Smile Politely

Interview with Steve Coogan: Searching for Meaning through Laughter

Steve Coogan’s road to fame in Hollywood has been a rocky one. But one gets the impression that such a thing doesn’t matter to him, having established himself already as one of the premiere British comics of his generation, having conquered the world of television across the pond, most particularly with his character Alan Partridge, a dimwitted TV personality that the actor invented while mocking a reporter while he was being interviewed.

Click the jump to read Chuck’s interview with Steve Coogan.

His movie roles have been numerous, most of them being in memorable supporting roles. He stole the show in A Night at the Museum as the frustrating Roman warrior Octavius and delivers a memorable turn in Tropic Thunder, as a put-upon film director who meets an untimely and hilarious death. However, his best work to date is in theaters now: Hamlet 2 — a ribald comedy in which he plays Dana Marschz, a drama teacher who writes the title play in an effort to save his program from being cut by the school board. Though it is an abominable piece of work, it sets off a firestorm of controversy because of its mature content, thus resulting in a civil liberties debate. In the end, the film espouses not only the importance of free speech but also the need for catharsis and healing through the arts.

Though tired, Coogan was more than game to sit down for a brief interview while visiting Chicago recently. After helping me finish my daily crossword puzzle, I asked him how he got started in show business.

Chuck Koplinski: One of the themes of this film seems to be that it is important to be able to perform and create art. When did you realize that this was something you wanted to do?

Steve Coogan: Well, I do remember thinking, “I can’t do anything else, so this better work because I’m not good at anything else.” People would say I was funny and that I should be on the telly and I heard that a lot when I was younger. I heard it so often that I got to thinking, “Well, maybe I should be on TV!” When I was 10 years old I had my first thought of it. I knew I could always do voices and I liked comedy and TV. I was a TV junkie. I didn’t read a lot of books but I would listen to a lot of vinyl comedy albums and I would record comedy programs off the television, before there were VCRs, with my cassette recorder. I’d put the microphone up to the TV and record the program on an audiocassette. In fact, on some of the earlier cassettes I have you can hear me in the background at the beginning saying, “Shh, be quiet!” I was a comedy nerd. I’d listen to it, I’d memorize it…I sometime didn’t understand what it was, like some of the Monty Python stuff at a young age, but I knew the tone of it was funny and energetic and that’s what I wanted to create and experience was that energy.

C.K.: When you signed on for Hamlet 2, did they give you a lot of latitude to bring your own style to the role or did you stick mostly to the script?

S.C.: I stuck to the script, though I had a bit of latitude in trying some things out that I thought might be funny. I met with Andy and Pam a lot and we had a lot of the same tastes. They would bring certain things out of me that were good. What I liked about this was that it was accessible and the character was not one I would normally see myself as. He is quite vulnerable and emotionally vulnerable as well as very demonstrative. There’s no duplicity in him, everything he does is quite literal. He says exactly what he feels, which is not the normal sort of character I play. But, it made me laugh and I was curious if I could pull this off. I also liked that he was very big. He’s not subtle at all, but he’s very physical and I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and do something more interesting. That’s why I did it, and also I got to show my ass in the movie.

C.K.: There are so many obvious comedic elements to the film but there’s a subtext here as it talks about the importance of art in our society and the healing that can come through it. This character experiences a real catharsis. I guess I responded to that because I have sat through so many vacuous summer films and it was nice to be reminded of art’s true purpose.

S.C.: I’m pleased to hear you say that. I don’t mind vacuous comedy but if it is, it better be damn funny. It better be so goddamn funny that I don’t care how stupid it is. But that’s a pretty tall order. Generally, I like my comedy to be about something. When I write, I don’t think that what I am doing has to change the world, but it should mean something. If an audience laughs at a good gag but I appreciate when they respond to something that is funny but shines a bit of light on what it is like to be a human being. That’s much more fulfilling and stays with people more. A series of gags can work but it can work for only about a half hour. I don’t think that works in a movie. It’s like fast food. It might satisfy an immediate hunger but then you fell like there’s no real sustenance there.

C.K.: I worry about that state of art today because in the movies everything is given so much hype and yet it all seems to be the same in so many ways. I’m not sure how it looks from the other side of the camera.

S.C.: It looks like that from here as well. But that’s one of the reasons I like this film because it has a fresh, honest, authentic feel to it. Also, there’s an emotional undertow to it and I think that is why audiences like it so far. I think they want this guy to succeed and they have a lot of compassion for him. It’s not a product of a studio and a committee didn’t write it. It is an independent film, written by two very talented people. There’s an honest quality to this script that you don’t often see. The observation you made is true because when something different comes through, it really stands out. Like Napoleon Dynamite or Little Miss Sunshine. It’s not that they’re world-changing movies but it’s that they are authentic that makes them special.

Related Articles