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Steve Coogan talks Alan Partridge and being “that guy with Judi Dench”

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Steve Coogan lives a sort of double life: In his native Britain, he’s a comedy icon with an extensive filmography of popular and award-winning TV shows; if he’s known by mainstream American audiences at all, it’s for his frequent supporting roles, from Octavius in the Night At The Museum films to the director in Tropic Thunder. In a way, that relative anonymity helps his new film, Philomena, a drama about an Irish woman (Judi Dench) who looks for the son she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years before with the help of a cynical journalist (Coogan). Although the film has plenty of humor and Coogan’s character exudes a familiar snobbishness, it’s a change of pace from what fans of his comedy (such as his Alan Partridge character) have come to expect. Philomena, which Coogan co-wrotebased on a true story, opens in theaters this Wednesday.

Philomena (2013) — “Martin Sixsmith”/screenwriter
The A.V. Club: You’ve described the film as “humanity without irony.” Have you found that people are surprised hearing that because you come from comedy?

Steve Coogan: Yeah. It’s not surprising to me because I’ve done a lot of comedy like that, but if you’re creative, you always want to do something difficult, look for the most difficult thing to do. The limitations of cynicism just became more and more apparent to me. I love comedy. Comedy almost by its nature can’t be just sincere and straightforward, generally speaking. Something has to be distorted for it to work.

When I started doing stuff in the early ’90s, it seemed fresh and different, and then you see every journalist, every article, everything being ironic in some way, and you start to realize that being genuine and sincere becomes almost avant-garde because, by definition, no one’s doing it. I thought, “Well, that’s the really hard thing to do, actually to put love into something, to talk about love.” I was speaking to someone else the other day and they said, “Words that people feel self-conscious using, one of them is beauty.” To describe something as “beautiful” now is embarrassing almost to some people because it feels naïve, self-conscious, all those things, and I think, “Oh, that’s good.” As soon as I think people feel self-conscious about something or it’s slightly embarrassing, that almost, by its definition, attracts me to it.

AVC: In an interview with The Guardian, you said that, as you’ve gotten older, you’ve started to wonder about what you’re contributing. Is that part of it too?


SC: Yeah, and also, I have to say, this kind of choice and this kind of soul-searching moral dilemma is a luxury. At worst it’s navel-gazing, but it’s what comes with success, in that I can afford to have these philosophical conversations with myself. Most people have to put roofs over their heads, so I’m mindful of that. I’m privileged in that I can think about things and make choices like that. Almost because of that, because I can make choices to then take, I can’t claim that I’m just trying to pay the rent. Therefore, I think I’m morally culpable in some way. I think the people who have any kind of power have moral culpability. You make choices about the way you act and all the rest of it. I just feel like I wanted to do something that contributes something. That thing that Shakespeare said about, why do you do this? To shed light on the human condition. Not to provide answers, but to just add to the conversation about why we’re all here, to contribute to that, and to sort of try, in an intelligent way, to lift everyone up a little bit and not push people down as a way of empowering yourself.

AVC: You’ve written a bunch of things that you’ve acted in before, but not necessarily films, besides the new Alan Partridge movie. Was it more difficult to perform in a film that’s being directed by somebody else, but that you wrote?

SC: Not with this. Generally speaking, I’ve either done stuff that I’ve had a certain autonomy over, or I’ve been a hired gun in someone else’s film, like a studio film or working with Ben Stiller or whatever. I just show up and do my thing. But I didn’t want to do that with this. It’s not been that different from when I do the comedy that I do. In the comedy that I do, it’s very much my kind of thing and I’ve had directors that normally I’ve hired. This is a bit different, although Stephen Frears has huge status. But it wasn’t so very different because Stephen isn’t so much of an auteur that he wrests control and says, “Now this is my movie,” which other directors would. They would say, “Okay, you have to trust me. You have to let this go.” There were other directors I spoke to who said, “Are you prepared to let this go?” because I’d written it and invested of myself—and I wasn’t, frankly. I mean, I probably said that I was to various people. “Oh yeah, of course I am prepared.” But inside I was thinking, “No, fuck that. I fucking sweat blood and tears.” Stephen was very collaborative and listened to me and talked to me, and even in the edits he brought me in and we had discussions about things. He didn’t claim to have a monopoly on the right thing to do, ever. We’d have robust discussions, but I always felt as though I was having a dialogue with him. And I’d work with him again in a heartbeat. It was great because he would challenge you, but you could argue back and then we’d arrive at a decision.

Resurrected (1989) — “Youth 2”
SC: Wow, that’s Paul Greengrass.

AVC: Right, his first film and your first film credit.

SC: He [just] did Captain Phillips. It’s funny, I had two lines in that movie. In fact, I went to see Paul in 1988. I was still at drama school, and I went into the audition and just did some impersonations for him. He was laughing and said, “We’re going to get you in the movie.” He didn’t even know what I was going to do. I did some long-forgotten contemporary politicians, and he put me in the movie. Then I worked with him again, actually, about 10 years later. 

AVC: In a TV movie called The Fix.

SC: A TV movie called The Fix, that’s right, before his Hollywood career exploded. 

AVC: Did he remember you?

SC: Oh yes, he did. We met up and he said, “I want you to do this thing.” In fact, I had lunch with him about a year ago, just after doing Green Zone and talked about maybe doing something. I really admire him as a director. He’s intelligent. His background is investigative journalism, which he did on TV documentary stuff, so he brings a kind of kinetic energy. He’s someone else who’s actually able to make things that are important and have substance but he makes them entertaining, too. It’s good, because when you’re watching something that’s about something or has some substance, it doesn’t have to be a chore. It doesn’t have to be an ordeal. It can be enjoyable and be exciting, and that’s great when you get those things together.

AVC: Yeah, United 93 was… “enjoyable” isn’t the right word—

SC: It was harrowing. But it’s visceral. And it’s engaging and captivating and haunting and all those things. But you never feel it’s exploitative, either. That’s a real balance. You don’t feel like someone’s just cranking a handle to get you to feel things. 

Spitting Image (1987-1993) — various
SC: When I was in drama school, I used to do impersonations. I did some voiceovers on local radio ads, and I had a little tape that I put together in those days, in the days of cassette tapes, and I mailed one to… There was an advert, in fact, in the entertainment newspaper saying “Voices required for Spitting Image,” and I sent my tape.


At the same time, I got on a talent show in London, a TV talent show. I was still in my last year at college and John Lloyd, who produced Spitting Image, but he also did Not The Nine O’Clock News, and he did Blackadder, and did a lot with Rowan Atkinson. He picked my tape out of like a thousand tapes and said, “This is the guy.” Also, at the same time, the guy that was producing the talent show, they called each other and they both said, “Hey, I found the guy.” Jeff Perkins, now no longer with us, rang John Lloyd and said, “I’ve found the guy who’s the new voice,” and John Lloyd said to him, “Is he called Steve Coogan?” and he said, “Yes, how’d you know?” and he said, “Because I found him, too.” They both arrived at the same decision, which was great. So that’s how I got in the business.

AVC: You’ve said in interviews that it was almost like a constant auditioning process when you were on that show, because there was a continual need for new voices.

SC: They’d just say, “Who can do this voice?” and I’d stand at the microphone and the other voice artists would [go]. There were like six of us, and some of them were more established than me and I’d seen them on TV and was like, “I’m working with these people who’ve been on TV.” So it was like that. But it was exciting. I was 22 years old.

AVC: And that was a popular show.

SC: It was a very popular show. It was one of the most popular shows on TV. I’d start doing stand-up on the comedy circuit, and I went out as the voice from Spitting Image. That was my tag. That was my claim to fame. “The voice behind Spitting Image.” It was like, “Hey, it’s this is the guy that does the voice of Spitting Image.” That was the only thing I had. I really milked that for all it was worth.

AVC: IMDB lists your primary voice as Douglas Hurd.

SC: I did everyone. Sometimes some people wouldn’t be there one week, and you’d have to do the impersonation. You have to impersonate someone else’s impersonation—not do the one you wanted to do. For example, there was a politician called Neil Kinnock, and I had to impersonate the impersonator’s Neil Kinnock, not the one that I could do, which, I thought, was way better. But I couldn’t do that. It was all great fun, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do.

AVC: You lost interest after a few years.

SC: Well, I didn’t even want to do it when I started doing it. I was grateful to do it because it was a gig, but I wanted to write and act and perform. As I’ve gotten older it’s gotten easier for me. When you leave drama school, you do your showcase, but they tend to choose the pretty boys because everyone’s raw when you come out of drama school. Everyone’s the same. You’re just like this blank canvas. You don’t know anything about life, you’re 22 and you go, “Can I have a job?” I only ended up writing because I had to, to write my stand-up act. Then I got into TV, started doing the odd comedy special for TV, and that turned into a series and I started writing my series. Also, another thing that I’ve always done, I’ve never been a one-man band, and I’ve always hitched my wagon to other talented people. The smartest thing I’ve ever done is realize that there are people smarter than me.

I’ve worked with Patrick Marber, who now has a successful screenwriting career, and Armando Iannucci, I wrote with him. Peter Baynham, [who’s with] Sacha Baron Cohen now, and the Gibbons brothers, the new writers on Partridge, they’re fantastic. I wrote with a guy called Neil MacLennan on Saxondale, a TV series I did which I’m very proud of. And then Jeff Pope on [Philomena], so a lot of people. I like writing with different people. I like forging fruitful new relationships. I like being excited. This is going to feel like a new phase in my career, and it’s the best phase yet. Really, this is what I wanted to do 25 years ago. Now I’m doing it. I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do. There’ve been phases in my career where I’ve been compromising, but this is not compromising for me.

What Maisie Knew (2012) — “Beale”
AVC: A lot of the buzz around Philomena is about your doing a dramatic role, but you already had a dramatic role earlier this year in What Maisie Knew. How did you end up working in that film?

SC: The directors just asked me to do it, simple as that, and sent me a script. It was just that simple. It was a gig. Julianne Moore was in it. I thought it was interesting. In some ways, I suppose, in the U.K., because of my success with Alan Partridge, that limits the way I’m perceived over there. About two or three years ago I spent a year trying to audition for other people’s things. I didn’t get anything, partly because people admired me but just really saw me as this thing. In a way, because I’m not that well known in the U.S., it was actually to my advantage. Because they see me as—“Oh, he does this thing in the U.K.,” and they’ve seen the Michael Winterbottom films—more of a low-key art-house movie actor in the U.S. I’m perceived in a different way, which means that when people did want to work with me it was because they’d seen a body of work they thought was interesting. In the U.K., that’s not what they see. They almost forget that I do these Michael Winterbottom films. They just see Alan Partridge. That was very limiting for me.

AVC: Didn’t you have some network executives tell you that you only do comic caricatures?

SC: Yeah, they said, “You do comic caricatures. We don’t want to give you a part; we don’t think you’d work in a drama.” That pissed me off. I should thank them, maybe, because without that anger, I wouldn’t have channeled it into something creative like Philomena. In fact, had they indulged me and given me all these parts, I may well not have taken the initiative to sit down and set about doing something with autonomy. It’s the old adage, “If you want something done properly, you’ve got to do it yourself.” It was like, okay, I’m going to have to find something. I was so annoyed about that, I thought, “You know what, I’m going to find myself a project. I’ll make sure it’s a really good part and I’m going to give it myself. And I’ll do it. Because I know I can do it.” So that’s what I did.

24 Hour Party People (2002) — “Tony Wilson”
AVC: This was your first film with Winterbottom?

SC: Yeah.

AVC: You grew up outside Manchester. Did you have a kinship with that scene?

SC: Oh, totally. One of my first stand-up gigs was at The Hacienda. It’s been knocked down now but, yeah, I did a couple of gigs there, two gigs there in November ’86, while I was still at college. I was just starting to do stand-up and do impersonations. This was before the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses, before that exploded. Because The Hacienda, as a nightclub, was very different. There was a place called The Dry Bar in Manchester, too. Both funded by money from New Order and Tony Wilson ran them. Yeah, I used to go to that club, but it was a fallow period where The Hacienda wasn’t making money—it was probably losing money—but it was very hip and unusual. They were way ahead of the curve, both that bar and that club, because they had this pseudo-industrial design, which no one was doing at the time, which was like exposing the guts of the building inside and not trying to disguise the industrial nature of the building. That was all part of that kind of philosophy. 

I used to go to The Hacienda as a student. I grew up in Manchester. Also, one of my first gigs in local TV was doing the comedy round-up, a satirical look back in the week’s news in a regional debate show that was hosted by Tony Wilson. So I was on the show with him. It was only years later that I was asked to play him in a movie when my career had moved on. So he was part of my childhood, in a way. 

AVC: How much did you work with him when the film was happening?

SC: I went and had dinner with him and talked to him about stuff. He was a little nervous, as everyone is: Oh, I’m in comedy, I’m just going to mock them, make fun of them. But he talked to me, and I think he sort of flirted with the film as we were making it. He’d come along and see what we were doing. He was nervous but also attracted to it. Eventually he saw that he was being honored. The film honored him and wasn’t disparaging, and he grew to love it. Part of his philosophy too, was that thing of like printing the legend, the John Ford thing. A lot of the quotes in the film are from him. In fact, the best compliment he paid me, when he wrote his biography about that time, was, “I watched the movie and saw the way you said something about selling out.” I can’t remember, I’m paraphrasing myself here, “I avoided the problem of having to sell out or not by not having anything to sell out.” He said something like, “I never actually said that, but the way you phrased it in the film was so good that I just decided to say that I said it in my book.” So he took what I said in the film and made himself say it in reality when he wrote his book. It was a real art/life, life/art thing.


Various projects (1994-2013) — “Alan Partridge”
AVC: You talked about Alan Partridge casting a long shadow over the stuff you’ve done. I read a quote from Mick Hucknall of Simply Red who seemed to take personally the quip you made about him as Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People. It was something like, “Steve Coogan’s so good as Alan Partridge because he is Alan Partridge.”

SC: Yeah, he said that afterwards. Because I worked with Mick on an Alan Partridge special and then he said that. I think he said that to have a dig at me because the film 24 Hour Party People had a slight dig at him. I think that pissed him off, so he decided to say, as people do, because they know how to get under my skin. When [Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa] came up in the U.K. [journalists] said, “It’s going to be terrible.” And then if it’s good they go, “Oh, it’s good. Okay, he’s just a one-trick pony. Okay, well we’ll say that. He’s just a one-trick pony.” I was so pleased when they said that because I thought [Claps.] “Oh good, because I’ve got Philomena up my sleeve,” and I made it before Partridge, and it’s a good film. I knew that I had that. I thought, “Please keep calling me a one-trick pony so I can smash you over the head with this movie.”

AVC: Does the Partridge film have a U.S. release date yet?

SC: I think it’s next year. I think after awards season is over, which is smart. I also think they saw that [Philomena] was good and decided to delay it and ride it on the back of this because this is going to do way more business, I think, than Partridge

AVC: Yeah, because the Partridge character in the States is not as well known.

SC: No, it’s not. In the U.K. ,it’s like a mainstream thing. In the U.S., to be kind, it’s, depending on the point of view, unknown, or it’s got a cult thing. I bumped into Jonah Hill and he came up to me and said he’s a huge Partridge fan. It’s weird. I know that those guys, that fraternity, that Judd Apatow bunch of guys, are Partridge fans. He has a status among the best of the comedy community in the U.S., but he’s not known by a wider audience. In some ways, that’s probably a good thing because if Partridge was this big success like Borat, for example, I’d have the same problem I have in the U.K. So it’s actually been a strange blessing because it’s enabled me to do stuff like this. For example, no one in the U.S. is going to be going, “Why is that comedy guy playing that guy in a film with Judi Dench?” So that’s fine. They go, “Oh there’s Judi Dench, and there’s this guy with her.”

AVC: Did you have any sense that that character would have this longevity?

SC: Not at first. Not at all. It sort of became inevitable because at first it was just a voice in a radio show, and they said, “What do you think he does?” and I said he probably does this, he probably does that and then as time went on I thought, “I don’t want to keep doing all these characters.” There’s a bit of me in all these other characters and I thought, “Well, let’s just do this one and make it really good.” Then what you do is, I used to put bits of myself into other characters, like I did this other character called Paul Calf, which was kind of a bit of me, the sort of unrefined part of me—if I get drunk, I’m a bit like Paul Calf. But then when you just do one character, you think, “I’m just going to put it all into this one character.” The character suggests longevity because you put more and more of yourself into it, because there’s nowhere else for your idiosyncrasies to go, so you throw all your dysfunctions into the character. Which is what I do. It becomes like a trash can for everything that’s wrong with you, which is good. What’s quite cathartic about it is any embarrassing situation or awkward situation or difficult conversation or any remonstration or argument even that you have, it’s all good because you just go, “Great. This is all stuff I can use. Just throw it all in.” “Oh, I just had an awkward conversation with someone. I must remember that.” Rather than just going, “Oh, I had an awkward conversation with someone, I feel really bad. I want to forget about it.” In that way, it’s been good. 

The Trip (2010) — “Steve”
AVC: What about that relationship with Winterbottom clicks for you?

SC: I just feel like, he’s my friend but definitely saw beyond my caricatures, which I’m really grateful for, and gave me a window into something else. I felt like I became his muse. He’d just chuck stuff at me, but he’d see me as something else, I suppose. Then when we work together, we don’t really talk much. I just get a sense of what he wants. The biggest revelation of working with him is I learned to not be entirely sure what’s going on, not be entirely sure what I’m doing, and be comfortable with the unknown. Sometimes I’d work with him and I wouldn’t know where the camera was. In the end I just thought, “You know, trust him. Totally trust him.” We just did another Trip [To Italy]. I mean, I would never have done The Trip with anyone else. But I’d worked with him so often, I said to Rob [Brydon, co-star in The Trip], “Look, Michael wants to do this.” We didn’t want to do it. There was almost no script; there was just descriptions and a little bit of dialogue, and we thought, “Let’s just do this. Let’s trust him. Because if anyone’s going to do it right, he will.” I’ll always work with him. I want to talk to him about doing the next thing because I don’t know what it is yet. It was like a revelation working with him because I learned to not over-think things.

AVC: Had you done a lot of improvisation in the past?

SC: Not on camera. When we wrote Partridge originally, there was a lot of improvisation. We’d literally stick a camera on a tripod. In fact, somewhere in a vault there’s loads of tapes of us just in a room with a camera and two chairs, improvising conversations. Those improvisations became the script. So I’ve done lots of improv. Also, working with Armando Iannucci, we would use improv. Sometimes we’d record it and use it, I think. Sometimes it would just be an approximation. But I got really into improvisation, not in a jokey way like live improv, but improvisation as a way of finding truthful comedy. Sometimes when you script stuff, you get good stuff but sometimes you’re like, “Let’s not script stuff. Let’s just put it on its feet.” And then, oh God, the pressure. Then you just put it on its feet and start talking, and what you find is that someone asks you a difficult question and I’m being Alan, the kind of initial thought process that comes into your head is often the funniest. Sometimes you find comedy is very difficult to write because it’s just this spontaneous reaction, and it’s incredibly truthful and funny. People just go. You would never write that line, but when you say it out loud you just think, “Yes, of course, that makes total sense. And it’s real.” You only get that from improv. 

AVC: Doing The Trip, obviously you’ve known Rob Brydon for a long time, did you feel uneasy about being so out on your own?

SC: No, we had a discussion, Rob and I. We said, look, it’s okay if… we have to be able to press each other’s buttons. That might mean we might upset each other. But if we’re going to improvise with each other, we have to be able to make it uncomfortable sometimes. Otherwise it’ll just be a big self-indulgent exercise of, “Get a load of me laughing at myself,” which is just boring. By that stage I’d been doing this for so long that when we’d improvise things, I’d often not go for the funny thing but deliberately go for the uncomfortable option. Which is less funny but more interesting. We would seek out tension, seek out discord.


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