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Hot Potato.

Byline: By Rob Driscoll

You know him best as The Office's Gareth - but these days, the meek and mild Mackenzie Crook's co-stars are Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Johnny Depp. Rob Driscoll meets Britain's unlikeliest new film star

WHAT'S this? Gareth the Office- bound geek as a sex god? Well, as a cocksure geezer who gets plenty of attention from the ladies, at least.

It's the kind of scenario about which Gareth Keenan - he of the pudding-basin haircut, rake-thin physique and tragic absence of humour - could only dream. But Mackenzie Crook, the versatile actor who still managed to make David Brent's saddo sidekick, the weaselly, hollow-eyed Gareth, a loveable loser in BBC2's The Office, is now playing an ultra-confident, if somewhat shameless, rogue with constant female attention in Sex Lives of the Potato Men - a new British film that gives him his first starring role.

'He's a rumbustious type who does have some success with the opposite sex,' says a cautious Crook about his character Ferris in the determinedly low-brow Birmingham-set comedy. 'But only because he's got a bit of bravado, and a leather jacket. I wouldn't exactly call him a romantic lead.'

Nevertheless, the film also offered Crook his first love scene. 'Well, yes, but more a sex scene, and the sex is pretty grubby; we're talking about a stolen shag in a chip-shop stockroom.'

Crook describes the film, co-starring Johnny Vegas, as a 21st Century version of those notorious Confessions of movies. 'It's a sex comedy with a definite retro 70s feel, about a pair of potato delivery men on the constant look out for sex,' he says. 'It won't be in the running for any Baftas.'

But he should worry. Sex Lives of the Potato Men is just one of five Crook movies due out this year, with co-stars that include Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Johnny Depp and Christian Slater. So it's fair to say that out of all the stars who emerged victorious from The Office - even Ricky Gervais and his Golden Globes - it's geeky Gareth who seems to have cleaned up the most.

'I owe everything to The Office,' says 32-year-old Crook. He's not kidding; the casting director of world-conquering swashbuckler Pirates of the Caribbean saw an episode of the show on a plane, and decided Crook would be perfect as a dim, wooden-eyed pirate opposite Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly.

Since then he's been on a big-screen roll. He made another movie with Johnny Depp, Neverland, also starring Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie and Kate Winslet. The film, about Peter Pan creator JM Barrie, has been delayed a year to avoid clashing with the other just-released Peter Pan movie.

And still the mega-bucks Hollywood projects come Crook's way. He's in a biopic of Peter Sellers, with Geoffrey Rush; with Christian Slater and Neve Campbell in Churchill: The Hollywood Years, from the Comic Strip team; with Christina Ricci and our very own Ioan Gruffudd in fright-fest The Gathering; and with Heath Ledger and Matt Damon in The Brothers Grimm, which he filmed last year in Prague with director Terry Gilliam.

Most recently came what is probably his ritziest project yet - The Merchant of Venice, alongside Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes.

In fact, it was his commitment to filming that movie in Italy and Luxembourg which prevented Crook from attending January's Golden Globes ceremony in Los Angeles, and sharing the jubilations with his triumphant fellow The Office performers on their surprise double victory. He was on the phone to them pretty sharpish, though.

'We were all genuinely gobsmacked,' he laughs.

'You just don't expect that level of success, that level of recognition.'

More of a worry personally was being absent from his son Jude's first birthday, also in January. 'I kept telling myself it was all right to miss this one, because he didn't know any different,' says Crook. 'It was me who was upset, but I'll never miss it again.'

He has been married to Jude's mother, former advertising executive Lindsay Miller, for two years; they met when she was running a Soho comedy club and he was doing stand-up.

At the time, home for Crook was a 'grotty rented flat in Hounslow' where he lived off economy baked beans on toast. Today, his considerably improved earnings have recently enabled them to move to a somewhat more desirable art deco property in trendy Muswell Hill, north London - once occupied by Peter Sellers.

'It's just a terraced house, nothing that special,' he quickly explains, almost apologetically. 'But when we bought it, we found out Sellers lived there in the 50s - and I'd just done the Sellers movie, so that was kind of weird.'

Something Crook will never live down was marrying Lindsay in Gareth's dreadful nerdy haircut; their wedding, in 2001, unfortunately coincided with filming The Office, and there was plenty of teasing from all at the reception. And most of the recognition he gets in the street, naturally, is for Gareth.

He doesn't think that will change for a while, and insists that, however 'Hollywood' his slew of screen appearances sound, many of them have been fairly small roles. 'I'm Usher No.1 in Neverland, for example, so I wasn't exactly living it up in my own Winnebago with Johnny Depp,' he says.

'I'm a car salesman in the Peter Sellers film, a ghost in The Gathering, and Hidlick the servant in The Brothers Grimm.'

But he is being just a tad modest. In The Merchant of Venice he plays the not unsubstantial role of the clown Lancelot Gobbo, opposite Pacino's Shylock - and there was a fair bit of socialising with Al and the boys after the cameras were turned off.

'It's a fairly low-budget movie, and for that reason we were always calling in favours,' he says. 'We'd be allowed to shoot at the local villa or palazzo, on condition that we'd turn up at the mayor's house for dinner.

'So that was a pretty amazing pinch-me moment - turning up at the mayor of Venice's pad. And the social life was good, hanging out at parties with Al and Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes. Al is amazing, so forceful, but he's very down to earth. He's got a couple of kids, twins, so we swapped some daddy anecdotes.'

Chatting about fatherhood with The Godfather; how cool is that? It's a far cry from Crook's humble roots in Dartford, the Kent commuter-belt town famous for The Rolling Stones and the eponymous tunnel under the Thames.

He describes it as the ultimate suburban community, and as Paul James Crook (he changed his first name when joining Equity) he was your average schoolboy who defended his skinny frame against bullies with wit.

Acting was not an early consideration. 'I was very good at drawing,' he recalls. 'It never occurred to me I could go into the showbusiness world; make money being funny.

'I applied to go to art school, but didn't make it - and I was devastated.'

Instead, he drifted into dead-end jobs - a waiter at Pizza Hut, serving at Halfords, cooking in a hospital kitchen. On the hobbies front he sang in a heavy metal band, trying to model himself on his hero, Kurt Cobain. 'But it just wasn't happening,' he chuckles.

Finally, he turned to acting, but not through any traditional channel; the thought of drama college did not appeal. 'I couldn't bear the notion of going back into a classroom,' he says.

'Not that I hated school, but I just didn't enjoy it much. There was no drama department there and some of the teachers were evil; I couldn't wait to leave.'

He did, however, already belong to a local drama group in Dartford, The Orchard Youth Theatre, and he eventually wound up doing stand-up comedy, spending years trawling the circuit as a variety of fictional characters.

Talking to the shy, self-effacing Crook today, the idea of him standing tall amid a sea of drunken hecklers seems unlikely.

'I think I'm probably quite confident,' he insists. 'You have to be, as stand-up audiences can be pretty vicious. But true, I'd be in no hurry to rush back to stand-up, and it's a blessed relief not to be on the road. I'd do a show three, four, five times a week, and the money was pitiful.' Hence the baked beans.

He was spotted by Bob Mortimer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1997, which led him to the company that makes Shooting Stars; that in turn led to TV sketch shows, a few 'skinny weirdo' parts on shows like The Bill, and finally The Office.

The classy fly-on-the-wall comedy that became this century's Fawlty Towers is something Crook can't enthuse enough about; indeed, his most charming asset is his eternal gratitude to the show all of us adore anyway.

It was Terry Gilliam's enjoyment of a DVD of The Office that he reckons got him The Brothers Grimm. 'And I've turned Matt Damon and Heath Ledger into huge Office fans,' he grins. 'They can't get enough of it. Now I've heard that Robert Vaughn and Jack Black love it. It's become this international cult.'

Yet he has no illusions about the character that turned him into a household name.

'Gareth is a dick,' he says. 'People say, 'Oh Gareth, he's just a bit shy, isn't he?' but no, he's a vindictive *******. He likes cars and guns, and his scope is so narrow and naive, you wouldn't be able to engage him in meaningful conversation. I cringe for him because he's a little boy who's found himself in this adult world and is completely out of his depth.

'He also thinks that women are just there to have sex with.'

But isn't that the mindset of his latest big-screen character, Ferris, in Sex Lives of the Potato Men?

'Well, possibly, but at least Ferris actually does what he says, and he's under no illusions that he's as shallow as the rest of them,' says Crook.

After mixing it with Hoffman, Pacino and Depp, what exactly was the attraction of playing a sleazy Brummie potato deliverer in a no-budget Britcom? 'I just loved the script,' says Crook.

'There are some great lines of dialogue. But basically, yes, it's a really filthy comedy. There are some shocking visual gags. Don't take your granny.'

Fame sits uneasily on Crook's shoulders, one suspects.

He talks about the bizarre situation of waving to the paparazzi, with Pacino and Irons, from a canal-side terrace on The Merchant of Venice.

'It's difficult to get used to that kind of situation,' he says.

'Then there are the autograph hunters. We were at the premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean at the Odeon Leicester Square. There's me with Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley and it was absolutely mad. People were calling out to me, wanting to talk to me. You have to say something witty back.

'The crowd was full of these professional autograph hunters, who don't have books, they have index cards, and they file them away.

'You kind of realise they're not real fans, they're just collecting signatures, maybe to sell on. That's when you realise your ego could get bigger than it need be.'

At the moment, there is nothing imminent in the Crook diary, for which he is grateful. 'I'm looking at scripts, and there are some possible projects, but I've not really had any time off over the last 18 months, so I want to settle into our home, and have time with my wife and son.'

You won't find Crook at many premieres and showbusiness parties.

And the money he's clearly raking in doesn't seem to have gone to his head - so far, apart from the new home, he's splashed out on a signed photo of Kurt Cobain, and a few Thomas Hardy first editions. His son Jude is named after Hardy's Jude the Obscure.

What kind of roles does Crook see himself playing in the future?

'I'm under no illusion why I got certain parts - they want skinny, unhealthy-looking guys,' he says.

'So I'll be playing drug addicts, weirdos, perverts, pirates and ghosts. That's just fine by me.'

Sex Lives of the Potato Men is in cinemas now.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 21, 2004
Words:2033
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