‘I think I can improve greatly’: James Corden on inadequacy, nerves and his return to TV acting

The chatshow host’s new Amazon show Mammals sees him team up with revered playwright Jez Butterworth for a knockout turn as a grumpy chef. The pair explain how their brilliant new show is like ‘a duet’

Even before James Corden and Jez Butterworth made Mammals, their suspenseful six-part comedy-drama series, the actor and the playwright already had a lot in common.

Both have won a Tony award, and recognition from the Oliviers (Corden nominated, Butterworth winning) for a triumphant London-to-Broadway transfer: Corden for the slapstick farce One Man, Two Guvnors, Butterworth for the mystically tinged thriller The Ferryman. They each have one foot in Hollywood – Corden was nominated for a Golden Globe for The Prom, in which his turn as a camp musical theatre star inflamed the debate over straight actors playing gay roles, while away from the stage Butterworth is a screenwriter whose credits include Spectre and the next Indiana Jones yarn.

They also grew up within 30 miles of each other. “The same bit of the clock,” says the playwright, referring to the towns and cities around the M25. Their paths first crossed much further from home. “Here’s the thing,” says Corden, sitting alongside Butterworth at the Ham Yard Hotel in London. “Jez is from St Albans, I’m from High Wycombe, and we met at the Met Ball. Which is a sentence I don’t think anyone has ever said before.” It was Corden who broke the ice that night in New York. “Jerusalem had a profound impact on my life,” he says, referring to Butterworth’s 2009 masterpiece, recently revived for another sellout West End run, with Mark Rylance as the reprobate facing eviction from his woodland caravan. “I just wanted Jez to know how much his work has meant to me.”

Jez Butterworth and James Corden on the set of Mammals.
Making a stir … Jez Butterworth and James Corden on the set of Mammals. Photograph: Craig Sugden

Butterworth has his own memories of the evening. “I was very much looking forward to Cher coming on because I’m a massive Cher fan,” he admits. “Then this lovely thing happened, and I bet nothing else at the Met ball that night was nearly as much fun.” Corden raises a forefinger to interject. “It might have been the night Taylor Swift met Tom Hiddleston,” he says. (It was.)

“It’s fun standing in the middle of the Met Gala with someone you could’ve been in double maths with,” continues Butterworth. The 53-year-old may have overlooked the fact that he is nine years Corden’s senior but his peas-in-a-pod point stands. “There’s this natural affinity when you’ve hung out at similar places on a Friday night,” agrees Corden.

Little can be revealed here about the show they have made together, booby-trapped as it is with shocks and twists. “Everything in Mammals after the first five minutes is spoiler,” says Butterworth. What can be said, though, is that Corden plays a chef whose personal life hits the rocks as he is launching his first restaurant. (Since the series was made, the actor has had his own public contretemps with the restaurateur Keith McNally, who first banned him from his New York bistro Balthazar for rude behaviour, then lifted the ban after Corden apologised.) Sally Hawkins co-stars as his dreamy, distracted sister. The series reflects Butterworth’s feeling that relationships “are just really funny. People find themselves endlessly occupying these positions that are completely untenable the second you look at them closely. Our own mistakes are just mistakes but when somebody else makes them and you’re the victim, it’s biblical.”

The score is by Blur’s Graham Coxon, the soundtrack shimmering with chansons. In one episode, Corden beats up a gravestone. Whales make a fleeting appearance. So too does Wales, in a manner of speaking, in the form of Tom Jones. Contrary to the title of one of Jones’s best-known songs, it is all very unusual. As is the sight of Corden giving a performance of impressive range. Most of the US knows him only from The Late Late Show, which he has hosted since 2015, and its spin-off phenomenon Carpool Karaoke. But despite the success of Gavin and Stacey, which he co-wrote and starred in, British audiences still regard Corden primarily as a rambunctious celebrity. He even wrote in his 2011 autobiography, May I Have Your Attention Please?, that he didn’t consider himself an actor. “Let’s not talk about my book,” he cringes now. (He claims to have hammered it out in a week.)

Butterworth has no truck with this. “James doesn’t exist in any context for me other than acting. We spent eight months cutting Mammals and I could have used every single bit of any take. Everything he did is so true.” Writing for Corden’s voice was “like rolling downhill. Same as it was with Mark on Jerusalem. It’s a duet with that person. It was done before I knew it, and that’s the sign that you’re off to the races.”

Mammals wasn’t originally tailored for Corden – the script for the first episode had been lying in a drawer for years – but their Met Ball meeting prompted Butterworth to complete it. Why the long gestation?

Kitchen cabinet … (from left) Melia Kreiling, James Corden, Sally Hawkins and Colin Morgan in Mammals.
Kitchen cabinet … (from left) Melia Kreiling, James Corden, Sally Hawkins and Colin Morgan in Mammals. Photograph: Rory Mulvey

“I wait for ever to see whether things are any good or not. It’s a really simple trick, so you don’t look back on stuff you did three years ago and think: ‘I wish I hadn’t fucking done that.’” Corden, whose history of self-confessed rush-jobs includes the sketch show Horne & Corden and the film Lesbian Vampire Killers (both with Mathew Horne), nods vigorously in agreement.

A flashback in Mammals shows his character as a struggling grunt in another chef’s kitchen, dreaming of running his own joint. I ask Corden what he remembers about himself as a showbiz outsider looking in, back in the days before he’d made it. “What being a talkshow host for seven and a half years has taught me is that nobody thinks they’re on the inside,” he says. “Every single person feels on some level that they are an outsider looking in. We’ve had everyone come through the doors of that show and I would say that is the one common thread. Even the phrase ‘made it’ – I don’t know what that is. I think it’s impossible to make it.

What he does next is smart, revealing and vaguely unnerving, not to mention indicative of how he got where he is today: he angles the spotlight away from himself in a classic piece of chatshow flattery. “You,” he says, gesturing at me. “You probably had a sense at school that you could write: ‘I don’t know what this is, but I feel there’s something here I can do … ’ And now today you are an esteemed writer at arguably one of the best news sources in the world, and I don’t believe for one second that you woke up this morning and went: ‘I’ve fucking cracked it boys! Oooh yeah! Off to the Ham Yard, look out!’”

He’s slapping his palms together, whooping at the top of his voice. It’s quite a display. Then he switches to a gentler register: “You just don’t. And yet there will be contemporaries of yours who’ll say: ‘Well, look at Ryan, he must have it all, he must be happy!’ I honestly don’t think it exists.”

Point taken. “What does resonate with me is when my character says he wants his own restaurant and someone asks whether he’s good enough. And he replies: ‘No. But I will be.’ Then he explains the lengths he’s already gone to just to get where he is. That I understand. That feeling of thinking: ‘I would love to do this, and I think I can improve greatly.’ I hope I never stop improving. I hope it’s a constant long walk into the woods, and that I’ll just keep going.”

His tenure on The Late Late Show, however, will not. His current stint, which ends next spring, will be his last. “The only thing I knew when I took the job was that I wasn’t going to be sat there 20 years later saying: ‘Stick around everybody, we’ll be right back.’ If I’m honest I thought it’d be cancelled within six months. My wife and I rented furniture. I remember telling her: ‘The show will get cancelled.’ And I knew the last thing we’d want to deal with was: ‘How do we get rid of this sofa?’”

Nine Emmys later (plus a 10th in 2017 for hosting the Tony awards) and he’s finally quitting. On the horizon is the possibility of giving One Man, Two Guvnors another go round the block. “I haven’t committed to it yet,” he says. “But I wouldn’t be able to do it physically in 10 years. All I’m ever looking for is: will it be fun?” Butterworth leans over: “It’s called a play, after all,” he says.

Even enjoyable experiences don’t always work out. Corden had a blast making Cats, only for it to become the most maligned film since, well, Lesbian Vampire Killers. He got in on the act himself, confessing that he hadn’t seen the movie but had “heard it’s terrible”, then mocked it by appearing as a fluffy feline at the Oscars in 2020. As a parting gift, I present him with a four-star rave review of the movie by Nigel Andrews, venerable former film critic of the Financial Times, in which Corden’s performance is described as a “tour de force”. He reads it in disbelief. “Oh my God. Stop. Stop! ‘Tour de force’! I’m going to treasure this. I’m going to frame it and put it up in my bathroom.”

Butterworth joins in with the merriment as I gather my things to leave. Then Corden stops laughing and gazes up at me, his blue eyes sparkling. “What did you think of our show, Ryan?” he asks. “Did you like it?” His voice is soft and solicitous, his upturned face the spit of Oliver Twist. I’m rather caught off-guard; I presumed that my questions alone had conveyed enthusiasm, but apparently not. So I babble something about how much I loved the tonal shifts and Corden’s knockout performance – which is all true – and finally he looks relieved. Cats may be standoffish but superstars sometimes need their tummies rubbed.

Mammals is on Prime Video from Friday 11 November


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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