31 Aug 2008: On the eve of his first tour for a decade, Steve Coogan talks to Amy Raphael about scandal, swear words and the trouble with success
Let’s start a couple of years back, in May 2006, a bright morning on a central London rooftop. Here’s Steve Coogan, recently turned 40, smoking in short, urgent puffs and asking his assistant for more coffee. He is affable but distracted. He doesn’t check his watch but I get the sense he’d like to. He’s just finished filming the first series of Saxondale, the gentle sitcom about former roadie Tommy Saxondale, and is anxious to get back to the edit. He acknowledges that the remarkable success of Alan Partridge means he is, effectively, competing against himself. ‘People want to see you doing the same thing again and again, so they have to adjust to something new.’
While working on Saxondale, Coogan had squeezed in a short trip to Canada, where he took a cameo in a Ben Stiller film, Night at the Museum. He compares Stiller to a ‘very, very nice machine’, adding, ‘He’s about the work.’ This was certainly not a criticism. Coogan is very keen on work, too. Yet he insists that while it’s important, it doesn’t define him; it’s not all he has. He talks about the little cottage he visits in Ireland, alone. He runs, reads, writes, gets sucked into Irish politics. An aunt lives nearby but he rarely sees her. He says, very seriously, that the spiritual connection he has with the country allows him the kind of peace he seldom experiences while working.
Despite this hideaway, the reality is that most of Coogan’s time, at this point, has been spent not in a field but reading scripts sent over from the States. Or having endless meetings in LA. For the previous five years, he’s had an eye on breaking America. He says he’s willing to take risks; he feels he’s been around long enough to absorb the impact of the odd bad decision. Then, for a moment, he sounds a little sad. ‘But I might just have to accept that my peculiarly British comedy doesn’t work over there.’
It turns out that he had no need to worry. The next time we meet, in May 2008, everything has changed. Coogan is about to become a huge star in America. Hamlet 2, a comedy in which Coogan plays a misguided teacher, sold for a record $10m at Sundance in January. Tropic Thunder, a spoof war movie in which Coogan plays a pompous English film director, is poised to be as successful for Ben Stiller as Zoolander. There’s part two of Night at the Museum in pre-production, not to mention the cameo he played in Curb Your Enthusiasm last year. Yet for now Steve Coogan, international film star, is in a brown-and-beige Winnebago in a car park in Stockport.
He is waiting to be called to the set of Sunshine, the upcoming BBC sitcom co-written and directed by Craig Cash. Again he is distracted. I have interviewed Coogan several times and it’s not that his head has been turned by America or that he’s being in any way rude; he just seems to always be thinking of several things at once. He has a restless mind but he’s also forgetful. Mid-conversation, he excuses himself, phones his assistant and asks her to send a present over to Rob Brydon to celebrate the arrival of his new baby boy. He then plugs the kettle in but doesn’t turn it on. He tells a random anecdote about going to his local supermarket in Hove with Brydon and David Walliams like ‘three poofs on a day out’. He finds a cafetiere, fills it with cold water from the kettle, swears to himself and starts again.
It’s not turning out to be a good day. Coogan is unhappy with the use of photos of his 11-year-old daughter in a recent article printed in a broadsheet and is talking to his lawyer. Like his hero Peter Sellers, Coogan has had a colourful private life that sometimes overshadows his work, and he gets annoyed when journalists bring up past follies. He thinks his work is good enough to distract from the fact that he separated from the mother of his child in 1996. Or that, around the same time, he had sex with a dancer on a bed littered with some 500 £10 notes. Or that his brief marriage to Caroline Hickman finally ended in 2005 after two lap dancers kissed and told about an alleged cocaine-fuelled night in Coogan’s hotel room.
‘I’m a marked man,’ he says, throwing himself on the narrow beige sofa. ‘I can’t undo what I’ve done. If you think my comedy stinks, give me both barrels. Otherwise I’m not going to qualify anything. It’s none of anyone’s fucking business.’ And, in a way, he’s right: Partridge is as strong a comedy creation as Basil Fawlty and Coogan’s private life should be irrelevant. Yet he is being a little naive. He may argue that he’s not a politician espousing family values and therefore no one has a right to judge him. He may point out that he’s never had a free kitchen from Hello! But he lives in an era where the majority read papers to be entertained rather than informed. That said, he has, at times, certainly had to learn the hard way. In 2005, he had a relationship of sorts with Courtney Love; she later gave a critical account of some aspects of his character. For the first time, Coogan felt the need to threaten libel action against anyone who reprinted her accusations.
Today, in the Stockport car park, Coogan’s tabloid adventures seem remote, improbable even. He is called to set and changes swiftly into a Seventies outfit including a pink-and-white shirt that he worries makes him look like Peter Andre. Coogan has known Craig Cash for years but they have never properly worked together, despite both hailing from Greater Manchester and having numerous friends in common (Coogan used to do stand-up at a theatre in Manchester alongside Caroline Aherne, co-creator with Cash of The Royle Family, while Henry Normal wrote on The Royle Family before setting up a production company, Baby Cow, with Coogan).
Sunshine is a comedy drama in which Coogan’s character, Bing, has to learn to control his gambling or lose his childhood sweetheart. In one of the final scenes of the three-parter, Coogan waits in the hallway of a terraced house which has been dressed up in Seventies decor. Cash is in one of the bedrooms, lying stretched out on a nylon football duvet. He gently directs the child actor who plays Bing’s young son, Joe, as he opens his curtains to find a surprise on the lawn. The scene is replayed over and over before it’s time for a break. While the next scene is being set up, Coogan stands around on the deserted road, drinking strong tea in a polystyrene cup. Now that he’s on set, working, he’s more relaxed than in the Winnebago. He actually manages to chat – about racist taxi drivers and dodgy builders – without appearing to have his mind on other things.
Although Coogan is busy establishing himself in America, he’s got no intention of leaving Britain behind just yet. This autumn he will spend almost three months on the road with his first live tour in a decade, Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters. When I arrive at the Brighton office in which Coogan and Henry Normal are writing material (they both live locally), I find a bland room in a tower block with views out across the South Downs and seagulls shrieking overhead. Huge white Post-it notes cling to a wall: Pauline Calf, Tommy Saxondale, Duncan Thickett, Paul Calf, Intermission, Keanu Reeves, Alan Partridge, ‘Steve’ + song.
Two tables are shoved together and piled high with scripts. Coogan is nowhere to be seen but Normal is on the phone talking to someone about Gavin & Stacey, the phenomenally successful sitcom backed by Baby Cow. Normal deals with the day-to-day running of the production company. He finishes his phone call, sits down and starts to explain the format of the new show. Duncan Thickett, a failing stand-up, is one of Coogan’s oldest characters, while Keanu Reeves is one of his most recent. A gay Mancunian emo drug dealer who has changed his name by deed poll and who Coogan plays in series two of Saxondale, Keanu is making his live debut. As is Tommy Saxondale. There are also old favourites Paul Calf, the beer-swilling student hater, and his blonde bouffant-haired sister, Pauline.
Normal and I are trying to work out which characters Coogan performed at his first Edinburgh show in 1990. I was there to interview Frank Skinner, who was supporting, but barely noticed Coogan; I saw him again two years later when he put on an amazing show in a packed, sweaty room with John Thomson and won the Perrier Award. As we are talking, Coogan appears at the door, flings a golf jumper over his shoulder and on to the floor. He puts a coffee and a chocolate brownie on the table, apologises for being late and blows his nose. A pair of black, modern Ray-Bans sit on top of his head, his crumpled T-shirt is white, his ribbed trousers brown and his running shoes blue. He is full of cold.
‘I mostly did impressions at Edinburgh in 1990,’ says Coogan, sitting down opposite Normal. ‘I skipped the next year because I wanted to get the show dead right. So in 1991 I went to Rhodes with my act. It was a holiday job. I was by the pool doing my job in front of a load of families. This man came up and said, “Can you stop swearing please, there are kids around.” I’d already done Spitting Image by then, I’d appeared at the London Palladium with Jimmy Tarbuck. And there I was staying in a box room with no windows. It was a real cheapo, nasty set-up. I bought a Guardian International one day and saw the headline, “Frank Skinner wins Perrier Award in Edinburgh”. The year before he’d been supporting me in Edinburgh.’
Coogan sighs. ‘I asked my agent at the time what I could do. She told me to pull a rabbit out of a hat. I was slightly neurotic, feeling that the grown-up comics on the circuit saw me as a low-rent, low-brow funny voice man. So I took the new show to regional arts centres, avoiding London completely. By the time I got to Edinburgh, John Thomson was supporting me and Patrick Marber was directing. He got the show down to about an hour. I did Paul Calf and Duncan Thickett. Nobody was doing stand-up characters at the time and the element of surprise is very important.’ His laugh is high-pitched, slightly self-conscious. ‘Both in military and comic situations.’
Henry Normal is keen to get on with planning the impending live show. ‘So Paul Calf comes on stage in an electric wheelchair and we think he’s got a broken leg, but it’s a ruse.’ I ask if all these characters age, which of course they do, but not in real terms. Normal explains that it’s more a case of creating a modern context, so that Pauline Calf can, for example, send flirtatious text messages. I see Amy Winehouse’s name on one of the many lists littering the tables. ‘Yes, but it’s a shit joke so we won’t be using it,’ says Coogan, sliding the paper away. He smiles. ‘The overall problem of the show is how to make it accessible to a large group of people but to also imbue it with an edge and tension. To make it risqué but also digestible.’
Is there an assumption that most of the audience will be familiar only with Alan Partridge? ‘I’d say it’s the case with around 50 per cent. There’s no point pretending. Hence the name of the show.’ Partridge gets 29 minutes, as opposed to 12 minutes for each of the others. His segment will include a look at his new job as a lifestyle guru, following years in the wilderness after his TV chat-show was axed. ‘He’s going around doing a cheap, low-rent version of a lifestyle guru lecture that people do in America but that doesn’t really float in this country,’ says Coogan. ‘He’s been to America, seen these guys and thinks it may be his way back. He thinks he’s had some Damascene conversion and he’ll be able to impart this wisdom that’s changed his life.’
The final nine minutes of the show involve Coogan coming on as a version of himself (not unlike the conceit of Michael Winterbottom’s excellent adaptation of A Cock and Bull Story in which Coogan co-starred with Rob Brydon). ‘I want to get postmodern and self-indulgent, and see if it works.’
Back in Stockport, Coogan had mentioned that he was contemplating a number for the tour called ‘The Cunt Song’. He’s still worried about it. Normal isn’t. He thinks it’s a great way of listing all the unpleasant people of the modern world. He says it’s just an updated version of Paul Calf’s ‘Bag O’ Shite’ song. But Coogan, who likes his comedy clever as well as funny, and who is very careful about what he presents to an audience, is concerned. A long discussion ensues. Coogan: ‘The word “cunt” is deeply offensive to a lot of people, especially women. There are political connotations. You can’t say it in America. Period. Full stop. Which is why I’m interested in it.’ Normal: ‘I think we’re desensitised to it.’ Coogan: ‘I don’t. My show has a broad appeal. There are 12-year-old fans of Alan Partridge.’ Normal: ‘I’m a firm believer in the Lenny Bruce school of thought: if you clamp down on a word, you give it power.’ Coogan puts his head in his hands. His cold has given him a thick head. ‘OK, I want to use it because it’s taboo. And sometimes people laugh at things despite themselves. You can defeat their moral and ethical objections with laughter.’
Later we drive to Coogan’s house in his old Porsche. He’s lived in Hove for 10 years, although he spends almost half the year in America these days. If it wasn’t for his daughter, he would consider moving there. His large, spacious house is overflowing with his brother, his brother’s family and his own daughter. His girlfriend China Chow, daughter of restaurateur Michael Chow and the late model Tina Chow, is sitting on a sofa eating a plate of sliced fennel dressed with oil and lemon. She, too, is full of cold but jumps up to introduce herself, make tea and find remedies for Coogan. She is full of tenderness but he just wants to get on with the interview.
In the study, Coogan sits in a leather Robin Day armchair. He sips herbal tea. There are old movie posters of Thunderball and Alfie, random Post-it notes (one says ‘ass man’ – Chow saw an assistant manager in a shop with his abbreviated title on his badge) and copies of Hello! and OK! – ‘because I didn’t know who anyone was when I got back from America,’ explains Coogan, moving them out of sight. He likes America. ‘It’s a change of landscape. I work with other people who are very talented. It energises me, excites me. But you have to be tenacious. The Dorothy Parker quote that you can be killed by encouragement in Hollywood is very true. Everyone tells you how great you are in case you turn out to be.’
American critics have been writing about Coogan’s greatness since they saw his portrayal of the late Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People in 2002. Then, after his perfectly judged performance as a big-headed British actor in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes in 2003, he became not only a cult figure, but also cool. And despite – or perhaps because of – Alan Partridge’s idiosyncratic Little Englander behaviour, they fell in love with him, too. Coogan’s cult status is now in question: he may have cemented it with last year’s appearance on Curb Your Enthusiasm (‘I had to make sure I wasn’t intimidated’) but with Hamlet 2’s record sale at Sundance and the inevitable success of Tropic Thunder, he will soon be a household name in America.
Still, modestly, he describes going to Hollywood as ‘an experiment’; it will be a ‘bonus’ if he finds real success there. Yet he says Hamlet 2 is ‘smart’, a good, broad comedy. ‘I love all inclusive comedy. I like watching The Two Ronnies with my parents.’ However, it’s clearly Tropic Thunder that excites him. In a private screening a few days earlier, he laughed the whole way through. Then, at the end, he said with the genuine enthusiasm of a fan that it was one of the funniest films he’d ever seen. Especially after the first 20 minutes, when he’s no longer in it. He is still animated now. ‘Tropic Thunder is superb. It’s Ben Stiller’s shining moment as a director. It’s game changing for comedy.’
Although Hollywood clearly pays better than the BBC, Coogan insists that he didn’t go to the States because he was greedy for more. What he says next comes as something of a surprise, given his widely acknowledged status as a comedy genius over here. ‘I don’t actually get offered that much work in Britain. People fear working with me because they see me as an auteur and I might cramp their style. I even had to convince Craig [Cash] that if he let me do Sunshine, I’d be there to do a job as an actor.’ He sighs; he often feels misunderstood. Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that he’s simply a hard person to get to know, especially when distracted.
Even his lower middle-class, Catholic, socialist family (Steve was the fourth of six and his parents took in various foster children) remember him as a brilliant impressionist who lived in a world of his own as a child. Henry Normal says his Baby Cow partner ‘feels disconnected from the world. Comedy is one way he makes that connection’. And it is, of course, a very particular type of comedy. He likes gauche characters with visible imperfections. ‘Creating such characters was never conscious,’ Coogan insists. ‘There’s just something funny about people being delusional and self-deprecating. I like the catharsis of trying to make comedy out of failure.’
He is frustrated when fans ask him if he makes up material as he goes along. ‘The discipline of structured writing with a team isn’t self-evident. But the cruel trick of comedy is that the easier it looks, the harder it’s been to create.’ For a while, around the turn of the century, Coogan lost his way; making people laugh became too much like hard work. He’d won lots of awards, made lots of money, enjoyed phenomenal success with Alan Partridge. Professional lethargy set in. ‘Then I realised there was no magic answer to anything. Just get on with the work.’ He repeats this mantra several times to himself, as though alone in the room. ‘That’s where I find peace. It’s as simple as: this is what I do, do you like it?’ He pauses. ‘When Baby Cow was set up in 1999 it really did give me some much-needed structure.’
I wonder if, despite his own ascendancy in America, Coogan is envious of Gavin & Stacey’s success in this country. ‘A tiny bit of me is, yes. But it’s a part I recognise exists. I’m able to stand back and see that it’s absolutely ridiculous. I also know that the company Henry and I run enabled them to have that success. I’m 42 now, I’m part of the furniture in this country.’ His daughter knocks on the door and asks where to find some playing cards. He pulls himself up. ‘The simple answer to Gavin & Stacey’s success is that I’m mostly pleased but a tiny bit envious. Then I remember that I have to get on with it. To find a calmness in just moving forwards.’ And, having made a statement worthy of self-help guru Alan Partridge, he follows his daughter down the stairs, the interview already forgotten.
· Sunshine is on BBC1 in early October; Tropic Thunder is out on 19 September