Rowan Atkinson has been a fixture in British TV and film comedy for almost 40 years.
Now, though, the 61-year-old is making a move into drama, taking the title role of French detective Jules Maigret in a new TV adaptation of the books by Belgian writer Georges Simenon, made by British TV network ITV.
The first in a series of planned TV movies was broadcast in the UK in March. Stay tuned for an in-depth interview with Atkinson about the drama and his new role when a UAE broadcast, most likely in August on BBC First, is announced.
In the meantime, we had a rare chance to chat to the notoriously media-shy Atkinson, star of Mr Bean, Blackadder and the Johnny English films, about his long, illustrious career and his best-known roles.
“I’ve always been very uncomfortable playing characters close to myself,” Atkinson says.
“Whether it’s a comedy character or a dramatic character, I have always wanted to wear a mask, I suppose.”
Even after all these years, and the acclaim, he says acting does not get any easier.
“I find filming itself, whether it’s a comedy role or a dramatic role, very difficult,” he says. “I find it stressful and I’m never happy with what I’m doing, always wanting another take.
"Blackadder was probably the role that I found easiest, simply because the responsibility for it was shared between this wonderful repertory company of extremely funny people so it was like having a baton that you could hand over – to [co-stars] Tony Robinson or Stephen Fry or Hugh Laurie – and then grasp it and be extremely funny for five minutes, and then hand it on to somebody else. There was a nice feeling of shared responsibility."
As for comedy and dramatic performances, he says the challenges are much the same.
“I don’t find much difference between playing a ‘serious’ character or a ‘comedy’ character,” he says.
“You use slightly different muscles, but the rules of acting are the same. You have to find the truth, create a credible character and allow a story to be told.”
In addition to marking a shift from comedy to drama, Maigret is also his return to a starring role on television for the first time in 20 years.
"I haven't done television for a long time," he says. "The last proper TV series I did was a comedy series called The Thin Blue Line, which I did in 1996 or something – quite a long time ago.
“I didn’t necessarily [need my next TV project] to be serious, but because the vast majority of television output is serious, rather than funny, it’s something you do. You’ve got to believe you can do it as well as it can be done. You can’t just sort of play at it.”
With Daniel Craig reportedly quitting the role of James Bond, the search is on for a new 007 and there are plenty of suggested replacements.
Atkinson is known for his love of fast cars – he collects sports cars and put in an impressive performance in Top Gear's Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment. He has played a suave, Bond-style British spy, albeit for laughs, in two Johnny English spoof movies. He even has an existing proper Bond-movie connection, a small role alongside Sean Connery in the 1983 007 film Never Say Never Again.
Could all of this put him in the running? “That’s a great thought – I await the call,” he says. “There could be an age problem, I suspect, though in the spirit of the age we shouldn’t be too ageist or sexist about things.
"There was an idea we had for Johnny English to play an old Bond – what would he be doing at 85? Where would he be? We touched on it in the last Johnny English movie [2011's Johnny English Reborn] where we had him in a wheelchair, in a high-speed wheelchair which is the kind of idea you could use if you were going to do that. "We've had young Bond, so there's no reason why they won't do old Bond – and maybe one day they will.
"But I don't really have an ambition to just do serious roles from now on – and even though Mr Bean is now largely retired, you must never say never again. We had an idea to do 'old' Bean and see what fun could be had out of that, because old age can be very funny. That's half an answer to your question."
Maigret is set in 1950s Paris, France, but was filmed in Budapest, Hungary. Was that a purely financial decision?
“I have no particularly strong connections with Paris, although the traditional English view is that Parisians are not very welcoming – but I’ve never found that. It’s just an image, not the reality I’ve found,” he says.
“But Paris is so developed now, lots of street signs and little things – you can find a cobbled street in Paris, for example, but you can’t find a cobbled street in Paris with grass growing out between the cobbles, which you can in Budapest. Budapest might not like me describing the city this way, but that’s the truth of the matter. It’s a much less well-developed place, so it’s much easier to recreate 1950s Paris there.
“We could probably go around London and find somewhere that would pass as Paris, but I think for an actor [if you’re acting in a scene set in Europe] it’s great to get out and feel that sense of being in Europe, too.”