Steve Coogan and Capone discuss HAMLET 2 and being thisclose to becoming famous in America!!
Published at: Aug. 18, 2008, 9:34 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
I've been spending a great deal of time in the company of Steve Coogan lately. I won't claim to have been a fan of his since back in his Alan Partridge days, but when I started seeing him in rolls in Michael Winterbottom's 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE and TRISTRAM SHANDY, I started digging back into his archives and find some of the funniest stand-up and sketch comedy material I'd discovered from across the pond in recent years. Coogan has been slowly making inroads into American films with misfires like AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS and absolute hits (as far as I'm concerned) such as COFFEE AND CIGARETTES. If you haven't seen his segment with Alfred Molina, you are missing something truly special. He's also been in Sofia Coppola's MARIE ANTOINETTE and played the miniature Trojan warrior Octavius in A NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, which stars Coogan's TROPIC THUNDER director Ben Stiller. (Coogan will be back for NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 2, thank goodness).
The reason for our sit down at the brand new Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago is the release of HAMLET 2, which marks Coogan's first leading role in an American film. The movie was the toast of Sundance this year, where it was also at the center of a bidding war. Both here in Chicago and at Comic-Con in San Diego, I was fortunate enough to do Q&As with Coogan, and he's a lot of fun in front of an audience (no surprise there; he's had a bit of experience).
You can probably read about 50 interviews online right now with Mr. Coogan, and they all cover some of the same material regarding HAMLET 2. So when I sat down to come up with questions for our actual sit-down interview, I wanted to cover what might be some less familiar territory on this press tour, and I think the results are pretty revealing. Yes, I even broached the subject of his run-in with the tabloids about a year ago when he was accused by Courtney Love of supplying Owen Wilson with the drugs that eventually led Wilson down a path to a suicide attempt. It was a nasty accusation that she has since retracted and has been proven untrue, but that didn't exactly take the sting out of a situation that could have easily derailed Coogan's career in the U.S. Enough prologue, let's let Steve Coogan speak for himself.
Capone: I’ve never been in this building before. It’s brand new. I knew they had opened the lower floors, but they're still building the upper floors, as I'm sure you've noticed.
Steve Coogan: Yeah, it’s properly new. It’s got that Donald Trump kind of power, masculine thing going on.
Capone: Last night before HAMLET 2 started playing, I was at a screening of the new MUMMY movie, and there was a line in the film about how this one Emperor buried workers under the Great Wall--because the film set in China--and if the workers building the wall died, they buried them under the Wall. And I leaned over the guy next to me said, “That’s just like Donald Trump.”
SC: [laughs] That’s so weird, but true.
Capone: Forgive me if I’m repeating questions we’ve talked about twice in public settings, but I want to get at least some of this stuff on record…
SC: That’s okay. I've been asked so many questions today, I won’t remember they’re the same.
Capone: That’s true, you won’t remember that it was me that asked them. You mentioned that you went to theater school. Were there musicals at the theater school? Did you do any of that?
SC: Musicals…I’ve done musicals. I was in an amateur Dramatic Society when I did…I did some pretty…I did “Son of Norway”--I don’t even know where that is--where I played Henrik Ibsen, aged about 19, just absolutely… 19 with sort of gray hair [laughs], just ridiculous, a terrible, terrible, terrible thing. And, [composer Edvard] Grieg was played by a local inspector for the CIDs, the sort of plain-clothes police detectives. He played Grieg. He was an undercover cop was his daytime job, but he was into amateur dramatics, and I was a student.
Capone: Probably not at the proper drama school.
SC: At the drama school, we did Noël Coward. I don’t remember any singing. I’ve done a bunch of singing stuff on TV, on live shows. I do lots of singing on my live shows. I sing songs, but that’s ostensibly to make people laugh, if they have any musical elements, you try to make them cogent musically, but, no, not like that.
Capone: Do find it heartening that whenever you do a Q&A, someone inevitably will bring up your British television work, which in a lot of cases hasn’t really played here properly, at least not in a wide venue? It’s sort of like how "Spaced" and Edgar [Wright] and Simon [Pegg]. They were sort of discovered in America via the Internet, and then people started buying the DVDs from the U.K.
SC: That’s what happened to me. It’s kind of frustrating. The worst pain in the ass is the BBC. They play catch-up with this thing. They should be leading that sort of thing. It’s, like, normally people are trying to sell things people don’t want. These people want something, and they can’t friggin’ get it.
But, I think they’re finally releasing the series “I’m Alan Partridge” on DVD. They’re doing some big boxed set of all Steve Coogan’s stuff that’s ever been done on the BBC and sell that in America, a boxed set, which will be pretty good, because it’ll have lots of pretty obscure stuff that’s almost impossible to get a hold of. Nothing’s going to be on there that I don’t sanction. So, it’s going to be, like, a comprehensive. If there’s a Steve Coogan nerd, then this present will be coming for them.
Capone: Is that coming out this year, do you know?
SC: Umm, I think it’s, um, when would that be? That would be…I don’t know. [Calls to someone in another room.] Anna! Do you know that Steve Coogan boxed set thing that I talked to BBC Worldwide about…You know about that, boxed set of everything Steve Coogan’s done ever, ever, ever? You don’t know about it. Okay? But, they want to do that, anyway. I don’t know when it’s coming out. I’m not sure, but it’s soon-ish.
Capone: Okay, I’ll keep an eye out for it. Yesterday, when I asked you how important is it for you to be famous here, that’s not exactly what I meant. Rather, is it important for you to make your mark in America as well as the places where you’re already widely known. In the comic landscape, does it mean something to you to be recognized here?
SC: To be honest, to be honest, it does mean something…My life will be fine without it. Does it mean something, though? Does it mean something to me? Yes, because I like to climb mountains, small mountains, if I can, and the U.S. is notoriously a tough nut to crack in any way, shape or form. Very few people have managed it. Peter Sellers did it, Dudley Moore did it for a little while. Sacha Baron Cohen has done it with BORAT, and I’m sure it will go on to keep doing it, but it remains to be seen. I think he’s got everything in place to do that. Simon Pegg is kind of, I think…sort of, is kind of getting there.
Capone: He’s on the brink.
SC: Yeah, and I’ve got a shot, so…And, I’ve got a shot today. I’ve got the right DNA, and I’ve got all the kind of things you’re supposed to have in place. So, yeah, it would mean a lot to me to do that, because it would be a big achievement. But, it can take many shapes or forms.
But, what’s more important to me, in a way, is being able to keep doing different, interesting stuff and keep kind of moving or keep working hard, and keep wanting. As long as I know I still have motivation to work hard at what I do, then it kind of makes me feel vital and alive.
I think you have to challenge yourself. Anything that involves the risk of making a fool of yourself in a nonfunny way is probably good, is good, because it keeps you awake and makes you feel alive. I just like those things that have a risk involved, like doing this live tour in the U.K. And, I’m excited. It scares the f-f…the hell out of me.
Capone: You can swear, if you want. It’s alright.
SC: Okay, it scares the f-f-bejeesus…Yeah, it scares me. But, that’s a good thing. It’s only when I’m complacent, I’ll be lazy. So, I’d love something to happen today, because new things would happen, and it would be exciting. There was a feeling I had about 15 years ago when I was just starting out in the U.K.…what it was like, that kind of feeling like a young Turk, like the new thing. And, I haven’t felt that for a while. I suppose I feel a little bit like that now, in America, because I feel that newness, because I’ve got that novelty vibe for some people. And, it would be nice if that became an opportunity to do other things.
Capone: I liked what you said last night about especially liking the uncomfortable aspect of humor, epitomized by Sacha, as opposed to jokes and punch lines. Can you talk a little bit about that? I think you pretty much encompass all kinds of humor in HAMLET 2, but it’s that stuff where your character is really uncomfortable in something that makes for some of the funniest scenes.
SC: Yes, I think that’s true. There’s also some broad stuff in there, and I do stuff on stage that is broad comedy, which if done well I kind of like. But, I like to mix it up, I like to put clever jokes in between dumb jokes, especially when I do my live stuff, then I kind of keep the frat boys with bottles of beer in the house happy and also the chin-scratchers, as I call them, who want something more esoteric. I like trying to constantly throw the ball to all of those guys.
But, looking for pain, discomfort, awkwardness…The reason I gravitate towards that sort of thing--and I really do--even in a real situation, in my real life when something is happening to me or I’m witnessing something, which is really awkward and uncomfortable, even if it’s happening to me, I can stand outside it and go, This is really interesting. At the same time I’m feeling uncomfortable, I’ll go, Oh, this is really interesting, I’m feeling really awkward right now. This is going to be useful. I must remember this really awkward, uncomfortable feeling, because for some reason it’s attractive, and it’s funny.
If it’s done in a funny way, it makes talking about that discomfort or displaying that discomfort to the audience somehow more powerful. It, like, sugars the pill, if it’s done in a funny way. I always think that examining those uncomfortable moments tell us, for some reason, the more interesting aspects of humanity. It really cuts to the heart of what we feel like as humans, because when you’re in an uncomfortable situation, it’s like an animal feeling of not wanting to be there. It’s really fundamental, it’s a really truthful feeling that you can’t really put into words. Words are often involved, but it’s not about what’s being said.
To me, that’s the most interesting aspect of humanity, so I kind of gravitate towards that. I don’t find out what we learn from that, but I think we do learn something. And, it kind of exorcizes that stuff. It’s like you air it, and put it out there, and laugh at it, and somehow you’ve mastered it, you've anesthetized it.
Capone: You’ve had your brush recently with the tabloid press. Did you find that funny?
SC: Yeah, that's true. On the one hand, yes. In retrospect, yes. When it was happening, it kind of…well, I was fucking furious. I was absolutely furious, because it was totally untrue. On the one hand, it's very difficult to say…I used to do a mea culpa for some things. I would love to be able to say, "Yeah, that story, there was some truth in it. Yeah, there was some fire there where you saw the smoke, or whatever." But this was totally untrue. Zero truth in it. Not even a grain of truth. And, I talk to people [who say], "Oh, come on. There must be…" And, I’m, like, No, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero. It got put out there by someone who had another agenda.
Capone: I think the source might have clued some people in that…
SC: Well, I was told that journalists were supposed to check the veracity, the reliability of the source. And, that’s as far as I’ll go on that. But, anything that’s ever happened to me I kind of try and feed into what I do creatively, so it doesn’t really…I’ve got a pretty thick skin, too. I’ve been in this business 20 years, and I’ve had my scrapes. I’m living a certain kind of life. I have a certain kind of profile. I don’t like people close to me in my real life to be affected by things, so I don’t try and court publicity in that way. I’m quite private, but I’ve got a thick enough skin that if something happens to me, I’ll try and kind of co-opt it into my creative process and, therefore, have mastery over it.
Capone: Regarding this particular film, I think one of my favorite aspects is that your character has this obsession about turning movies into plays. And, when he sees that the makeup of his class is not what he is used to, he turns to movies again to see how he should deal with these troubled kids. And, he turns to these terrible--maybe some people like them--these inspirational teacher movies.
SC: Well, I like the fact that they’re only terrible, and not that they’re badly crafted, but they are what you might call, what I would call ‘ bite-size’ ethics, you know what I mean?
Capone:…and the kids aren’t as bad as the real kids are.
SC: I know. Yeah, bite-size ethics. And, it’s a palatable kind of danger. It’s soccer-mom-friendly danger in these movies. But, I don’t know why that made me laugh. I just want to say that I don’t know why it made me laugh so much…we should have put on a stage version of ERIN BROKOVICH. I didn’t know why it was funny, and yet I knew why it was such a perfect choice. It was, like, This is genius, what a genius choice of a film to put on. I’m thinking, Ahh, this is great. It’s like when you read something that really connects with you, especially in comedy, and you go, This is so funny, and it really makes me laugh to the bone, it’s like being on a different planet and finding out that there are others out there. There are other survivors that you can reach beyond the city. That’s how I feel about it, especially with good comedy writers. I met with [writers] Pam [Brady] and Andy [Fleming], its so great to meet people…it’s like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, when you find out some people are still human.
Capone: I want to talk about some of the things coming up, because you’ve got a pretty full slate into the next year, I think. You are in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 2, correct?
Capone: Playing, I assume, the same…
SC: The same soldier, tiny soldier with Owen Wilson. I’ve got to do something I can take my daughter to see.
Capone: I don’t know how big your roles are in all of these, but you've done SAFETY GLASS with Hilary Duff?
SC: Yeah, I did do that. I don’t know what that’s like. It’s being edited. It was a very interesting movie. There was a very good young cast, including the girl who was in JUNO, Olivia Thirlby. She’s really great. You know, she was this young, scarily good actress who can raise my game, somebody, you go, Omigod, she’s young enough to be my daughter, and she’s blowing me off stage. I’m going to have pull my socks up.
Capone: Are you making another one with Michael Winterbottom?
SC: I’m definitely going to do the film with Michael, but I don’t quite know when it is. I’ve got about three choices, and one of them is going to go. We don’t know which one it is, but we’re talking about a bunch of different things. I’m definitely going to work with him again. He’s like an older brother to me, like a mentor, and helped me do stuff that’s very different from what I’ve done before, and helped me learn stuff about…The most important thing about working with him is learning to do stuff where…most comic actors are control freaks. Working with him, I learned how to totally not give a shit about being in control, totally let go and see what happens in a sort of free fall.
Capone: The two movies you guys made together are two of my favorites from the years those came out.
SC: He said to me, TRISTRAM SHANDY is like a sister piece to 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE. We’ll do another one, and then it will be like a trilogy.
Capone: It's been great meeting you. Thank you for a few days of fun Q&As and this.
SC: Yeah, we've been spending a lot of time with each other. Thanks again.