Steve Coogan: “Can we get away with this?”
I first “discovered” Steve Coogan through his film roles, first in The Wind in the Willows (aka Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, directed by and starring Monty Python’s Terry Jones) and then taking the lead in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People. It was only later that I finally saw the creation that made him famous in Britain: Alan Partridge, the unctuous, self-absorbed wannabe TV personality flailing in the brilliant parody of a talk-show train wreck Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge. (The title refers to the Abba song â€“ but of course â€“ and is pedantically worked into his every guest introduction. Ah-ha!). The series was one of the many he has created, written and starred in for the BBC but only recently finding their way to the U.S., thanks to BBC America and BBC DVD releases. (His latest show, Saxondale, is slated to run on BBC America in late 2008.)
I had the opportunity to interview Coogan when he came through Seattle to promote Hamlet 2 (opening August 22) for a small “A Moment With” piece for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a “What’s In Your DVD Player?” feature for MSN Entertainment. I wound up with a generous 45 minutes with Coogan, a man very serious when it comes to the business of comedy. That meant that, after carving out those little slices of interview, I still had more than half an hour of enlightening conversation with Coogan about Hamlet 2, his work with Michael Winterbottom and the business of creating shows for British TV. Here it is.
You made two films with Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy. There had to be a lot of challenges on those two films, where there were so many levels of engagement with the character, and then stepping back and commenting on the portrayals.
With Michael Winterbottom, in those films, there’s a very simple thing I do that I don’t do in other films and other work I do. In other films I do, especially comic films, there’s a lot of control and craft involved in what I’m doing, whereas in those movies with Michael, I trust him enough to, if you like, let go of the controls and see what happens. And I’m never quite sure what I’m doing and that’s quite liberating because I can trust him. So I just sort of forget about almost everything and go with whichever way the wind blows and whichever way he pushes me and just dive in and don’t think about it too much. It’s just an organic, instinctive thing, there’s not much of an intellectual process going on for me in those movies. When I’m talking to the camera, I’m just talking to someone about what’s happening to me. I don’t over think it, I trust him. It’s a very different way of working.
In addition, you write and produce so many of your own projects for television. Do the Winterbottom projects give you a chance to stretch yourself in other ways?
It does. It allows me to because I don’t have the responsibility for what I’m doing, which is quite liberating, as long as you trust the person you’re working with and trusting them to be responsible. It enables me to do things I wouldn’t normally do because it’s a way not, even though I’m proud of working with Michael, it’s not my voice, it’s not my vision, it’s his and I’m just there to facilitate that and to help render that, which is nice, whereas when I’m doing my own stuff it is my point of view, it’s from me.
What was it about the script for Hamlet 2 that inspired you to put your trust in Andrew Fleming and writer Pam Brady?
Before I read the script, I knew of a movie that Andy did called Dick that I really liked, the Watergate comedy with Kirsten Dunst, and it had an oddness to it that appealed to me. Pam, of course, I knew her work, I’d seen Team America and South Park and then I read the script. What I liked about the script was it didn’t seem to be the product ofâ€¦ it didn’t seem at all hack-y. I just felt that whoever had written it had written something that made them laugh, that it was personal, it wasn’t a sap to any kind of cookie-cutter approach to making movies. So it was odd and unusual and imperfect but quite fresh and different, and the protagonist, the Dana character I play, was not like any main character I’d seen in a comedy in a while and I liked the fact that it didn’t check those boxes. It was interesting that the studio passed on it earlier because they didn’t really know what to do with it, they didn’t get it. I often find that those are the kind of movies that appeal to me, that have a sort of oddness about them, but what gives this film potential is the fact that, despite that kind of oddness and that strangeness of subject matter and the character of Dana, it does actually have quite an orthodox arc in terms of being redemptive and someone fighting and winning the battle and all the rest of it.
I like the tone of it, I like the choices in it. I remember the first time I read it, on page three of the script it says that Dana Marschz is putting on a school stage production of Erin Brockovich and when I read that, I remember it making me laugh and getting excited and thinking, ‘Oh, I’m so pleased that these people have made the right choice.’ I couldn’t fault that choice of a movie and I understood straight away who that person was who decided to put on a stage version of that film because there’s an earnestness about it and yet it’s a slightly self-important film and yet it’s very Hollywood. I can imagine that someone who is ambitious and forthright and maybe slightly sanctimonious can fall in love with a film like that and think that it has all these values. It seemed very funny and simple and yet a complex reflection of that main character, and I remember when it got to that part early on in the script, I thought, ‘I hope tonally the rest of the script is like this because I like the style of the comedy.’ I went to Andy and Pam and said, ‘I’d like to play Dana Marschz in this film.’
The films that Dana cites as his touchstone movies are rather pedestrian. When he reaches for a reference to the “inspirational teacher,” the films he comes up with are Dangerous Minds and Mr. Holland’s Opus. Not Stand and Deliver, not To Sir, With Loveâ€¦
Or Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
He goes straight for the star-studded, self-congratulatory Hollywood version.
It’s great. He’s like a tabloid intellectual.
I don’t want to push this too far, but I saw some kinship between Dana and Alan Partridge. But there is one major and I think defining difference, and that is that there are moments when Dana admits to the fact that he is not talented and he really wishes that he was.
I think there’s going to be a common denominator in a lot of the comic characters I play, as opposed to playing super naturalistic characters. I think it’s not so much an Alan Partridge thing as it’s that I gravitate towards characters that are inadequate and lacking self-consciousness. This character lacks a sense of self-consciousness, but of course you’re right, at a certain point he does have a moment of clarity when he sees something about himself which Alan Partridge would never do that. But there is another big difference, which is the Dana character is, in some ways, quite philanthropic in his ambitions. He does believe in something, he believes in art and creativity and believes that he can genuinely make these people’s lives better through his efforts, or illuminate them or enhance their lives. Whereas Alan Partridge is pretty self motivated, there’s more of a selfish streak, he’s more dislikable. It’s true there’s a certain vulnerability about the two of them, but Dana’s more of an innocent who is also quite emotionally open, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and Alan Partridge doesn’t. Dana is not very good at duplicity, or doesn’t attempt duplicity to any great extent, he’s just too raw and emotionally open.
And Dana really feels a responsibility to these students.
Yes. There’s a certain moral compass to the world of Dana Marschz that I think doesn’t really exist for Alan.
Apart from the humor, there’s an element in the film that touched me, the idea of someone who, in that moment of clarity, realizes that he’s just not very talented, and yet it doesn’t stop him from trying to create because it is what he most desires.
I think that’s laudable because being creative isn’t about impressing lots and lots of people. The creative process itself is, by itself, a worthwhile endeavor. People sometimes paint for themselves and they are fulfilled by that process. Being creative is used as therapy for a lot of people. And he works hard, he works hard. If there’s a genuine purity in your intentions, that itself can have its appeal, even if the end product is imperfect and distorted and not perfectly crafted. The fact that it’s got this heartfelt quality can be enough. Look at how many great rock songs there are where the people who are playing the guitars are not the best guitar players in the world and musically they are not especially talented, it’s just the chutzpah with which they deliver the performance or the attitude behind it that carries you through and makes a song iconic.
Why do you think that Dana casts himself as Jesus in the musical production.
There is a technical reason for that. In the original script, I wasn’t in the production at all and Andy, the director, felt that I would be absent from the screen for too long, so he wanted a way to lever me into place. We thought that it was justified because there was this philanthropic endeavor that Dana’s a part of, but he also has a little bit of an ego, because he is a failed actor, and it’s an opportunity to try to capture something of his fantasy. Which is a forgivable flaw. I don’t think he has a Jesus complex at all. The idea that itâ€™s all hands on deck to try and put this play on in the face of all this opposition, you can kind of justify it. You could also argue quite cogently that playing Jesus is fraught with potential pitfalls and that it could be the target of people and the responsibility of it was too much to put on the shoulders of a young student and he would bravely and valiantly step forward into that role. (laughs)
I like the idea that Shakespeare, and practically all great theater and literature, is rooted in conflict and loss, and Dana has created a play where someone goes back to fix everything.
Exactly. The naivetÃ© of that is funny but what’s childlike and also admirable is he just wants everyone to be happy and wants things to be okay. He says at one point that if Hamlet had just a little bit of therapy, he could have turned his life around. So I think that there’s something endearing about that. It’s childlike, it’s like the childlike desire for everything to be nice, and that’s one of those things that I can’t quite quantify why it is but it’s both funny and endearing.
I revisited the DVD of Tristram Shandy and watched the uncut interview you did with Tony Wilson.
Really? I’ve never seen it.
You play a version of yourself being interviewed by Tony Wilson, where you say: “I’m playing a version of myself that is slightly grotesque.” I find so many levels to that scene.
I remember doing that. But within the interview, I’m also myself saying that. It got quite complicated, but we kind of liked the fact that it was complicated. We said, ‘How many layers can we possibly put into this film?’ (laughs) And by the end you sort of lose track of it and you think, it doesn’t really matter. Yeah, I remember doing that because we were thinking, ‘Can we get away with this?’ Because what you don’t want to do is, sometimes what motivates you to make certain choices is the desire to avoid other things that you don’t want to do, which forces you into this cleft of having to make a really strange choice. And what we didn’t want to do is do that thing where you see someone playing themself and the unintentional inference you make from them is playing that themselves is, ‘That person thinks they’re so fucking great, they’re going, Get a load of me laughing at myself, aren’t I cool.’ And that’s the last thing you want to do but I see that sometimes when I’ve seen people playing themselves. It’s kind of conceited, it’s too knowing, it’s too self-congratulatory, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to play with it right up to the edge, so you’re going: Is he like this? Is he really like this? Maybe he is like this. Maybe it’s not a joke. Maybe it’s who this person really is and maybe he’s just an asshole. That’s all there is to say. I like the fact that you start playing with not having any redemption at all. It’s exciting, it’s uncomfortable. I don’t want to do that thing that is safe and comfortable and conceited, I want to really challenge you to like me at all, really push the envelope with the audience’s loyalty, and I suppose that was an exercise in that, at no point winking to the audience, so that they don’t know. It’s almost like you keep scratching away, trying to see what the truth is, and you can’t quite find it.
And just to add another level, you are being interviewed by person that you previously portrayed in a movie [Coogan played Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People].
What did Tony Wilson think of your portrayal of him?
Tony, I felt very, very connected with him, but really pleased I played the part. Tony died last year, August, and he was well liked and well revered and sort of an iconic figure, certainly in the music in Britain and definitely in Manchester, so the film has become this slightly different thing, a sort of testament. What did he think of it? Well, I knew Tony very well, I’d worked with him before, I met him, we had dinner and talked about it, I told him, and I told Michael [Winterbottom], ‘I don’t want this to be a piss take of him, just a straightforward satire about it, that seemed to easy, neither did I want to deify him.’ There’s this admirable and slightly pompous quality, slightly ludicrous, self aggrandizing yet full of integrity at the same time, just so many contradictions and that makes someone just interesting. But ultimately the world is a better place for him having been here than it would otherwise. That was the important thing with Tony. When I met him, I tried to communicate that to him. I think he was worried that I was going to just do some sort of caricature, which I didn’t want to do at all. He stayed around the set and visited the film a lot and talked a lot, but never interfered. He always made a point of saying that he didn’t believe in interfering with artists and he understood, in fact it’s in the film, the John Ford thing about “printing the legend rather than the truth,” and he accepted that, even if he felt that some if it was distorted. He thought it was impressionistic, it was stylized, and when he saw the final film, he wrote the novelization of the film and came to America and promoted the film with me and we did lots of press junkets together and we talked to a lot of people. He sort of fell in love with it, he was pleased with it, however distorted it was. He did say to me once that, there’s a scene in the film where I talked about I never gave myself the dilemma of selling out because I never owned anything to sell out, something like that, I canâ€™t remember the exact quote. He told me that he never said that but he liked the way I phrased it so much that he appropriated the comments for his real self, as if he had said it, because he felt it sounded better. So that was a weird symbiotic traffic going back and forth.
He had a great quote in the commentary track on the DVD. He said: â€œThe miracle of this movie is that such a collection of bloody downright lies should in so many ways tell a series of profound truths.â€
Is that what he said? Ha! (laughs) That’s great!
I think that’s a great way of describing literature and theater and drama of all sorts.
I’ve sat down and never listened to the commentary version. I don’t do things that are too close to me, but I supposed I will do, one day. I almost want to save it so I can live vicariously that film a little more, but I don’t want to do it right now.
You’ve done commentaries and interviews on a lot of DVD releases of your films. Do you watch the supplements on other DVDs?
Yes I do, on a movie that I particularly like. I like to sometimes check out the commentaries and I like the interviews with people, especially iconic movies. The last movies that I watched every single thing on was The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Those DVDs have some good interviews with Redford and Newman and William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for Butch Cassidy. I am pretty avid on DVD extras if it’s a movie I care about. I like bubblegum, disposable action movies as well but I don’t always want to know the ins and outs of those films. But I love those Bourne movies that Paul Greengrass directs. At last, there’s an action movie for people who have got intellect. I’d actually done a movie with Paul Greengrass years ago, he directed me in a BBC movie [The Fix, 1997], and he always used to do very gritty documentary-style stuff that had a very narrow interest, so it’s really great to see him reach this big, big audience. It restores your faith in humanity and the industry.
Given Alan Partridge’s obsession with Abba, are you disappointed that you weren’t cast in Mamma Mia!?
No. Why? Because Abba’s loved by everybody and it was only interesting to me when
Alan loved Abba when it was deeply unfashionable, in 1992. The Abba revival, when the whole world fell in love with them again, happened after that. Things are always more fun to enjoy when you it’s more of a guilty pleasure. It’s not a guilty pleasure anymore, it’s just a pleasure, and not as much fun.
Still, an Alan Partidge TV special where he interviews the cast of Mamma Mia!â€¦
That sounds like a horrific idea. I can honestly say that. Although having said that, just really thinking it through, it wouldn’t work. It’s one of those comedy rule, where something that’s gone through an ironic process and emerged the other side. It’s too frivolous by its nature. Alan has to take something that is serious and screw it up. I’m doing a big live tour in the fall where Alan is putting on a play of the life of Sir Thomas More, where Alan plays Sir Thomas More â€“ that’s another thing where I’m playing Alan Partridge playing Sire Thomas More in a stage play in a big live comedy show â€“ that to me is more appealing because there’s a seriousness and a weightiness and a wordiness to the subject matter that he will fuck up in a comical way.
Your newest TV series, Saxondale, hasn’t played in the U.S. yet. Can you tell me a bit about it?
I’m very proud of Saxondale. Given everything you’ve said, Saxondale will probably appeal to you. They’re putting out 16 episodes of it on BBC America very soon. He’s an interesting characters because he’s both, unlike any of the characters we’ve discussed, he’s sometimes an idiot but sometimes he’s the smartest guy in the room. Sometimes he’s funny because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, sometimes he’s funny because he nails something, because he’s well read. He reads books, he’s smart, and he will describe something or attack something and you’ll actually be laughing at his genuine wit, so that was a big change for me, doing a guy who is super smart. Like John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski, that was a comparison that a lot of people made. He’s smart and an idiot.
The whole structure of making TV shows in Britain, where it’s 6 or 12 episodes a season as opposed to 20 in the U.S., seems to bring out the best, at least when a show is good to begin with. American cable has really picked up on that style.
The Americans, when they get it right, even when they have a hot show that runs and runs and runs, when they get it right they have a whole machine, a factory, behind it and people get rich from it. No one gets rich from a British TV series. It’s a labor of love by a few people. There’s never a team of writers, there’s only ever two, a maximum of three, who try and make a few shows and craft them as well as they can, and that’s it. Yes, HBO has picked up on that to the extent that, if I was ever to do a TV show in America, I would rather do it that way. If a show’s really, really good, they kind of loop those things anyway. They only ever made 12 episodes of “Fawlty Towers,” yet people in the business of comedy remember those shows and how well crafted they were. Quality not quantity. America‘s more of a business so it needs to become a mini industry. I think it’s the fact that it’s almost like semi-amateur over there. You just do them and make them and put them out and hope people like them and there’s no other agenda than that. And the other thing is, because there’s not a lot of money riding on it, because no one gets rich, no one’s breathing down your neck about every single decision you make. You don’t have to justify what anything means. What we did with Partridge, what we did with Saxondale, and all the popular BBC series like Blackadder and Fawlty Towers and The Office, all have achieved that kind of greatness by people leaving the person alone to do exactly what they want to do and not being designed by committee and not having to please all the people all the time. What you end up with, occasionally, is something very authentic and unprocessed. And those things are really to be treasured.
by Sean Axmaker