does what he wants and has probably needed a bit of love and care.
Also, I really think he likes how much of an over sharer she is. Until of course she starts over sharing stuff about him. That makes him a bit embarrassed. He likes her honesty. He's quite honest too though, he's not shy in saying what he thinks but unlike June he doesn't say everything that's going on in his mind.
How much of Lenny's backstory did you establish before filming?
There was a lot of chat with Ricky (Gervais) actually early on. The initial conversation I had with Ricky was almost a year before we started shooting the first series. He didn't even have anywhere near fully formed scripts yet. He had good ideas about stuff and a few scenes but he just told me the elevator pitch for it on a random phone call.
He came up with the idea for Lenny and told me what he would be like and his big thing was that Lenny is basically a Labrador. He's happy, he's loyal, but as long as you feed him! That was the gist.
The thing with Ricky is that he doesn't cast too far away from the person. He was never going to cast me as an action man figure or a lothario. He knows the sort of thing I can do, we've worked together before. So when he came up with this soppy, Labrador like, greedy loaf, he thought of me and gave me the job!
But you do have to work on the character a bit and Ricky is very good at that. I don't think he'd ever call it workshopping, but that is what we do. We'd all meet up in little groups, quite a long time before filming, go to Ricky's office and have a coffee and chat. Have a look at some scenes and just chat it through.
All the characters feel less separated this series. Was it nice to work with some actors you didn't get that many scenes with in series one?
Absolutely! In series one the only people you really see outside are the stories we go and cover with the occasional pop-up of Joe Wilkinson and Roisin Conaty's characters, and it's really nice to see those characters gelling together this time around. As well as what would happen if Brian Gittins met the postman?
It's really nice. I've heard Ricky mention Springfield from The Simpsons a bit in terms of the widening of the world. It's also great for the main character too. His (Tony's) scope is quite narrow in series one. It focussed quite strongly on how he feels whereas in this series he's looking around a bit more and realising that other people have problems too.
In the first series there's a feeling that he's hard done by, he's struggling and that's all that matters. This time around he takes steps to try and notice other people and what they're going through. For example Tony's brother-in-law, played by Tom Basden, has his own marriage troubles.
There's a certain bed scene where Lenny and June are interrupted by James. What was that like to shoot? I imagine that wasn't a one-take wonder...
It was not a one-take wonder! I can tell you that for nothing. (Laughs) It was really funny and there was a point where I didn't think we'd get it done. Before they say action, you don't have to look at each other in the eyes, but the minute they say "Action!" and you have to look at each other, that was a struggle. Then you had the addition of Ethan (Lawrence, who plays James) coming in, that was a struggle so they'd have to retake after that.
But also, as always, the one person who's not in that scene, Ricky, you're just about to get through the scene without laughing and then you hear Ricky's cackle coming from the other side of the studio and you go "Well that's that take ruined" and then you all start laughing again. But it's all good fun. When you're reading it or writing it, it's awkward, but then you really do have to live through that awkwardness when you come to film it.
Any other favourite scenes?
Well, that aforementioned saucy scene. There's a nice scene involving cake that everyone's in. That was good fun. Tonnes of the rehearsals for the village show are excellent and there's also a couple of corking scenes where Tony and Lenny go to cover stories.
There's a brilliant one with Steve Spiers playing a short-sighted smelly man who confuses something else for a postbox - I won't give it away. That's brilliant. There's another brilliant scene which stars Hollie Dempsey, who was in Derek with Ricky, who plays someone who's addicted to plastic surgery.
They actually put that scene on Graham Norton the other night and there were people all over Twitter going "Who is that?" because they didn't realise that was her until she shared it as well.
Everything with Joe Wilkinson is always hilarious and actually social distancing might have been invented just to keep Postman Pat away from everyone! Brian Gittins is also impossible to film with. He's so funny. There are some sad scenes as well but they're some of my favourite funny ones.
I feel like this series is even funnier than the first. Would you agree?
Definitely! I think it's because Tony is widening his scope a bit, so he's meeting some of the characters a bit more that are around the town. Also, all the characters are more developed this time around and have more of a backstory as we were talking about earlier.
And The Night of a Thousand Stars, as it's called, is some of the funniest stuff I've seen filmed. That alone just makes the whole show ten times funnier. The rollercoaster ride is definitely steeper, the peaks are a lot higher and the dips are a lot lower. You'll be really laughing this time and it's be a proper out and out comedy scene and then you'll be in quite a dark moment. I think that's even more pronounced this series.
Without giving anything anyway, because it's an incredible cameo, what was it like working with Annette Crosbie?
It really is! That was amazing. She came to the read-through, there was a lovely big read-through in Soho when we were all allowed to still see each other in person, and it was fully formed at that read-through. She was so so funny. She got a round of applause in the read-through and because she's only in that one scene they said she could go once she'd read her scene so off she went.
And then we saw her on the day. That was amazing! It was so good. It's such a quiet room as well with all these older supporting artists in the background and she was just brilliant. She's got a real twinkle in that performance as well.
The thing she does at the end... completely improvised as well! That really made me laugh.
Ricky Gervais is very good at supporting good talent and inviting them back for multiple projects. What's been the best piece of advice he's given you?
Be real. As I was saying earlier, he's good at casting people to the part so with him that's normally fine. You don't normally have to do too much work with that. But just keep it real. He's very gentle as a director actually, he just suggests and prods and pokes.
If he wants something, he'll just tell you. He will just say "Try saying that" or "Try saying it like this" and that's actually really helpful sometimes rather than going round the houses with stuff.
All episodes will available to watch in one go. How do you think people should watch it? All in one go? Save it?
I watched it in two gos and that worked for me. It's like watching two films, two hour-and-a-half chunks. We've all got plenty of time at home at the moment so you don't have to rush it.
I've been stretching out all the shows I've been watching. Although I've just had a baby as well so that's put a stop to anything other than changing babies nappies (laughs). But we are, we're really stretching stuff out now instead of devouring it in one as we've got a bit more time to fill.
This is probably a tricky question to answer right now, but what's next for you?
I already had a nice empty diary because the baby was coming so I was quite happily going to be in semi-lockdown anyway whatever happens. It just so happens that it's forced now and because of that everything for everyone in TV and film and theatre and all of this sort of thing, is empty.
There's a lot of talk about what could be done and how stuff can go ahead but unfortunately the nature of the business is 200 people all in a very confined space eating and drinking together - I don't think there's going to be much made for a little while.
So probably best to put our feet up and try not to worry about money too much!
After Life returns Friday from 8am on Netflix with series one available now