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Simon Amstell at the BFI London Film Festival 2019
David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

Simon Amstell Interview: ‘In my twenties I was single and lonely’

The comedian and director of ‘Benjamin’ and ‘Carnage’ talks about loneliness, getting closure and struggling to flirt

By Alex Godfrey
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From his BBC sitcom ‘Grandma’s House’ to his book ‘Help’, Simon Amstell’s work is often filled with therapeutic self-examination. He’s now written and directed his similarly themed second film (after the brilliant ‘Carnage’), the charming new comedy ‘Benjamin’, which stars Colin Morgan (‘Merlin’) as a young man navigating a romantic battlefield.

The film is drenched in social awkwardness. Was that the starting point?
‘Yeah, I think I was just trying to figure out who I was. Specifically, in my twenties [I was] single and lonely. [When I was writing the screenplay] it was difficult to try and figure out what I was up to back then. By the time we got to the shoot I understood the character’s journey, but when I started typing on the first day, all I knew was that I was interested in figuring out what’s wrong with me.’ [Laughs]

Did you find out what was wrong with you in those younger years?
‘I found out that what had been wrong with me, before I got a bit better, was that I was somebody who was terribly lonely [but] who was terrified of intimacy. I desperately wanted to be in a relationship, but was too scared to be vulnerable enough to love or be loved. And that’s the film.’

‘I feel slightly embarrassed at my own past ineptitude’

Do those revelations offer some closure?
‘I’m now not the struggling person in his late twenties that you see in the film. But new stuff happens and you need to figure it out. Personally, I need to write it out of me and then get actors to perform it. That’s my process! [Laughs a lot] You have to write that I laughed there otherwise I’ll just seem like a total lunatic.’

What is it like directing a version of you?
‘There was no way that I would be there asking Colin to do an impression of me. But still, there were moments in the edit where I felt a bit sorry for my past self. He’d captured all that anxiety of loneliness. And the way it’s written, there are certain phrases that I recognise as me. Certainly when he’s struggling to flirt, I feel slightly embarrassed at my own past ineptitude.’

Colin Morgan and Phénix Brossard in ‘Benjamin’.

Isn’t that what makes it so resonant?
‘Yes. If I cringe or feel like I can barely watch it, then I feel like it has a chance to connect with people. If you really drill down into the self, you find the truth of stuff that we’re all feeling. It’s a relief to me to get it out of me, and I think there’s some relief in the audience, that somebody has expressed the mania that’s in our heads.’

‘Benjamin’ is in cinemas from Fri Mar 15. Read our review here

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