James Corden Brings British Comedy Stateside: An Up-Close Look at the Into the Woods Star
James Corden first spent a stretch of days in Los Angeles six years ago, when he flew in from London to heal a broken heart. “I realize now that I had been treated quite badly by an ex-girlfriend,” the English comic actor explains one fall morning, at the wheel of an exquisite XJL-class Jaguar cruising down Santa Monica Boulevard. “I was in such a state of heartache that my agent said, ‘Look, can you put yourself on tape for this American film?’ and I said, ‘I’ll just go.’ ”
It would be a leap toward something new—his favorite way of living—and a chance to capture what he calls a “a sunnier disposition.” He’d been in town about a week when his sister, worried, joined him. They drove together to Las Vegas. “We realized quite early that Vegas is not a place for a brother-and-sister combo,” Corden says drily. “We stayed one night, I didn’t really go to bed, and then we drove back at about eleven o’clock the next morning.” He didn’t get the part, but the heartache, true to his best hopes, was gone.
Now Corden, married with two small children in tow, is back in L.A., this time for the indefinite and uncertain future. At 36, the actor is preparing to debut as the fourth host of The Late Late Show on CBS: a talk program that, under Craig Ferguson, has become one of the most idiosyncratic and intimate on network TV. For Corden—stocky, blond, and amiable, with a dulcet tenor and a winsome vulnerability—it will be a trial by fire in the eyes of the American public, which knows him best, if at all, for his stage work. For the program, it will be a crucial new step in an era of upheaval. Corden is the youngest member of an energetic, more whimsical team overtaking the late-night airwaves. As the pin-striped-suited heirs of Johnny Carson take their bows and leave the studio stage, he stands within a cheeky lineup that includes Jimmy Fallon and soon Stephen Colbert up front, Seth Meyers in the other midfield slot, and John Oliver doing athletic sweeper work on the weekend. In part because Corden has an avid following in Britain (not to mention a Twitter fan base of 4.5 million), he arrives with the promise of international, digital-age viewers.
“As far as the online world goes, there’s no question that the kinds of content that James will put on lends itself, clearly, to younger, very hip audiences. I can see people sending clips of his all over the world, saying, ‘Look, did you see what James Corden did last night?’ ” says Les Moonves, the president and CEO of CBS, who hired Corden after being blown away by him in the wildly successful One Man, Two Guvnors on Broadway. “James’s will be such a different type of show. . . . It will be somewhat of a talk show, but it will also have variety. It will have sketches. It will have man-on-the-street.”
Corden’s first appearance in front of the Late Late Show cameras, on March 9, will be part of a double play for Stateside fame. The 2014 Christmas Day release Into the Woods, a film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), stars Corden as a sweet-hearted baker in debt to an accursed witch (played impeccably by Meryl Streep). The baker’s quest leads him into the path of a vaguely sardonic Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), a wanton wolf (Johnny Depp), and many magic beans. It’s a role perfectly suited to Corden’s gentle, unpretentious style of clowning, and it’s rich in the charm that has already won over theater audiences on both sides of the pond. (Corden made his name onstage in the original cast of The History Boys in London.)
“He’s just spooky-funny, and his timing is impeccable,” says Emily Blunt, who plays his wife (and singing partner) in Into the Woods. The two of them met years ago, at a charity polo match in England, and then worked together in the 2010 screen version of Gulliver’s Travels. “He kind of elevates you. Because we were friends, we had an instantaneous ease as this long-married couple,” Blunt explains. “You can’t really imagine anyone else playing that part once he’s done it.”
In recent months, Corden seems to have found a rhythm juggling the talk-show monologue, the stage, and the musical screen. “It used to be quite a segregated industry, where you were a film actor or you were on TV or you were a theater actor,” he says now, flipping on the Jaguar’s turning signal. His eagerness to take on The Late Late Show rose from a sense that those lines have blurred—and that he’s ready for a fresh kind of life. The Jaguar is a loaner, but, for a driver accustomed to left-side driving, he’s already comfortable in the heavy L.A. traffic. He has turned his car into an operations center, taking calls from his wife, Julia Carey, over the speaker system and streaming a series of swoony British ballads, such as Paloma Faith’s “Only Love Can Hurt Like This,” from his iPhone. He takes delight in the eclecticism of his music collection (“All people want is to say bands that other people haven’t heard of”), as he does, these days, in the curiosities of L.A. life: the sunlight, the coast, the odd local mind-set. “Lots of people will tell you about their house, and they’ll go, ‘Oh, my God, it’s amazing—it’s like you’re not in L.A.!’ ” he says. “In no other place in the world are people searching to find a house that doesn’t feel like the city they live in.”
‘Someone’s going to go, ‘OK—jump!’ And either a parachute will open or it won’t,’ Corden says of becoming a late-night host. ‘Either way, it’s going to be a fun ride’ ”
In January, Corden moves his family from their London home, by Regent’s Park, to a beachside place in Santa Monica, a jolt more social than geographical. “The hardest thing is not leaving London. It’s leaving my friends and my parents and stuff like that,” he says. Corden’s circle includes such British personalities as David Beckham and Dominic Cooper—his wedding to Carey, whom he met some years ago at a charity event, was attended by everyone from Lara Stone to Natalie Imbruglia—but he says the move to L.A. has been softened by the presence of his immediate family. “They are my home. It’s not necessarily the four walls we live in or the city that we live in,” he says. “Me and my wife, we’re going to have two children by then”—a three-year-old boy, Max, and an infant daughter, Carey, born in October—“and we’re going to be a unit. That’s my home, wherever they are.”
There’s a small unit behind the new Late Late Show as well. As of late fall, the show had two employees, Corden and his friend Ben Winston, who will executive-produce. Winston first met Corden in 2000, while shooting a TV drama called Teachers in Bristol: Winston, eighteen, was a production assistant, and Corden, 21, had a bit part as a school kid. They grew close one evening during a group outing to a local watering hole that Winston recalls as “without question the most depressing, miserable pub I’ve ever been in.” It was karaoke night, and the largely geriatric crowd wailed through a series of grim ballads. Then Corden, called to the front, launched into Robbie Williams’s version of “Let Me Entertain You.” “He got on the mic, he jumped on the table, and he started singing, and it was one of the single greatest performances of any song, anywhere, that I have ever seen,” Winston says. “This pub, in 30 seconds, changed from the most depressing place in the world to a phenomenal party atmosphere. Everybody was up on the tables, everybody was dancing, everybody was singing along. And I just knew that this was one of the most talented men that I had ever met.”
In the course of getting ready for the move, preparing for his show, and the tight publicity for Into the Woods, Corden hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to dance on tables lately. “If I think about it too much, it just makes my chest tighten,” he says. So he’s tried to let it go. Even before I meet Corden, he’s suggested, apparently in earnest, that we go skydiving together. He’d recently filmed a Christmas special for The Wrong Mans, a popular BBC/Hulu show he writes and stars in, that sent him on a few dives, and he loved it. (“I think everyone should do it. I think you should be made to do it at eighteen.”) He thought it represented his state of mind toward The Late Late Show, too. “Someone’s going to go, ‘OK—jump!’ And either a parachute will open or you’re going to hit the ground. But either way it’s going to be a fun ride,” he says.
Corden’s easygoing manner has a fretful edge, and at first the prospect of going from actor to daily host gave him pause. “I really went back and forth with my wife and my agents, looking at the pros and the cons of it,” he says. “The cons were: Will you still be able to act?” The more he thought about what an actor’s life actually meant, though (“How much of your week are you really, genuinely acting?”), the more appealing a fresh daily performance seemed. “When I began to think about the immediacy of it, I just couldn’t really sleep thinking how exciting it could be.”
Ben Winston thinks that it will be surprising, too. “What James has that other people don’t is that he’s an incredibly multifaceted performer,” he says. “He loves the fact that every day his life is different. That will be both a blessing and a curse for us. He will have to focus on this one thing, but the show will be better because he’ll want to sing in it, he’ll want to act in it, he’ll want to dance in it, he’ll want to write it, he’ll want to get really interesting information out of people.”
For his part, Corden wants the show to rest in a tradition, if not the expected one. “My influences are not Johnny Carson or Letterman or Leno, because I never grew up here,” he says. “My influences are Chris Evans and Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton and Michael Parkinson.” Unlike their American counterparts, who typically got their start in stand-up, many of these hosts found their footing in radio and worked up a goofier, chummier, more unscripted genre of “chat show” on the screen. “Warmth is the key, I think—I keep coming back to it all the time,” Corden says. “I don’t want to make a show that feels mean or spiky in any way. I want it to feel like no one is excluded. Like, whoever you are, if you’re awake, come and have some fun with us, you know?”
At Second Street in Santa Monica, a couple of blocks from the beach, Corden leaves the Jaguar with a valet, and we walk toward the water. Corden has the slightly overpronounced, knees-first stride of a man wading through a swamp in Wellingtons; although he’s dressed like many others in town—designer jeans, a black short-sleeved henley, Wayfarers—an aura of clownishness looms around him everywhere he goes, distilled in his bright pair of blue-and-white striped socks. (“It’s important to have a well-dressed ankle,” he says.) Initially, he tells me, humor was a defense. “If you’re the chubby kid at school, then you’ve really got two choices. You’re either bullied or you make yourself a bigger target, because bullies are scared by confidence,” he says. “I think it all comes from that, really—and a joy in making people laugh. There were nights in New York doing One Man, Two Guvnors where I genuinely thought, I never want this moment to end.”
Corden grew up in Hazlemere, to the northwest of London—“painfully ordinary. Just gray, with a sequence of roundabouts.” His father was a musician in the Royal Air Force band; his mother was a social worker who unerringly looked on the bright side of life. (“Anytime I’ve won an award, my dad has sort of laughed, and my mom has believed every word,” he says.) Still, as he began to act—his first role was as the innkeeper in a Nativity pageant—his charm onstage captivated even his guarded father. “These weren’t school-play laughs,” he recently told Corden.
Corden has never considered himself a true comedian (“Everyone’s got two funny stories they can tell for ten minutes”), but the laughs felt good, and he rode them higher and higher. In 2007, when he was 29, he co-wrote and acted in a BBC comedy called Gavin & Stacey that was a hit, and he found himself—at least in the U.K.—suddenly famous. “I have a theory about fame, which is I think that anyone who becomes famous spends the rest of their life trying to be the age they were,” he says. “The first time you walk in a bar and everyone looks at you, the first time that people want to sleep with you who didn’t necessarily want to before, the first time you’ve got a bit of money—all of that feels incredible.” The thrills, of course, don’t last. Even at 30, Corden says, he struggled with the attention, and it took him some time to recover. He believes the experience inoculated him against whatever American fame or infamy The Late Late Show may bring. “As long as you can take the praise with a bag of salt and the criticism in the same manner, I think you’ll be OK,” he tells me. “You’ll remain a person—which is really the goal.”
We’ve reached the Pacific Coast Highway embankment, overlooking the beach, and Corden has crouched down on a bench facing the horizon. It’s a crystal-clear day, and the sea is bright under the morning sun. “I looked at one of these houses to live in,” he says, rising and leaning over the rail to examine the beachfront homes below. Since settling on a smaller home—the better to keep track of his children, he says—he’s tried to get to know the area. One of his friends, Gary Lightbody of the British band Snow Patrol, lives nearby, and this evening the two of them will venture out to see a Belle and Sebastian concert at the Ace Hotel. (Corden will be home early, though: He’s made it his duty to watch the late-night shows while he has access to the American airwaves.)
He’s just finished shooting an adaptation, co-written by Richard Curtis, of the Roald Dahl novel Esio Trot for television, and we talk about his balance of acting and writing. Does he enjoy the writing? “Oh, I love it so much,” he says.
A passing pedestrian chimes in. “I’m lovin’ it, lovin’ it, lovin’ it!” he calls.
Corden strikes a pose. “I’m lovin’ it—like—that,” he sings (after the 2001 hit by the British group DJ Pied Piper and the Masters of Ceremonies). “Always good to have a nice dance reference midconversation.”
We head down the Santa Monica Pier, a gantlet of rides, food stands, and buskers reaching out into the shallows of the sea. Does it conjure similar places along the British coast? I ask. “Oh, yeah, sure. But they’re always catching on fire, for some reason. There’s always a pier burning,” he says. It reminds him of the carnivalesque style of entertainment known in the U.K. as end-of-the-pier comedy. Corden likes it. He likes all good-natured funny things.
We pass a husky dog having an epileptic seizure. “We’re seeing some sights,” Corden observes. To our right, a guitarist is playing “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” and Corden pauses for a moment to listen. “I feel like we’re in a romantic comedy,” he says. “But an independent one, you know what I mean? And this is where we’ll come back to at the end of the film. This is where we’ll really cement our love for each other, on this pier.”
When Heller Met Corden will be the title, he declares. Corden sees rom-coms everywhere. “I think they’re the hardest medium to get right. The best thing about it is that it’s happening right now. Today, someone somewhere has said, ‘I love you’ for the first time,” he says. “And that, for me, is so much more interesting than watching a film about the world being attacked by aliens.”
Recently, he tells me, he’s been having lunches with James L. Brooks, the comedy writer, director, and producer. “I just constantly talk to him about As Good as It Gets and some of the moments in that film,” he explains. “Like the bit where Jack Nicholson says”—Corden’s voice grows tender—“ ‘You make me want to be a better man.’ Argh! I can’t even begin to think how it must feel to write something like that.” He has an idea for a romantic comedy of his own, he tells me—“a small film about big feelings”—that he hopes to make one day.
To our right, a British couple is embroiled in a kiss while holding a phone aloft for a selfie. “Look at these people who are coming to this spot to really passionately kiss,” Corden says. “We’ve seen all of human life on this pier.” As we walk, we pass another busker, singing “Over the Rainbow.” “See, this is our own credits music, isn’t it?” Corden says delightedly. “This is 100 percent how our film’s ending! Will we kiss or just hold hands at the end? I’m trying to work it out.”
The next time I see Corden, he is onstage at the Glamour Women of the Year Awards, at Carnegie Hall, in New York. Running a breezy monologue in a dark suit and an elegant black knitted tie, his hair combed up into a boyish pouf, he offers an advance look at the host who’ll take to the airwaves in March. The night’s honorees include Sarah Burton, Laverne Cox, Mindy Kaling, and Samantha Power. Corden has a routine tailor-made for them. “You all look like you smell amazing,” he says. He talks about his newborn daughter and his wife’s pregnancy. (“I learned very quickly that there really are some things that you can’t ever say to your pregnant wife. The biggest one—and I learned this the hard way—is you can never, ever utter the phrase ‘Oh, God. I’m so tired.’ ”) Then he turns his attention, like a floodlight, on the crowd.
“Everywhere I look there are incredible, beautiful, powerful women, but frankly, ladies, there is one woman here who I cannot take my eyes off,” he says soberly. “It’s because she’s been undressing me with her eyes since the second I came onstage. She knows who she is. That lady is Hillary Clinton. Where is she? . . . Where are you? There she is.” A spotlight has settled on the former Secretary of State. A camera on the floor has found her, too, and it frames her reaction on the gigantic screen upstage.
“Honestly I tell you, Hillary, if you come up on Tinder, I ain’t never swiping left,” he says, with a mooncalf grin. “I want to be your ambassador for defense, yeah. Your secretary for offense. I want to be your minister of romance.” He lets a pointed beat pass. “You are a mum I’d like to ffffffffff-ollow into the White House!”
The audience explodes in scandalized laughter and then cheers. Clinton’s eyes have gotten wide, and so has her smile. She shakes her head. Corden, onstage, offers a slight grin back and moves on: Another risky landing made, and he is still intact.