Steve Coogan, who plays the daft drama teacher Dana Marschz in Hamlet 2, shares one trait with his fictional self – a singular obsession with character. Raised in Manchester, Coogan rose up in the British entertainment world doing whatever he could, from commercial voice over to radio spots to stand-up routines. Along the way, Coogan developed a keen sense of character, both in the people he imitated and the ones he made up. Working in the early 90s for Radio 1 parody news show On the Hour, Coogan introduced Great Britain to his first great character, Alan Partridge. Appearing on two radio series, three television series and numerous TV and radio specials, Alan Partridge (the character) became in many ways better known than Steve Coogan (the creator). An ex-sports announcer turned talk show host (before losing his job), Partridge has over time exposed nearly every part of his life – his messy divorce, his penchant for luxury cars, his sad one-way friendship with Lynn Benfield, his returning curiosity about Bangkok "lady boys" and the scar of having been called "Smelly Alan Fartridge" as a boy.
These infinite – and infinitely funny – details are the hallmark of Coogan's characters. In 1993, he concocted the scary brother and sister team Paul and Pauline Calf, whose video diaries, like Three Fights, Two Weddings and a Funeral, captured a less than tourist-friendly picture of British life. In 1996, he introduced Tony Ferrino, the Portuguese God's Gift to Women. First appearing on a number of talk shows, and then in his own special The Tony Ferrino Phenomenon, the smarmy Latin lover brought to English ladies what he knew they were missing. Recently in 2006, Coogan brought out Tommy Saxondale, an ex-roadie, recently divorced, pest controller with a slight anger management problem, a man whom Coogan has described as ""genuinely witty, while still being a bit of a dick."
His deft talent for creating and nurturing character brought him to the attention of many filmmakers. His breakthrough came when Michael Winterbottom cast Coogan as Tony Wilson, the real life music maven from Manchester, in 24 Hour Party People. Soon afterwards Walt Disney pulled in Coogan to star in their remake of Around the World in 80 Days. And since then Coogan has appeared in bit roles in a variety of American films, from Night in the Museum to Marie Antoinette. While each performance was good, few American films captured that manic imagination that made him famous in England. Hamlet 2 now returns Coogan to the narcissistic, oddball loser that the British cherish.
We talked with Coogan about why he's such a loser.
Why are you attracted so often to losers?
I don't know why I play comedic losers. I like to play people who aren't self-conscious or who do things that are sort of stupid. Or, maybe not stupid, but just wrong or misguided. Ill-judged. Dumb. I find also that I sometimes prefer not to play smart, funny people. I don't mind playing somebody who's a little bit smart, but ultimately I still want him to be foolish. I don't really want to look cool, like Chevy Chase used to do. He could play cool, funny, smart people. I don't want to be cool and funny – I want to be uncool and funny. That's funnier somehow.
When it comes to risking likability, how far is too far?
Largely I go on instinct. I like to play characters I empathize with and in whom I recognize some small [elements of behavior]. I don't believe it when people say, "There's nothing sympathetic or empathetic about your character, it's just totally horrible." Those people are talking rubbish because there's always some element of empathy. You have to identify in some small way with your character and what they are doing.
Are you like any of your characters?
All of the characters have something of me in them. That's inevitable because I've helped create them. When people meet me in reality, they go "Oh, you sound like Alan Partridge," and I think, "No, he sounds like me, because I came first. I was doing me before he existed, so he sounds like me." Sometimes people say, "But Alan Partridge is a dick! How can there be something of you in him?" "Because sometimes I behave like a dick!" Why is that such a shock? We all behave like idiots sometimes. Sometimes I'll do or say something I know is dumb or stupid and I'll remember it and put it into the character. That to me is totally natural and organic. It doesn't bother me that I'm an imperfect person – I don't try and say, "I'm nothing like my characters. They're all fucked up and I'm really, really sound and un-fucked up."
What about in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes, where you really did play yourself? How much of that was "you"?
Well, if someone creates a character and it's partly a version of me where I make myself out to be much more egotistical than I am, does that mean that I'm not egotistical? No, of course I'm egotistical a little bit, but just not as much as I pretend I am. When I did the [film] with Jim Jarmusch, I said to him, "Why don't I play myself as incredibly self-centered and ask Alfred Molina if he'll play himself as slightly going off the rails and losing it a bit and pretend his career's in a downward trajectory?" It wasn't quite true at the time, but you play it that way because it's a good fuel for the comedy. I don't mind playing myself like that, and I don't mind if people think, "Is that what he's really like?" They're partly right and partly wrong, but I sort of don't give a damn. I don't care what people think as long as they like my work. All I care about is the people in my life – they know what I'm like.
How do you create your characters? What are the building blocks?
There is no one answer about how I create a character – they've all been created in different ways. It's not like I have this formula. But I always start [the process] by spending a good while talking about my character – what he might do, where he's from. With Partridge, it was first a voice on the radio. And then we started talking about where he's from and what characteristics he has. With Saxondale, there was a sample script that reminded me of someone, and then we sat down and talked about what his tastes are and just who he is. After you've decided who the character is, then you start to create a universe for him to live in. It's like one of those digital [role-playing] worlds. You think, what would be the funniest environment for him to live in? How can I maximize the comic potential? Would it be funny if he worked on a ship? Would it be funny if he did this kind of job? What are we going to get most comedic potential from, and, at the same time, what's most believable? It's a combination of what the audience is going to buy and what's going to provide the biggest dividend.
The only common denominator is that I've always collaborated with someone else. At the moment, I meet up every day with my writing partner and we work for eight hours straight. I never sit there on my own and come up with a character. With Alan Partridge, Paul and Pauline Calf, and Saxondale, I did a lot of improvisation, sometimes on tape, but [the creation of the character is always a] combination of working with a writer, writing dialogue, standing in a room saying stuff out loud, seeing what comes out when you improvise stuff, putting stuff on camera that's improvised and using that to build up the script. When I was doing Saxondale, we developed two characters in parallel, knowing that one of them would be dropped. They both seemed funny at first, and we kept developing them side by side, realizing that only one was going to survive. There are half-developed characters that I've got in drawers, a Frankenstein's laboratory full of the body parts of undeveloped characters, and sometimes I'll think, I never finished doing that character.
What was your role in the creation of the Dana Marschz character in Hamlet 2?
When I read the script, I thought, I really know who this person is. And, he made me laugh. I thought, I want a go at this because it's quite different than a lot of the characters that I do. I felt he was in my universe, but there was also something [different] about his passion and drive. [After I was cast], I was heavily involved in the creation of the character. I talked a lot with Andy Fleming about what my hair should be like and how I should dress. I just brought what I know about comedy characters to what they had already created. I helped them embellish it. Any suggestions I had they'd either go with or not. It was pretty collaborative. For example, I'd walk around the room, wave my arms, talk in a certain way. I'd try different voices out in front of them. Eventually we arrived at something we all thought was kind of real.
Are you a South Park fan?
I love South Park. I think it's absolutely fantastic. I mean, it's just so consistently good it kind of leaves you exhausted. In England we don't have that kind of [thing]. It's like a machine, but a very good, funny machine, the way they consistently turn out [the shows]. I've seen some fantastic ones recently. Did you ever see that one about them all being metrosexual? That was fantastic. [South Park is] a real testament to what you can achieve if you have real vision and confidence. You can do something different and funny without compromising in any way. Matt Stone is someone [I'm friends with], and his disciplined, uncompromising attitude is very, very inspiring. I think Pam's funnier as a person; Matt makes me laugh a little bit, but Pam makes me laugh a lot. Matt's super-focused – almost scarily focused. Pam is serious too, but she's got a very twisted sense of humor. But the thing about South Park is that even though it's got that twisted thing about it, it's still got a kind of a hopeful, positive resolution to things – it's always positive.
Is there a difference between contemporary British and American humor?
I don't think there is a huge difference, to be honest. If you're talking about sitcoms and stuff like that, you could say that American comedies in the past have had lots of good-looking, successful people and British comedies have had not very successful, ugly people. But then a lot of the Judd Apatow movies have people who aren't super, super good looking and so they've kind of broken that mold. So whenever you try to establish some observation or rule, someone will mention several examples that break that rule. I think Britain sometimes comes up with strange, weird, wonderful comedy that doesn't conform to any market research. The Mighty Boosh is a good example of something that you couldn't sort of plan. But there is a lot of cross-fertilization between [British and American comedy] through modern media. The people who respect each other professionally seek out each other's material and therefore become familiar with it. And then, of course, they get to know each other and they communicate so there is a sort of two-way influence, I think. There is a convergence, certainly in an esoteric, high-end comedy, but also in the middle, the mainstream. British comedy is becoming more accessible and smart, and American comedy has taken inspiration from some of the edgy comedy from Britain.