Exclusive Interview: Steve Coogan

     February 19, 2009

Written by Ben Begley

Everyone tunes into the Oscars and the Golden Globes each year, but there are other award shows out there with just as much merit, if not more. Where politics and bottom lines and popularity contests don’t play into who wins the awards, instead there is a genuine respect for the artistry and innovation involved in filmmaking. One such awards show is the “Film Independent’s Spirit Awards,” which is “a celebration honoring films made by filmmakers who embody independence and who dare to challenge the status quo…recognizing the achievements of independent filmmakers and promoting independent film to a wider audience.” (quoted from the press packet I was given). In other words, dare I say it, it celebrates the artistic integrity, creativity, and originality that still exists in filmmaking.

Some of the awards given out include Best Feature, Best First Feature, Best Male Lead, and even the “John Cassavetes Award” which is given to the best feature film made with a budget under $500,000. This is the real deal, a celebration of artists who use everything at their disposal to get their projects made and who don’t have the luxury of millions of dollars to work with or big name ensemble casts taking a slight pay cut. It’s a very bohemiam pure sense of artistry in my opinion (now don’t worry I’m not a movie snob and against Hollywood flicks, I just respect people who have to work a little harder to get things made and think outside the box).

The show is known for being more edgy, raw, and off-the-cuff than most other more uptight review shows. There is no censorship board watching with an itchy trigger finger to dump out on the broadcast when something becomes too lewd for prude middle America. Nope, just like the movies being honored, the show has the freedom to do pretty much whatever they want while being aired live and uncut on:

IFC February 21, 2009 at 5pm EST / 2pm PST, then a rebroadcast and edited version will air later that evening on AMC.

Past hosts of the show have included Sarah Silverman and Raine Wilson, this year the host with the most will be… Steve Coogan!!

I had the privilege of sitting down with one of my favorite comedic actors, an artist and comedian who has managed to stay under the radar, but still work consistently on projects he enjoys. Past film credits include: “Tropic Thunder,” “Hamlet 2,” “24 Hour Party People,” “Night at the Museum,” “Coffee and Cigarettes, and “A Cock and Bull Story.” On top of that he has his own live touring comedy show and has written and produced several of his own TV shows and sketches in the UK. If for some reason you haven’t heard of him, he’s hilarious and one of the few comedians out there who has a grasp on the humanity of his characters, they feel like real people, not just goofy caricatures of real people. His choices are off the wall and bizarre, but always grounded in a reality.

I was scheduled to do a round table interview with Mr. Coogan with several other journalists and when I arrived in the morning, there was only one other guy in the room. So it went from a 30 minute round table interview to a 10 minute one on one, now mind you, I’ve never interviewed a celebrity before in my life, let alone one I’m a huge fan of, so I was a bit nervous. I had prepared 27 questions to ask and I think I got around 7 out in the time frame, but before going in the room I had no idea what to expect.

All my nerves and neurosis were calmed immediately upon entering the room and meeting Mr. Coogan in person. He immediately stood up and shook my hand with a friendly smile on his face and there was a feeling of a calm energy in the room. I warned him it was my first interview and he said, “That’s okay, we’ll help each other out.” So I began my questions and I found him to be exactly as I imagined, a very low-key interesting man who cares deeply about the artistry of his work and not the celebrity that comes with it. He remarked with a very dry British sense of humor from time to time (which is probably lost in transcription) and seemed to be a very grounded and normal person. As an audience member when you see actors onscreen that you admire so often you hear that they are total jerks in real life and that always disappoints me, but Steve Coogan is the exact opposite, I immediately felt comfortable talking to him and was impressed by how humble and just downright cool of a guy he was.

The overwhelming sense I got from this interview is that Steve Coogan is going to be a great fit for the “Film Independent’s Spirit Awards” because his career is just as edgy and off-the-beaten-path as the filmmakers being honored. I’m sure it will be a ridiculously funny evening and I can’t wait to tune in.

Here’s my full ten-minute interview with Steve Coogan where I ask about the Spirit Awards, how he plays characters like Dana in “Hamlet 2,” and if he was surprised by the success of “Tropic Thunder.” Enjoy…

Collider: When were you first approached about the Spirit Awards?

Steve Coogan: I don’t know, six months ago…something like that.

Do you think your past experience with stand-up comedy and characters like Alan Patridge led into it?

Steve Coogan: I think it’s just a combination of stuff I’ve done. I’ve done a few indie movies. I’ve done a little bit of stuff in big major motion pictures and I’ve done a bit of stand-up and my own TV comedy in the UK… so with all these things combined, they thought I might be an interesting choice. I don’t think I’m kind of universally known. I think in the indie world I’m probably better known than in some mainstream Hollywood terms. So, it feels like a good fit. I wasn’t phased… I was like “Oh okay, that could work.” (he chuckles a bit)

I’m actually a really big fan of your work and it seems like you have the same sort of mentality towards your career as the Film Independent’s Spirit Awards have towards filmmaking.

Steve Coogan: I think that’s nice of you to say, I’d like to think that’s the case. I try to not make safe choices, but I also like to do stuff which is interesting and is sort of exciting in some way and accessible. I’m not so esoteric that I just want to be a cult underground thing. I like to move around a bit. I think the indie world manages to do that, you know there are some movies that manage to break through to a bigger audience that still have their own voice and then there’s those ones that will always be cult and kind of have a narrower audience. I guess… yeah, that does reflect the sort of choices I’ve made. Some stuff I’ve done has been broadly accessible and some stuff more “culty.” If I was hosting a more mainstream event here in the U.S. I’d be much more nervous. I’m still nervous, but I feel like if there’s a crowd of people in America who get what I do, then it’s that community of people. Those people who make movies that are principally motivated by creative choices, rather than the bottom line.

How much of the show do you prepare? How much is improvised? Do you have a team of writers?

Steve Coogan: Team of writers? (with a laugh) I could never afford a team of anything, Jesus, no I got those two guys who are helping me Billy Kimball, who’s also one of the producers of the Spirit Awards and he’s a seasoned comedy writer. And my own writer, a guy I collaborate with in the UK, he’s written a lot of my live work and he wrote TV series with me and so the three of us are trying to cobble stuff together. We’ll get there, I’m kind of nervous, but we’ve got some stuff we’re going to come up with. We’ve already come up with some stuff, there’s a lot of funny stuff in there. I hope it will work. I’m just going to be myself and sort of poke a bit of fun at some of the indie filmmakers and some of the celebrities who are there.

Is there a celebrity you’re really looking forward to digging into, I guess?

Steve Coogan: I don’t want to warn them ahead of time, but I’d quite like to see Anne Hathaway up close because she’s cute, but there is something for everyone no one will be spared and I’ll have a lot of fun with myself up there too. Make some jokes about me being British, not everybody knowing who I am, that’s another thing that’s kind of a deep comic well. We’re going to mock up some stuff for the show as well, some funny stuff we’re going to prepare ahead of time and apart from that there’s going to be a musical element to the evening. I’ll be performing something and I’m looking forward to doing that.

Have you done many musical acts in the past?

Steve Coogan: Yeah, I did a live tour in the fall in the UK. I did a big live show where I sing a bunch of songs as different characters. I always like a musical element to my shows. You gotta throw a song in there at some point if you’re doing traditional Vaudevillian approach to independent movies (he chuckles at the thought). Whatever that means?

I wanted to talk about some of the films you’ve made in recent years. With movies like “Hamlet 2,” which I thought was hysterical, the character and the situations are so over-the-top by normal movie standards, yet when I was watching it I felt you were grounded in a real truth in the pain of where this character is coming from. How do you approach these characters that are kind of broad, but bring them down to a more grounded level, a more human level?

Steve Coogan: Well, that’s very flattering of you to say that. I suppose it’s trying to avoid what you don’t like seeing. Big comedy is good, I like things that are big, but good comedy has to be truthful I think and has to reflect some sort of reality. That doesn’t mean you have to be naturalistic, you can be big in your performance, but it just needs to be rooted in some sort of truth and not trying to look as if you’re basically showing off or doing your schtick for an audience. It’s about really respecting the character you’re playing, if you seem to be making a judgment about the character you’re playing, than it can subtract from the comedy. Whereas, if you really take however sort of stupid you’re behaving and you take the character you’re doing really seriously and you really care for them it will end up being believable, even if it’s big. I’m a huge fan of Jack Lemmon, he was someone who managed to tread that line between comedy and tragedy and sometimes give very big performances, but they were never over-demonstrative and they were never not based on a kind of real truthful human being.

Were you surprised by the success of “Tropic Thunder”?

Steve Coogan: I thought it was going to be big. It had to be, it cost a lot of money to make. Ben was under a lot of pressure, I wouldn’t really want to swap places with him, I’d swap bank accounts. But no, the script was funny you know? And the stuff we were doing was funny and it was very well edited. He’s got very very sound judgment (Ben Stiller), so I felt in very capable hands. It’s interesting the material itself didn’t seem compromised, it was smart material, but it’s always very tough to do stuff which is both broad and smart. So to me it was the kind of humor I like, but it was on a big budget movie. I’m thinking to myself, “are there enough people out there that like this kind of humor?” In actual fact, Ben’s clever because he puts in an element of the physical in there; he throws a bone to every section of the audience. Smart people, get their bone and the not-so-smart people they get their bit of comedy too. That’s why I think it was so successful, because Stiller’s very smart about that kind of thing.

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