Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Steve Coogan

To Be Funny, or Not to Be Funny

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Find Steve Coogan Movies on Video

Partial Steve Coogan Filmography:
The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)
The Wind in the Willows (1996)
The Revengers' Comedies (1998)
The Parole Officer (2001)
24 Hour Party People (2002)
Coffee and Cigarettes (2004)
Ella Enchanted (2004) [voice]
Around the World in 80 Days (2004)
Happy Endings (2005)
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006)
Lies & Alibis (2006)
Marie Antoinette (2006)
Night at the Museum (2006)
Hot Fuzz (2007)
Finding Amanda (2008)
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Hamlet 2 (2008)

Born in Manchester, Steve Coogan, 42, attended drama school but realized that his true calling was in doing funny voices. That led to the creation of sports announcer Alan Partridge, the slightly arrogant dimwit who captured the hearts of TV viewers everywhere. In recent years, he has maneuvered into an interesting movie career, balancing British films and American films, dramas and comedies, small parts and leading roles. He gave an acclaimed performance as Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People (2002), supported Ben Stiller in the massive hit Night at the Museum (2006) and answered the call of cult directors such as Jim Jarmusch (Coffee and Cigarettes), Sofia Coppola (Marie Antoinette) and Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz). He appeared opposite Jackie Chan in Around the World in 80 Days (2004) and opposite Gillian Anderson in Winterbottom's post-modern comedy Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006). Currently he has a small role in Tropic Thunder and stars in this week's new Hamlet 2, one of the top headline-grabbers from the most recent Sundance Film Festival. In it, he plays Dana Marschz, a washed-up American actor now teaching drama at a Tucson high school. When budget cuts threaten his students and his job, he writes a bizarre sequel to Hamlet, hoping for a blow-out, career-saving performance. The trouble is, with its strange musical numbers and its character of "Sexy Jesus," it raises more controversy than anyone ever bargained for. Mr. Coogan recently visited San Francisco to talk about the new film.

Combustible Celluloid: Your Dana Marschz is a drama queen, a bit annoying, and maybe a bit lovable. How do you get into the mindset of playing someone like that?

Steve Coogan: I sometimes like to get some distance from myself. I don't mind making a complete ass of myself, if I feel what I'm doing is very different from me. Whenever I do a character, there's always going to be a bit of me in it, even if it's written by someone else, like the Hamlet 2 character by Pam [Brady] and Andy [Andrew Fleming]. There was a lot of discussion about how I should approach that character, and how should do it and how big I can go with it. It's quite a big performance. This character is quite eccentric, quite larger than life. When I perform that character, I have to make sure it doesn't look like I'm overacting. So you have to process all that when you're doing it. And then you have to throw all that away and don't over-intellectualize it and do it by the seat of your pants. So it's a combination of things. But there's a commonality of all the characters I do, whether they're mine or someone else's -- I do like to have physical things just to hang onto to help me sort of go back into the characters. Not to say I externalize it, but physical aspects like the way I dress, the way I look, the way I walk, the things I do, help me find the character -- help me get a handle on the character. And then you kind of go back inside. Start on the outside, work your way inside and then come back out again. I don't know what the hell that means, but it makes a kind of sense. But that's only the start of it. If I just did the character in such a way that I did physical things that made you laugh and I got the gags right, then it would be stringing a series of gags together around a kind of caricature. And that can work, it can make you laugh for a period, but it's not going to see you through to the end of the movie, and it's not going to make you really care. That's the longest answer I've given all day.

CC: Marschz is certainly of a piece with most of your other characters. How do you suppose this came about?

SC: I don't know. It just sort of happened. I'm just attracted to playing people who are ostensible unlikable. That's not to say that there's something in there that makes you care. It might be that you just find them so awful that you just can't stop watching, like a car crash. And they're not self-aware. I think somehow, whenever I see a character on screen who I feel is trying to get me to like them too much, it has the reverse effect. It kind of puts you off. It's: "Quit looking at me with those doe eyes. I want to kill you." Whereas the reverse is true: sometimes if you forget about being liked, the audience goes: well, he's just being who he is. And they come to you. It's not like I've thought this through. It's just, you do stuff often enough and you see patterns. You see them, and I see them too. Sometimes they're not self-conscious. I guess that's why I'm probably doing it.

CC: Watching this character made me think of Marlon Brando, who used to worry that acting wasn't a job for a man. Did you think of things like that while performing this effeminate character?

SC: I've read books about Marlon Brando. He's fascinating, but I definitely don't agree with him. That kind of machismo thing doesn't bother me in the slightest. I don't give a damn about how macho I look. I know I'm a guy. But yes, [my character] has got those slightly effete qualities. Talking about being liked, there's that thing about actors wanting to look good and wanting to look cool. If you're not worried about looking like a complete ass, if you're committed to it, you can end up being cooler than anybody else. So you go through that pain barrier. OK, I'm going to wear a kaftan, I'm going on roller skates, I'm going to have long blonde hair. I'm going to commit to that.

CC: Was there a complete script for the play-within-the-movie, "Hamlet 2"?

SC: That's a big, big trick. Maybe Andy did write the complete thing? Maybe he didn't. He changed it a lot. I wasn't supposed to be in the play, originally. The original script, I'm watching it all and the kids are doing it. He said, 'I really feel I've got to get you on stage because you power the movie, and if you disappear for the last 20 minutes... I need you in there. We should have you playing Jesus Christ.' Oh, really? I was raised a Catholic. But I've learned that if something scares me a little bit, then it's potentially quite a good thing. Then he said, 'We need you to be a sexy Jesus.' And I thought, 'oh...'

CC: How old were you when you started? What were your first experiences like?

SC: I was very self-conscious. I used to do stuff at college. I could do voices. I could make some people laugh. I wasn't the class clown, but I knew I had this skill. And regular people would say, 'you should be on TV.' They would say it a lot. And I thought 'maybe they're right.' I wasn't a naturally confident, extravert, outgoing person. I was very insecure, like a lot of actors are -- surprise, surprise! I had to apply to all these London drama schools. I felt like I had something, but I felt insecure. A lot of these people were more cosmopolitan than me. They were from London and I was from Manchester. They had this ease with themselves and a confidence and eloquence. They've had that almost from birth. They would understand Shakespeare and be able to talk about it and the subtext. And I was... I could do some funny voices. But, what at first I felt was my handicap became what I realized was my advantage. My kind of ordinariness of background, I had an edge. And I thought I could draw upon it. I suddenly thought I had something more valid to say that would resonate with ordinary people. And I figured that that would be my key. And I kind of honed in on it. So I started to do characters that people could recognize. People would go, 'hey I know that guy... he's like my uncle.' And to me being popular didn't equate with being lowbrow or unintelligent.

CC: Your Hamlet 2 character has a funny name, difficult to pronounce, that everyone gets wrong. What's your theory on funny names?

SC: [Pronounces name] "Dana Marsch... z." I had to practice it a lot of times. I try to say each one of the consonants in a row, to see if it's possible without a gap. And then I add a gap -- without it sounding too dumb. When you write comedy those are the things that take up all the time. I say things like the number "37" is not funny. Everyone uses that as a comedy number, like 'that's the 37th time this has happened.' People should use random numbers more. Like 'fifty.' Alan Partridge's assistant is fifty. That was her age. And it sounded funny; I would say, 'this is my assistant Lynn, fifty.'

CC: According to legend, your Alan Partridge character was based on a real radio presenter. Who was it?

SC: He wasn't based on a real radio presenter. He wasn't based on anyone. It's a complete misconception. Someone said, 'do a radio presenter,' and I did a voice that sounded like the kind of voice that I hear on radio when someone's talking about sport, which I know nothing about. He became a sports presenter, and I didn't know the name of any sports presenters. I'd hear people on the radio, like these jerks, who clearly knew nothing except sports. [Launches into Alan Partridge:] "These guys sound like this and they sort of like the sound of their voice, and they're very confident but they're not that bright, not very intelligent..."

CC: Will there ever be an Alan Partridge movie?

SC: Everyone keeps asking me about that. I feel like I ought to just to stop people asking me. I guess I should say no, but I can't say no because I might do it one day. In England, it's a double-edge sword, because it's something that's very successful and I'm very proud of, but it's also a creative albatross that stops me from being able doing other things. This movie [Hamlet 2] that I love so much, I would never have been able to do in England. Period. This country, people have seen a bunch of different stuff, even though I'm not that well known, which is perversely an advantage. I can move around and do different stuff. So I'm nervous about screwing with that right now. I'm glad I've been able to move away from that character. But still, I'm doing a live show in the fall where I'll be doing that character and a bunch of other characters on stage. So I still love the guy, he's like an old friend... who you don't like.

July 28, 2008

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