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Steve Coogan takes a chance

In the company of Judi Dench, the actor takes a trip outside his comic comfort zone,

Mark Caro

November 27, 2013

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Steve Coogan laughs as he reads the Frank Sinatra quotation etched into the restaurant wall: "I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good at they're going to feel all day."

"I was talking to someone, (saying) as you get older, you have to choose between the mornings and the evenings," the 48-year-old English actor/writer/producer says as he takes his seat in the booth. "You can't have a really great evening and a really great morning. You sort of have to choose which one's more important to you. Mornings are more important to me, but that's very funny."

That said, Coogan won't be sampling any of Howells & Hood's 100-plus beers this lunch. "I'm off booze at the moment, because I have periods when I want to be totally clear-headed, when I'm working generally," he says.

Talking over food, on the other hand, is something with which Coogan is quite comfortable. The mostly improvised, Michael Winterbottom-directed 2010 BBC TV series "The Trip," edited into a film of the same name, consists of Coogan and Welsh actor Rob Brydon yakking, sparring and trading impersonations (their brilliant dueling-Michael Caines clip has drawn more than 2.5 million YouTube clicks) as they share a series of meals across the English countryside.

On the surface Coogan's new film, "Philomena," which he co-wrote and produced, marks an abrupt shift from "The Trip" and other projects in which the actor plays a comically self-centered heel. With Stephen Frears ("The Queen") directing and Judi Dench (who starred in Frears' "Mrs. Henderson Presents" in the title role, "Philomena" is a serious-minded Oscar-season entry about a BBC journalist who helps an elderly Irish woman search for the son whom nuns gave up for adoption against her wishes almost 50 years earlier.

Yet there is Coogan again, debating about food and more serious issues in a series of hotels and restaurants, albeit without the celebrity impressions. "It was only afterward that I realized, 'Oh, yeah,' I guess this is the same as 'The Trip'; it's become a road movie," Coogan says. "But we didn't really set out to make it kind of like a road movie. It's just that the conversations ended up happening in cars a lot because they were searching, they were on a journey."

Coogan is in a dark blue checked jacket and jeans, and his formerly wavy hair is cropped short, as it is in "Philomena," with silver around the temples adding to the refined look. After our server recommends the lamb meatballs and toasted ravioli as the most popular shareable items, I ask Coogan whether he's persuaded by hearing that something is popular.

"If I'm somewhere else — and right now I'm somewhere else — then yeah," he says. "You know, when in Rome. I like to see what people like. I don't like not being adventurous. I think that's sort of wrong somehow."

With "Philomena" the adventure for him is a pronounced shift in tone. Coogan is a comedian/comic actor and often an arch one at that; in Britain he's best known for playing insecure, narcissistic show host Alan Partridge in an assortment of TV and radio projects as well as a feature film ("Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa") already released in Britain and due in the U.S. next year. His Hollywood career has included supporting parts in hit comedies such as "Tropic Thunder" and "A Night at the Museum" as well as the co-lead (with Jackie Chan) in the not-so-successful 2004 "Around the World in 80 Days" remake.

He has played some dramatic roles, such as Factory Records founder Tony Wilson in Winterbottom's "24 Hour Party People" (2002) and a custody-battling parent in Scott McGehee and David Siegel's "What Maisie Knew" (2012), but "Philomena" is the first serious script he has written, in collaboration with BAFTA-winning TV writer Jeff Pope. Given that Coogan is one of the British celebrities whose phones were hacked by the now-defunct London-based News of the World tabloid — he sued and received a large settlement from parent company News International — one might guess that his interest in "Philomena" stemmed from his wanting to explore a potentially positive role for journalism in everyday people's lives.

"But that connection wasn't made by me until I'd written the movie, and people were saying, 'Oh, this is journalism,' and I was like, 'Oh, I thought I was making a movie about faith and religion and cynicism,'" Coogan says.

Coogan acknowledges that his version of Martin Sixsmith, an actual BBC journalist who wrote the non-fiction book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" on which the movie is based, is about 50 percent the real-life guy and 50 percent the actor/writer imposing his own internal struggles. There are two levels of conflict in "Philomena": the basic one of a mother trying to find her long-lost son, born out of wedlock and sold to another family by a convent's disapproving nuns, and the below-the-surface one of whether to react to such injustice with anger or forgiveness. The character Martin, like the man who wrote and plays him, is an atheist who's angry at the church, while Philomena remains a believer despite all that has happened. That gulf provides the film's true tension.

"(The character's views) are my thoughts on the church, but also what you have to realize is that I also wrote the dialogue, with Jeff, that argues against my point of view and argues against my own cynicism," Coogan says. "So it's a conversation about: Am I cynical? Yes, more than I should be. Do I wish I wasn't? Yes. Do I think it's a flawed way to look at things? Absolutely."

Frears says in a phone conversation that he didn't initially realize how close this story hit home for his leading man.

"Well, he's a lapsed Catholic," the director says. "It took me some time to find that out…I came to see how personal (the script) was — and also how imaginative, like he could find his own sort of autobiography in this story."

Coogan recalls that as he read Sixsmith's work aloud to his girlfriend, "I started weeping." He not only related to it, he says, but also felt he could tell this story on screen.

"Philomena could be my mother," he says. "I know lots of old Irish ladies like that. My grandmother was like that. There's a sort of simpleness to them, but there's also an underlying integrity, and I thought I know how to write this and not fall into the trap of an intellectual writer who doesn't understand that kind of simplicity and thinks it's just weird."

Much of the movie's humor stems from Martin's overly refined, if not pampered, tastes contrasted with Philomena's enthusiasm for such simple things as a hotel's omelet station and the opportunity to watch "Big Momma's House" in her room.

"I saw some comments from liberal intellectuals in the Guardian saying it's patronizing to portray an Irishwoman as being stupid like this and saying dumb things," Coogan says. "Well, you know what? A lot of our old Irish ladies do say stupid things sometimes. That still doesn't mean that they don't have a dignity."

Of course, having 78-year-old Oscar winner Dench playing the role helps in the dignity department. Frears says he was intrigued when he heard that the classically trained actress would be playing off the younger modern comedian.

"They're such an odd pair," Frears says. "They got on incredibly well. And they were quite happy to fight with each other in scenes and then laugh a great deal between takes."

What they acted in this case was what Coogan and Pope had written, in contrast to the free-form approach of some of Coogan's previous works.

"This was scripted down to the last word," Coogan says. "There was no room for improvisation at all, which is good. I think if Michael (Winterbottom) had done the film, he would have thrown my script out the window the first day of shooting, because that's the way he works. I slaved over every (expletive) word in this. I'm not going to just let go."

But acting his part presented another kind of challenge.

"The characters I often play are insincere and trapped in their own insincerity and are sort of unwittingly duplicitous," Coogan says. "It's easier to have an agenda as a character. It's easier to play. It's more fun. It's more interesting. But to be someone who's just nakedly saying, 'I care about this,' that's actually really hard."

Coogan says he feels like he couldn't have written such a screenplay 10 years earlier, but now he's more compelled to move from his comfort zone. "If something feels a little scary and uncomfortable, that's probably a good thing, so go and do it," he says. "To be sincere you risk ridicule. I wanted to show that you can be sincere and smart."

The actor followed this line of thinking by filming an ABC-TV drama pilot in Chicago some months ago called "Doubt" in which he played a down-on-his-luck lawyer who "tried to disguise the fact that he cared." The show wasn't picked up, though it prompts a memory as Coogan walks through the Tribune Tower lobby after lunch and recognizes the more-portentous-than-Sinatra quotes engraved into the walls.

"We shot in here," he says. "Yeah, yeah, we used an office in here, because I remember reading this. Yeah, these are great quotes."

At the same time, he hasn't turned his back on comedies, saying that Brydon, Winterbottom and he already have shot "The Trip to Italy." He describes that follow-up BBC series/movie as "the same (as the first one) with better food, better locations. There's even some of the same impersonations."

Says Coogan: "I like stupid jokes as much as anyone. Stupid jokes are like an ice cream. It's great. But you can't survive on a diet of ice cream."

mcaro@tribune.com

Twitter @MarkCaro

2 of Steve Coogan's favorite movies:

"Harold & Maude," directed by Hal Ashby, 1971.

"The music is just fantastic. Some parts of it are a little mannered in a self-conscious way, but by and large it still works, it still packs a real punch, and Ruth Gordon is still fantastic; it never dates, that performance. I love that film. I saw it a few months ago. Every few months I watch it. If someone hasn't watched it, I have to sit and watch it with them. I want to see it for the first time through their eyes.

"I remember that film as being shown on TV in the 1970s on BBC, and I remember my sister watching with my mum, and they were laughing, and they said (of Bud Cort's suicide-faking character), 'He's like our Steven.' At the time I was like 10 or 11, I found that really upsetting that they thought I was that weird. Because I did used to do fake injuries on myself."

"Kind Hearts and Coronets," directed by Robert Hamer, 1949

"Alec Guinness always gets the credit for that film because of his versatility, but in actual fact the great role in that is Dennis Price. He's the master in that film, because he plays someone who's pompous, self-righteous, sanctimonious, and you're on his side the whole time. That's an amazing feat, to be all those things, and you go, 'I'm with him.'"