The comedic virtuoso tells The Daily Beast that no one would give him dramatic roles—so he made Philomena, opposite Dame Judi Dench.
In the U.K., Steve Coogan is famous for many things.
Over the last 22 years, Coogan has portrayed the insecure, egotistical, incompetent regional media personality Alan Partridge in countless series and specials and even a recent feature-length film. He has appeared on the BBC as an array of different characters: unemployed Mancunian wastrel Paul Calf; Portugese Eurovision song contest winner Tony Ferrino; historical diarist Samuel Pepys. He’s made a string of excellent movies—24 Hour Party People, A Cock and Bull Story, The Trip—with director Michael Winterbottom. He has dated some models. He has done some drugs. He has encountered some lap dancers. And he has been hounded and even hacked by the press because of it, a practice he publicly decried during the News of the World scandal in 2011.
In the U.S., meanwhile, Coogan is still a cult figure of sorts: praised by critics for the Winterbottom films and admired by YouTube comedy connoisseurs for his brilliant impersonations in The Trip. The press pretty much leaves him alone.
Nowhere is Coogan known for work as a dramatic actor. But with Philomena, that should change—on both sides of the Atlantic. A few years ago, Coogan stumbled upon a story by British journalist Martin Sixsmith about an Irish woman named Philomena Lee who had given birth to a son in the 1950s and then been forced by the local nuns to give him up for adoption because she wasn’t married at the time. Moved by the tale—and craving an opportunity to branch out from comedy—Coogan decided to write and produce the film adaptation himself. “I’ve always wanted to do more dramatic stuff, but no one else would give me a gig,” he says. “So I had to give myself a job.”
The result is remarkable: a restrained and deeply affecting film starring Judi Dench as Philomena and Coogan as Sixsmith. Director Stephen Frears (The Queen) wisely avoids the sort of mawkishness that usually bogs down stolen-child movies and chooses instead to focus on the thorny issues of faith, family, and forgiveness that Coogan’s script (co-written with Jeff Pope) distills from Sixsmith’s original story. Dench is a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination, but Coogan should get a nod as well. It’s not easy to play a cold man whose heart is warmed by tragedy without resorting to award-baiting clichés—or to transition from broad comedy to subtle drama without overdoing it—but Coogan somehow manages to pull it off.
To hear more about how he made the leap, I recently gave Coogan a call.
Philomena is a labor of love you. You wrote it in, produced it, and star in it. Tell me how you stumbled upon the story, and how you reacted when you did. Did you instantly say, “This should be a movie and I should make it?”
Well, when I first read it in a magazine I just found it terribly moving. I was looking for a project, but that was not why I was reading it. I was just reading the newspaper. But the story stayed with me. I felt drawn to it.
Why were you so drawn to it?
For so many reasons. In some ways it wasn’t an especially extraordinary story. There are so many stories in the newspaper about terrible catastrophes and lots of people being killed and much more momentous events. But in some ways it was the simplicity of the story … the fact that the lady in it, Philomena, was in some ways an unremarkable woman … that she could have been anyone’s mum, or anyone’s grandmother, that did strike a chord with me. And I thought—partly thought—other people would be moved by this story just as I am.
You also grew up Catholic.
My background is half-Irish, and I was raised Catholic, and Catholicism is a part of the story. I felt like I was equipped to deal with that stuff, to have the license to tell this story.
You’ve said that Philomena is “about something, and very few films are actually about anything these days.” What is it about?
I saw within the story an opportunity to talk about religion, and to talk about people who are religious. And then extend that to talk about how we live our lives and how we view our lives. It was something I wanted to talk about in a grown-up way. Not in a polemical way. I didn’t want it to be somehow just an entrenched, angry statement. I wanted it to be a grown-up discussion.
Beside the article there was a photograph of Philomena and Martin sat next to each other, and they were laughing in the photograph. That to me was the key to it. That there was a way to tell the story and not have been leaden—not be a chore or an ordeal. You know, it can still be fun. And I’m pretty well-schooled in comedy and how to write comedy, so I saw a way of fusing the drama and comedy to talk about something real, but to make it enjoyable to have that conversation.
Sixsmith resists doing a human interest story. He doesn’t think of himself as that kind of journalist. Was there a time when you didn’t think of yourself as that kind of actor?
No. I’ve always thought of myself as that kind of actor. It’s just that… I went to drama school and trained and I kind of got sidetracked into comedy because it was more fun, and once you’re in there it’s difficult to break out, certainly much more in England than it is in the U.S. So I’ve always wanted to do more dramatic stuff, but no one else would give me a gig. So I had to give myself a job.
With Philomena, did you feel like you wanted to prove something—like, “I can do this, too”? You’re known almost exclusively for comedy, and yet Philomena, while funny at times, is a small, almost quiet drama.
Yeah. On one hand, I believe in the story. So it’s not just about some sort of, like, strategic career move. If it was that by itself, it would kind of fall down. You can’t be motivated by that alone.
But certainly that’s part of it to me. Look, I want to talk about serious stuff. Just because I do comedy it doesn’t mean I’m someone who jumps on the table every morning like a performing monkey. I can do that, if you pay me enough. [Laughs] But I want to explore issues of substance, and also, yes, I wanted to give myself an opportunity. Something that I knew I could …
It’s always, like, a gamble. Put it this way: no one else would offer me this part. And even when I was doing it … I was fairly confident, but there’s always an element of doubt. “Can I pull this off?”
I’ve seen you refer to that in regards to Judi Dench. You weren’t sure whether you’d be able to “hold your own,” as you put it, on screen with Dame Judi. Why?
Well, because she’s a living a legend and I’m someone whose career has been in comedy and not in weighty dramatic roles. So that’s why I had that doubt. And other people had that doubt, so I had it, too. But not … If I thought I was a lost cause or the odds were against me, I wouldn’t have bet on myself. But I thought I had a good shot at it.
Because I’d written it… and because part of Martin’s character is really me—it’s not entirely faithful to Martin—I take artistic license… there’s a lot of me sort of mixed up in Martin’s character, in there. So I felt connected to the material, and I thought, “Let’s give it a shot.” And in actual fact, acting opposite Dame Judi just raised my game. It would have been way harder if I had been acting opposite an amateur. Judi gives you stuff, you know?
Was there a moment when you knew that you and Judi had the right chemistry? Because so much of the film turns on that.
No. You get to a certain point and think, “This is working,” but there’s never an eureka moment. It feels like a military campaign, like you’re gaining territory every day, but the war isn’t over until it’s over. Each day you feel like you’re gaining ground, and I guess there comes a point when you think, “I guess we did it.”
But you can’t be complacent for a second. It’s always dangerous to think, “Yeah, yeah, we’ve got this down.” [Laughs] Soon as you think that is when you screw up.
You said you added elements of yourself to the character of Martin Sixsmith. The caption at the beginning of the film says, “Inspired by true events.” I take that to mean that some details were altered. So when you were approaching it as a screenwriter, what did you alter and why? Why did you put yourself into the character?
First of all, it’s a well-trodden path for people to use artistic license to tell a story. You’re constrained by a structure where you’ve got to take shortcuts. Everyone has done that. I challenge you to find a dramatic story where that hasn’t happened.
However, with our story, to give it dramatic tension, it was almost based on a kernel of truth. For example, Martin was frustrated and felt sorry for himself for having been fired at the beginning of the story. So I would ask Martin questions—sometimes I would lead the witness—and say, “Would it be wide of the mark for me to say this?” And Martin would go, “Yeah, you could say that, I guess?” So I would build something quite dramatic on something where he would say, “Yeah, it would be fair to say that was what I was thinking.”
What’s an example of that from the movie?
I’ll give you example. I said to Martin, “Would it be fair to say that when you saw what happened to Philomena that put your own self-pity in perspective?” And he would say, “Yeah. That’s fair enough. Thinking about it, you could say that. Yeah. That makes sense to me.” He wouldn’t say, “Absolutely! Of course! You’re right on the money there!” So you have to take the kernel of truth.
Philomena, I asked her if she forgave the nuns for what they did to her, and she said, “Yes.” But her daughter Jane, who was sat next to her, said “I don’t forgive them,” straight away. And I thought, “That’s interesting, those two different responses.” But then I gave that response to Martin in the film, because he’s there with Philomena at the end of the film. Someone said it, but it wasn’t Martin. It was Jane. You take lines and give them to other people, but the sentiment is the same.
I think we were very careful about honoring the fundamental truths: the deception that took place, the babies being sold to Americans. If there’s something really bad in the film, someone really did do it. [Laughs]
In the film, you play a journalist. You’ve had a very fraught relationship with the British press and been very critical of their practices. Did writing the Sixsmith character and playing him on screen change the way you look at journalists in any way?
No. You see, the premise of the question is entirely false, because the notion that I’m somehow anti-journalist is a nonsense. Not at all. There was nothing to alter. I already admired some journalists, and I’m critical of others. So it’s not like I started out being someone who thought journalists sucked, and ended up as someone who’s like, “Oh no, they don’t suck. They’ve got a tough job.” I was never in that position in the first place. Some journalists are fantastic. I love Woodward and Bernstein as much as the next guy. But other journalists fall below the admirably standards that the rest of their industry sets.
I’ve always liked journalists. My beef is just with the bad ones.
But I meant it less as you holding a grudge and more as…
Of course I had to register the protest. But it was an education. It actually helped with the role, because the research I did for the script echoed Martin’s journey to some extent. So it was good for the role. But it didn’t alter what I already thought about journalists, which is most are great—and some suck.
Right. Which is pretty accurate. And as a journalist I thought you nailed that complex balance a reporter has to strike between wanting to do right by his source and also basically using his source for selfish reasons—to write a good story, to get attention, to get paid, et cetera.
On a different note, let’s talk about The Trip. Have you been surprised by the cult following it’s developed in America. I mean, it’s basically two British comedians driving around the English countryside impersonating mostly British actors.
[Laughs] It has certainly hit with certain people, hasn’t it? The people who have cottoned onto it really love it. But yes I was surprised. Rob and I didn’t want to do that project. Michael Winterbottom had to twist our arms to make us do it. He kept saying, “I want you two to drive around to restaurants and just talk about stuff without a script”
—and we just thought, “This is going to be a disaster.” And a kind of self-indulgent disaster. To me, I was just worried it would look like arrogance, honestly, as if to say, “We can just talk about anything and it will be interesting.” To me, it was foolhardy… no good would come of it. But Michael just ground us down. And I thought, “Well, if we were going to do this with anyone, it would be Michael.” Because he’s always had an element of that in his work. And he’s never made a terrible film. His films might not always be of consistently the best quality of all films, but they always have integrity and they’re always noble, whatever you think of them. And they’re never cynical. So we thought, “Let’s give it a shot and see what happens.” And he was right and we were wrong.
Now you’ve gone on to make a second season, which is set to air next year. What can you reveal about it?
Well, we shot it in Italy. I always say to people, “It’s exactly the same as the first one, only this time it’s in Italy.” So the scenery and the food is way better.
And actually, the resolution, the direction of the story shifts from the first one. But it’s not groundbreakingly different, to be honest, and in fact some of the same impersonations occur in this film as well. So it’s quite shameless. Shamelessly repetitive.
[Laughs] Are there any new impersonations to look forward to? Or is it all just shameless repetition?
Yeah, I think we throw a few more in. I only saw the rough cut, but I think Peter Sellers is in there. And Christian Bale and Tom Hardy from Batman. We do a Batman thing.
While we’re on the subject of impersonations, to go from the high drama of Philomena to, I suppose, its opposite—impersonations were kind of the kernel of your talent in the beginning, when you were young and just getting into comedy. What is it that resonates so much with people about impersonations?
I went to drama school and everyone was busy studying Stanislavsky, and the Method, and it just… I tried to get into it, but I just found it a bit too… I suppose in some ways maybe it was attention deficit disorder or something. Doing funny voices. Funny voices are an easy way to be more interesting than Russian dramatists.
It was just something I did at school. I knew how to do it. I didn’t read books, but I watched a lot of TV, and I used to go to the movies a lot. And I think I had a good ear. I found I could do people’s voices just naturally , and then I started to perfect it a bit, I guess. Later on in my career I realized that what that is an indication of is that I’m actually quite observant of people and their behavior. Just subliminally. I don’t go into restaurants and stare at people.
But I think I pick things up fairly quickly. I guess what I mean to say is that I’m empathetic. I think to do impersonations you need to be sort of empathetic. You don’t just do the voice. You pick up certain mannerisms and the disposition of the person, if you’re doing it accurately.
And while people may not think of impersonations this way, there’s something there that translates into dramatic acting as well—that empathy with a character.
Yeah, yeah. And it’s fun. I mean, it was definitely very useful early on. It’s hard to convince someone you’re talented in 30 seconds, but if you do impersonations you can actually do that. You might not have a lot of depth, but they’ll be able to go, “He’s good at that.” You can show someone you’re very good at something very quickly.