James Corden on impostor syndrome – and why he ‘wasn’t shocked’ by post-Euro 2020 racism
James Corden does not strike you as a man riven with regret. Until his recent run-in with the owner of the New York restaurant Balthazar – and last week’s accidental Ricky Gervais “joke theft” – it was hard to think of someone else for whom it had all gone so relentlessly right: from a career that has taken in The History Boys, Gavin and Stacey and One Man, Two Guvnors, the 44-year-old has a Tony award, a Bafta, multiple Emmys and a scrapbook full of plaudits for his writing and acting.
When he decided to up sticks, move to Los Angeles and host a major network late-night talk show, The Late, Late Show, it was a brazen move – and a complete success. Corden’s wit and homespun British honesty won over America, and – which is more – the internet. His Carpool Karaoke segments saw him singing along with everyone from Michelle Obama to Paul McCartney. It has all made him exceedingly rich, rock-star famous and friends with some of the most gilded human beings on the planet. Everyone knows James Corden: that’s one reason why his getting shirty in a restaurant was front-page news.
But as so often, a patina of supreme confidence conceals a creeping anxiety. “If I’m honest,” he tells me, “for the last seven years I’ve been worried that choices I’ve made in my career might mean these sort of parts won’t come my way.”
By “these sorts of parts”, he means acting parts that are more than just rom-coms or voice-overs in big-ticket franchise animations. He means parts such as his lead role in Amazon’s upcoming comedy-drama Mammals. Corden stars as Jamie, a rising-star chef whose perfect marriage to the pregnant and extraordinarily beautiful Amandine (Melia Kreiling) quickly turns out to be anything but.
For some reason, when Corden is good, the British thing is to say it through gritted teeth. But here he is very good, and so is the show, as it should be – it’s written by Jez Butterworth, a multiple Tony and Olivier award-winning playwright, author of The Ferryman and Jerusalem. In Mammals, Butterworth does to marriage and monogamy what he did to Englishness in Jerusalem – it’s a brutal, happy-couples-beware, very funny anatomisation that somehow manages to jimmy in a thriller, too.
It’s no coincidence that a few months after filming Mammals, Corden announced that he would be leaving The Late, Late Show for good. (His final episodes go out in the spring.) This is the script that reminded him what acting and performing is all about. “The thing is,” he says, speaking via Zoom from the London set, “I love acting, and I love actors, and I love being in the presence of actors, and I love creating stuff.”
Corden is well aware that the story of how he met Butterworth sounds cringeworthy. “It goes back to the Met Ball. I don’t really get starstruck by many people, mainly because of the job I’ve been doing these last few years, but I would say that Jez might be the only person at the Met Ball that I’ve ever gone up to and gone, ‘Hello, I’m James. It’s just an absolute honour to meet you.’ And we got chatting.”
It’s easy to dismiss their meeting as celebrity glad-handing, but Corden says they connected on a different level. “Jez’s plays have had a profound effect on me,” he says. “Jerusalem, in particular. Because I’m from High Wycombe and Jez is from St Albans, and there are characters in Jerusalem who could be members of my extended family. I just remember watching that play, and I couldn’t sit down afterwards. It was like someone had lifted up a rock and gone, ‘This is what England actually is.’
“After the horrific racist behaviour following the European Championship final [when England’s black players suffered racist abuse] loads of people were like, ‘I’m shocked and appalled.’ I thought, ‘I’m appalled. But I’m not shocked. You just don’t know that they’re out there.’ People like that are not in your cafe in Primrose Hill, but they’re not that far away. Jez has an incredible way of bringing in people from the periphery.”
After that chance meeting at the Met Ball, Corden invited Butterworth, his wife (the actress Laura Donnelly) and their young children to his house in Los Angeles. Six weeks later, Butterworth told Corden he had a six-part series all written – and asked, would Corden like to play the lead? “I remember, I read it in what felt like four minutes,” says Corden, “and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is everything I’ve ever wanted to do.’”
Butterworth describes Mammals as “what if you had a story that was about sexual, emotional relationships, but the motor of that story was plotted and paced like a thriller? So rather than people sitting around talking about their wives and their worries – ‘She doesn’t understand me!’ and ‘Why won’t he do this?’ – what if it’s a balls-to-the-wall, burning-through-plot story that you couldn’t stop watching?”
Among all of that, it’s strange, initially, to see Corden back on television as an actor. The last time, if you’re British, was probably in the 2019 Gavin and Stacey Christmas special, but Mammals is a reminder that he really is a terrific performer: Butterworth didn’t want him for his celebrity.
Melia Kreiling, who plays his onscreen wife, says, “It’s very funny how many people that I’ve told about this weren’t aware of how extensive his acting work is.” Colin Morgan, who plays Jamie’s brother-in-law, Jeff, agrees. “I actually only know James from his acting,” he says. “One of my favourite things I’d seen him in was the Mike Leigh film All or Nothing, which he did when he was really young. Everybody in that is just astoundingly brilliant.”
Also in that film is a young Sally Hawkins, who rekindled her friendship with Corden after a skit on The Late Late Show spoofing her Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water, and now appears in Mammals playing his sister.
“James is a phenomenal actor,” she says. “I think people forget that. We first met doing All or Nothing. We weren’t kids, but it felt like kids together. And when you’re working on Mike Leigh you have all that in-depth rehearsal where you learn so much. James is incredibly smart, incredibly sensitive, and I think it’s so nice that some people will see that for the first time here.”
“I look for collaborators,” says Butterworth. “And I look for actors who are telling the truth. He strikes me as one of the absolute best straight actors. I think some of the stuff that he does in Gavin and Stacey is just some of the truest stuff I’ve seen. And at the same time, he’s completely fearless in what he’s willing to reveal. He’ll take risks.”
It may be strange to say it of a multimillionaire, but Mammals is a bit of a risk for Corden. He could have hung onto The Late Late Show gig, massaging celebrity egos for as long as he wished (with, apparently, an eye-watering pay rise), but he has chosen, again, to put himself out there.
“I feel constantly unsure,” he says. “But then I’m a bit over the notion of imposter syndrome – that’s just being a human being. I don’t know anybody that doesn’t have that. I love hosting my show. I adore it. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m keen to seek new challenges. I just love performing so much. I absolutely love it, I adore it. And so when an opportunity like this comes up, I couldn’t say no.”
Mammals is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video on Nov 11