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Simon Amstell
Simon AmstellPhotography Harry Carr

Simon Amstell: ‘I now fully understand what went wrong with me in my 20s’

The comedian, writer and filmmaker opens up about how making his autobiographical new film, Benjamin, helped him grow and move on

In Simon Amstell’s book Help, the British comic-turned-filmmaker includes this sad, simple sentence: “I wish I could go back and give myself a hug.” It’s a desire that rang through my head when watching Benjamin, a delightfully downbeat comedy-drama that Amstell wrote and directed about his 20s. The main character, Benjamin, played by Colin Morgan, may or may not represent Amstell: he has similar hair, he’s a director whose new movie is called No Self (also the title of Amstell’s 2007 stand-up tour), and he’s enchanted by a French singer by the name of Noah (Phénix Brossard). At an awkward meet-cute, Noah asks Benjamin what No Self is about. “My inability to love,” Benjamin murmurs. “But I’m fine – now. And I’m writing a musical about depression.”

If you’ve seen Amstell’s stand-up specials, you can connect the dots leading up to Benjamin. In Do Nothing, he theorises on his bad posture: “Even though what I do now is extroverted, still inside I’m the same scared, crying child.” In Numb, he clarifies the show’s title: “This came from a very real inability to just be in a moment without anxiety, and going home at the end of every day of my life feeling quite lonely, disconnected and depressed.”

It’s the introspective side of Amstell – the willingness to speak about mental illness and internal conflict – that drew me to his comedy, even though he became a household name by casually insulting celebrities on Popworld and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. So, if your lasting memory of Amstell is when he made Preston from The Ordinary Boys furiously storm off Buzzcocks, then Benjamin will be a surprise. It’s a small, bittersweet romance about heartbreak and loneliness in which Amstell doesn’t appear on screen. There are little nods, of course – the main character may as well be called Simon – but it isn’t a laugh-a-thon, per se, and it doesn’t share the comedic rhythms of Amstell’s sitcom Grandma’s House. It’s more like eavesdropping on someone’s therapy session – one scored by James Righton from The Klaxons.

“For a while, I was quite nervous about whether I was capable of directing a film,” Amstell admits when we meet in Soho House, days before Benjamin’s theatrical release. “And then I visited a film set in New York where I heard some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard come out of an actor’s mouth, and witnessed a crew not getting on with the director. I thought, ‘I can do better than this – I can write better dialogue, and I can get on with people.’”

Benjamin, which is Amstell’s second feature, was intended to be his directorial debut. He started writing the script five years ago on a train journey back from the Edinburgh Fringe. “It all poured into a screenplay,” Amstell recalls, “and it ended up being a love story, which is more suited to film than stand-up. Stand-up tends to be the things that go wrong, and this is a story about somebody getting better.”

At that point, Amstell considered playing Benjamin – he had, after all, just starred in two series of Grandma’s House. But the financing took longer than anticipated, and in the interim he shot 2017’s Carnage, a 2067-set mockumentary in which society has totally converted to veganism. “After directing Carnage, I felt such satisfaction from being behind the camera and only doing the voiceover,” Amstell explains. “It felt like enough for my ego to have written and directed it. I didn’t need to have my face doing the acting as well.” 

That said, the movie star ambitions were once there. Around 2012, Amstell found a new audience in America; a critically acclaimed three-month residency at Theatre 80 in New York was followed by TV spots on David Letterman and Craig Ferguson. “Somehow, that wasn’t enough for me,” he chuckles. “I had an idea: ‘I should become the new Cate Blanchett! That would make me happy!’”

It didn’t quite work out. “I spent a year putting myself on tape in LA for dramas that I didn’t understand. And then I read an Eddie Redmayne interview about becoming Stephen Hawking – the year-long process of finding the body movements and facial expressions. I thought: ‘God, who can be bothered with that?’”

“The stand-up is better now because I’m not on stage like an open wound hoping that enough laughter and applause will heal me. The neediness isn’t there anymore” – Simon Amstell 

So once Benjamin was in place, Amstell held auditions, and cast Morgan and Brossard as the leads. At Amstell’s request, Morgan spoke in his natural Irish accent – that way, the performance wouldn’t be too Simon Amstell-y. Moreover, the character of Benjamin is solely a director, not a comedian, and he doesn’t inject irony into his everyday interactions. When Benjamin feels melancholy, there’s no raised eyebrow or wink to the audience – it’s pure, profound sadness. “Colin is so naturally empathetic, and makes you care for the character,” Amstell notes. “It was a relief I wouldn’t have to act in it as well.”

What’s apparent about Benjamin is that it’s not a typical movie by a stand-up. Usually, when filmmakers have honed their artistic voice on the comedy circuit, their scripts tend to be overstuffed with punchlines, visual gags and a fear of silence. But the tone of Benjamin confounds expectations. There’s an overtly humorous thread involving the awkward aftermath of a one-night stand between Benjamin’s publicist Billie (Jessica Raine) and his best friend Stephen (Joel Fry). Yet throughout the film, there are fears that Stephen, a depressed stand-up, could kill himself at any moment. It plays into how audiences watch movies: we’re used to being set up for a specific emotion, and it’s unsettling when a scene could go in any direction.

“I’m really into comedy where you’re not sure whether you’re supposed to be laughing or crying,” Amstell explains. “There’s a bit in Blue Jasmine where Cate Blanchett hangs up the phone, and you think she’s about to say something funny – but she actually bursts into tears. I find that very exciting. When we did the premiere at the London Film Festival, there were moments that I thought were sad that people laughed a lot at, and there were moments that I thought were funny that people found moving. The actors aren’t trying to get laughs; they’re trying to make something authentic. I ended up with a film where you’re not sure if it’s funny or sad. The truth is, it’s both at the same time.”

So to borrow a line from Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said: is Amstell tired of being funny? “It used to be a panic button, and it was the only button I had,” he says. “Benjamin’s inability to experience intimacy with another person comes from my need to impress an audience to feel safe. The only way I could feel safe was by being funny. Now, I feel safe, even if I haven’t been funny for quite a while.” He howls at this confession. “Which may mean that I’m less funny! But I’m also less anxious.”

If he’s solved himself, does that create a new artistic impulse? “I’ve solved aspects of myself,” he corrects me. “I wrote Benjamin as a way of figuring out what was wrong in my 20s, and I think the stand-up is better now because I’m not on stage like an open wound hoping that enough laughter and applause will heal me. The neediness isn’t there anymore. I’m out there because it’s a choice and I enjoy doing it.” 

“I would have loved to have seen this film when I was 13” – Simon Amstell

Film-wise, Amstell is writing another screenplay to eventually direct. It’s a lengthy process that involves a mural of Post-It notes, like the ones decorating Benjamin’s bedroom wall, and waiting until it all makes sense. Will he be mining his own life for material? “It will always be, in some ways, autobiographical,” he says, “because I only trust feelings that I’ve had. If there’s a scene where Benjamin gets dumped, I know how to write that, because I’ve been dumped. I’m not reaching for some general idea of human behaviour. When I’m directing the actors, I can see when it becomes authentic, and when it becomes a guess.”

So, to return to Amstell’s quote from Help, did Benjamin feel like giving his younger self a hug?” I think so,” he replies. “I would have loved to have seen this film when I was 13.” He pauses. “This film presents a reality that I wasn’t aware of as a kid; a place that transcends any limiting and reductive labels; a place where the issues people have are to do with their own personal anxiety or loneliness, and nothing to do with any of the things that were troubling me when I was 13.”

He adds, “It took so long to write Benjamin that by the time we were shooting it, I understood what the film was about. I think I now fully understand what went wrong with me in my 20s. You’re trying so hard to make people love you, when actually you could just be present, and the love will be there. This is a film for anyone who has struggled to love and be in love.”

Benjamin is in cinemas and on digital on March 15