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Steve Coogan: no holds bard

Steve Coogan has starred in two of the best movies of the century (“24 Hour Party People” and “Tristram Shandy,” both by Michael Winterbottom), he's one of the most popular TV personalities in Britain (Alan Partridge? Tommy Saxondale? No? I didn’t think so.) and is one of the funniest and most inventive comic minds from over there since Monty Python. But nobody in America knows or cares who he is. Maybe that’s for the best for everyone involved.

Nonetheless, Coogan wants to make the transition, and this month alone sees him in two comedies released in mainstream America, the box-office topping “Tropic Thunder” and the lower profile but equally hilarious “Hamlet 2.” In the former he plays a hapless British director losing control of a “Apocalypse Now” war movie shot in the jungle. In the latter he plays a hapless drama teacher in a Tucson high school seeking to save his career by putting on a student production of the title musical, a self-penned sequel to the Shakespeare original that involves a time machine and a number called “Rock Me Sexy Jesus.”

I managed to grab a few minutes with him over the phone as he was being spirited somewhere in a limo in New York.


PK: Where are you driving to?

SC: I’m driving from a studio in New York all the way back to my hotel.

PK: You’ve been very busy lately.

SC: Yeah. Doing the rounds, just whoring myself as they say.

PK: Well you’ve got two movies that are coming out this month alone. Do you mix them up at all when you’re appearing before different people?

SC: Not really, no cause I’m a big part in a small movie and a small part in a big movie so it’s easy to distinguish really.

PK: Do you have any preference?

SC: Obviously I like the one where I’ve got the bigger part, but Hamlet 2 is kind of totally different. “Tropic Thunder” is kind of like a shotgun assault on the senses where you’re dying laughing at the end of it. “Hamlet 2” is a bit more uplifting in a kind of life affirming feel good kind of way.

PK: So you think “Hamlet 2” is more the feel good movie?

SC: I think so. Yeah. There’s more warm fuzzy stuff. Yeah. I think so.

PK: It’s hard to tell whether you’re supposed to take it tongue and cheek or not. It seems like your least ironic character that I’ve seen on screen.

SC: Yeah, that’s true. Well there’s a lack of cynicism about him and that’s kind of why I wanted to do it, to see if I could pull it off really and also I like the fact that it’s kind of smart and it’s got that kind of edginess, but at the end, it becomes the thing it satirizes. It satirizes inspirational teachers and sort of becomes one at the end. That’s fine. I like that. I like the fact that it’s not cynical and twisted in it’s resolution.

PK: I found myself moved by the conclusion and thinking maybe I’m losing my critical edge. I assume it’s intended to be moving at the end.

SC: Yeah. Well I was kind of surprised by it. I have to say that Andy [Andrew Fleming, the director] was smart. I felt like the technical side of the funny stuff is the sort of thing that preoccupies me most of the time when I’m making a film like that but he made sure that those moments of pathos were real, so that the funny stuff is underpinned by a real emotional arc.

PK: The  bits and pieces of stage production in the film actually I thought looked pretty good. I mean it was better than “Sweeney Todd,” for example. Is there an actual script for that too?

SC: It’s kind of like there is. There are lots of disjointed bits that have been written but that haven’t ended up on the screen. I remember an earlier draft there were lots of TV monitors on the stage showing execrpts from “Smokey and the Bandit” in the middle of the sequel to “Hamlet,” which I really liked, but it didn’t make the final draft. But lots of people have said they would like to see the whole play, careful what you wish for.

PK: About the “Rock Me Sexy Jesus" number, I’ve read there’s some concern that some American audiences may be offended by that.

SC: Well, I guess some of them might. I think it depends where you go. The more kind of liberal, tolerant, the liberal places won’t be so bothered by it, but I guess more conservative areas may take it the wrong way, but I think all interesting comedy or comedy that’s bold always runs the risk of upsetting some people. I think that’s just the nature of the beast. Monty Python, you know, had similar problems when they had “The Life of Brian,” but years later people realized it’s just a funny film. It depends on what the intention is behind it. If the intention is just to upset the apple cart or throw your toys out and shock people for the sake of it then it’s not smart. And also it’s not like it’s a new idea. “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell,” they tried to make Jesus quite funky. I certainly don’t find that offensive. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a good idea.

PK: It hasn’t ruined your relationship with Jesus, though?

SC: I’ve always had a very difficult relationship with him anyway. I always thought he was a very interesting man, I just don’t believe he could do all those tricks.

PK: Do you think there are significant differences in the taste and what is acceptable in America and Britain?

SC: Yes, there is and there are. You have to be aware of that. Having said that, there are an awful lot of similarities. I feel very comfortable. I don’t feel like I’m speaking a different language. I feel like we have the same kind of references, we have a lot more in common in terms of humor and popular cultural tastes than the British do with the European cousins 20 miles away. We don’t really share the same sense of humor with those guys, but we consume avidly the same things as our American cousins. So it’s not really such a huge leap, but, of course, there are certain tonalities you’ve got to be aware of. One thing, for example, is the profanity of the C word, which is a real no go area in American comedy, whereas in Britain we use it like confetti.

PK: Confetti being the C word

SC: Yeah.

PK: Why would you want to become a big hit in America because you’re regarded as a God in Britain and yet it’s resulted in all kinds of invasion of privacy. Here it’d be so much worse. I mean, look at Lindsay Lohan and Barack Obama’s going to lose the election because he’s popular.

SC: I don’t think...I got over that a long time ago really. It goes with the territory. I’ve got quite a thick skin. As goes for America, I’m not over here saying I really want to succeed at all costs. I’ve got quite a comfortable living over here in the UK. Because I’ve got this very secure career, it means I can try and do things on my own terms here. So I try and choose jobs that I really think are good and I want to do and not because I think it might move things forward for me. Although it’d be nice to have a bigger profile here and therefore empower myself more, I do jobs based on my gut instincts about whether I want to do them and try and find interesting work. That’s the only criteria I use on whether I’m going to do something is just whether I think it’s interesting and whether I think it’s funny. Even to the extent that I’ll sort of go against what I’m advised by my agents because it doesn’t feel right. So, it’d be nice, but my life isn’t defined by whether I’m successful in America. I just like working here and I like working with new people and a lot of them I started working with here, so that’s exciting.

PK: “Hamlet 2” was a hit at Sundance, has that expanded your possibilities here in America and in Hollywood?

SC: Not greatly. A little bit. I just think people return your calls and it seems things for some period are going well. It changed things up a little bit, not radically. It’s all incremental.

NEXT: Tristram Shandy, the origins of post modernism, and the requisite Oscar Wilde quote.

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Peter Keough tosses away all pretenses of objectivity, good taste and sanity and writes what he damn well pleases under the guise of a film blog.

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