Another side of comic Steve Coogan

Steve Coogan showed his comic side in the 2011 film "The Trip." In his latest movie, he's created Oscar buzz using a very different approach, one that has his fans hoping for the best when they call for "The Envelope, Please ..." He talks about that, and more, with Serena Altschul:

To American audiences, British comedian Steve Coogan's biggest role so far may be the miniature Roman soldier in the hit film, "Night at the Museum."

"I'm not that famous in America," he said, but, "you know, Ben Stiller thinks I'm cool. And Owen Wilson's a good friend of mine."

But he's big in the U.K., and he owes it all to Alan Partridge, a character he created two decades ago "The character I'm very famous for in England is just a cult, underground thing here in the U.S., [but] it's what paid for my house and opened doors for me."

He described Partridge as "a failed TV talk show host who says totally inappropriate things. And it's very funny!" Coogan laughed.

But it's Coogan's serious side that's been recognized by Americans. "Philomena," a dramatic film Coogan produced, wrote and stars in, has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

And he nabbed a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.   

When did you hear about the nominations? "I was in bed in the hotel," he laughed. "Some people sit up to watch those announcements and I think that's just like pulling teeth. And the phone rang very early and I knew it would be good news because they wouldn't ring me to tell me bad news."

His movie received four nominations in total, including one for Dame Judi Dench, who plays Philomena Lee.

"She was our number one choice; we didn't even speak to anyone else," Coogan said.

"I sweet-talked her agent and she said, 'Go to Judi's house.' So I knocked on the door and Dame Judi Dench answered the door and made me a sandwich and a cup a tea, and I told her a story. I said, 'Do you want to do it?' And she said, 'Yeah.'"

The film is a kind of "odd couple" road movie, mixed with some old-fashioned sleuthing.  But at the heart of the film is the soul of Philomena. 

"There are people who, for all the faults and I think criticisms and also problems that the church has had, the forgotten people are the ordinary people who lead these dignified, quiet, unremarkable lives, but lives that are honorable," said Coogan. "And that's who Philomena is, and that's what he learns about."

Philomena enlists the help of a cynical freelance journalist, Martin Sixsmith (played by Coogan). They go in search of her son who'd been taken from her in the 1950s.

She and the toddler had been confined to a convent in Ireland, where she'd been abandoned when her family discovered she was pregnant out of wedlock.

"It's one of those topics that I think people think is the thing that you don't talk about at dinner parties," Coogan said. "But there's a lot of humor in the film, people laugh when they watch the the film. And when people laugh they go, 'Oh, it's okay. We can have this conversation. It's doesn't have be nasty or unpleasant or difficult.'"

In fact, it was an image of laughter that originally drew Coogan to the real-life story of the real Philomena Lee.

"I found this article in the Guardian newspaper online. Alongside the article was a photograph of Philomena herself and Martin Sixsmith, the journalist, and they were both laughing in the photograph, and I thought, that's so odd that it's this sad-type story and there she is laughing. If I can get the laughter in this story, then it could be something which is enjoyable.

"I didn't want to make a depressing film." 

But his long history with humor wasn't a plus when he met the real Philomena for the first time. Her daughter was a tough sell.

"She was a little suspicious, like, 'What does this comedy guy want to do with my mom?'" Coogan recalled. "So I had to win their trust. 'It's not going to be a broad comedy. This is going be something that respects your mom and honors her.'

"And we did that with 'Philomena.' We do have the jokes, but when the chips are on the table, we've got the guts to be serious." 

Coogan was able to gain their trust, in part because Philomena Lee and Stephen John Coogan seemed to have an unspoken connection. 

Born in Manchester, England, Coogan is Irish, raised by devout Catholics. "I got four brothers and two sisters, and my mom and dad also fostered children," he said. "They would take them a few months, sometimes a year until they could get back on their feet or their families had sorted out their problems." 

Compared to the nuns at the convent whom Philomena faced, Coogan's family represented a kind of opposite Catholic response to mothers in need. 

That experience influenced Coogan. Perhaps most important, he found his way of coping.

"I talked to my sister recently, she said half the time I would spend just saying, 'Look at me, look at me,' anything to get some sort of attention, 'cause it was like a big noisy kind of house."

He became the funny one. 

"But not the class clown.  I liked to listen to comedy, and this is the days before VCRs.  You had to be your own personal VCR. You had to watch the TV and remember what the show was like, 'cause if you wanted to talk to people about it and they hadn't seen it, you had to do it, because you couldn't show it to them. It was actually quite good training."

Turns out, it was training not just for comedy, but for life. At 48, Coogan is still listening carefully.  And he's hoping audiences do, too.

"To say something that you think will be -- you want it to register.  You want people to see it.  You don't want it to go under the radar.  But, so, you know, it's definitely not under the radar!"


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