Steve Coogan is perhaps best known in the UK for his character Alan Partridge, a goofy DJ and TV personality billed as "Norwich's favourite chat show host" on the BBC. Fans of artier film fare will recognize him as the star of Michael Winterbottom's antic-filled biopics "24 Hour Party People" and "The Look of Love," or from the acerbic comedy "The Trip" with Rob Brydon. He's also been in and out of the gossip pages here and in the UK over the years, and was one of many high-profile people whose voicemails were hacked by the "News of the World."
John Sciulli/Getty Images for The Weinstein Company
Coogan's latest film, "Philomena," is a radical departure from previous ventures. It's a heartwarming movie about an older Irish woman with a 50-year-old secret; she'd gotten pregnant as a teen and been sent to live in a convent along with other "fallen" girls, where she worked in the convent's laundry for her and her son Anthony's room and board. The convent sold him for adoption to an American couple who whisked him off to the US. Fast-forward 50 years, and Philomena's shocked daughter enlists a former BBC reporter (and Tony Blair's former Director of Communications) named Martin Sixsmith to help find Anthony after being stonewalled by the convent.
Coogan read an article about the real-life Lee and Sixsmith before Sixsmith's book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," was even out. He optioned the rights, signed on as a co-producer, co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope, and stars in the film as Sixsmith, alongside Judi Dench as Philomena. The movie zeroes in on the relationship between the somewhat cynical reporter, who went to Oxford and lives in a fancy house, and the faithful Catholic woman who's worked as a nurse her entire life, and the trip they take to the United States to find Anthony.
The movie shows a strikingly different side to Coogan, whose onscreen character softens as he grows to know and like the older Philomena, though he initially looks down upon her tastes (tame romance novels, for one, and "Big Momma's House" on hotel cable, for another) and her religion. Of course, starring alongside Dench is any actor's dream, and she holds her own as a character that's not as naïve or simple as Martin assumes.
Coogan sat down with Moviefone in New York City the night after a stirring screening with the real Lee and Sixsmith in attendance.
Moviefone: I'd read about "Philomena" before I saw the movie, but I was still surprised by how earnest it was. Comedy is a sort of armor, in a way, and this was so...
Steve Coogan: Part of the reason I did "Philomena" was because I was fed up of everything being -- fed up of irony, fed up of inverted commas, fed up with post-modernism. I just was like, no one has got the guts to say something sincere and authentic any more. Like, they're scared of it. They're scared of sincerity. And I wanted to say, I'm going to say something that's not cool, that's not self-consciously hip, that's just something sincere and not kind of do that cowardly sort of, the cowardly parachute of comedy, of like doing a big joke at the end, like, "Hey, I didn't mean any of it! Hey!" parachute. That was part of what motivated me.
This struck me as a movie that I enjoy, and I shed a tear and a giggle and all that, but I could also bring my mom, who has wildly different tastes and always accuses me of liking morbid movies. I was prepared to come in and say [snarkily], "Oh, you're playing a journalist..."
I just happened to be a journalist. It's not like some diatribes against journalists. It's just me wanting to do something authentic, and saying something sincere and authentic doesn't make you naïve, and you don't have to be clichéd, and you don't have to be schmaltzy. There's this idea to say something sincere, it has to be a big cheeseball of bullsh*t, and it doesn't. You can be authentic and still have humor and wit and it not be hokey-cokey-folky bullocks. There's actually a way of doing it. One thing that informed me is I started to realize, in terms of writing, that the one word that will make very, even avant-garde people tense is the word love, because that's the last volatile word left. And that's the word that makes them go, "Ehh, mmm, awkward!" Right? Okay? And I wanted to put some love into something. Something just genuine.
I was at the screening last night, and it was so wonderful to see the real Philomena Lee. And you feel like it's your duty to listen to her and witness what she has to say. It was important to hear what she went through.
And part of it is it's not like her experience is an outlandish experience. In some ways, her experience is actually [a] very common story, and aspects of it are going to be different, but there's plenty of women who were obstructed in finding their child afterwards... In some ways, it's quite a straightforward story. It's the kind of story that, if it hadn't been made into a film, it would sort of be a little bit forgotten, because it's ostensibly unremarkable... We're not floating in space, let's put it that way. [Laughs]
You're definitely not. But to Americans, maybe, it's a unique idea. The Magdalene sisters, right?
They're known as Magdalenes. The Magdalene laundries were -- there are certain distinctions now, but they're basically known as Magdalenes after Mary Magdalene, who was "the fallen woman" in the Bible, so that's why they're known as Magdalenes. Mary Magdalene sounds like great fun to me. One of the few people in the Bible I think I'd like to hang out with. [Laughs]
Is this sort of like -- not proving but just showing you can do more than comedy, or, you know, you can do things that have heart. You're ready to be vulnerable.
Well, first of all, I like to do things that are different... I'm just driven by what drives me, and one thing that's bugging me is people not having the guts to say what they mean. And that started to piss me off. And so I thought, "Right, I'm going to do something I mean. I'm not going to put inverted commas around it, I'm not going to try and be cool or edgy for the sake of it, I'm not going to sneer." Because actually people think that's a really brave thing to do, but it's totally a protective thing to do, because no one wants to be vulnerable.
And actually the toughest thing you can do is talk about things, and talk about humanity and trying to -- sneering irony doesn't ultimately add to the sum total of human happiness. It might be good and a way of learning about the world, but it's not ultimately an answer. It's like an aspirin... I think it's maybe getting older. You just think, okay, all right, I'm done with -- it's like, [laughs] it's like a guy over 40 wearing skinny jeans, okay? It doesn't really work. You have to start wearing more comfortable clothes when you get older, and stop trying to be like a pathetic -- guys with bleached blonde hair and skateboards who are over 40 look pathetic to me, okay? So I didn't want to be that guy. So you start to, you want to explore different things...
Also, I'd worked with other people and we've had these collaborations, but I wanted to do something that was of myself and wasn't a collaboration with someone. I've done a lot of edgy, sort of clever, ironic comedy in my time, on TV, and I was sort of yearning to do something that was - that touched people, because actually making people laugh is hard, it's difficult ... and also moving people is hard, because you can do that in a cynical way. There are Hollywood schmaltzy films that make you [cry]. I cried at "Mamma Mia!" when I was with my daughter... I wanted to do something that was just, that I meant. Just simple as that.
Philomena has a bit of a crisis of faith, and then as she said last night, came back to faith. Do you think that's sort of, as we discussed growing older, a normal progression? Do you see yourself?
I don't. I don't. I agree with Douglas Adams, who said, "It's enough to admire the beauty of the garden without having to believe that fairies live at the end of it," and that's what I feel about life. But, having said that, there is -- I don't see why I can't take certain aspects of the values and the parts of religion at its best, I can take those and I don't have to buy the whole package. I can take aspects of it and say, "That's a really good aspect of it. I want that in my life."
But, having said that, I don't need to change other peoples' [beliefs]; it's not an argument where we have to win. You need to have the humility to accept... My parents are religious. I don't want them to lose their religion, but I don't share it. But I do share some of the values they have, that they would claim [as] a part of their religion. We both love humanity. We both want to protect the weak. We both don't want people to be brutalized by conflict, and we both believe in human rights. All these people, I think it's enough to share those things, you don't need to arrive at a thing where you decide who's right and who's wrong.
"Philomena," which was directed by Stephen Frears, opens in select U.S. cities on November 22. It is rated PG-13 after The Weinstein Company appealed an initial R rating.