David Earl and Chris Hayward immediately come across as charming, funny people. When Zoom freezes up at the beginning of our interview, they immediately deflate the awkwardness with some sweet humor, offering to freeze themselves as well. For a moment, we all sit in odd frozen positions in our little boxed screens, difficult to tell who’s having a technical glitch and who’s using a bit of quick improvisation to make the other laugh and feel better (hint: they were the latter). When the glitch quickly resolved itself, they talked to us about their film Brian and Charlesnever losing the sweet humor they began the interview with.
Brian and Charles follows a lonely, socially awkward man on the outskirts of a small town alongside his sentient robot invention, Charles Petrescu. Charles is a ridiculous-looking character, with a torso like a washing machine and the tiny turtle head of an old man poking out atop his massive frame, tufts of gray hair and antiquated glasses attached to it. He sounds like a robot, but often talks and acts like a child, and the film tracks their friendship as Brian faces his own problems and Charles seems to grow from curious child to rebellious, troubled youth. The result is a gentle comedy about loneliness, friendship, and parenting, but the Brian and Charles characters weren’t always this sweet.
Brian and Charles From Stage to Screen
Earl and Hayward have actually been performing as these characters for several years, with the idea of Charles originating in 2013 with Earl’s friend Rupert Majendie on a radio show. They would take the characters to popular live shows, having all written routines for them, and Majendie would be in the back typing Charles’ dialogue into a computer, Hayward then acting it out. Those live stand-up shows grew and developed, and the characters in Brian and Charles are different as a result.
“They’re quite different,” Hayward says. “There are elements that we evolved from the one we did as a stand-up act, there are elements of their personalities that we’ve kept for the feature. When we’re doing it as a live act, you know, we ‘ re performing for drunk comedy audiences. So they were much more boisterous and, not aggressive exactly, but we would have to take on hecklers and that sort of thing. “
“When we did it live, our producer Rupert will be at the back of the room, voicing the robot,” Earl clarifies. “So Chris would be in the robot. I’ll be with Chris on stage. And then Rupert will be at the back voicing him, and he would normally have a bottle of wine with him. So as the night went on, Charles became more and more adult. “
“Right,” Hayward laughs, “so [Rupert] broadcasts out to the speakers, but sometimes he’d say stuff like, ‘I will stay on stage. People can come up and hang out with me on stage after the show’s finished. ‘ Just torturing me! That was a weird experience. Especially the dancing, Rupert would trigger this music and say ‘dance, dance, dance, dance,’ and I’d have to get up and dance to all of it. “Hayward notes how this sometimes wild and ribald routine changed for Brian and Charles:
So for the film version, we softened them a bit, we had to make them more likable. But there are elements of both from the stand-up show that we kept for it. He was often quite childlike, but then he’d be like an adult during the comedy show, but for the film, we made that like a progression, so he starts off being a kid and then becomes a bit of a moody teen. I think it’s the same for Brian as well, really. He’s sort of softened, we’ve made him more likable and more relatable.
David Earl Shows the Softer Side of Brian Gittins
Brian is actually a variation of a character that Earl has played around with for nearly two decades. Brian Gittins, as he is known, is rather popular in the UK as an often wildly inappropriate, verbally inventive comedy character who has appeared in several radio series and Ricky Gervais shows like Extras and After Lifethough the character is fluid and can change depending on the project.
The Brian Gittins character even had his own sitcom pilot on Channel 4, Gittins. Earl is brilliant at improvisation, something attested to by the numerous outtakes from the series he’s in, and there are several videos of Ricky Gervais and others laughing uncontrollably at the on-the-spot verbiage of Earl in outtakes for Derek, After Life, and others. He’s brilliant at coming up with quick, ridiculous, profane quips and non sequiturs on the spot, delivered with a matter-of-fact gruffness that’s usually hilarious.
The Brian of Brian and Charles is incredibly different from that Gittins. “He’s not related,” as Earl says, “I hope the audience just goes, ‘right, he’s an adult now.'” “It’s like the spider-verse, isn’t it,” Hayward laughs, “there are all these different Gittins. ” This Brian is much sweeter and almost childlike himself – a victim of the town bully, Brian hides away with his numerous silly inventions and his awkward crush on a girl. Because Brian and Charles comes from these very funny, sometimes acerbic and R-rated comedians, it’s surprising to see the film be so genuine, authentic, and unironically tender. “We wanted to warm the asshole’s heart,” Earl jokes.
“There was a version that was a little bit bleaker when we started writing it,” Hayward says, “that had like a bit of a darker tone to it, unnecessarily. Then we thought it’d be nice if everyone can see it, really, so we went for a lighter tone. We were not poking fun at emotions. ” Earl adds, “We had Wallace and Gromit in mind for one of the references, did not we? “
David Earl Brings His Experience as a Parent to Brian and Charles
Part of this kindness and authenticity comes from the fact that Brian and Charles is largely symbolic of the process of parenting itself. Earl is a parent, and throughout this last decade of playing with the Brian and Charles characters, he’s obviously seen his son grow up quite a bit. Earl movingly explains how he drew from the sometimes heartbreaking side of parenthoodwhen one watches their child grow up suddenly wanting nothing to do with their parent (s) during their rebellious teenage years:
Some scenes are directly from my life. Yeah, my boy at the time when we were writing was about 15, 14, and I was going through at that time him not wanting to be anywhere near me, him wanting to go out with his mates to see the world, and drink with them. And you know, 18 months earlier he was just a 12-year-old wanting to go to the park and kick a ball around, and suddenly he does not want any of that. So that’s quite a painful time for a parent, at least it was for me. So we stuck some of those moments in, and my boy came to watch the premiere in London last Sunday. He’s now 20, and he would not have come four years ago, would not have gone anywhere near it. But he’s now 20, and we sat together, and it was really lovely. And he’s like, “that’s when I did that!” Yeah, so I definitely took from my life.
Chris Hayward on the Comedy of Brian and Charles
The inherent sweetness of Brian and Charles does not detract from its humor one bit. For Hayward, whose character largely embodies the figure of the son, the main goal was to make Earl laugh. Hayward is a great writer who worked on the legendary early 2000s British comedy shows Big Train and Smack the Ponyand later Trollied and Cardinal Burnsbut has become an effective physical performer throughout the years of inhabiting Charles (acting inside what must be a swelteringly uncomfortable box of a costume).
“Having done it live loads,” Hayward says, “you get an inkling of what looks funny, and also I’ve got a good idea of what’s gonna make David laugh and entertain him. So I would just default to that really.” That’s the kind of person Hayward and Earl each seem to be, using their skills to not just make each other laugh but to bring some humor to everyone. Speaking to them feels like an invitation into a good friendship – supportive, kind, witty, and generally fun. Brian and Charles is an invitation to the same.
Brian and Charlesfrom Focus Features, is now in theaters.