“Derek,” the new Netflix series by by Ricky Gervais, the genius creator of “The Office” and “Extras,” had its impressive fun red carpet premiere Thursday night at the Museum of Modern Art.
The red carpet was graced mainly by the cast members from the hit Netflix prison life drama, “Orange is the New Black,” including Natasha Lyonne, Laverne Cox (Sophia), Dascha Polanco (Dayanara Diaz), Lea Delaria (Big Boo), Samira Wiley (Poussey), Uzo Aduba (Crazy Eyes-Suzanne), Yael Stone (Lorna) and Matt McGorry (security officer John Bennett).
In “Derek,” starring, written, directed and executive produced by the Emmy and Golden Globe award winner, Gervais plays the title character, a gentle 50-year-old man who is an assistant at an old age home. A childlike man, Derek loves his work and the elderly people he cares for. He clips their toenails, holds their hands, weeps when they die.
In England, where the series has already aired, it’s gotten some flak from critics who say the show makes fun of the mentally handicapped; Derek is slow and has some facial tics and may even be autistic.
When I asked Gervais about the controversy, he replied, “I can’t do anything about that. It’s a shame because it gets in the way, but people want headlines. People want hits. They want to say something on their blogs, and controversy sells,” he said. “I don’t think it’s controversial at all. I think it’s incredibly sincere and sweet.”
“It’s slightly more sincere than my previous work,” he said. “The backdrop is sweeter. It’s about people in their 80’s and 90’s.” And the subject is personal for Gervais. “The five or six women folk in my family are still carers. They still work with the elderly and people with Alzheimer’s, and so I’ve got 20 years of stories from them. Some would make you cry. Some have me in tears of laughter,” he added. “The show’s about kindness.”
Here are some highlights with conversations we had with cast members from “Orange is the New Black,” who were all glamorous and practically unrecognizable from their characters in the hit prison dramedy.
Yael Stone, who plays Lorna, the inmate with the broad New Yorkish accent in the show, is short and very petite. “I’m really tiny,” she said. “And I put high shoes on, so I’ m ridiculously small.”
I asked about her accent for the show. “It is a cocktail East Coast sound, but that’s kind of come together from listening to different recordings of people. I tried to finally craft it together. I think sometimes I fail and sometimes I do alright.”
What personal qualities does she share with her character? “I think, basically, the show really highlights this human energy of what it’s like to be in a group and create a family, and I think that’s a deeply human thing that I understand in her. It’s about reaching out and connecting and making relationships, whether it be a sister relationship, a mother relationship or even a father relationship in a woman’s prison, so that’s the thing I definitely understand.”
And what doesn’t she understand about her character? “I definitely understand red lipstick,” she quipped, pointing to her crimson mouth. “I couldn’t do the finger waves,” she said, referring to the hairstyle she wears in the show and which is not a wig. “They do a really good job.” She also has a difficult to place accent. It turns out Stone is from Sydney, Australia.
Dascha Polanco, who wore a white eyelet strapless gown, plays Dayanra, a young prison inmate who by the end of the season becomes pregnant. “It’s kind of like a sorority,” she explained of the atmosphere on the set. “We’re all very supportive of one another and we work towards the same goal. We’re all self made in the sense that we’re not here to bullshit. We’re here to show our talent. I’m sorry, did I just curse? I just came out of prison,” she cracked.
As for what’s most challenging about her role, Polanco said, “I wouldn’t do anything to be in jail so sometimes it’s difficult, like why at times is this girl so naïve, but at the same time, just preparing for it. I keep a diary of Dayanara where I note everything down and I prepare myself for the role and just mentally incarcerate myself so that I can portray the role.”
Uzo Aduba, who plays Crazy Eyes, was the most physically transformed from her role of all the women, looking glamorous in her high poufed hairdo and spike heels. I asked what she related to in her character, who she referred to as Suzanne.
“I think the thing that Suzanne and I have the most in common is how much we love. She loves completely. I think I do as well. I wish I were more passionate like her, in the sense that she loves everything on a full ten. I don’t think most of our lives go that hard. I wish I was a bit more like she is, but I think she’s just honest and pure and that’s the thing we share in common, for one, and the desire to give and receive love.”
She told me she initially auditioned for another part. “But when I got Crazy Eyes, Suzanne, I just remember feeling like the perfect fit, and I felt I could understand her and that I wanted desperately to tell that story.”
I asked her if people called her Crazy Eyes in the street. “Sometimes,” she laughed. “Sometimes people really do. I’ll be walking to the grocery store, and they’ll call out her name,” she said. “But now it’s been interesting, as people have gotten deeper into the season. I get Suzanne too, because I think people get to see the humanity of her.”
As for any season teasers, she would say only, “I can’t tell anything. But I know you can feel excited about it.”
Matt McGorry, one of the few guys on “Orange is the New Black,” told me of the show that he only got scripts two weeks in advance, so he had no idea where the show was headed. “There’s not a lot of time to overthink it. You get it and you prep and you can kind of imagine the circumstances and then you go in and just kind of do it.”
His character impregnated Dayanara, and he’s about to become a father on the show. “Being a father is not something I’ve really thought about much in my actual life, so it was interesting to contemplate those scenarios and situations as Bennett.”
What’s it like being one of the few males on the show? “It’s great fun. I’m so excited for so many different actresses to be able to have a chance to showcase their talent.”
Although his character is basically a good person, he does a bad thing. His character is a sweet guy who broke the rules. Coming off as a sincere man who makes mistakes instead of a sleaze who’s taking advantage of a prison inmate is a tightrope act he manages to pull off in the role.
“It’s interesting thinking about what makes someone a good person,” McGorry said. “Does doing immoral acts make someone a bad person? Obviously, do enough of them and it certainly does. But for me, approaching the role as an actor, I try not to think of it as good and bad. I try to think of it, in Bennett, why would I make this choice? I try not to create too fine of a delineation because I find that that tends to play more towards a stereotype or like an idea of a character rather then being the true living person that’s making complicated decisions and maybe doesn’t know exactly how he feels about it at every single moment.”
Laverne Cox told me she did a lot of research for her role and discovered that transgender women are usually housed in men’s prions where they are often raped and abused. “The conditions for trans people in prison are really, really dire,” she said.
As for what she relates to in her character, she said, “We are both trans women. We’re both women who decided once we knew who we were, that we had to do whatever it took to actualize that. We’re both women who love our families, and that’s were most of the similarities stop.”
Samira Wiley wore a sexy red leather strapless dress and flashed a big smile, much as her character does often throughout “Orange is the New Black.”
“I definitely share with my character her vibrancy and her smile,” Wiley told me. “We’re in prison and it’s not necessarily a funny thing, but there are funny people everywhere and in every situation that you’re in. I would like to think that I share that with her.” As for what the show has in store for her character, she said, “I trust the ‘Orange’ writers so I don’t have any worries where the show is going to go.”
“Derek” is available on Netflix beginning Sept. 12.
I told Gervais I cried as much as I laughed watching the first three episodes. “That’s exactly right,” he told me. “I think people are surprised about crying at a sitcom. But I don’t think it’s an obvious sitcom. I think it’s a comedy drama, just a very sweet little goofy show about some outsiders, and it’s quirky and very honest.”