With his cap pulled down firmly over his eyes and his shoulders stooped so low he could be auditioning for The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Mackenzie Crook is doing his best not to be recognised.
The actor is deeply uncomfortable with his celebrity. So uncomfortable that it literally hurts.
During his recent Tony-nominated Broadway stint in the much talked about play Jerusalem, he developed crippling backache.
It was because, in New York where no one recognised him, he was walking upright for the first time in the ten years since he found fame as the obsessive nerd Gareth Keenan in The Office.
‘I am recognised all the time and it seems out of proportion to how well known I am,’ he says. He is even covering his face with his hands as we talk.
‘People are only ever nice to me, but I just kind of curl up a bit. When people come up to me in the street I never know whether I have met them before and should stop and talk or just say “Hi” and scuttle on. I tend to look at the ground to avoid eye contact; it avoids embarrassment all round.
‘My back started really hurting when I went to America so I went for a scan and it turned out I had five slipped discs.
'They reckoned the injury was ten years old; there was nothing that I could think of that would hurt me like that. But it is ten years since The Office started; ten years of walking around with my back hunched.
‘In New York no one recognised me so I stood upright with really good posture. But as soon as I came home I was doubling over again.’
It is unlikely that Mackenzie, 40, is going to go unrecognised for some time to come.
Since finding fame in The Office he has swashbuckled with Johnny Depp in several Pirates Of The Caribbean movies and worked with Al Pacino in The Merchant Of Venice.
He is back doing Jerusalem in London’s West End, while at the cinema you can see him (or at least a ‘motion capture’ animated version of him) in the Spielberg blockbuster The Adventures Of Tintin.Life changing: Starring in The Office with Ricky Gervais (left), shot Crook to fame - he played the role of Gareth Keenan in the BBC sitcom
Directors love him because his face is so expressive, with every thought reflected. And his looks make him a perfect character actor.
Though 5ft 10in, he is tiny — his wrists are smaller than mine. Descriptions of him normally range from ‘nervy’ and ‘scrawny’ to, even more unkindly, ‘swivel-eyed’.
He looks pained when I ask him how he feels about that. His jaw clenches and his eyes go darker; he looks as if he wants to pound the bracelet he is playing with.
But he remains polite: ‘I am sure I would not be getting the jobs I am doing if I didn’t look the way I do, but people seem to have an obsession with it.
‘Every article that has been written about me starts with a bunch of adjectives about what I look like.
‘I don’t know. I do sometimes get a bit sick of reading what I look like. Most of it isn’t complimentary.
‘Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and think: “God, you look like a skeleton.” But I’ve totally accepted it. I have tried to put on weight — I’ve had fridge-loads of special shakes — but it doesn’t happen.’
While Mackenzie had a fun-filled upbringing with lots of friends and two sisters, you can see he probably also spends a lot of time inside his head.
As a child he was abnormally small. He was one of the first people to be prescribed a synthetic human growth hormone: he suffered no side effects, but still can’t give blood. He was the size of a 12-year-old when he was 16.A-list co-stars: Mackenzie Crook with Jonny Depp and Keira Knightley at the European premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest in London in 2006
‘I looked two or three years younger than my friends and when you are 15 that is a big deal,’ he says.
‘They would be going to the cinema or even blagging their way into pubs, but there was no way I could do that.
‘I would try to go out with them and they were all uncomfortable, saying: “We can’t invite you because you won’t get in and we’ll all feel bad.” When they started getting girlfriends I was still a long way from that.’
By the end of treatment he had grown to the correct height, though he wonders: ‘It may just have been that I’d reached the point when I was going to grow anyway.’
Almost certainly his lankiness is due in some part to his nerviness; he is never still.
The whole hour we are together in a cafe in the North London suburb of Muswell Hill, where he lives in Peter Sellers’ old house, he is playing with his face or his bracelet or shifting around uncomfortably. He once said he cringed about ten times a day.
‘I hardly ever sit down,’ he says. ‘I am always pacing — I guess I have a lot of nervous energy.
‘But it is also a family thing; my dad was thin and my son is. He is looking more and more like me and I think: “Poor thing!” But he’s delighted to look like me, which is lovely.’
Mackenzie could not be more different from the bombastic and super- confident Office creator Ricky Gervais, who has gone on to create the new TV comedy Life’s Too Short about a dwarf actor hoping a reality show will reverse his fortunes.
Though it is eight years since The Office ended, Ricky and Mackenzie remain friends.
‘We don’t get to see each other so much, but we went out to dinner with our partners a few months ago,’ says Mackenzie.
‘It was the first time I had seen him in a couple of years and he hasn’t changed. I know people think that he has, but to me he is exactly the same and he is so happy to be in the position he is in.
‘He was always confident; he and Stephen [Merchant, Ricky’s writing partner] always knew exactly what they were doing, which is why they directed the show. I know people think there was a lot of improvising, but there was no need because the scripts were so brilliant.
‘He has a perfect partnership with Stephen; they bring something different to the table. Stephen is disciplined and Ricky is famously ill-disciplined; he wants to muck about and leave early because he gets bored.’
It is no surprise that Mackenzie, who can’t even bear the idea of embarrassing strangers, should be stunned at the way his friend has become increasingly famous for offending people at events such as the Golden Globes awards, which he hosts again in January.
‘I am always a little bit shocked,’ he says. ‘I feel a bit like saying: “Really, Ricky? God! Why are you saying that?” But he knows exactly what he is doing and it is always brilliant.
‘He wants to cause just the right amount of controversy otherwise it would be completely dull, but he knows how to pitch it so just the right amount of people are upset. He called Johnny Depp wooden, but Johnny isn’t going to be too upset; he leapt at the chance to be in Life’s Too Short.’Film career: Crook starred in the film Three And Out in 2007 alongside Colm Meaney (right)
Depp got Mackenzie the job on Pirates — one of the biggest movie franchises ever — after they worked together on Finding Neverland.
‘He’s a hero, I can’t sing his praises too much,’ says Mackenzie.
‘He’s a brilliant actor and a brilliant man.’ Mackenzie’s success has meant he has finally been able to go back to his first love, producing a beautifully illustrated children’s story called The Windvale Sprites.
It is about a boy called Asa Brown who, after the hurricane of 1987, discovers a small fairy man in his garden pond.
He investigates, helped by the 200-year-old lost journals of an alchemist called Benjamin Tooth.
The sprites have something of Mackenzie about them; half- dragonfly, half-man, they are long and thin creatures with big eyes and flowing hair.
The story had been gestating in Mackenzie’s mind since the electricity in his home was cut off for a week after the hurricane. In the tale he mythologises the weatherman Michael Fish who dismissed the idea of a hurricane ‘with a scoff’.
‘I do feel a bit bad about that,’ he says with a glint in his eye, adding: ‘I remember finding things blown into the garden and it occurred to me that I could easily have found a fairy in my fishpond. The story has been in my head since I was 15.’
The impetus to finally write the book were his two children with his wife Lindsay, a former comedy club organiser to whom he has been married for ten years.Theatre rolls: Crook alongside Kristin Scott Thomas in The Seagull at the Royal Court Theatre in 2007
Jude, eight, and Scout, three, have had to go weeks without seeing their father while he makes his latest movie. They stay in touch with the free internet service Skype. ‘When I was in New York we had it running most of the day,’ says Mackenzie.
One time Scout was playing and she picked up the computer. I was yelling: “Put me down! Put me down!”
‘She eventually placed the computer in her dolls’ house and played with her toys in there. It was lovely.’
For now, Mackenzie is staying this side of the Atlantic. He has a new West End show, which will start when Jerusalem ends.
And he has a couple of films in the works as well as writing his own movie script about the life of highwayman Dick Turpin, a part he wants to play himself.
‘It’s my dream role,’ he says, his eyes lighting up. ‘It would be the true story as opposed to the legend of this dandy highwayman. He was a vicious criminal and a murderer.
‘His face was heavily pock-marked and he was a thin man with a stark face; I could play that.’
And with that, he bounds up from his seat, cap on, face down, as he rushes away and does his best to be anonymous.