Rowan Atkinson returns to screens as the fictional French detective Jules Maigret this week in the TV adaptation of Georges Simenon's novel Maigret's Dead Man on OSN.
While viewers may be surprised to see the comedy legend – Blackadder and Mr Bean – in a serious role, Atkinson admits having now had two chances to get under the skin (the first being 2016's Maigret) of the popular detective, the two have more in common than they might have thought.
“When I told my friend [comedy writer] Richard Curtis that I was going to do Maigret, he said to me: ‘You do realise you’re going to play a character closer to yourself than you ever played before’ – and he’s right,” says Atkinson.
“I’ve never wanted to play myself. I’ve preferred to play people far removed from me because it feels easier.” For a man who has appeared in some of the most successful comedies in the last few decades, Atkinson displays a sense of humility when picking out some of Maigret’s traits.
“The thing I thought I could do was Maigret’s thoughtfulness. It’s his ruminative and quiet compassionate side, I suppose, which is interesting,” he says.
“Because he is definitely not an egotist, he is not a performer, he is not an eccentric, he is not a weirdo. I’m not claiming any of those things for myself, but I felt I could probably portray a lot of the aspects of him that did exist, particularly that quietness. I think I’m quite good at not doing very much on screen.”
Atkinson says the more he plays Maigret, the more he wants the character to develop. “The challenge, as always, is to make a character that works and to develop a script that works and for the two to be consistent together,” he says.
“I’m trying to open Maigret up a bit and not make him so downbeat and somnolent. He has to retain his thoughtfulness, but I’m keen that he should also be a human being and not too closed. In this series we see him flexing his muscles a bit more.”
Fans of Atkinson’s previous work may also be pleased to hear that he’s hoping to bring a little more humour to his second outing in Maigret’s signature hat and pipe.
“We’re exploring a little bit more lightheartedness, not much,” he says. “In the new series, there are definitely ironic moments. They’re not exactly comic but they’re humorous. He’s not a comic character and never could be. But he’s an intelligent guy who can have an ironic view of the world, and hopefully that’s how he will appear.”
Although Atkinson is no stranger to film and TV sets, with big screen appearances in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bean movie and the Johnny English franchise alongside his frequent TV work, the actor admits the job doesn't get any easier for him.
“I find filming very difficult because you have that one take, that one moment which will be seen for the rest of time. I find that very frustrating,” he says.
“I always feel that it’s not good enough. Call it perfectionism, if you like, but it’s just this feeling that, ‘if we just did another take, it would be just that bit better’.”
Atkinson acknowledges that his perfectionism could easily cause problems with his co-stars and film crews – the star credits his peers for usually being understanding of his slightly obsessive nature.
“People are good with me. But the thing is that if I get one more take, I tend to want another. I’m not Stanley Kubrick, but the problem about being creative is that you see all the possibilities. You say: ‘That was a perfectly good interpretation of the scene, but what if we did it like this, what if we were all angry or did it faster or in a more thoughtful way?’” he says.
“Of course you haven’t got time to do it seven different ways. You’ve got to do it the best way you can, given that the light is fading and the clock’s ticking. You’ve just got to make a decision.”
• Maigret’s Dead Man is on BBC First (OSN) at 10pm on June 7