He's dry-witted and very clever, yet after his early years of fame and fortune, Steve Coogan became frustrated with his career. He was only famous in Britain for his television chat show host character, Alan Partridge, a miserable sod only they could appreciate.
I enjoy comedy but it can become wearisome.
Now, after experiencing top of the UK box office success with his Alan Partridge movie, Alpha Papa, which he co-wrote and executive produced via his Baby Cow Productions, Coogan unveils his greatest challenge yet with Philomena, which he adapted from Martin Sixsmith's novel, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Again he produced, co-wrote and stars in the film (with Judi Dench, whom he hired) though after Dench's friend, Stephen Frears, came on board as director he had a considerable force of the British film industry to reckon with.
I first met Coogan during a Cannes press junket to discuss his role as Phileas Fogg in the Jackie Chan vehicle, Around the World in 80 Days, a turgid period comedy that reeked of Chan's desperation to do his own thing in the English-language market away from the Rush Hour movies. Coogan used the 2004 film, directed by Adam Sandler alumni Frank Coraci, (The Wedding Singer) to help springboard his way into America, where he ultimately had little success.
Happy Endings (2005) was a flat romantic comedy written and directed by Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) and 2006's Lies and Alibies proved just as disappointing. He endured supporting roles in the Night at the Museum movies (2006 and 2009), in Ben Stiller's own Tropic Thunder (2008) and then alongside star and producer Will Ferrell in the poorly received The Other Guys (2010). Though he was very funny in the Cousins segment of Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes (2003).
Overall Coogan's sustained cinematic success has been with Michael Winterbottom. John Tamny at Forbes magazine in an article entitled The Enduring Genius Of Steve Coogan And Michael Winterbottom calls their collaboration “the most fruitful artistic partnership of the 2000s”.
“Michael opened the door for me to be able to escape from comedy,” Coogan admits. “I wanted to explore other things.”
They screened their first of five films, 24 Hour Party People in Cannes in 2002 and the actor, who was born and raised in Manchester, was the perfect fit for the Factory Records impresario, the big-talking Mancurian, Tony Wilson. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story followed in 2005, with Coogan playing a number of characters including himself and the film introduced audiences to his fellow imitator Rob Brydon. The illustrious niggling duo went on to improvise their way around England in The Trip (2010), which had started out as a sitcom and they recently reteamed for a sequel, The Trip to Italy. In this year's The Look of Love, probably their least successful film, Coogan played pornographer Paul Raymond.
Even if he considered directing Philomena himself, Coogan knew that as Judi Dench's old friend the amiable Frears was the better man for the job. Certainly Frears was not going to put up with any grandstanding and the actor, now 48, had to put himself in his director's hands more than he is used to. They found they shared a certain cynicism, which ultimately infuses Coogan's Sixsmith character.
HB: Many of the words that come out of your mouth seem like Stephen Frears' words yet they are your words. Did you kind of feel you'd met a kindred spirit?
SC: Yes, a bit. I had met Stephen a couple of times before but I didn't really know him very well. “When I first spoke to him on the phone about Philomena, he seemed to have a slightly cantankerous nature. I said, “I believe you're interested in the script” and the first thing he said was, “It's such a strange way to tell a story. What's that bit at the beginning about?” I thought, “Does he want to direct this?” But I soon saw through the outside of his shell and inside he is quite soft and malleable.
When it came to shooting the film, there was a constant dialogue between us. What Stephen and I had in common is that like Martin, we all have an air of cynicism. But I realise that it's not always a healthy state of mind and I needed to be aware of that. I wanted to show the triumph of hope over cynicism in the film.
HB: How long ago did you start the project?
SC: Well you could date it back to the Guardian article, 'The Catholic Church Sold My Child' in September 2009. I read that article and that's when I realised I wanted to tell the story because it moved me. I cried when I read it and although the story Martin tells in the book is largely about the missing son, what captured my imagination was a photograph in the paper of Martin sitting on a park bench with Philomena and they look like such an odd couple. I wanted to tell the story of those two people looking for someone.
One of my references was the 1982 film, Missing, with Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon. I remember thinking they don't really find the person they are looking for but they find something else. I also knew that the story on the face of it is quite depressing. I knew I'd be able to find comedy within the narrative and it was important to me to sugar the pill.
HB: Were you actively looking for something dramatic?
SC: I was. In the UK I am known for comedy and I enjoy comedy but it can become wearisome. No one would offer me those kind of dramatic roles so I thought I would create one for myself. Also, internationally I am not that well known, so while I'm put in a kind of box in the UK, I can present myself in a different way to international audiences. I didn't want to play this part initially, I just wanted to tell the story. I have a company in the UK and we produce lots of things that I am not in. But as I started to write the Philomena screenplay I realised I was putting a lot of myself into the character, a lot of my own opinions, so I thought perhaps I could do it.
HB: You've experienced a career resurgence of late and it seems to coincide with your coming back to England and having the Partridge movie doing really well. And now Philomena is being well received as well. How do you look back on your time in the US?
SC: I went to America and the biggest lesson I learnt was not to listen to advice but to go with your own instincts. And it took me a while to learn that lesson. I had initially done work which I wanted to do then I went over there I did a few parts that were kind of enjoyable but it was not really from me. I was just going through the motions of doing the things people tell you you're supposed to do when you go to America. They were interesting things and they were diverting but they were unsatisfying. So I tried to go back and do what I want to do, things I like to do, not things I'm advised to do. In America I made some not very good choices and also the opportunities weren't really there.
HB: Did you need that time out in the US because you were going through a divorce, and the British tabloids were getting to you?
SC: I just needed to.. [hesitates] You have this first flush of success, which is a double-edged sword, because you are categorised as something. The important thing is not to be defined by what others think of you. You can sometimes be driven by frustration and think, 'Well, I am just gonna go'. In the UK I'd auditioned for a few things and even though I think I did a good job, they always passed me by, not because they didn't think I was up to the job, but they were so encumbered with this idea of what they think I am. I was a victim of my own success in one area. I had to get creative. It's good in a way to have to do that. If things don't come easy to you, you have to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
HB: Alan Partridge, a lovable failure, comes and goes from your repertoire.
SC: I've been doing the character for 21 years now and we've never saturated the audience. We only did 18 episodes on television and some webosodes as well as the odd TV special. Basically we do something with the character then walk away. But when you've been away from him for too long you start to miss him. Alan is my bête noire. He's like an annoying relative that you quite like to see on holidays but you don't want to live with him. When writing him it's like being in a room with Alan Partridge for several months, which is actually quite annoying.
HB: How did you approach his movie debut, Alpha Papa.
SC: In the UK the only thing in our favour was that the expectations were low because people said it would be no good. So we had to make sure we got it right. The character became less caricatured--otherwise I'd get bored with it. I always want to refashion, reshape and improve it. In the beginning it was farcical. We laughed at him and his foolishness. We've now given him empathy and vulnerability, which was absent before.
We didn't want to Americanise him in any way. He's not the Judd Apatow style of character. I don't think Americans particularly warm to him. They like funny guys who are ultimately successful and the Brits like guys who are basically failures. “He's a douchebag, I wouldn't want to hang out with him,” the Americans say.
Friday 18 September, 7:40pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy-Clark, Mare Winningham