Steve Coogan—Hamlet 2, Tropic Thunder—7/28/08

Picture if you will a high-school drama teacher threatened with losing your program and your job. What brilliant stroke could save the day? After much floundering, Dana Marschz comes to the answer: to be taken seriously, he’ll write “Hamlet 2,” a sequel to one of the most famous plays ever written. And for good measure, he’ll throw in a time machine, Sexy Jesus, and musical numbers. Marschz, the leading character of the new comedy film Hamlet 2, is just the sort of comic creation that appeals to Steve Coogan, the renowned British comic actor best known abroad for his role of Alan Partridge on the BBC series Knowing Me, Knowing You and I’m Alan Partridge. Here, Coogan may be better known for playing the film director in Tropic Thunder or pairing with Jackie Chan in Around the World in 80 Days, though he also starred in the art house favorites 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. I spoke to Coogan at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

Groucho: Got a day’s worth of tea cups here, eh?

Steve Coogan: Yeah. That’s how I imagine the passage of time.

Groucho: Can I ask you first of all to talk about your approach to developing a character? I think you’re kind of a character actor—

SC: Mm-hm!

G: Or a character comedian. And once you have the idea or the script, do you tend to go outside-in and figure out the wig, the make-up, the voice?

SC: Mm-hm! Well, you’ve kind of said it. Yeah, I sometimes like to—if I can sort of distance a character from myself physically, then I kind of find it gives me license to go to extremes. I don’t mind making a complete ass of myself. If I feel what I’m doing is so very different from me—in actual fact, whenever I do a character, there’s always going to be a little bit of me in it. Even something that’s been written by someone else like the Hamlet 2 by Pam and Andy, there was a lot of discussion about how I should approach that character and how I should do it and how big I can go with it, you know. And it’s quite a big performance. And that’s something to talk about too. This character that I’m doing is quite eccentric. He’s quite larger than life, so you have to think about whether, when I perform that character, I’ve got to make sure I don’t—it doesn’t look like I’m overacting. Because that’s a problem. Because the character itself is larger than life, so he would act in a slightly big way than other people in reality, but you don’t want it to come across like I’m kind of out of kilter with the other actors. So you have to process all that when you’re doing it. And then having, when you do all that, throw all that away and don’t over-intellectualize and go with the seat of your pants as well, so it’s kind of a combination of things. But in terms of sort of commonality to all the characters I do, whether mine or someone else’s, I do like to have physical things just to hang on to, to help me sort of go back into the character. And that’s not to say I just externalize it and don’t do anything else, but the physical aspects—in the way I dress, the way I look, the way I walk, and the things that I do—help me find the character, help me get a handle on the character. And then you kind of go back inside, if you like, sort of 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 still makes kind of sense to me! But you kind of—it does give you kind of—you go, “Oh I’ve seen guys like that. I think I know who that guy is.” And then you start to—but there’s no substitute for actually trying to really feel and experience the things the character’s experiencing. Even in a comedy. If I just did the character in such a way whereby I did physical things that made you laugh, and I got the gags right, then all it would be is me stringing a series of gags together, around a kind of caricature. And while that can work and make you laugh for a period, but it’s not going to see you through to the end of a movie. And it’s not going to make you really care about the character. So that’s only the start of it. The tough part for me isn’t doing the funny stuff. The funny stuff’s there on the page, and there’s funny stuff to do physically, that you can—you understand the mechanics. When you’ve been doing it a long time, you kind of get the mechanics. You go, “Okay, if I do that, that, and that, then that should be funny. And if I do this, this, and this, and then do that, then that should be funny.” Those are the bits that you kind of learn and get used to. The tough part, in this character for example, is that “Okay, those funny things should work. But then an hour and ten minutes into the movie, are people still going to give a damn and want to see you through or care what happens to you?” And that involves a kind of a little contradiction for me. Because as a comic—my background is both stand-up comedy and being at drama school and training. And once you let go of the mechanical stuff—a lot of comics are control freaks: they like to know exactly what they’re doing every single moment, but I think for the emotional arc to work, you kind of have to really, really care about the character and not be seen as making a kind of commentary on the character you’re doing. If it looks like—when you’re watching it you think, “Well, he thinks the guy he’s playing is a complete jerk,” that will stop working after a while. You have to really believe that I really care about the character I’m playing. And I sort of do. And so when I’m really wanting things to work, I really try and feel those things, rather than trying to be funny. And Andy helped me with that, the director. There’d be moments there where he’d say, “Just don’t worry about being funny right now. Just, you know, this really matters to you. Just really play it like you really care about it. Just forget the funny stuff right now.” And I’d do that, and he’d say, “As long as there’s funny stuff around it, you can have a little moment of genuine sentiment,” and that actually makes the funny stuff funnier. Because you start caring about the character. That’s that longest answer I’ve given all day…

G: And what about this character in particular?

SC: There was opportunities, “If you want, you could maybe play this as an English guy.” And that to me was not right, wouldn’t have suited the character. So I felt that I had to do it as American, because I couldn’t believe a British guy would be so—you have to justify why he’s teaching out there in the middle of Tucson. And plus someone who would be so emotionally open that way and not be gay, I didn’t believe for a second. Whereas I could believe it of a kind of a metrosexual American guy who’d lived a lot of his life in California. (Laughs…) He certainly has a lot of feminine qualities…That kind of machismo thing doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I don’t give a damn about how macho I look. I really don’t give a shit at all. (Adopts macho tone:) I know I’m a guy, so. I know a few chicks who know I’m a guy, too…But, yes, of course, he’s got those slightly effete qualities…There’s that idea of actors wanting to look good and look cool in whatever they do that is kind of a handicap. And there’s another thing to let go of. If you’re not worried about looking like a complete ass, somehow, if you really commit to it, you can end up being cooler than anybody else. So you kind of you just go through that pain barrier. You go, “Okay, I’m going to wear a caftan, I’m going to go around on roller skates, I’m going to have long blond hair that I flick around, and I’m going to just commit to that, you know?”...He’s very effusive and emotionally open in a way that’s not very masculine. And certainly not British, either. It’s someone who sort of waves his arms around a lot and clutches his bosom. It’s like he actually thinks his life is a movie. That’s self-navel-gazing, which is kind of a Hollywood thing, a Los Angeles thing, that sort of addiction to self-analysis.

G: And how good you’re going to look to others.

SC: Yeah, that’s right…how good you’re going to look to others. Because he does have a certain neurosis about him, which is even though he wears a caftan, I think he thinks it’s bohemian, I guess.

G: How much more of “Hamlet 2,” the play within the film, was worked out than what we see on the screen? Did you have a pretty good sense for yourself of the overarching plot he was trying to tell beyond what we see?

SC: Now that’s a big, big trick. Did they? Well, actually maybe Andy did write a complete thing. I’m not sure he did, though. I mean, he changed it a lot. I mean, I wasn’t supposed to be in the play originally. It was like—he just thought—in 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 through, and if you disappear for the last twenty minutes, watching this thing, it’s kind of—we need you in there. And we need you onstage.” But not through any self-obsession. Through wanting the kids to make the best [show] possible. There’s maybe a little bit of narcissism in there. He said, “I really think we should have you playing Jesus Christ onstage. It just would be appropriate.” And I thought, “Oh, really?” “Yeah.” I was going, “Okay, okay.” And again all those things tied in with the thing about being liked. If something scares me a little bit, then I kind of—I’ve learnt to spot that if something is a little bit scary, then it’s potentially really quite a good thing. So you kind of smell that. And I thought, “Well, that sounds kind of, like, weird. Being Jesus.” He went, “Yeah, I want you to be a sexy Jesus.” I went, “Oh, criminey.” I was raised a Catholic. “What are my mum and dad going to say?” and all that. But then you think, “Well, you know, could we really—and I thought, “Well, South Park: they’ve done some things I think, “There’s no way in a million years I would have thought that would work. That seems too beyond the pale.” And sometimes it really kind of is. You know, I mean, I saw it last night, and I was thinking, “I can’t believe—“ It’s like every single time, “Okay, I get what they’re going to do. It’s not going to shock me anymore,” and then I’ll look at it and go, “Ohmigod, what are they--? Oh! Oh, it’s so awful.” But kind of, like, compelling. Anyway. When they said they’d do the Sexy Jesus, I thought, “Well, it scares me so it’s potentially a good thing.” And I think if you do stuff that’s interesting and funny…the risk of making an ass of yourself is part and parcel of it.

G: And if you’re not on the edge, what’s the point?

SC: Yeah, yeah…

G: When you were doing theatre in your formative years, what was on your mind?

SC: I was very self-conscious. I went to—applied to—I mean, I used to do little kind of stuff at college, doing the kind of—all that stuff: I could do voices. I could make some people laugh; I wasn’t the class clown, but I knew I had this certain skill, ‘cause people would come ‘round, sit ‘round and say, you know, “Do some stuff. Do some of your voices.” And I knew that I could do it. And people would sometimes say, even regular people would say at school, “Hey, you should be on TV.” And they would say it a lot. A lot of people would say it to me: “Hey, you should be on TV.” And I used to think, “Well, maybe they’re right, maybe they’re right.” Because I wasn’t a naturally confident, extrovert, outgoing person. I was quite insecure, like a lot of actors are. Big surprise. But, um, my first experience was actually one of—I had to apply to all these London drama schools. And felt quite—like I thought I had something, but then would feel very insecure, because a lot of these people were more cosmopolitan than me. And they were from London; I was from Manchester…we didn’t have the same in-built confidence that a lot of these privately educated young men and women who had gone to drama school had this ease with themselves, and had a confidence and eloquence that I’ve acquired slowly. But they had that almost from birth. And they would understand the arts. They would understand Shakespeare. And they would be able to talk about it and his subtext and all the rest of it, and I was like, “Oh, I can do some funny voices, you know.” I don’t even understand all this stuff…but then I figured, “You know something? I think—“ Whatever, I eventually got into a drama school, in Manchester. There was a lot of people-at first what I thought was my handicap, and lack of cosmopolitan creative bohemia, became what I realized was my advantage ‘cause it was a kind of ordinariness of background that I realized was kind of like: I had an edge. I had something that was actually—what made me self-conscious became the thing that made me confident. And I thought, “I can draw upon that.” And I suddenly figured that I had something more valid to say, that would resonate with more ordinary people. I felt I was in touch with popular taste, in a way that these other people weren’t. And I figured that that would be my key. So I kind of honed in on that. And then I sort of mined it, you know? And I used to do comic characters that people would recognize. And ordinary people could think, “Oh, I know someone--he’s like my uncle. He’s like…“I went to characters that were kind of real, and resonated with ordinary people. And to me being popular didn’t equate with being lowbrow. Or unintelligent.

G: I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to you before, so I have to ask you about Alan Partridge.

SC: Sure!

G: I know he was based on a real radio presenter—

SC: No, he wasn’t.

G: No, he wasn’t.

SC: No.

G: Okay, well, who was he based on?

SC: He wasn’t based on anyone. It’s a complete misconception, no.

G: Oh, it was that somebody asked you, “Do a voice of a radio—“

SC: “Do a voice of a radio presenter,” and I did a voice that sounded like the kind of voice 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 names of any sports presenters. I’d just hear people on the radio, like these jerks who clearly knew *nothing* except sport. And I just had no interest in them whatsoever, but I’d hear these voices on the radio, and they’d say, “Well, what do they—do a sport voice.” And I’d say: (as Alan Partridge:) "Well, these guys sound like this. They’re sort of—like the sound of their own voice. They’re very confident, but they’re not that bright. Not very intelligent, but they’re very confident broadcasters.” And I thought, “Well, that’s what those guys sound like,” so that’s where the voice came from.

G: And is the fabled Alan Partridge film something you think might ever happen?

SC: Everyone keeps asking me about that. I feel like I ought to make the film, just to make people stop asking about whether I’m going to make the film or not. Errrm, I guess I should say no, so people will stop asking me. But I can’t say no, because I might do it one day. In England, it’s kind of a double-edged sword, because it’s something that was very successful, I’m very proud of. It’s also a bit of a creative albatross in that it stops me being able to do other things. This movie that I love so much I would never have been able to do in England. Period. But in this country, people have seen a bunch of different stuff, even though I’m not that well known, which is, again, perversely, an advantage. It means I’m able to sort of move around and do different stuff. So I kind of—I’m nervous about screwing with that right now. And I’m glad I’ve been able to move away from that kind of character. But having said that, I still—I’m doing a live show in the fall where I’m going to do that character, I’m doing Alan Partridge, and I’m doing a bunch of other characters, onstage. So, I still love the character. I still love the guy. He’s still sort of—he’s like an old friend. Who you don’t like. (Laughs.) Like an old friend that you don’t want to see that often!

G: You should bring one of those shows to the U.S.

SC: Well, I’ve thought about it maybe, yeah…

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