WHEN I walk into the room, James Corden is locked in a bear hug with a tall, tanned, tattooed man. “Oh,” he says, unembarrassed, but disengaging himself from the embrace. “He’s a journalist I’ve met before.” He shakes my hand politely, then looks at me a little closer while I arrange my tape recorder and balance a coffee cup.
“We’ve met before too,” he decides. Yes James, we have – so where’s my hug then? Corden looks agonised. “I wouldn’t want to be too forward with the opposite sex. I don’t want to be that guy.”
There was a point in 2009 when Corden seemed to be becoming that guy; brash, pushy and overconfident of his own powers. Accepting his second Bafta, he complained onstage that his TV show Gavin & Stacey, hadn’t been nominated for a third. While guesting on Lily Allen’s chat show, he shamelessly tried to chat up the host, and at another awards ceremony he and Sir Patrick Stewart fell out. He also made a series of rather poor career decisions, especially that of forming a comedy double act with his Gavin & Stacey co-star Mat Horne. Their BBC3 sketch show flopped, and critics had a field day driving a stake through the heart of Lesbian Vampire Killers, a film comedy cobbled together from the body parts of a hundred better monster movies.
Understandably, Corden doesn’t really want to look back at the year of that film launch, 2009; the reviews were the worst of his life, and at one point he was pushing 21 stone. “There are three things I have conversations about in interviews,” he sighs. “A sketch show and a film that weren’t very good… and my weight.”
For the record, Corden, blonde, neatly groomed with just a sprinkling of stubble, is looking noticeably svelte now at around 14 stone, thanks to his physical exertions in the furious stage farce One Man, Two Guvnors, and the services of Boy George’s nutritionist. His friends tell him he looks slim. “I go ‘No, no, I’m slimmer. I’m not slim by any stretch.’” Was he asked to lose weight? “Nobody’s ever said I needed to,” he retorts. “I’m slim in America.”
He may yet become a lot bigger in America. He’s just back from New York, where his turn in Two Guvnors won him a Tony Award. During the Broadway run, he shot the film Can A Song Save Your Life? during the day with Keira Knightley, then co-wrote conspiracy spoof The Wrong Mans for the BBC in his dressing room with Mat Baynton around performance time.
“Now that I’m eating less, I have to fill my plate in other ways,” says Corden, although he’s wary of suggesting his plate is overloaded – during his Broadway rehearsals, his then-fiancée Jules gave birth to their first child, “so anytime I’d come home and say I was tired, it wasn’t met with a pleasant look.”
Back in Britain, if anything, Corden is even more time-poor. Our interview is a last-minute arrangement, built around his shooting schedule for Into The Woods, a movie version of the Sondheim musical where he swaps solos with Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. “We’ve been on it two months now, with another two-and-a-half months to go,” he says. “Being around that cast, though… I’m loving it! I’m unbelievably fortunate to have been in just the right place at the right time when they happened to be making this film.”
Into The Woods opens next year, and by then, his career may have already moved up another notch with One Chance, a warm-hearted underdog comedy drama based on the life of Britain’s Got Talent winner Paul Potts, whose nervous audition piece of Nessun Dorma to Simon Cowell went viral.
Potts provides the singing voice for Corden to mime to, and the two met a couple of times, “but I felt that the person I was playing wasn’t him now. So much of it is on the page and it was really only his voice that I felt I had to get. It’s not like I’m playing Winston Churchill, where there’s so many mannerisms that we’re all so familiar with.”
The script plays fast and loose with the biography of Potts; Corden’s character is from Wales, rather than Bristol, and has a father from the steelworks who wants him to join the trade. But the core uplift of a former Carphone Warehouse manager who has to overcome a full Olympic track worth of hurdles remains.
Inevitably, the picture has already been compared to Billy Elliot – both films feature a twinkly Julie Walters – and the fact it’s being released at the start of awards season suggests that director David Frankel, may have another Devil Wears Prada-sized hit on his hands.
Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has certainly gone bonkers about the movie, citing Corden as a potential Oscar winner. The recalibrated, humbler Corden steers clear of that sort of talk. “In the future? I don’t know about that,” he says. But he has won a Tony, GQ’s Man of the Year and a couple of Baftas already; surely he must have Academy Awards on his radar? Corden doesn’t allow himself to indulge in that sort of hubris now, at least not when there’s an audio recorder on the table. “Nooooh. I can remember going to the Tonys with The History Boys with the eight of us sat right at the back of Radio City Music Hall and it being an amazing night because the play won six Tonys and Richard Griffiths, god rest his soul, won one. But the weirdest thing is when anybody else wins an award, I go: ‘wow, that’s amazing’. But any time I’ve won one, I’ve gone: ‘Well, clearly this is the end of this ceremony now. They’ve proved themselves to be idiots.’”
Now Corden’s on the verge of another breakthrough, it seems a little mean to re-open old wounds. Early in his career he had appeared invincible. Cast in the National Theatre’s revival of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, he ended up in the film adaptation and acquired Dominic Cooper as a flatmate. When Gavin & Stacey pulled in an audience of 10 million for its finale, he was pals with David Beckham, dating Sheridan Smith and presenting the Brits.
But along the way, he says, he “got a bit lost”. After the cocky Bafta speech, even Gavin & Stacey cast member Rob Brydon felt compelled to pull Corden aside and tell him that he was behaving like an idiot.
What saved him were his sharp instincts. Observant and self-aware, Corden is good at tuning into the mood of a room. Today, he’s in interview mode; polite, modest with loads of eye-contact. On stage in Two Guvnors, he can ad-lib in ways that both UK and American audiences respond to. During one performance, he pulled on the set door and the doorknob fell off. Corden called for a drill and spent five minutes trying to fix the set himself, taking the theatre on a five-minute improvisation.
At school, he could have been bullied about his weight or his acting ambitions, but calculated that attack was the best form of defence. “If you’re big, you’re always a target to be picked on,” he says. “So what I’ve probably always done is make myself an even bigger target. And because I’m saying all those things before you said them, they can’t hurt me. People get scared by that kind of confidence.” Beating everyone to the punchline made him one of the most popular boys in class.
“The best and richest and most brilliant people in the world really weren’t the most popular person or the best-looking person at school,” he says, earnestly. “The one thing you wish you could go and tell children at school, and say ‘You know these really cool kids, the ones you think are really cool? They’re going to stay in this town and become estate agents. It’s all the geeks and the nerds who are going to go on and do all the stuff that is brilliant.’”
In the wake of Lesbianvampiregate, one of the smartest things Corden did was write an autobiography that addressed his worst behaviour, calling it brattish. He panned himself for drinking, partying and waking up in the beds of women he couldn’t remember meeting, and admitted that his parents staged an intervention that reduced him to tears.
His recovery was remarkably swift. Within a year of being called overbearing and overhyped, he had recorded a No 1 football anthem with Dizzee Rascal, and had taken over from Ricky Gervais as Comic Relief’s favourite celebrity mickey-taker. As Smithy, he shared a bath with David Beckham, sang Wham’s I’m Your Man with George Michael and was given weight advice by Sir Paul McCartney. Compare and contrast Corden’s restored position with his BBC3 sketch partner, Mathew Horne, who suffered the caustic reviews calling them “as funny as the Great Depression” alongside him.
The two men stayed friends – Horne was at Corden’s wedding last autumn – but Horne opted to keep his head down. “James is very good at absorbing all the negativity he got – and still gets,” observed Horne. “But whereas he was able to advance, I retreated.”
Even now, Corden doesn’t shirk from discussing what he thinks went wrong, which is that the pair should have had more time to write and refine Horne & Corden. “You don’t just have this god-given right to make a TV show,” he says. “On and off, The Wrong Mans took three years to write. I think we wrote our sketch show in four-and-a-half months. You have to put the work in.”
Corden has also learnt to shrug off criticism, or at least make his peace with it. “I read a review of The Wrong Mans a while ago, which didn’t even really review the show, it just talked about different things,” he says. “If you’re not even going to review the show, what can you do?’
After a shaky start, The Wrong Mans seems to be picking up critical momentum, and the BBC have asked for another series, but it’s the public response that Corden finds reassuring. “It felt almost exactly the same as when Gavin & Stacey first aired on BBC2. The day after The Wrong Mans aired, I was in Piccadilly, and two guys stood outside a hotel said, ‘Love the new show, mate.’ It’s those things that inform you how you’re doing.”
Corden was born in Hillingdon, West London and grew up in Hazlemere, Buckinghamshire. His father was a musician in the RAF band, his mother a social worker. Corden says he never wanted to do anything except perform. “I never thought ‘I want to be an actor’, it was always ‘I’m going to be an actor’.” He could have gone on to study drama but admits that laziness played a big part in his decision-making and he left school at 17 with two GCSEs.
For a while he played chubby blokes whenever a drama needed one. I first met him aged 19, when he had a small but affecting supporting role in Shane Meadows’ Twenty Four Seven, as an overweight teen pushed into a youth boxing club. Corden attended the premiere “and the next day I was back waiting tables at Bella Pasta”. Even then, he was a better actor than anything else: “When we got hungry, we would just nick a bit of cheese or pepperoni off the top of a pizza, but one time I took the pizza out to this couple. They both stared at me – there was a string of cheese going from the pizza to my mouth.”
He was signed up by the teen soap Hollyoaks, which he hated, but he enjoyed playing Tim Spall’s abusive, unhappy son in Mike Leigh’s All Or Nothing a lot more. Working on the stage version of The History Boys brought him the camaraderie of the ensemble cast, and established him as the provider of punchlines and one-liners. Alan Bennett told him: “You should write down some of this stuff. If you can make all these people in the National Theatre laugh, why can’t you do it anywhere else?” One of his personal highlights was a phone call from Bennett after the first series of Gavin & Stacey, telling Corden he’d loved the show. After having heard nothing from his mentor as the series had progressed, Corden had simply assumed that he had hated it. “‘I waited until I’d seen all of it,’ Bennett explained. “And I went, ‘Of course, how can you review a TV series after one episode?’”
Twitter must drive him mad then. “We’re in a place now where people are reviewing things whilst they’re watching it, never mind waiting until the end. ‘I’m watching this, and it’s rubbish.’ And that’s six minutes in,” he says. “I can’t look at my phone because I don’t want to know who’s been kicked off The Great British Bake Off.”
But Corden has never had less to fear from the instant critics since the halcyon days of the comic love story, Gavin & Stacey, that he co-wrote with Fat Friends co-star Ruth Jones. Now Corden has his very own love story with Jules and their toddler son Max, back home in London. When he says that life is calmer and happier for him now, it may sound like a cliché, but he’s so sincere, you can’t help but wish him luck.
Already three questions past the prearranged cutoff point for the interview, Corden is still talking to me while his publicist nudges him out of his chair and steers him towards the door. Then suddenly he breaks free and doubles back. “Aw, come here,” he says. And gives me a hug.
The Wrong Mans, BBC2, Tuesday, 9pm. One Chance (12A) is in cinemas from Friday