Known best for partnering with Ricky Gervais in the writing/directing of the hit shows The Office, Extras and Life’s Too Short, Stephen Merchant went out on his own in 2013 with the HBO series Hello Ladies, based on his stand up show of the same name which delves into his life-long mishaps dating women.
Using his patented achingly awkward persona as the show’s lead Stuart Prichard, a Brit living in Los Angeles with the shallow hopes of luring in a smoking hot model, it looked like a sure-fire hit for Merchant. Sadly, HBO canceled the show after the first season. However, Merchant is able to wrap things up with Hello Ladies: The Movie, airing on HBO this Saturday. Stuart (who also directed the movie) is still on a mission to find a knockout, though we get some background on his motivations. Jessica (Christine Woods) is still living in Stuart’s pool house and struggling with her acting career, while Wade (Nate Torrence) and Kives (Kevin Weisman) continue to reluctantly be Stuart’s wingmen.
We talked to Merchant about the funny scenarios he was hoping to reveal if the show continued, his own dating life, and if he and Gervais have any plans to reteam.
First off, have to say I’m very disappointed there will not be any more seasons of Hello Ladies.
Well, that’s very nice of you. I appreciate that.
I feel it’s a show that needed a second season to really get viewers into the characters. Like your others shows, it needs that time to build the fan base.
Yeah. I agree. I feel the same way. I think that’s probably true of most good shows. But I’m philosophical about these things, there were many considerations, I’m sure, taken into account by HBO and the fact that they gave me the movie to do is hopefully a testament to their faith in me, if not the show itself.
When you got word that there wouldn’t be a second season, were you already in the process of thinking about it and putting scripts together?
Well, we weren’t at the stage where we were writing scripts, but we had ideas of where we were going to take it and were excited about avenues we could explore. Particularly Stuart’s relationship with Jessica, I was excited to explore that and take that in different directions. We had some fun ideas of where we were going to take her character. We touch on it in the movie, but it was going to be a bigger thing if we went forward with the season, this idea that she’s having a premature midlife crisis. She gives up acting and isn’t quite sure where she fits into the world, which is something I’ve experienced with friends but also a lot of female friends. They hit 30 and often have that wobble, they aren’t necessarily ready yet to settle down with a particular guy and maybe they don’t want to define themselves in regards to a relationship, but they aren’t quite sure where their career is and where they fit in. And this is something that strikes men as well, but I thought it was an interesting area for her to explore so we were gearing up for that.
You have a great opening sequence to the movie that gets us reacquainted with the characters, and it’s all done in one continues shot. What led you to doing it that way?
There are a couple of reasons behind it. We wanted to give it a bit of a movie feel and I come from the school of directing that’s sort of the Billy Wilder approach, to stand back a little and not be too showy. But it’s interesting because consequently you often get slightly disregarded or overlooked as a director because you aren’t doing these cartwheels for the viewer, so I think there was part of us that was like, “You know what, we’ll do something with a little flourish here just to announce that the show is back and here are the characters.” But I also liked the idea that it seemed right in the sense that there’s that experience when you go into night clubs or parties where you have this feeling that you’re moving around. You don’t stand still, it’s too dynamic for that. It seemed somehow right to do that for that atmosphere. It was fun to do but difficult. The whole shoot was 14 days, which even by low budget independent film standards is pretty short. But we were very ambitious seeing that there are also yachts and helicopter shots.
Was it always the intent that whenever the show ended that Stuart would have this awakening from his superficial state?
We sort of were going in that direction at the end of Season 1, he forsakes his sure thing on the beach for Jessica, and we wanted to give the idea that he was evolving and growing and valuing his friends. And that growth would have continued if we went on, we just accelerated it for the movie. But in the end some people will regard him as mean or whatever, but to me he’s misguided, he’s desperate, it’s trying too hard, and I think by trying to explain his backstory more in this one we maybe fill in those blanks more clearly. But in my experience, in Los Angeles there’s a hell of a lot of people like that there, a lot of people who are trying to punish the past in some way. Many of them are very successful, they are in positions of power, executives and producers.
Were there any funny scenarios you were developing for Season 2 and beyond that we unfortunately won’t see?
I know we had a document of all kinds of stuff but there were so many ideas. I know we wanted to do something about the new forms of social media like Tinder or SnapChat, stuff like that. And we touched on it briefly in the movie with the idea of being forearmed with information; you can Google people before you talk to them. But basically Stuart doesn’t understanding how that stuff works. We were excited by the idea of Jessica working for a very young, over-privileged woman who is a socialite and comes from a rich father and makes Jessica scurry around to do menial tasks for her. So a personal assistant for a Paris Hilton-like person seemed fun to us. And she’d say stuff to Jessica like, “They want me to do a urine test because they think I’m doing cocaine again, can I get some of your urine, please?”
And I would not be shocked if a personal assistant has had to do that.
Of course! Totally. Oh, and we had this other thing, I worked so hard to get it into the movie and couldn’t do it. I wanted to do this whole sequence where they end up in a Vegas-style nightclub where they pump in foam, those foam parties. So Kives, Stuart, and Wade are partying hard and the foam gets pumped in and Wade comes over to Stuart and he’s hitting on a girl and he tells Stuart, “We’ve lost Kives, he’s under the foam! He’s drowning!” And so we have to get them to shut the music off and turn the lights on and we’re waving through the form to find Kives [who is wheelchair-bound]. Stuart finds him and he’s making out with a girl. And he’s like, “Prich, what are you doing?” And everyone is just staring at Stuart. That would have been a fun bit.
How close is Stuart to you and your dating experiences?
I’ve drawn on aspects on my life and personality over the years but I would say it’s a composite of different facets of my life. There’s a bit of my teenage self in there, a little bit of my early 20s—the trying too hard, not being comfortable in your own skin. Trying to find an angle of how to present yourself to the world. That’s me when I was younger. I feel it’s a teenager in an adult’s body in some regards.
I think ultimately Stuart is romantic and that his heart was broken terribly, he’s too busy trying to date girls that other people will be impressed with rather than finding his own happiness. He’s looking for trophies and that is obviously the wrong way to approach things. And again, I think you find a lot of men in L.A. like that. And that’s very different from me.
And I would imaegine that with the level of celebrity you are at now dating is different. It’s easier but it’s also challenging to do things you could do when you were younger.
Well, I like to say now that I’m on TV I get rejected by even more beautiful women than I used to. I’ve been turned down my models, beautiful actresses—
But if I’m to believe the tabloids you are doing okay for yourself [he’s been linked with Captain America’s Hayley Atwell and actress/model Christine Marzano].
Well of course, but that has to do with the confidence of age as it is to do with celebrity. If you still are reluctant to talk to a woman when you’re 35 then jeez, shoot yourself. [Laughs.] If you hung out with me in my 20s I was much less comfortable in every regard really.
You and Ricky Gervais are off doing separate projects now, do you two plan to reconnect on anything?
We haven’t got anything planned at the moment. We slightly got out of step of one another’s schedules because we’ve been doing our own things. He’s writing and directing something and I’m doing something and I spent a good chunk of time in L.A. this year and he’s not often in L.A. We’re slightly working in different gears at the moment, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t do something again in the future, but there’s nothing on the horizon.
For me, I’m writing a screenplay at the moment. Doing the movie kind of reminded me how much I like the film structure. It’s tight and gives you a beginning, middle, and an end. It’s not as open ended as a TV series and I found that quite satisfying having that structure so that sent me back to work on a screenplay.
Jason Guerrasio writes for Esquire, Vulture, The Dissolve, among others. He once attended a foam party in the late ’90s. Tweet him here.