A common trait shared among successful writers and performers is an awareness that everything they have worked for could be gone in an instant. Chris Geere spent years building his career, acting in the Royal Shakespeare Company and eventually landing a lead role in FXX’s You’re The Worst, which now enters its fourth season. It’s been written before, but the British actor could not have been further from Jimmy, the bluntly insensitive character he’s known for playing, when we spoke. Instead, Geere said he’s “grateful” for his career and is still full of “controlled trepidation” when he’s on set.
The 36-year-old actor now chooses roles more freely, opting to surround himself with good people rather than taking any job thrown his way. One of those good people is Sam Bain, the British comedy writer who created the new BBC mini-series Ill Behaviour. Geere plays Joel in the dark comedy about a friend who holds his cancer-ridden friend hostage in order to save his life.
I spoke with Geere about his “weird year,” transitioning from the mindset of an actor to a father to an actor again, and finding the right times to tell his son white lies.
How are you?
Very good! I just watched an episode of Handmaid’s Tale and now I want to talk about comedy.
How is it?
It’s fantastic. My wife read the book and now we’re watching the show and I just keep saying, “It’s not a comedy is it?”
You said in an interview a few years ago, “I constantly need to think, ‘this is just the next step in the career.’ I will never, ever think, ‘Oh, I’ve made it!’ or ‘Oh, I don’t need to think like a normal person anymore.’” Do you still feel that way – that your career will always be a hustle?
Yeah, absolutely. I still feel like I’m full of controlled trepidation. Every day I still get the same amount of nerves when I’m on set. I measure success by happiness. In terms of career, I had so many years where nothing happened for so long. I just feel genuinely grateful every single day. I think that has made me more of an open-minded person in terms of the fact that it may stop at any point. You’re the Worst, even though I want it to last forever, will someday end and that fills me with sadness, but also fear as well that I don’t really know what I’m going to be doing next. I think it depends how you look at it. You can think, “I may never work again,” or you can go, “Well, I haven’t got any work, but I may have something super exciting to come.” I look at the last five years and I cannot believe how much luck I’ve had. I’m thanking my lucky stars every day.
Is that feeling of fear about what’s next common among other people you know in the industry?
It is within the people that I surround myself with. I’d be lying if I said that everyone had a similar mentality because they don’t. I think the most unattractive feature in the world, regardless of what occupation you have, is when people have a sense of entitlement. There’s a fine line between people who are [thinking] “I should be here” rather than “I feel privileged that I’ve been offered this place at the table,” but also knowing that you’ve earned your right to be there and that you’ve worked hard.
I remember I was heavily in debt when I met my now-wife and had nothing to offer. I had no work coming up. I had no house. I had no car. I didn’t have anything, but this kind of relief that I could do something one day. And she said yes when I proposed to her, which is the greatest thing in the world because now, it’s amazing – I can give her a bit more of the life I’ve always wanted to give her. I never could at that time. I think if you surround yourself with good people and you find your path in life, in terms of your friends and family and spouse, then, as I said, I’m constantly grateful for that. I will never lose perspective of that. That’s really helped with Jimmy as well because he’s the antithesis of that. He’s blissfully unaware of the impact that his energy has on other people.
Do you think Jimmy and Joel are similar characters?
I think the similarity between the two is that they’re both completely selfish – the difference being that Joel in Ill Behaviour is completely lost and very open about the fact that he’s lost. And open about the fact that he’s failed. Jimmy has face-blindness. He’s unaware of his flaws and it takes him forever to recognize them. The comedy can come from both things. It was great fun playing the maudlin side of Joel in Ill Behaviour and then playing the false bravado of Jimmy in You’re the Worst. It’s just been a real treat to have those two roles in one year. I think there was only three or four weeks between finishing You’re the Worst and starting Ill Behaviour so I had to really change my mindset. It was weird having to go from proposing to Gretchen and then driving off in the car to getting home and being father and husband in real life and then going on to suicidal Joel. [laughs] It’s been a bit of a weird year.
Is there anything that helps you transition from one character back to real life and then back to another character?
I think the most difficult thing for any actor is to listen and respond truthfully. It’s not rocket science. The difference between Jimmy and Joel is that Jimmy doesn’t listen to anyone. And that’s really hard for me as an actor to listen for my cue, but play as if I’m not listening for my cue. In real life I have a very demanding four-year-old son who needs a lot of my energy and time and attention. And then Joel needs everyone else’s energy, time, and attention. I think I can use one or the other each time I’m working on a new thing.
Do you find it difficult saying no to your son?
Every day he’s changing so much. He’s asking more questions than ever before, and those questions go into different categories. My wife and I discuss, “Do we tell him the truth outright?” In terms of is it naughty to hit someone? Yes, we can tell him that. And then he’ll say, “Does Santa Claus exist?” And we’ll say, “Yes,” which is a complete lie. Then you’ve got in the middle where he asks, “How did I get in mommy’s tummy?” And that’s when we kind of white lie. It’s good to play versions of truth that are beneficial to that child’s upbringing, but he’s such a happy happy boy anyway.
Were these kind of tips about being truthful in acting given to you when you were in the Royal Shakespeare Company?
Yeah, I think so. I try to draw from different experiences, different friends that I’ve met. Jimmy is pretty much based on two people. The first being our creator, Stephen FaIk – I can tell when I’m sounding like him in certain ways. Also, I compare him to one of my ex-colleagues as well. I genuinely believe he thought he was something when he actually had a lot of growing up to do. I also think the character is influenced by a culmination of several different comedians as well. When I’m watching You’re the Worst back I can see, like, “Oh, you obviously watched a lot of The Office.” I might be acting like Ricky Gervais in one scene and then the next I’m acting like Steve Coogan. I’m like a sponge. I watch comedy. I watch drama. Anything that I think is impactful just seems to go in and it comes out in different forms through the dialogue. I feel truly blessed to have such brilliant actors alongside me as well. You’re only as good as what your castmates are giving you and the writing.
Were there any times when you haven’t had that chemistry?
Absolutely. Only since You’re the Worst I’ve realized how on jobs before there’s always been a couple of people who are unnecessarily difficult. That’s either because their attitude is bad or their work ethic isn’t as polished as I think we should all be to be in this privileged position of earning a living doing what we love doing. There’s a couple of movies I’ve done where I wanted to say to [some coworkers], “Do you know how lucky you are?” I think it’s important that I don’t ever tell people that because they need to recognize it on their own. All I have to do is focus on being the best I can be.
Does having a costar act like that make it difficult to be the best performer you can be?
It really does. They say the chemistry between me and Aya [Cash] in You’re the Worst is really good and we love reading that. And people have asked me before, “Why do you think the chemistry is so good?” And the stock answer would be that the script’s great and they edit it well, but the truth is she is so brilliant. She gives me so much in the scene. The only natural thing for me to do is to respond naturally. And the fact that we created these characters together as well, the journey that they’re taking, we’re both so aware of where we should be.
From the beginning of the show you both showed a clear chemistry.
I think it’s important that we never talked about things beforehand. We don’t say, “I’m going to be a little bit harder on this line” or “I’m going to be more understanding in this scene.” We tend to surprise each other with stuff and the other one responds naturally. It’s really easy working with her because we’re both on the same page.
You once mentioned a tonal shift between previous seasons. Is there another tonal shift from season 3 to season 4?
I think comedy-wise we go back to a lot of the tone of season 1 in season 4, which is great. It’s far more four individuals trying to find their way. I’ve always said season 1 was Jimmy vs. Gretchen, season 2 was Gretchen vs. Jimmy, season 3 was Jimmy and Gretchen vs. the world, and season 4 is just Jimmy and Gretchen separate. It’s them not together trying to navigate their way back to what they want. I think it’s been my favorite season so far because we’re all just so established as the characters, the crew that we’re working with, and the story that we’re telling that we can really push the envelope in terms of the truth-telling.
Are there any exciting projects you’re currently working on?
I became very close with all the guys that made Ill Behaviour – the writer Sam Bain, and executive producer, Iain Morris. They’ve got a couple of projects that we’re going to have discussions about. I’ve gotten to a point now – I’m 36, and I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I can take a bit more time choosing which projects I want to do next. I’ve come to the conclusion that I just want to work with good people. I can’t be bothered to waste time with bad energy anymore. They’re great people.
Photo by Prashant Gupta/FXX.