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Catherine Tate on Her Return to The Office and Getting a Word Into the Oxford English Dictionary

Tonight, Catherine Tate returns to The Office to reprise her role as Nellie Bertram, a special projects manager who, last we saw, was up for Michael Scott's job at Dunder Mifflin. She didn't get it, of course — the job went to Ed Helms with James Spader as CEO — but she made enough of an impression to earn a multi-episode arc that involves her having a "far from professional" relationship with Spader's character. Intriguing! We spoke with the British comedian — best known in the U.K. for her sketch comedy series The Catherine Tate Show, but beloved by U.S. Comic-Con fans for her stint on Doctor Who — about joining The Office and creating a catchphrase that made it into the Oxford English Dictionary.

Did you watch the show prior to your guest appearance?
Oh, I was a huge fan of the American Office — I thought it had been adapted wonderfully — so I came onto the set as a fan. I was quite overwhelmed, actually. It’s a strange thing when you’re a fan of something and then you see … well, not behind the magic, because I obviously know how TV shows work — but I almost didn’t want to know. It’s a double-edged sword: Once you’re in it, you almost can no longer be an audience member. Which is kind of bittersweet. When I first started, I was doing that thing where you start thinking the actors are their characters. Which is pretty sad, really. [Laughs.] People do that to me sometimes, and you want to go, “What’s your world like?” But I was doing the same thing! I was quite disappointed that it’s actually just a TV set. But, you know, if Rainn [Wilson] was really like Dwight, we’d all be in trouble.

Were you given the chance to help flesh out the character of Nellie, or did the writers already have a pretty strong idea of who they wanted her to be?
She’s still kind of a work in progress, really. But they always listen when I say something, because the character’s English, so there’s just occasionally things where I’ll say, “Oh, English people don’t say that.” [Laughs.] No real faux pas, nothing particularly dreadful. American audiences probably wouldn’t even have noticed. It’s just that I like words and I’m very specific, so it’s more little finicky things that just mark me out as being a bit fussy rather than it being any reflection on the writing. Things like, “British people don’t say ‘right’ at the end of every sentence.” But there was a wonderful creation to step into, a character that was ready-made for me, and they’re very kindly letting me collaborate as well, which is great.

Given that your comedic profile in the States has been somewhat low to date, could you recommend a sketch or an episode from The Catherine Tate Show to get new viewers started?
Oh, God, no! I never look at my own stuff, quite frankly. Tell ‘em just to troll through YouTube and see what they can find. [Laughs.] My God, that would be the most awful thing, wouldn’t it? “Here are my top five sketches — in order — that I recommend you watch!” I could never do that.

Fair enough! But people should at least know that bovvered, a catchphrase from the show, made it into the Oxford English Dictionary.
Yeah, that’s a weird thing when you do something and people not only kind of connect with it but repeat it and use it and make it their own. I’d forgotten that, actually. Well done, me! [Laughs.]

Has there been any discussion of bringing your character Donna back to Doctor Who?
Oh, no, no, no. I mean, she’d die if her memories [from the Doctor] came back, wouldn’t she?

Well, possibly. But it’s sci-fi. Anything’s possible.
It is sci-fi, yes, but we do try to keep things situated on some semblance of reality. [Laughs.] No, I don’t think there’s any chance of that. I think it would be weird to go back. As wonderful as that would be and as much as I would love it, I can’t see that happening. But as you say, never say never with sci-fi!

Photo: Dave M. Benett/Getty Images