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Fri November 15, 2013
Movie Interviews

Steve Coogan, Tacking Toward The Funny Side Of Serious

Originally published on Fri November 15, 2013 8:07 pm

Philomena is the true story of a retired Irish nurse (Judi Dench) whose child was put up for adoption — against her will, by the nuns at the convent where she gave birth — when she was a teenager, and unwed. Fifty years later, a journalist grudgingly joins in her search for that son. The British comedian Steve Coogan, who also produced the project and co-wrote the screenplay, plays the reporter.

Coogan spoke with NPR's Robert Siegel about creating the film and finding his way to the character — and even shared what it takes to do a first-rate Michael Caine impression. (Hint: It involves talking through your nose.)


Interview Highlights

On how his character, a highbrow journalist, initially dismissed Philomena's story

Ironically, what he considers to be punching below his weight — what he would see as a kind of a National Enquirer-type story — is actually something of great substance and great import. Which shows, you know, that these things are often in the last place you look.

I kind of played with that notion in the script when he says to the editor of his magazine — he sort of condenses it to its sort of component parts by saying it's about evil nuns, which is kind of how you'd pitch the story. So it's very tabloidesque in his approach. But of course it's just much more than that.

On leaving flippancy behind for a serious attitude

You often find that, you know, art imitates life and life imitates art. Certainly [it did] in the whole process of making this film for me, not least because I'm known for doing comedy in the U.K., and I wanted to do something a bit more substantial, if you like.

And when I was writing this script, of course I started to put a lot of myself into the part of Martin Sixsmith. So Martin's actually an amalgam of Martin and myself. I certainly felt that Martin's dismissive view of human-interest stories is something [where] I would have taken the same position. I mean, insofar as Martin is a cynic, really, and I kind of identify with that, with the cynic I suppose.

Identifying with the cynic doesn't mean that you don't see the limitations of cynicism. And in actual fact Martin, the intellectual liberal, finds that he's enlightened by this working-class Irish woman, [this] retired Irishwoman who doesn't have the same kind of formal education as him. And he learns something from her.

On his gift for impressions

I used to hate doing impersonations. Because to me it was like watching — it was the definition of style over substance. It's like watching a juggler, you know. You can be impressed, but there's nothing to say afterwards, is there? You can't deconstruct his juggling.

On his smaller roles in Night at the Museum and other films

Well, I've done a lot of parts in big Hollywood-studio films where I don't really show off my talents. I just do, I service the part, you know. Because it's not about me; it's about someone else.

But that's partly what motivated me to roll my sleeves up and just — roll my sleeves up ... change things and try and do something serious. But not entirely serious. I would put people off.

This film's about a woman searching for her long-lost son who was forcibly adopted. When I first pitched the idea to my friends they go, "Oh my God that sounds so depressing; why would anyone want to go and see that film?" And so I thought, well, I better ... make it funny.

On acting with Judi Dench

I was daunted. I was scared, obviously. But you know, when I was writing it I said, "Hey maybe we can get Judi Dench to do this. It's a good part for an old person. And she's a senior citizen now." And she said yes. I told her the story and she said, "Yeah, I'll do it; I'm in."

I said to Jeff, my co-writer, "Forget her as M. She played Iris Murdoch. She doesn't have to wear Chanel and be all scrubbed up. She can look like an ordinary person."

In fact when I was on set with her — trying to make sure that I didn't get blown into the weeds by her charisma, I had to bring my A-game — in some ways it was easier, because she didn't look like Judi Dench. She just looked like this old Irishwoman. So I just made jokes with her all day. Made her laugh. It was only at the end of the day when they took her makeup off and transformed her back into — well, M — that I suddenly went, "Wow, I just spent the day working with the head of the British Secret Service."

On his pitch to her

[I said] "How's this? You get to look worse than you look. You get to dress shabby, the clothes are terrible, and what happens to you is really, really awful. How does it sound? Are you in?"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Now, comedian and actor Steve Coogan who stars with Judi Dench in the new movie "Philomena." It's based on the true story of a retired Irish nurse who had a son out of wedlock when she was a teenager. Nuns took the child from her and sold him for adoption in America as they did with other children of unwed mothers who were sent to live with them.

Coogan plays the journalist Martin Sixsmith who grudgingly took up Philomena's search for her son 50 years later and who actually travelled to America with her. Here, he and Dench meet for the first time and their very different sensibilities are revealed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "PHILOMENA")

STEVE COOGAN: (As Martin) So Philomena, how are you?

JUDI DENCH: (As Philomena) I'm all right. I had a hip replacement last year, Martin. And it's titanium so it won't rust.

COOGAN: (As Martin) Oh, it's a good job, otherwise I'd have to oil you like the tin man.

DENCH: (As Philomena) Is that right?

COOGAN: (As Martin) No, I mean, you know, like the "Wizard of Oz."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: He's just joking, Mom.

SIEGEL: In addition to acting in "Philomena," Steve Coogan was one of the screenwriters and one of the producers. He is a very well known figure in Britain as a comedian who's been on many British television shows and he is our guest. Welcome.

COOGAN: Hello.

SIEGEL: First, in "Philomena," Martin Sixsmith had been a very - in real life, had been a very successful high brow journalist, BBC Moscow correspondent, takes on a story that he would dismiss as unserious, human interest.

COOGAN: That's absolutely right.

SIEGEL: It turns out to be more serious than anything he's done.

COOGAN: Yeah. Ironically, what he considers to be punching below his weight, in this what he would see as a kind of a National Enquirer-type level of story, is actually something of great substance and great import, which shows, you know, that these things are often in the last place you look.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Nuns steal baby from teenage mother. It's a screaming tabloid headline, but it actually did in fact happen.

COOGAN: Absolutely. And I kind of play with that notion in the script when he says to the editor of his magazine - he sort of condenses it to its sort of component parts by saying it's about evil nuns, which is kind of how you'd pitch the story. So it's very tabloid-esque in his approach. But of course it's just much more than that.

SIEGEL: So the character you play and the character you wrote in the part is getting more serious progressively as he becomes involved in this search for the child grown up. Is his escape from flippancy in the script something that you're going through in real life in making this movie and doing something more serious?

COOGAN: Yeah. You often find that, you know, art imitates life and life imitates art. Certainly in the whole process of making this film for me, not least because I'm known for doing comedy in the U.K., and I wanted to do something a bit more substantial, if you like. And when I was writing this script, of course I started to put a lot of myself into the part of Martin Sixsmith. So Martin's actually an amalgam of Martin and myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "PHILOMENA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is Martin Sixsmith. He used to be the BBC's man in Moscow.

COOGAN: (As Martin) And Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You're depressed.

COOGAN: (As Martin) Well, I got the sack. I'm unemployed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That wasn't your fault, was it?

COOGAN: (As Martin) That's why I'm depressed.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I knew this woman. She had a baby when she was a teenager. She kept it secret for 50 years.

COOGAN: (As Martin) What you're talking about is a human interest story. I don't do those.

In making it, I certainly felt that Martin's dismissive view of human-interest stories is something that I would have taken the same position. I mean, insofar as Martin is a cynic, really, and I kind of identify with that, with the cynic, I suppose.

SIEGEL: No. I mean, I think you'd punch well above your weight for cynicism.

COOGAN: But also identifying with a cynic doesn't mean that you don't see the limitations of cynicism. And in actual fact Martin, the intellectual liberal, finds that he's enlightened by this working-class Irish woman, retired Irish woman, who doesn't have the same kind of formal education as him. And he learns something from her.

SIEGEL: Several of my colleagues would not let me leave this studio in one piece if I didn't raise with you one scene that you've performed and this was from the British sitcom "The Trip" which was made into a movie in which you and Rob Brighten engage in dueling Michael Caine impressions.

COOGAN: Yeah. And also I used to do lots of impersonations years ago. And you get - there's people who do impersonations like at a party. You always find somebody who thinks they can do Sean Connery.

SIEGEL: Can you do Sean Connery?

COOGAN: Well, the people at parties sort of say, my name is Bond, James Bond and they do this funny thing, but they don't get the - they don't get the depth of the voice. You need to get the diaphragm flapping properly to actually have a kind of resonance. So there's that and there's people who do Michael Caine and they talk like they're Michael Caine, but they don't get the nasal sounds.

He actually speaks through is nose. As he's got older, you could hear the cigarettes (unintelligible) and the wine and the long lunches starting to come through. But years ago, it was a lot higher. A lot of people, their voices change.

SIEGEL: You could do that nonstop. I mean, you could be in Vegas right now.

COOGAN: I used to hate doing impersonations. Because to me, it was like watching - it was the definition of style over substance. It's like watching a juggler, you know. You can be impressed, but there's nothing to say afterwards, is there? You can't deconstruct his juggling.

SIEGEL: That's very good. And I asked you about "The Trip." A less remarkable, say, you were a Roman general in "Night at the Museum."

COOGAN: Yeah, I was. I played Octavius, yeah.

SIEGEL: Octavius.

COOGAN: Three inches tall.

SIEGEL: Didn't exactly show off your talent.

COOGAN: Well, I mean, I've done a lot of parts in big Hollywood-studio films where I don't really show off my talents. I just do - I service the part, you know. Because it's not about me, it's about someone else. But that's partly what motivated me to roll my sleeves up, pull my finger out and then think of any other metaphors that involve pulling things. I don't know. But I decided to change things and try and do something serious. But not entirely serious. I would put people off.

But this film's about a woman searching for her long-lost son who was forcibly adopted. When I first pitched the idea to my friends they go, oh my God that sounds so depressing. Why would anyone want to go and see that film? And so I thought, well, I better put some - make it funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "PHILOMENA")

DENCH: (As Philomena) What if he died in Vietnam or he lived down the street? Or what if he's just obese?

COOGAN: (As Martin) What makes you think he'd be obese?

DENCH: (As Philomena) Because of the size of the portions.

SIEGEL: What's it like acting with Judi Dench?

COOGAN: I was daunted. I was scared, obviously. But you know, when I was writing it, I said, hey maybe we can get Judi Dench to do this. It's a good part for an old person. And she's a senior citizen now. And she said yes. I told her the story and she said, yeah, I'll do it, I'm in.

SIEGEL: She's incredible. I mean, to look at this woman and realize that she was M not too long ago.

COOGAN: Well, that's one thing, you know, when I was writing it, I mean, I said to Jeff, my co-writer, I said, look, forget her as M. She played Iris Murdoch. She doesn't have to look like - wear Chanel and be all scrubbed up. She can look like an ordinary person. In fact, when I was on set with her, trying to make sure that playing opposite her I didn't get blown into the weeds by her charisma, I had to bring my A game, as you say.

And in some ways it was easy because she didn't look like Judi Dench. She just looked like this old Irish woman. So I just made jokes with her all day. Made her laugh. It was only at the end of the day when they sort of took her makeup off and transformed her back into - well, M - that I suddenly went, wow, I just spent the day working with the head of the Secret Service.

SIEGEL: So you could've pitched not just this for your age, but you get to dress shabby and look like...

COOGAN: Yeah, how's this? You get to look worse than you look. You get to dress shabby, the clothes are terrible, and what happens to you is really, really awful. How does it sound? Are you in?

SIEGEL: Well, the answer evidently was at least if that was the implicit offer, the answer was very much yes and it works. Well, Steve Coogan, thanks a lot for talking with us about "Philomena" and much else.

COOGAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: The new movie "Philomena" opens later this month. It stars Steve Coogan and Judi Dench. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.