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Q&A: 'Philomena' star/co-writer Steve Coogan

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

November 25, 2013

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About six months ago, “Philomena” star Steve Coogan—the hilarious English actor perhaps best known in America for his roles in “Tropic Thunder” and “The Other Guys”—shot a pilot called “Doubt” in Chicago. He played a lawyer, mastered the Chicago accent and worked two weeks of 18-hour days. I tell him I’m sorry the show wasn’t picked up.

“Yeah, I’m not,” he says, laughing even though he’s serious. “I didn’t know how well ‘Philomena’ was going to do, and if [‘Doubt’] had gotten picked up, I wouldn’t have been able to promote this film. And this is better than the pilot.”

Though no one’s seen the show, the quality of “Philomena,” opening Wednesday, speaks for itself. Co-written by Coogan, the film takes inspiration from the true story of the titular Irish woman (played by Judi Dench), who along with an English journalist (Coogan) searches for the son the church forced her to give up for adoption and whose existence Philomena kept secret for 50 years.

At the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Coogan, 48, talked about the film’s accuracy and controversy, whether Dench really watches Martin Lawrence movies and what he learned from his victorious fight with the MPAA to get “Philomena” a PG-13 rating.
 
In adapting a true story, can you remember any ideas that came up in conversation that didn’t feel right? Philomena becoming an all-star basketball champion maybe?
 
[Laughs] I would say [co-writer Jeff Pope] was happier to push it further, to invent things, and I was the one who would always say, “Well, let’s see what happened. Let’s find out what really happened in this situation because it might provide the answer. It might not, but frequently it will give us a kernel that we can grow something from.” We wouldn’t have anyone do anything bad that we couldn’t back up. Withholding information, that’s all real. We have anecdotal evidence about the burning of records. Some [people] deny that, but then they would, wouldn’t they? The fact they didn’t give the girls any medication, that’s backed up by documentary evidence and anecdotal evidence from girls who went to those places. One of the most pathetic [items] in terms of the defense, in Ireland some members of the clergy have come out and said, “We never sold babies to America; we just asked for a large donation.” What’s the difference?! I just burst out laughing when I heard that. Really? That’s your defense? Wow, you think people are really, really stupid.
 
“We just gave Americans dirty looks and gave them a large basket.”
 
“And gave them a large bag and said you may want to fill that with notes.”
 
“There’s a dollar sign on the bag.”
 
“You might want to fill that with large denomination notes. You might want to.”
 
There’s such authentic sentiment and subtlety in “Philomena,” whereas if you look at an American movie like “Delivery Man,” it’s a train wreck of trying to be honest and emotional while really not telling a story. Why do you think there is that difference?
 
I think it’s because an audience can smell sincerity and genuine sentiment because a person’s doing it, believes it and feels it, rather than a marketing man who goes, “Hey, some audiences like sentiment; let’s give ‘em some of that.” … It’s that cynicism that I think audiences smell. They smell bull[bleep]. Most audiences I think are film literate. More literate than they ever have been before so they know these beats. They’ve seen it before. Also anything that’s formulaic, what happens of course with studios, they have to balance their books because ultimately they’re bottom-line people. They have to be; they’re running these huge businesses, so they have to say, “Where does this fit in? How do we sell this?” I’m not saying they’re terrible people for that, but that’s just the system that they’re part of. I have a career in comedy; I wanted to do something different. To me this is kind of an experiment. I wanted to do something that I want to do, no one’s telling me to do, and see if anyone else likes it as well. I want to have those [sentimental] moments because I believe them and I want that authenticity, but as writers when we get to those beats [and] we go, “OK, how do we not make this schmaltzy? How do we avoid those kind of moments in films where you go, ‘Oh, this is the beat where we’re supposed to feel something.’”

Because I hate those movies too. I hate those moments, and when I see it I just go, “Oh, what, someone looks a bit sheepish?” And it makes you self-conscious. It makes you cynical, that kind of emotion. No wonder people don’t want to make movies with sentiment. They think the only way to do good art is to make it spiky and edgy and cynical because when you see sentiment from some studio film it tends to be [bleep] because it’s not real sentiment. It’s not really about anything; it’s the most bland thing you could possibly say because we don’t want to upset any potential part of the audience, so let’s say something really bland and emotional so that everyone can kind of feel sort of something. I don’t think a studio would have gone near this because it’s got religious content. They’re scared [bleep]less of anything remotely contentious. I believe you can talk about things that are sometimes contentious, but you can do it in a very holistic way. You can do it where you go, “You know what? We don’t have to lose our tempers; we don’t have to get into a fight. We can have a grown-up discussion about this. And we can agree to differ.”
 
Yet some people are a little bit upset about this. Is this the first time nuns have ever been upset with you?
 
[Laughs] I think it is, actually. I knew lots of nuns growing up and lots of clergy. I think if you’re not upsetting anyone, then a studio would be really pleased with you. I think if you’re doing good art then inevitably you’re going to upset some people. I’d say it’s a prerequisite--it’s  a measure actually that your’e doing something right. But it has to be a minority. If you upset lots of people, then that’s bad.
 
“We made everyone angry. It’s a success!”
 
[Laughs] That doesn’t work that way. But you try and please all the people all the time, you end up with a soup of nothing. In Ireland for example, yes, some members of the clergy are upset. They tend to be the most vociferous ones. The ones who like the film, and there are many members—in fact, many religious people who love this film in Ireland. In fact this is a little debate raging in Ireland, that the people who came out, which is in a way it’s almost true to form, instead of doing a mea culpa and going, “You know what? This film raises some good points. We shouldn’t have done things like that. We’ve made some mistakes. We’d like to say sorry and move on.” Which would be the smart thing to say--
 
How often do people do that?
 
They go, “This is not true! We didn’t sell them! We just asked for a donation!” And what did they say about [Sister] Hildegarde? Someone said Hildegarde was unkindly treated in the film. She did some good things. The line I always say is, “Yeah, Hitler was nice to dogs.” … The fact is this film, when they criticized Philomena, a bunch of people came out of the woodwork in Ireland and said, “No, no, no, no,” who knew her and actually said, “No, they got it right, and actually this should be talked about.” Some members of the clergy trying to pick a hole here and there because what they’re really annoyed about isn’t some things that they might think are unfair. What they’re annoyed about is the fact that we put this on the agenda. They don’t even want it on the agenda. They would have loved this film to have been a polemic attack on the church. It’s not because actually people like Philomena who are religious have been dignifying this film, and that’s what pisses them off because we’re saying, “You guys are out of order, but those little guys down there, they’re OK.” And they don’t like that. They want to try and characterize it as some sort of anti-[religion film], which of course most people know it’s not.
 
In the movie, Philomena wants to watch “Big Momma’s House.” How often do you think Judi Dench watches that?
 
I don’t think she does, but I know for a fact, because I read it in an interview, that one of her guilty pleasures is to watch “Dirty Dancing.” She’s seen that a lot.
 
But not as much of a Martin Lawrence fan.
 
I think Judi does like a bit of mainstream romance, but no, I don’t think any Martin Lawrence film would be in her top ten.
 
I wonder if Martin Lawrence is a Judi Dench fan.
 
If I was a betting man, I’d say it’s more likely to be that way around, than the other way around.
 
How is your ability to keep a secret?
 
It’s good. If someone tells you a secret then you can’t tell anyone. You just can’t tell anyone. A good friend of mine had a child, and she didn’t tell anyone who the father was. Including me, and I’m her best friend. I know it wasn’t me, that’s all. But you don’t tell anyone. If you tell one person, you’ve lost control and she didn’t tell anyone. She didn’t even tell her mother. It was a real lesson. She kept the secret for like eight years. Nobody knew who the father was. I thought, “She’s really smart.” And also I didn’t get pissed because she didn’t tell me. I was like, “That’s smart,” and you talk about other stuff.
 
I’m sure people ask you for impressions a lot because you’re so incredibly good at them. What’s the strangest request you’ve ever had in that department?
 
When people ask me to do women. “Can you do Judi Dench?” “Of course I can’t do Judi Dench. No.” I quite like doing unusual ones. The ones that people don’t do at parties basically. At parties there’s always someone who thinks they can do Sean Connery. There’s always someone who thinks they can do Michael Caine. You don’t get that many people who think they can do Martin Sheen at a party. And I can do quite a good Martin Sheen for example.
 
I did think you were going to say Martin Lawrwence there.
 
No. I don’t do Martin Lawrence.
 
Do you have any sense of if Michael Caine has a good impression of you?
 
I think he’s probably only become aware of me maybe because I did “The Trip” with Rob Brydon where I did the impersonation of him. I think people like Michael Caine, [if people] do impressions of him [they] just humor it to appear gracious, but I think he probably thinks people who do impersonations of him, with some justification, are assholes. … [Rob Brydon] does an impersonation of me and someone said, “Do you do one of Rob?” I said, “No, it’s never occurred to me to do one of him.” Where it has occurred to him to do one of me. Sometimes it’s like a status thing. I do that to diminish him for comic effect.
 
What did you learn from the whole MPAA kerfuffle, with the debate about how many F-bombs are in the film?
 
That Bert Fields is very like Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men.” That’s the lawyer who I was with. That sometimes rules that they have are incredibly inconsistent. I first said why these profanities were in context and why there’s this arbitrary number. In the rest of Europe, when they have ratings they just judge things on a case-by-case basic. And here they have these rules: You have more than one profanity, it’s an R. And you go, “Well, why do you have that rule?” Because they say, “Well, middle American parents don’t like profanities.” “How do you know that?” “Well, we’ve done research.” And you go, “Well, if the research is, ‘How many times would you like to hear the word f*** in a film,?’ they’re not going to go ‘Four, five, maybe.’ They’re going to say, ‘No times.’” But the other thing about that is I said these examples of movies that have loads of [bleeps] in them and they’ve got PG-13. And the advocate for the MPAA said, “Well, that’s because they’re used within conversation, and when you use swear words it’s very very significant. They’re very pointed.” And I said, “Surely it’s better to point out a profanity and say, ‘Look, this is a bad word, we’re saying it out loud, than to use it casually in conversation. You could argue that that’s worse because you’re showing that you can use profanities whenever you like.” She said, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good point.” OK, well, you just conceded a point and you’re the advocate for the MPAA. It shows that when they try to assert something it’s so arbitrary. They need to judge things on a case-by-case basis and not make these silly rules because you can always find an exception to the rule.
 
Plus:
On the Chicago accent: “I think I did pretty good because there was a crew of 200 people and I was the only British person there and I’m playing the lead, and I’m doing a Chicago accent and the entire crew is from Chicago. I had a coach and I listened to it every night. I listened to people talking like (in Chicago accent), “That about the block. Open up the vowels.” I enjoyed it; it was good. It was worth it for that alone. ‘Cause a guy on the crew came up to me and said (in Chicago accent), “Man, when they hear your accent, they’re going to flip out. [They won’t] think you’re from England.” So it was good. I enjoyed it.”

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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