Steve Coogan Interview – TROPIC THUNDER

     August 11, 2008

As most of you know, opening this week is the new Ben Stiller directed comedy “Tropic Thunder.” Since we’ve already run a bunch of reviews (here, here and here) and I’ve already written how much I loved the movie…let me keep the intro brief.

For those that haven’t yet heard of the film….

Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. lead an ensemble cast in “Tropic Thunder,” an action comedy about a group of self-absorbed actors who set out to make the biggest war film ever. After ballooning costs (and the out of control egos of the pampered cast) threaten to shut down the movie, the frustrated director refuses to stop shooting, leading his cast deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia for “increased realism,” where they inadvertently encounter real bad guys.

Trust me…that synopsis doesn’t do the film justice. There are many, many scenes that had the entire theater laughing out loud and parts of the film are so filthy that you won’t believe what is said. Again, I loved the movie and completely recommend it.

Anyway, I recently sat down with most of the cast…and below is the roundtable interview with Steve Coogan. In the film, Steve plays the director and he has some of the funniest scenes in the movie. Trust me…one of the scenes is going to bring the house down when you see it.

As always, you can either read the transcript or listen to the audio by clicking here. Finally, if you’d like to watch some movie clips from “Tropic Thunder,” click here.

Warning: Mild spoilers are discussed

Question: What’s been your promotional blitz in the last month?

Steve Coogan: I’ve been to nine cities in nine days. Not the way to see America. It’s been pretty grueling but I’m trying to treat each interview as if it’s the first one I’ve done.

Have you met any actors like the ones depicted in Tropic Thunder?

Steve Coogan: The funny thing is Ben is playing this very egocentric actor and it was quite difficult, because a lot of the things Ben wrote into the script are things that he himself has experienced, even some of his own vanities, he put into the script. So it’s kind of self-deprecating in a way and Robert Downey is not a million miles away from the method actor he plays, by his own admission, and because of that, he’s able to commit to it totally. It could be fraught with problems if done badly. If it had been done badly, it would look doubly bad, but I think what was difficult was I was playing the director and Ben was obviously the real director and there were scenes where he’s playing the actor in the scene with me as the director and we have to improvise and he has to yell ’Cut!’ , and he has to say ‘Cut’ as the actor, and I say ‘No, you’re not the director, I’m the director, so we’re not cutting and we’re still rolling’ and he says, ‘Cut Cut’ and I go ‘No, no, we’re still rolling’ And then I start thinking: Is Ben Stiller saying Cut? Or is the actor saying ‘Cut’ in the scene? And that was really confusing, because he’d be going, ‘No! Cut! Cut!’ and I’m saying ‘No we’re not cutting’ And I say: ‘Ben, are you saying Cut?’ ‘No, I’m just acting.’ ‘I’m sorry, we’ll start again.’ So that was very, very confusing but it was a lot of fun, and great working with such stalwart, seasoned professionals, but for me it was kind of a breeze. It’s like a holiday. Do what Ben Stiller tells me and enjoy the ride.

Were there some directors you were inspired by?

Steve Coogan: There are lots of those … I think what Ben was going for was there are lots of English (clears throat) directors who probably make headway very quickly in Hollywood because they know how to talk, and they know how to sound like they know what they’re doing. And so they actually get out there in the field and it all falls apart . I don’t think … it sort of makes sense that someone that … the conceit being that the director I played had this really glittering theatre background in England and had won lots of awards for that and therefore some Hollywood studio has taken a film and thought he was the next big thing and given him enough rope to hang himself, which is sort of what happens.

The scene in the conference room with Tom Cruise of the video screen? Was he there or where you playing against nothing?

Steve Coogan: I was playing against nothing but I did rehearse with Tom earlier on so I got a feel in which he gave me the full gamut of his wrath so he kind of tore my head off in a funny way, but when it came to shooting, Justin Theroux, the play writer just said Tom’s lines and they added him on the screen later.

Were you able to keep a straight face when he was doing that?

Steve Coogan: It was a very straight face. It was quite intimidating, only because when we were rehearsing, he was … the things he said to me were really, really horrible and that was Tom Cruise bawling at you. The last thing you want to do is laugh, you know.

In Hawaii, how far from anywhere were you?

Steve Coogan: We could get back to the hotel, but it was like a 25-mile drive. You had to have a four-wheel drive to get to the location, you couldn’t go in a regular car. It was like a dirt track. In fact they had to build some roads to the location because there was no other way to get there, so they had to build a road.

No lookie-lu’s?

Steve Coogan: No . Unless you knew exactly where to go, you couldn’t find us. Ben came in by helicopter every day and landed on a clearing near the set. And when it rained, it really was mad because all the roads became like mud and if you were walking around under these big plastic things that you’d pull over yourself … like a rock concert, only more at stake.

What’s the difference in American and British approaches to comedy?

Steve Coogan: I’ve done television work in England and film in England but the first film I’ve done specifically at American audiences really is Hamlet 2, the Hamlet 2 movie where I actually do play an American, and that, I did … actually it’s written in a very American style. But the comedy, really comic timing, I don’t think there’s a great deal of difference. There are certain differences in styles of writing comedy between the American and the British.

A comedy team like Morecambe & Wise never really crossed over to American audiences…

No, of course not and you’re right, there are differences. My observation is that Americans generally don’t like … The British quite like losers and gravitate towards people who fail, honestly and Americans like people who maybe have lost slightly but absolutely have to win or succeed in some way and there are certain rhythms in the way you do things. I’m doing a live tour in the fall in England and I know the comedy in that wouldn’t translate, specifically because there are certain rhythms of delivery and also the way you speak with a different accent. But generally, I think there are more similarities than dissimilarities. You have far in common comically, in terms of comic taste, with Americans or people coming out of America than we do with our European cousins only 20 miles away. We don’t share any sense of humour with them. We just share old buildings and history. In terms of humour, all our cultural references are often the same as … television and entertainment, we watch the same, often a lot of the same stuff, so it’s not a huge stretch.

How much did you have to prepare for your uncredited police inspector in Hot Fuzz?

Steve Coogan: I didn’t. I just went in and … That was a favour to Simon Pegg who used to, when I was doing my live show, he was my support act, he was the guy who filled in when I was getting changed and did the kind of comedy in between and then he suddenly became a movie star and I had to turn up and do the tiny role, that was only for a couple of days.

What was the film order?

Steve Coogan: I did Tropic Thunder and almost a couple of weeks later I started shooting Hamlet 2, pretty soon after.

Only to premiere at Sundance a short time later?

Steve Coogan: It was very quick. We finished shooting in November and it was in Sundance in January and it was sold in January, so it was very fast.

What was the feedback on Rock Me Sexy Jesus?

Steve Coogan: I was very nervous about doing that obviously. Mostly it was about explaining it to my parents, who are God-fearing simple folk. The feedback has been pretty good, but then most people in the media tend to be a little more broadminded, so how it’s going to go down in certain part of America, I’m not entirely sure, but you know, I think if you’re just trying to be shocking for the sake of it, that’s one thing, but if the comedy is coming from a certain perspective and there’s a point to it, then I think people see that. People who are reasonable and intelligent people can see that there’s a point to it, like in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, it caused similar problems and as for doing Rock Me Sexy Jesus, Jesus Christ Superstar was trying to make Jesus into a pop star, Godspell as well, so it’s not like a new idea.

Have you gotten negative feedback?

Steve Coogan: None at all, but we handpicked all the places that are bastions of liberal tolerance and avoid the places I might get lynched. So yeah, we just did San Francisco, San Diego, Minneapolis

Did you do a head mould?

Steve Coogan: It’s quite interesting. I’ve had it done a few times actually. If you’re not a very, very calm person, it can be very claustrophobic, because they have to encase your head in plaster and they make two tiny holes for your nose so you can breathe and they keep asking you if you’re OK. The more they slap on, the heavier it gets so your head starts sinking and they ask you if you’re OK and all you can do is use your thumbs for that, and I don’t know what you’re supposed to do if you’re not because you’re already entombed. My daughter was there when they were doing it and she was kind of freaked out, saying ‘Are you OK?’ and I was going (thumbs up) and holding her hand. You can’t communicate for about 35 to 40 minutes. I had to actually when I was being sealed in this, I had to hold this expression for 40 minutes and they don’t just put it on your head, they shove it in your mouth, so you’re kind of entombed and it’s kind of inside your mouth and you just have these two little holes and they keep clearing it so you can breathe.

What was your reaction upon seeing the head?

Steve Coogan: Um, it was just odd. I’ve got a picture of my daughter holding my severed head which is really quite disturbing.

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