The average American has a tough time identifying Steve Coogan by name alone. Based on some arbitrary polling I conducted on the streets of Los Angeles, most people pretend to know Coogan’s name, then gaze off into the hazy June horizon in search of a face. When I offer “wild British director in Tropic Thunder who has his decapitated head tongued by Ben Stiller,” most people experience a flash of recognition. A few mention Booty Sweat and start giggling. This is comparable to someone from across the pond attempting to identify, say, Steve Carell and settling on “that bloke from The Daily Show.”
Coogan is a comic legend in the U.K., most notably thanks to the long-running series of BBC shows based around his Alan Partridge character, a pompous radio DJ (he’s also won three BAFTA awards). This is how Coogan’s career has been divided by the Atlantic: experimental comedy superstar in the United Kingdom; quietly memorable supporting character in studio comedies in America. This summer is no different. You can currently see him starring as a slightly soused version of himself in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, a layered comedy buffet meant for those finely attuned to British humor. Later this August, he’ll play in the Weinstein Company’s Our Idiot Brother, in which he supports Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, and Zooey Deschanel — probably as “the British guy.”
It’s easy to imagine that the dual nature of Coogan’s career might leave him inwardly discontented (it’s an existential/career conundrum gestured at in The Trip to great comic effect). In fairness, there have been a few tabloid brawls over his personal life, mostly pertaining to sex, drugs and, oddly, Courtney Love. But when he took the time to talk with me about The Trip, the differences between British and American comedy, and whatever happened to his decapitated head in Tropic Thunder, Coogan’s upbeat humor and intelligence signaled that he’s rocketed into the next stage of an already-fabled career.
Last week, it was announced that you would be starring as Paul Raymond, the British billionaire porn baron, in a biopic about his life, directed by long-time collaborator Micheal Winterbottom. Congratulations. Thanks, we haven’t started preproduction on it yet, but we have a script and it’s something I wanted to do for a long time. Micheal Winterbottom liked the idea and Matt Greenhalgh [writer of Control, the film about Joy Division] has written a pretty good script. It will be fun and, most importantly, it will be different.
What type of research will you be doing for it? Well over the past few weeks, we have gone to what I can only describe as Gentleman’s Clubs to try and soak up that sort of male-only constructed objectification of women that we personally find repugnant and horrific. But because we’re so dedicated to the project, we put ourselves through the pain of seeing some women take off their clothes at these table-dancing clubs. Finally, we have got those over and done with and out of the way, so that we can go on with our wholesome lives.
How dedicated. Well, you know, it’s all about the method.
What’s the primary difference between British and American humor? Americans don’t like the idea of revealing weakness, and if they do it’s very muted. Americans don’t like losers, while British really like losers. Americans like winners. Even if a person screws up, they basically have to be a winner at the end of the day. I don’t think Americans like looking at ugly people, either. Everyone has to be very good looking. That is, unless they are really interesting or it’s an old person—then they can be ugly. However, the upside is that you Americans try to look inside yourselves, understand yourselves and what makes you tick. We don’t do that in England. We’d rather kill ourselves then have any type of psychoanalysis. The upside is that we express affection for each other by taking the piss out of each other and mocking each other. We don’t really say “I Love You” in England. That’s why we’re oppressed emotionally. But it makes for better comedy, I think, when you’re ruder to each other.
A lot of American comedy, namely The Office, has been influenced by British comedy. Are Americans finally catching on to the British sense of humor? Maybe. But a lot of that has to do with what works. A lot of what plays in America has to do with number crunching and the bottom line. In Britain there’s still a nationalized institution like the BBC, which is government owned and takes risks, experiments with comedy and programs in general, even if they don’t make lots of money. No one watches it but we still put it on TV because we think it’s good. In America, if someone’s not being paid, it gets the bullet.
So how did The Trip come about? Michael and I have worked on a couple movies together, like 24 Hour Party People and Tristam Shandy, and he asked me if I wanted to do this thing. I told him I didn’t really want to do it, because I didn’t think it had legs. But he finally convinced me and I think he’s pulled it off quite well. It depends on how you view the movie, I suppose. It was conceived as both a TV series—with six half-hour episodes where we visit a different restaurant in each one—and as a ninety-plus minute film, which takes excerpts from each restaurant and sews them together into a narrative. It was Michael’s idea that Rob [Brydon] and I could improvise together and use versions of our personalities to examine more universal topics of middle-age, career identity, and male friendship.
Does Rob really annoy you in real life as much as he does in The Trip? Yes, he does annoy me. Not quite as much in the movie, but he does annoy me. I’m being really honest here, not even facetious for the sake of comedy. That’s the brutal, honest truth. I mean, you constantly read these interviews with actors going, “Oh he’s so great, he’s so talented” and they never say one tiny negative thing because they’re all moving in this PR machine. I always want to say “Really? When you worked on the movie everyone was fucking great? I don’t believe you. You’re lying. Say something real.” What we did with the movie was we exploited that by making Rob even more annoying and making me even more pretentious and self-important and affected and neurotic and unhappy. We shot it over five weeks, which meant we’d occasionally have a genuine disagreement at dinner or when we were driving to set, and we’d try to remember it and slip it into the film. There were actually times where Rob would have to tell me to stop speaking, to save it and wait for when the cameras were rolling.
The film ends on a lonely note. Is there a part of your character — or you yourself — that regrets giving up the family life for fame? I think what the film tries to get across through my character is that my success is a poison chalice, as it were. I’ve made a Faustian pact or I’ve lost my soul in exchange for success in my career. Or something. I don’t think there is a moral judgment here — people make choices throughout their lives and there is no right way or wrong way to be. It deals in shades of gray. At the end of the film I end up in a beautiful bachelor pad with no friends and no girlfriend. In truth, I live in a larger house that’s a bit more rambling, and I’ve got a family. A dysfunctional but authentic family life.
Ben Stiller makes a hilarious cameo in The Trip, poking fun at your times working together in American films. We communicate with certain regularity and keep threatening to do something close and collaborative together. I think he admires what I’ve done in my career, and I’ve always respected what he has done with his work. What I like about Ben is that he never dials in a cynical performance, even in his commercial work. There’s something cerebral. He manages to do the Holy Grail of comedy — walking that fine line between appealing to a wide audience, yet keeping it smart at the same time. I’ve never been able to pull that off, except maybe on one of Ben Stiller’s movies and maybe once or twice on British TV. If I’m lucky I get cool people liking me.
Whatever happened to your fake, decapitated head from Tropic Thunder? I don’t know, and I really should have asked if I could keep it. I have photographs of my then-11-year-old daughter holding it, which I’ve got to put on the wall, because as far as father-daughter photos go — her holding my severed head and smiling — it doesn’t get much better. In fact, I think I’ll frame it and put it on my work desk. Whenever I’m feeling vulnerable I can look at it.
How do you come up with your characters and do different impressions? The God’s honest truth is I started out twenty-something years ago doing impressions on stage, and it got me in the door in the business. But once I was in the business, I hated it. I mean, you hear a good impression, and you might think it’s a little funny, and then a part of you thinks “That guy’s a fucking jerk.” I hadn’t done them for years until we did The Trip, and it kind of worked when I was doing it under the guise of an indie arthouse movie. But when I go on TV and they ask me to do impressions, it takes everything in my power not to be an asshole. Of course, the irony is if you were to go to a party with me, one drink in and I’d be doing impressions for everyone.
You’ve settled down recently from your younger, wild days — except for the Paul Raymond research, of course. Of course, yes.
Do you think that’s affected how you perform in comedy? Yes, yes is the answer. People who are actors, if they are any good, put their own experiences into what they do. I had some rough times with the tabloids, and I’m angry with them and a little angry with myself. But in truth, the old cliché is if it doesn’t destroy you it makes you stronger. This is never more true then when you’re creative. Years ago I would have been overly concerned with people thinking bad things about me. As you get older, you realize that you want to use the faults, the inconsistencies or what have you, to do something interesting. And it doesn’t matter if people think you’re a jerk.