Steve Coogan takes a chance

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

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.