I'm still not sure that many American are familiar in any way with actor Steve Coogan's masterful comic creation Alan Partridge, a smug, failed television host that he began doing in the mid-1990s. But if you're one of the few that do know about him, then you're likely as obsessed with Coogan as a performer in any context, be it comedy or drama or a deft combination of the two, such as his latest film PHILOMENA (which Coogan also co-wrote and produced), directed by Stephen Frears.
For many filmgoers on this side of the pond, Coogan first came to our attention in director Michael Winterbottom's 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE playing Factory Records founder Tony Wilson. Winterbottom and Coogan have made some remarkably smart and funny films together over the years, including TRISTRAM SHANDY, THE TRIP, THE LOOK OF LOVE (which was released in the states earlier this eyar), and the just shot THE TRIP follow-up THE TRIP TO ITALY, where Coogan and Rob Brydon go on another ride-around through the great restaurants of Italy, trading impersonations and zingers at one another.
I believe my first memorable sighting of Coogan was as Mole in Terry Jones' adaptation of MR. TOAD'S WILD RIDE (1996), but after PARTY PEOPLE, Coogan began showing up in all manner of unexpected places, such as Jim Jarmusch's COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, Sofia Coppola's MARIE ANTOINETTE, HAMLET 2, Ben Stiller's TROPIC THUNDER, IN THE LOOP, both MIGHT AT THE MUSEUM films, THE OTHER GUYS, OUR IDIOT BROTHER, and last year's RUBY SPARKS.
I think it speaks volumes that of the four films I've seen Coogan in this year, only one of them was a full-blown comedy (that being the feature film ALAN PARTRIDGE: ALPHA PAPA, which hasn't opened in this country yet, but is one of the funniest things I'm seen all year). The other works--WHAT MAISIE KNEW, THE LOOK OF LOVE and PHILOMENA all tackle rather serious subjects, sometimes with a bit of the familiar Coogan humor mixed in. Coogan is striving to show a more dramatic side to his range--although clearly with another TRIP movie on the horizon, he hasn't abandoned his comedic post.
PHILOMENA is just about the perfect little film, based on the true story of Philomena Lee (played magnificently by Judi Dench), an elderly Irish woman who, when she was a teenager, got pregnant and was sent to a convent to have the baby, which was then sold to Americans while she was forced to work in the laundries of the convent for free for several years. The film track her search for her missing child 50 years after she gave birth, with the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan). Their journey takes them to the convent, to America, then back again in a sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking story. The two of them of one of the great road-trip pairings I've seen in ages, and Coogan's mixture of cynicism and compassion is perfectly played.
I had the chance last week to sit down with Coogan in Chicago, less than a week after he had successfully argued before the MPAA to drop PHILOMENA's rating from an R to PG-13 (the film uses the f-word twice). Please enjoy my chat with Steve Coogan…
Capone: First of all, congratulations on getting your PG-13 rating recently. That must have been a fun, unexpected adventure for you.
Steve Coogan: It was, but I like stuff like that. I like things that are different--anything that alleviates being an actor and talking about preparing for a role. The one thing that alleviates the boredom of [doing interviews] is that I wrote it, so I get to talk about something substantial rather than "I eat Rice Krispies in the morning because the character that I played I think would eat Rice Krispies." It’s a boring boring thing about how the actor would prepare for his role. I feel sorry for you having to ask those sort of questions.
But I feel far more fortunate in this process because I wrote it and produced it, so I feel like I can talk about things other than the acting even though the acting is important. But the thing we did for the MPAA was great because it was different, and it was great because I got to speak, and I thought that I could articulate. I had Bert Fields, a very eloquent lawyer with me, but I got to put my case, and collectively it was persuasive and they overturned the original R rating.
Capone: That doesn't happen very often.
SC: No, you have to have a two-thirds majority, which we did. And also I could tell, there were people on the MPAA board who cross examined their own advocates during the session and pointed out inconsistencies in the MPAA’s reasoning. And I have to say, I felt that they were grasping the straws, and it was more about the integrity of the MPAA--the bigger picture of "We need to stick to our guns," and you think, "Well why?" To defend it, the system did work because it was a 7-to-2 majority, but the deliberation went on for a little longer than was comfortable. I stood outside the room and started to sweat a little after about 10 minutes, 15 minutes.
Capone: But it looked like you and Judi Dench got to have a little bit of fun trying to convince the court of public opinion. [Dench made two videos--one with Coogan--in which she reprised her "M" character from the James Bond films in the hopes of putting pressure on the MPAA to change the rating.]
SC: Yeah, I saw that someone said, “Oh it was that viral video. That’s what made them change their minds.” No it wasn’t.
Capone: I never thought that.
SC: I saw that written somewhere, but no, that was a bit of fun. Harvey Weinstein is very good at putting things on the agenda, where it’s not just about the movie. But that’s not difficult with this movie because it’s about something; it’s not just a movie, it’s about something.
Capone: The fact that you had a hand in writing this and that it’s more or less a drama about a very serious subject in the bigger picture makes it seems that Philomena Lee’s story touched you very personally. I’m wondering if there were some personal connections you made to her story.
SC: Yes, but having said that, I was deliberately looking for a project--any project--that was just outside the normal meat-and-potatoes of comedy that I do, which I like doing, but it can be quite limiting. And I like to think about stuff as well as be funny. So I wanted to find a project that had some substance, if you like. Not that comedy doesn't have substance, but I wanted something that was really about something other than just to be a film, or to be a thing. I read the story in a newspaper, and it moved me and made me cry, and it made me angry, and I wanted to tell that story.
The personal connection, which was important because it touched me but also made me think I was equipped to write the script with Jeff [Pope, co-writer], was because my background’s half Irish, half Catholic, Philomena is the same age as my mother. So I felt a little connection and I thought, “Well, okay, I think I’m going to write about this stuff and know a little bit about what I’m talking about because I know this world, that sort of Irish-Catholic world.” That's the background. But I wanted to make it transcend that and not just be about that. The reason people seem to like the movie is because you don’t need to be from that background to get it. It crosses those cultural boundaries, because it’s about a mother and that mother-son connection, and in some way’s Martin replicates that son in parts of the movie.
So, yes, there was a personal connection with it, and also I was getting fed up with films that were not about genuine sentiment but were all about style. And not just big blockbusters, but even indie movies tend to be cynical and smart and clever, but even the smart movies are cynical movies. I wanted to do a movie that was smart but sincere, and being sincere doesn’t mean you have to be dumb and mawkish and cheesy. You can be sincere and smart at the same time. There aren’t many movies out there that do that. They tend to be wise-ass or ironic, and that’s the way they think, "Well we've got to do that to show that we’re not dumb-asses." There’s actually a way of doing that that’s smarter. PHILOMENA is actually the kind of film that’s not being made very often. It’s like an old-fashioned Hollywood movie in some ways.
Capone: And cynicism has it’s limitations too. You can only get so far with it.
SC: It’s good, and I’ve done a lot of cynical comedy in my time and enjoyed it, but it’s like smart, clever, clever-ass, wise-ass comedy is like chocolate. It’s really enjoyable, but you can’t get all of your vitamins from it. You need some more nourishment.
Capone: Including PHILOMENA, I’ve seen you in four films this year--I saw ALAN PARTRIDGE at the Chicago Film Festival and think it’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year. But that’s the only comedy I saw you in this year between MAISIE and THE LOOK OF LOVE. You say you're trying to do things with a little more substance; it seems like this is the year that’s really been the push.
SC: Yeah, it has. This has been a really important year for, me but that’s because all of these things came to fruition around the same time, which is good. All these flowers pop at the same time, and I’m pleased because I was flatlining a bit, treading water, and I wanted to change it up somehow from a career point of view. But also with comedy, I always find that if you just say, "I’m just going to do comedy movies," if you keep doing them, almost by the law of averages, it's going to get old for you and your audience. If you’re doing really broad comedy, like I did with ALAN PARTRIDGE, you've got to be judicious. If you do it all the time, if you do three comedy movies a year, it becomes just like going through the motions.
The Partridge movie was tough to make but I was excited about it because I hadn’t done anything with him for a while, I certainly hadn’t done a movie with him. So it was, "Okay, I think I can make this good." But if you get into just this crank ‘em out and pile ‘em high kind of comedy, then quality is going to suffer. So I'd like to do the odd comedy movie if I can and try to make it as good as possible and then do these other things that just interest me. I'll mix it up with some stuff I drive, some stuff that I can be cast in, and then the comedy stuff that I’ll return to, but they all inform each other. I don’t want to ever feel like I’m showing up and just clocking on.
Capone: This year has definitely been the year when you have not been doing that, at least in terms of things that I’ve seen you in. MAISIE was the most heartbreaking thing, and what was interesting about that character is you can sense that he wants to be a good dad, but it’s just not in him. You were perfect in that role because I don't think there was any cynicism in that portrayal.
SC: I always find it interesting in people who are morally ambiguous. I don’t know how to do that thing. When you see actors that are just full of integrity, I think that’s harder, because you see an actor playing a role where you know as soon as you see him that "That guy, he’s decent. And he’s going to be decent all the way through the film. He might be challenged, but he’s always going to do the right thing." And they're very watchful, but I don't know how to do that where a character is uncomfortable or torn. Basically, I like characters who do the wrong thing, and you still want to watch them.
Capone: One of the most interesting moments in the film is how easily Martin dismisses Philomena's story when he first hears it from her daughter. I'm assuming that is accurate. Did you talk to him about why he responded that way?
SC: Yeah, that is accurate. Some of the film is invention, but that is actually totally accurate. He didn’t think he wanted to help because it was not what he did. He was a political journalist. I used to see him on the news: "This is Martin Sixsmith for the BBC in Moscow." You’d see him with a microphone, and that’s what he did, and then he worked for the government thinking he was being smart and got stung. He got his ass kicked. When you become part of the problem, that’s when they pop a concrete boot on you and drop you in the river. That’s what happened to him, metaphorically speaking.
Capone: That used to happen in Chicago at lot.
SC: Quite a lot! I don’t know why we’re laughing about it, but yeah, it’s true. Sleeping with the fishes, right?
Capone: Yeah, that’s more New York.
SC: Right right. So Martin felt it was a little like he was punching below his weight, and I wanted to use that because it's slightly snobby, which is good because it’s good for the character. I did a lot of interviews with Martin and Philomena. That’s how we built the script off of his book, because he’s not in his book. I wanted to make the writing of the book the story, how they got to do a book rather than the book itself. The movie itself is about the missing son etc. etc. He was very nervous about that whole process but he saw her story as being slightly beneath him at first.
Capone: Was it easier for him to take on that assignment once he realized that her story was a part of this larger national shame regarding the nuns and selling babies? Did that make it feel more in his league?
SC: He knew that it was about something big but he said it was like, a little bit the way it was for [the character] Martin, he got sucked into it. He peeled the back layer and said, “That’s interesting,” and got more intrigued--as people do when they watch the movie. Sometimes when we were writing it, you say "Let’s make the movie replicate the actual story." And also, when you interview Martin and Philomena, you sometimes lead the witness. So I’d say, “Did you feel like this put things in prospective for you?” “Uh... yes.” “Good." So you trying to make it sense of everything. And I’m a slightly skeptical person when you say to people “It’s a story about me and an old lady searching for her son” and people go [underwhelmed], “Oh yeah, alright. Wow.” Right? So you have to go, "Okay, that would be my attitude too." So you have to have Martin have the attitude the audience will have at first, which is like "Is this going to be a quaint little cute story?" And then you take it somewhere else.
Capone: Initially when you and Jeff were writing this, did you talk to Martin and Philomena together so you could get a sense of their chemistry and how they talked to each other?
SC: They weren't nearly as funny together as we were. [laughs] We talked to them together and separately. I met Martin, sat down and had a conversation with him. He then introduced me to Philomena, I went around to his house and sat with Philomena and talked to her with him. And then I talked to Philomena separately. I went up with Jeff, then Jeff and I went to see Philomena at her home in Saint Albans, and we asked lots of questions and we sent emails to Philomena and her daughter Jane, who’s also in the movie. She was very communicative with us. She helped us out a lot, and we’d often send emails. We’d send her an email, “What happened when this happened?” And she’d go “Well, this happened” And we’d go “Ok, can we use that? That’s good. Or can we spin that in a slightly different way?”
For example, the kind of thing we’d switch is, in the movie Jane goes to this party and has a conversation with Martin. In reality, it was Jane’s friend who had a conversation with Martin, then Jane’s friend turned to Jane and said, "I had this conversation with this journalist. Do you want to speak to him?" So we just take the friend out and have Jane speak to him directly because you’ve got 90 minutes. But everything we did, I think I can defend every decision ethically. I think you do have to be ethical when you do this. You’ve got to tell a story, but you can’t just ride roughshod over someone's life by inventing shit and claim it’s based on a true story. There’s an ethic.
Capone: Obviously over your career, you've worked with some phenomenal actors and directors, but when you put yourself for an entire film with Judi Dench that’s a whole other plain of existence.
SC: Well it is, yeah. I look at the poster there, and I go, "Fuck, that's me and Judi Dench." I still can't believe it. I look at it and it's written there. Wow!
Capone: "There’s a picture of us together. Look at that."
SC: I know. I suppose that really did happen because someone made a poster of it. So I sometimes feel that.
Capone: How daunting was it?
SC: It was very daunting. The thing is, I was writing it, so I was lost in the producer-writing part of it, and I was like, "Oh we’ve got Judi Dench. Hang on a second. And it’s me that’s going to have to show up and do the part of Martin. This is different. Talk is cheap. Can you walk the walk from the first day of shooting." But I showed up and she was there. We did a camera test, and I think she said to me at one point--it was a slightly uncomfortable moment--“Who do you think should play Martin?” And I said to her, "Well we were thinking that maybe I would do that." It’s like it was all going to stop right here. And she went with it, but I’m sure she thought, “Hmm, is this right?”
But she went with it and pointed out that she'd worked with Billy Connolly [in MRS. BROWN], so she didn’t have like a snobby view of people who are normally associated with comedy. I think I should probably owe a little bit of a debt to Billy Connolly to be honest, because she did say that she realized that sometimes comic actors have this skill and was very nice about it. But yeah I was daunted. But because she looked so different, I forgot I was working with Judi Dench, and it was only when they turned her back into Judi Dench at the end of the day that I sort of freaked out. I was like "Wow, I’m working with Judi Dunch. I thought I was working with a little old Irish lady." And another thing was acting opposite Judi Dench makes you better. Acting opposite an amateur would be harder because you'd be looking into someone's eyes, and there’s nothing there; that’s the worst possible experience, and that has happened, believe me. I’m not going to say who. But with her, you’re getting all this stuff.
Capone: Could you actually feel yourself upping your game?
SC: Yeah, because you stop over thinking it. You stop acting. It’s so funny, I went to this thing last night in Hollywood, this Governor's Ball, where they give honorary Oscars, and they gave one to Steve Martin, and Martin Short did this speech, and he said something as a joke that really made me laugh about Steve Martin. He said, “So when I look at Steve Martin up there on screen, I think to myself, my god is he acting! Look at him act!” It was very funny, but that’s of course the big fear.
Capone: At what point was Stephen Frears enlisted into this, and what did he do in terms of shifting the story or the script?
SC: He was very good. I have a great relationship with Steve; I'd work with him again like a shot. He was intrigued by the script and the story and thought it was interesting, but he challenged it and he made the script better. He said, go back and the good thing about Jeff is, he's not precious. Steve would say this isn’t clear, this isn’t clear, and we’d have arguments about it, but Stephen was outside the story. Stephen didn’t connect with the story on a personal level because it’s not his world. He’s European Jewish, and I’m an Irish Catholic, but that actually helped. He had objectivity about it. He had a distance from it but he came for it.
I think what he did more than anything, apart from making the script tighter and more clear--clarity, he’d always say that--is that he, along with Robbie Ryan, the DP, he helped elevate it. There are a lot of conversations between two people in this film, and it could be dull, and he made it expansive and lyrical and lifted it so it became nice to watch and like a little journey rather than just this claustrophobic thing with two people talking. He never at any point arrested it from me. We’d have a conversation in the morning, and he’d say “How do we make this clear?” And I felt like he really was, as he’s always done in his career, trying to serve the material rather than make it all about him. It’s a Stephen Frears' film, but I never thought he was on an ego thing. He brought me to the edit, would ask me on my opinion on things. He's at heart collaborative, and I like that. I like to collaborate. And I don’t like to be totally in charge. I like to have dialogue.
Capone: I’m love that you keep coming back to work with Michael Winterbottom, and I understand you and Rob have made another THE TRIP. Is that going to be another six episodes again?
SC: Six episodes and a movie. It’s basically the same thing as before, but it’s in Italy, the food’s better, the scenery’s better, the weather’s better.
Capone: Are there different impersonations this time?
SC: Some of the impersonations are also the same. So let’s just nix the idea that it’s going to be new and fresh right now. [laughs]
Capone: I can live with more of the same.
SC: If they like it, just do another one. That’s what the studios do.