Ethan Lawrence interview: After Life actor on working with Ricky Gervais - and why the Netflix show had to end

Despite having his big break with Bad Education, actor Ethan Lawrence was the surprise package of Netflix’s hit show After Life. He spoke to NationalWorld about his experience of working with Ricky Gervais.

2018 was an incredibly significant year in the career of British comedic actor Ethan Lawrence - a 12-month period that saw him go from delivering pizzas to stellar performances on Netflix’s hit show After Life.

Playing the bubbly but troubled James in Ricky Gervais’ recent televisional masterpiece, the Essex resident is also known for his starring role as Joe in Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education.

Following the official release of After Life’s third and final season earlier this month, Ethan Lawrence spoke to NationalWorld about his experience working under the watchful eye of Ricky Gervais, why the show had to end, and much more.

Ethan Lawrence in After Life (Photo: Netflix)

The importance of Bad Education

Growing up in the countryside of Essex - “not the Towie bit” he makes sure to mention jokingly - the start of Ethan Lawrence’s acting career was nothing short of a baptism of fire.

Lawrence caught what he described as “the acting bug” between the ages of 11 and 17 when he was studying drama at his local comprehensive school, before venturing into the amateur musical theatre scene across the Essex region.

However, it was only when he was studying Drama and Creative Writing at university in London, that he made his first breakthrough into the industry.

“In the second term of my first year, I got a call to ask if I wanted to come and do an audition for this BBC Three thing,” he tells me.

“I was like ‘sure’, so I went in on a day in January and did the audition and got the call back for a recall and did not think anything would come from it.

“Two weeks later I am on my first ever professional TV shoot wondering what has happened,” he says with a snigger.

The shoot was of course for Bad Education, a cult-classic show starring British comedian Jack Whitehall, that turned out to be an outstanding success which Lawrence admitted was his “big break”.

Heading into filming with no professional credentials, his portrayal made fan-favourite character Joe an integral part of the show despite never acting for camera beforehand - a job that he described was like “learning on the go”.

A role that was not only pivotal in building a reputation, but also improving his skills as an actor.

“Without Bad Education, I would not be where I am today, 10 years down the line and still acting and plugging away,” Lawrence says with emotion in every word.

“I owe that show, I owe Jack Whitehall, I owe BBC Three basically everything.”

Ethan attempts playing two recorders with his nose in After Life (Photo: Netflix)

After Life and working with Ricky Gervais

Lawrence’s acting career continued off the back of Bad Education, and he starred in a number of British TV shows such as Modern Horror Stories (2018), and even official cinematic releases like How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017).

After a reading in London in 2018, Lawrence was offered a bit-part role in Netflix’s new dark comedy After Life, playing the character ‘recorder kid’ - he makes it abundantly clear that he could not play recorder with his nose (not for the lack of trying).

Following his brief cameo in the first season of the show, Lawrence’s career hit a stumbling block that forced him to look at other avenues to pay the bills, with pizza delivery his first port of call.

Ricky Gervais

But when Lawrence found out that After Life was greenlit for its second season, a call from Ricky Gervais confirmed that his services were thankfully required.

“After the first season, my career literally fell apart so I went into pizza delivery for a little while,” he says with a quiet giggle.

“Then After Life season two came calling and I was definitely not expecting that, and they said they wanted me back for all six episodes.

“To toot my own horn a little bit, I must have done incredibly well in my brief appearance in the first series, so Ricky saw something in the character, who was then given the name James, and I am very grateful as it ended up turning my career around.”

After Life has gone on to deliver over eight hours of television that has amassed way over 100 million viewers, making it one of Netflix’s most successful properties.

Of course, it is written and directed by its star, Ricky Gervais, the comedian who is best known as being the brains behind groundbreaking shows like The Office, Extras and Derek.

‘Ricky makes it so much fun’

It is well documented that one of the most attractive factors of working under Gervais is the freedom that actors are given on set, and Lawrence backs this up.

“He loved to allow us to play, so generally at least one take will follow the script directly as it is written and then we get an opportunity to play around a bit,” he explains.

“Some of the [more improvised] takes are kept in, whilst some of them are totally unusable because of Ricky’s distinctive laugh.

“After Life was somehow the most professional and most unprofessional set I have ever worked on,” Lawrence recalls with a laugh.

“The filming side of the show is so picture-perfect, yet working with Ricky makes it so much fun that it just doesn’t feel like work.”

After Life released its third - and what ended up being its final - season on 14 January, bringing a halt to the critically acclaimed show.

Fans fled to social media to express their agony that the series was over. Its gut-wrenching yet relatable themes such as grief, suicide, and mental health were a big part of this connection.

Lawrence says that the show had to end as it accomplished what it set out to do.

“I don’t think you could have done much more, I agree with it ending here,” he explains. “As nice as it would be to get the gang back together and do it all again, I don’t think the show has much more to say.

“Across 18 episodes and around eight-and-a-half hours of television, what more could have been added?”

The actor says the ending is the “perfect way” to conclude the story of After Life, and that if it went on any further, it would tarnish its legacy.

“I don’t think we could put Tony through much more really, could we?” he says, before erupting into laughter.

However, the end of After Life has raised some doubts over his personal and professional situation, describing the role as a “safety net” that was something to look forward to and what would help pay the bills.

It is now audition season and Lawrence explains that he has a body of work to be proud of, and is excited to take the next step in his career.

“Now I just need to use what I have already done as an engine to push me forward,” he says. “I have a body of work that I am inexplicably proud of and now I just need to use it.”

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