Stephen Merchant Has a Future in Mind for ‘The Outlaws’

Stephen Merchant Has a Future in Mind for ‘The Outlaws’

[Editor’s note: The following contains major spoilers for Season 3 of The Outlaws.]

The Big Picture

  • Season 3 of ‘The Outlaws’ focuses on trust, teamwork, and proving innocence, leaving characters in a hopeful place.
  • Stephen Merchant’s character, Greg, gets a moment in the spotlight, providing a confidence boost to someone previously very insecure.
  • Co-Creator Merchant discusses a potential future for ‘The Outlaws,’ finding closure for the characters, and working with the talented cast.

In Season 3 of The Outlaws, the group of strangers from different walks of life who were forced together to complete their community service are moving on with their lives. But when one of their own makes a very dangerous discovery, they realize they can only really trust each other and work together to prove Rani’s (Rhianne Barreto) innocence. At the same time, Greg (Stephen Merchant, who’s also the series co-creator) finally gets his moment in the spotlight as he defends Gabby (Eleanor Tomlinson) against her own father, giving him the boost of confidence that he has desperately needed. And this time around, things are left in a hopeful place for the characters that provides enough of a glimpse into a positive future for them where, if we don’t get more episodes, it feels like at least they’ll be okay.

During this one-on-one interview with Collider, Merchant talked about what a possible future for The Outlaws could look like if they were ever to make more episodes, his fear of overstaying his welcome with TV shows, finding a nice sense of closure for these characters, the developments he wasn’t expecting, the Greg and Gabby dynamic, and working with Jessica Gunning prior to her Baby Reindeer success. He also talked about how surprising the enduring success of The Office has been, his excitement for the upcoming spinoff The Paper, and the challenge of standup.

The Outlaws

A diverse group of seven individuals, each with their own troubled pasts, are forced to complete community service together in Bristol. Their lives take an unexpected turn when they stumble upon a hidden stash of money, drawing them into a web of crime and danger.

Release Date
October 25, 2021
Seasons
3
Image via Prime Video

Collider: I last spoke to you about the series two years ago for Season 1, but you had already shot two seasons and you said you were talking about ideas for Season 3. Now that you have three seasons, you’ve said that you have no plans to make more. Does it feel like the series is done with three seasons, or does it feel like it’s something you’re open to returning to after some time passes? Where are you at, as far as whether there could ever be any more episodes?

STEPHEN MERCHANT: Well, of course, as soon as I read that Donald Trump might have to do community service, I was like, “Wow, the New York spinoff of the show would be incredible,” partly because one of the original things I remember reading was about celebrities who’d done it, which is why Lady Gabby was in there. I’d read that Naomi Campbell, the model, had done community service, Boy George, the singer, had done it, and I think Hugh Grant had done community service. I felt like there is a natural ending to this series, but then we felt like it ended quite naturally at the end of last season. I feel like saying, “Never say never,” but I don’t have plans, at the moment, to do it. I do love the characters and I do love the world, but how long could they be doing community service? Normally, you get maybe 120 hours, and they must be at 800 hours already. Do you remember how the TV show M*A*S*H famously run for like five years longer than the actual Korean War?

That’s why it does feel like this is an idea that could evolve into something with a new cast that is in a new location.

MERCHANT: Yeah, I do like that idea, if we could make that happen, but it’s not something I’m actively pursuing. We even thought every two seasons, we might be in a new town, but we fell in love with these characters and this particular backdrop. But when the audience takes to a certain set of characters, you’re reluctant to give them up and move the story on. It feels like you could set it in Chicago or go anywhere.

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Are you someone who feels satisfied with where you’ve left these characters and where you’ve left their story, or are you never satisfied? How do you feel when you close the book on something?

MERCHANT: I’ve never done a third season of something before. I’ve always ended shows early for fear of overstaying my welcome or not having any obvious ideas for where to take it. I already feel like I’ve exceeded or excelled in that way. We definitely actively worked towards there being a nice sense of closure for these people. We always wanted it to be quite a hopeful and optimistic show about these people who are quite lonely in different ways, and they find each other and this unlikely group of friends, and through that process, they find a peace within themselves. I suppose it’s us advocating for the benefit of community service. It’s a good alternative to prison, but I don’t know whether it’s effective in real life. I don’t know if I told you before, but my mother was involved with community service and she told me about an old guy who was constantly coming back and doing more community service. He’d always be doing minor crimes, like he would steal vegetables from people’s gardens and things, and she realized, after a while, that he’d lost his wife and he was lonely and this was a social thing for him. He liked the community. Why he couldn’t go down to play Bingo or join a chess club, and why he had to commit crimes, I don’t know. There clearly is a social aspect to it, but there has to be an easier way to meet people.

I would imagine that you went into this series with specific ideas for it, but every series goes on a journey and changes and evolves, along the way. What were the most important aspects of the show or the characters that you can’t imagine it not having now, but that you just had never initially thought of?

MERCHANT: I couldn’t have imagined that Christopher Walken would be in it and be in my hometown of Bristol. That was pretty insane, when that happened. But once he was there and we were shooting, I was like, “This makes perfect sense.” You very quickly acclimatize to those things. When you sell a show, they ask you, “What would happen in Season 3?,” and you bullshit some answer, but you don’t have any of that. And so, I don’t think we realized it would evolve as it has. The idea of Rani becoming a criminal mastermind in the second season was not originally on our cards, but I remember discussing it in the writers’ room and being like, “What if she became Don Corleone?” That seemed like a fun idea, given that she was just on her way to Oxbridge and was a sweet girl next door. We naturally took that idea this time to, “So, is she a murderer?” The jumping off point is, “How dark is her soul?” Certainly, when we started, that was never an obvious place.

And I really love the relationship I have with Gabby’s character. They’ve become roommates and they’ve become these unlikely buddies, and now she’s asking him to help her become a mother. Those are storylines that you could never imagine, and you just naturally follow in the development of the characters, and also what the actors bring to it. If Eleanor [Tomlinson] and I hadn’t had chemistry, we perhaps wouldn’t have taken it in that way, but we did. And Darren [Boyd] and Clare [Perkins], who played John and Myrna, had a really great rapport that we just kept playing up. This season, they end up handcuffed together in the back of the car, just because we wanted to see them in that situation. It just seemed like a funny scenario to put them in, to see the actors in that situation.

‘The Outlaws’ Has Stephen Merchant Excited to Work in the Thriller Genre Again

I love that this is a show that can leave a storyline behind for a couple of episodes, but it doesn’t forget about it and brings it back again later. We stop thinking about whether Rani could be a murderer, but then we wonder whether she’s actually a sociopath. And then, again at the end, we wonder if she’s really turning on Christian. That’s been a really fun aspect of this series.

MERCHANT: I appreciate that. It was the first time I’d done a genre show, a thriller show, which I’m a fan of, as a viewer, but I’d never written one before. In the course of the seasons, I found more confidence in using those genre tropes and having fun with them, with the idea of how you can tease the audience and play with your expectations and who you can trust. That excites me about the idea of doing maybe other thriller stuff in the future because I feel like I’ve really whet my appetite for it now. I like the way you can play with the audience, and tease and toy with them, which you obviously don’t do in a sitcom, where part of it is its familiarity. So, I really enjoyed that aspect of it.

I love the relationship between Greg and Gabby, even though it feels like they’ve crossed into the TMI realm of each other’s lives. What do you love about their dynamic and the friendship that they’ve formed, and what stands out most to you when it comes to having worked with Eleanor Tomlinson?

MERCHANT: I appreciate you saying about the TMI because part of the fun was this idea that she’s of a younger generation and that she’s a TikToker. There’s a generation of people that live their life on social media and bear their soul about everything, whereas my character is a more uptight, repressed person who’s perhaps never had that confidant. In a way, her willingness to share every secret with him has opened him up a bit as well, and I like that aspect. He never had a therapist and he would never think to go to one, but in the scenes you don’t see, she’s asking him those questions and he’s having to be honest. That goes back to what I was saying about the idea of unlikely friendships that can really help you evolve and help you change, which I hope we’ve all had in our lives. If we’re lucky, the unexpected people are the ones who change our way of thinking or open us up to something. When you audition an actor, you run the lines with them in the scene, and I workshopped with Eleanor a little, but you never know until you’re on set how it’s going to work and whether you’re going to get on with the actor and whether they’re going to be comfortable with your way of working. Very quickly, we had an ease with it. I don’t think she was used to writers changing the lines on the set. She comes from a more traditional drama background, and I’d say, “I’ll just try this.” I think she really got to enjoy that and found that very liberating. I had great faith that she would deliver the lines like they were supposed to be delivered, and that is something that is such a relief when you’re working with an actor like that. You could imagine a whole other sitcom, in which they just share a house together.

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That’s why it’s so interesting to see the contrast of taking that and putting it in the courtroom. We see how that is for Greg with Gabby, with her father, with his lawyers, and with the judge. What was it like to be in those moments and to do those courtroom scenes, and to have Richard E. Grant there?

MERCHANT: I thought because my character is a lawyer and you’ve never seen him in court, you ought to see that situation. And we liked the idea of, spoiler alert, giving him a win finally. The courtroom is the perfect place for the underdog to shine. I also liked the idea that he’s able to use his intimate knowledge of Gabby, as a friend, in order to help him with the case. He knows her in a way better than her father, and that’s what helps him turn the tables. You can write legal dialogue and pages of cross-examination and all this legal speak, and you can have great fun writing that, but when you have to learn it as an actor, it’s really hard. You’re like, “Which asshole wrote this?” It’s really tough to and it took me weeks to memorize it. I’m in this scene with Oscar-nominated Richard E. Grant and I know he’s going to be pitch perfect, so I found that one of the most stressful things I’ve done just, having to memorize that. And in the end, we got it in and it became almost like a play. The scenes were quite long because naturally that’s the back-and-forth of the courtroom. So, it ended up being really enjoyable because it was like we were staging these little five-minute plays in the course of a filming day, whereas normally filming is much more bitty and broken up. I ended up really having a blast, and now I’m thinking, “Oh, maybe I should write a courtroom drama, like A Few Good Men.

Since you started making The Outlaws, Jessica Gunning has gone on to huge success with Baby Reindeer. What did you see in her, as the cast was originally coming together? What was it like to work with her over the seasons and to have her in the writers’ room too?

MERCHANT: I had an audition tape from her for this character and it was just note perfect. She just absolutely nailed it. I had no notes for her and no changes. What she did on her tape was what she did on the screen, and it was perfect, which is very rare. Every time, she just brought this extra energy. She was always creatively adding lines and making it funnier and coming up with stuff. I’d also read a script that she’d written and I realized that she’s got a writer’s mind, as much as an actor’s one, so we brought her onto the writing team. And so, it’s no surprise to me that she’s having great success with Baby Reindeer because she’s fantastic and she’s incredibly versatile. My joke is always that I’m worried it just means if she goes on to superstardom, I won’t be able to get her on the phone when I want to use her in the future. That’s my worry. I don’t want my brilliant actors to go on to great things. I want to keep them down here, so that I can call on my little repertory company and they’ll be desperate for work, so they’ll need the call from me.

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I love that this is such a different, varied ensemble of characters that are all very distinct. It’s been so much fun to watch each actor really live in that and have a chance to explore and play with it.

MERCHANT: Absolutely. That’s always the pleasure of TV, bringing groups of people together that wouldn’t otherwise associate. Even in The Office, these people only know each other because they’re in the same workspace. They wouldn’t necessarily be friends, beyond that. That’s one of the great pleasures of what you might call Precinct TV, where there’s a precinct, or the bar in Cheers, or whatever. Even though this is a crime thriller, in a sense, it has that same thing with the community service placement as the precinct. Like you, I’ve really enjoyed that and seeing what the actors brought to it. Once you see them bringing it to life, you start to write to their strengths, as well.

Stephen Merchant Has Continued to be Surprised By the Enduring Success of ‘The Office’

Image via BBC

You’re an executive producer on the upcoming spinoff for The Office that Greg Daniels is doing, called The Paper. When you originally created that series with Ricky Gervais, could you have ever imagined or dreamed or foreseen this life that it would continue to have? What does it feel like, knowing that is such a rare thing?

MERCHANT: I remember Ricky and I saying we hoped that our best case scenario was that it would be a million people’s favorite show worldwide, and that would be enough. Maybe that seemed ambitious, but in our minds, we were like, “That would be great.” We thought if it could be a certain amount of people’s favorite thing ever, then we would be happy. And then, it seemed like we weren’t even going to have that because it didn’t really have much of an audience in the UK, initially. And then, it started to pick up momentum when it got rerun on the BBC. And then, it started to really gather pace in the UK, and we were like, “Oh, well, it’s a UK show and it feels very UK.” And then, we started hearing that people in America had the DVDs and they were watching it and sharing it. And then, we thought, “Oh, it’s a cultural thing there.” And then, they said there was going to be a remake and I said to Ricky, “No remakes of British shows ever succeed. They always try to remake them and they never work.” With each step, we were very aware that this is probably where it falls down. And then, it just kept on. They weren’t sure if NBC were going to bring it back after the first season, and they did. It was like that, each step of the way. During COVID, it got like a billion views on Netflix. I can’t imagine a million people in a football stadium. What’s a billion people, or more? That’s unfathomable. At some point, it’s just this thing that’s beyond us. It’s not ours anymore. It’s just out there.

So, when they came to you and said they wanted to do something else in that world, was it even a surprise to you anymore or are you still surprised every time?

MERCHANT: It’s not a surprise. It’s just that I feel like, why not? Every step of the way, it seemed like it was never going to quite work, so yeah, let’s do another one. I’m a fan of the American version and I’m a fan of Greg, and I’m excited to see what he does. When you make a show, you don’t get to enjoy it in the way an audience does because you’re too excited. So, the idea that there’s going to be this show in this world that we helped create is really thrilling to me. I’m just interested to know [how they’re going to handle it] because office life now is very different. One in every three episodes, presumably they’re just on Zoom. If there’s a guy who has a crush on the receptionist, he’ll have to ask the human resources department if he’s allowed to ask her out. Things have changed. Office politics have changed. It’s a different world than when we did our version.

I’m always weary of remakes, reboots, and spinoffs until I can really understand the why of it all, and the casting of Domhnall Gleeson and Sabrina Impacciatore definitely got me interested.

MERCHANT: I remember when we first did the American version, I remember reading, “No, they can’t beat the British version. That’s the best. They shouldn’t even try.” And now, I see things where it’s like, “The American version is better than the British version,” and I’m cool with that.

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What’s next for you? Is it a stand-up tour? Is that the thing that you’re focused on right now?

MERCHANT: I’ve got a couple of movie projects that I’m working on at the writing stage, but it’s very early on, so I don’t really want to talk about them. I like TV, but I also like the compression of story that you tell in a movie. But part of the fun of stand-up and going back to that is that I just feel like I’ve accumulated a lot of anecdotes and stories, over the years since I did my last one, that I’m excited to share. As much as I love TV and film, it’s a long process, it’s drawn out, there are a lot of people involved, and there are a lot of hurdles. With stand-up, you can think of an idea in the afternoon and try it out that evening. There’s an immediacy to it that I’m really enjoying again and finding pleasurable. It’s just so time-consuming because you have to go out at night and hang around in the back of a comedy club with your bit of paper and you get nervous. It’s so much easier to just be at home writing a script. But I just keep getting drawn back to stand-up.

Stephen Merchant Says Stand-Up is the Hardest Aspect of His Career

Image via Prime Video

Is your process for crafting a stand-up show always the same, or does that change and evolve over time?

MERCHANT: It’s the hardest thing that I do, which is why I haven’t done it for a long time. It’s the most time-consuming. It doesn’t matter how good a writer you are. You can sit in your room and you can write whatever you want, but until you stand in front of an audience, it counts for nothing. There’s a way of talking naturally in stand-up that you can’t really write. You have to say it out loud to strangers in a dark room, and they need to have had a drink, and it needs to be about 8 pm, whereas you could write a script for a movie on the beach. It’s a unique thing. Even though I’m more well known, particularly in the UK, than I was when I did it last time, that doesn’t make it any easier. You get that round of applause of excitement when you walk out, but five minutes later, you’d better be funny. They’re not cutting you any slack. It’s challenging, but that’s also what makes it exciting.

Is it similar to rock bands? When you come offstage, do you know when you’ve had a good performance and when you’ve had a really off night?

MERCHANT: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, a hundred percent. What’s odd about stand-up is that you could do the exact same act and have it not go as well as the night before. And then, you’re like, “What happened? Was it the audience? Was it me? Was it the time of the week?” I don’t know that I’ve ever figured that out. I was reading the Bruce Springsteen autobiography, and he was talking about how people might have bought a ticket to see you and they’ve put [the ticket] on the fridge and they’ve waited six months, and maybe they’ve never been to your show before or to a rock show before, and he feels an obligation to be the best he can be for them. As mad at that might seem, I’ve really taken inspiration in that. I’m like, “I’m gonna Bruce this.” I’m gonna really try to make sure I’m as present as I can be for the audience, and not be thinking about something else, and just really make sure that I’m there with them in that moment, trying to make it special. I’m the Springsteen of comedy, is what I’m saying.

The Outlaws is available to stream on Prime Video. Check out the Season 3 trailer:

Watch on Prime Video

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Stephen Merchant Has a Future in Mind for ‘The Outlaws’ [Editor’s note: The following contains major spoilers…

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