On Movies: Steve Coogan's 'big epiphany'

Steve Coogan as the smug, self-absorbed, radio DJ "Alan Partridge," opening here Friday. Coogan is developing a bunch of "Philomena"-like projects - what he calls "real stuff."
Steve Coogan as the smug, self-absorbed, radio DJ "Alan Partridge," opening here Friday. Coogan is developing a bunch of "Philomena"-like projects - what he calls "real stuff."

Actor and star of "Partridge" and "Philomena" enjoys the artistic opposites.

Posted: April 14, 2014

When we last checked in with Steve Coogan - all the way back in early December - the British actor and comedy star was chin-deep in awards-season mode, campaigning for Philomena, the prestige picture in which he starred opposite Judi Dench, and which he cowrote and produced. It was based on the true story of an Irish retiree who joined a British journalist to look for the son she gave up for adoption as an unwed teen living in a Catholic convent.

Philomena went on to receive four Academy Award nominations, including for best picture, for Dench (best actress), and for Coogan (adapted screenplay). At the Golden Globes, where it was also vying for best picture laurels, presenter Leonardo DiCaprio mistakenly introduced it as "Philo-mania."

Leo was righter than you'd think: The modest Weinstein Co. release just topped $100 million in global box office.

"I was definitely surprised," says Coogan of his movie's critical and commercial successes.

"Not to say that I didn't think we'd done a great film - I did. I just didn't think that we'd get as far as we did. You make a film, and you hope that it's good and that people appreciate it - and you do the best that you can."

Coogan, 48, is back in New York to promote another deep character study, a film that holds a mirror to humanity, revealing our pain, our anxieties, our unapologetic, knuckleheaded fatuousness.

The film is Alan Partridge, also referred to as Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, and it brings to the big screen the smug, self-absorbed, wholly fictional radio personality that Coogan sketch-comedied into existence about 20 years ago. It opens Friday at the Ritz Bourse.

In the film, Coogan's Partridge is a DJ whose station is taken over by a global conglomerate, with execs dispatched to rebrand the business and cut payroll. One thing leads to another, and Partridge's colleague, an old on-air personality ( Colm Meaney), charges in with a shotgun, taking hostages and necessitating a police response. Partridge is duly appointed the hostage negotiator.

So the farce unfurls.

Coogan's Partridge is a virtual pop-cult phenomenon in Britain, where the character has appeared on radio and TV, sending up and knocking down sportscasters, talk-show personalities, celebrity culture. Coogan is perhaps best known Stateside (before Philomena) for his turns as tiny Octavius in the Night at the Museum franchise; he's also the voice of Silas in Despicable Me 2. He revisits Partridge when the occasion - and the urge - warrants.

"He was always a slightly annoying and foolish character," says Coogan. "But over the years, what's changed is . . . there's more pathos. We've made him more empathetic from the audience's point of view. We've just made him more vulnerable and human, more fallible."

What hasn't changed is Patridge's self-absorption. Finally, the rest of the world - smartphones at the ready for the selfie moment, Twittering, Facebooking and Instagramming their every move - has caught up with him.

"Self-obsession is all-pervasive now, and I don't think it's entirely healthy," Coogan says. "Alan's is a kind of old-fashioned narcissism. . . . I suppose in the old days, the problem we had was that introspection was seen as self-indulgent, and no one was encouraged to think about themselves. Everything was about . . . the greater good, wasn't it? About working for your community and doing your bit and all the rest. Now, navel-gazing has become epidemic."

Coogan, through his production company Baby Cow, is developing a bunch of Philomena-like projects - that is, projects that one wouldn't expect from the comedy star.

"My wish is for them all to have the reach that Philomena did," he says. "Some will, some maybe not so. The one common denominator about all the movies I'm pursuing is that they are about real stuff, but I want to make them enjoyable and accessible. The big epiphany for me was that you can make stuff that has substance, and it's not a chore."

For fans of The Trip - the 2011 Michael Winterbottom-directed road movie in which Coogan (as Coogan) and British comedian Rob Brydon (as Brydon) drove around the Lake District dining in posh restaurants and trading brilliant imitations of iconic stars - The Trip to Italy is slated for release this summer.

"It's exactly the same," Coogan reports. "Except it's Italy, of course. The food's better and the landscape's more attractive. I love the Lake District, but I'm afraid Italy wins out - on the food, at least."

In the U.K., where the new Trip has started airing as 30-minute TV episodes, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa also proved a hit. Its summer and fall run last year was good enough to prompt talk of a sequel, too.

"Why not?" Coogan wonders. "He can get old. . . . I guess if I wanted to, in 20 years, I could do Alan as a 68-year-old guy. He'll still be the same. Maybe just more grouchy."





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