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Steve Coogan: a star reborn

He's big in England for playing the asshole's asshole. Now Steve Coogan is poised for a North American breakthrough in Hamlet 2, as the washed-up actor who plays a hot Jesus.



It's fair to say that Steve Carell should thank Steve Coogan for the $175,000-plus pay-cheque he receives for each episode of The Office. Years before Ricky Gervais became the insufferable paper-pushing David Brent in the original UK version of the show, Coogan had perfected the role of self-absorbed ignoramus with his cultish mock TV and radio personality, Alan Partridge, proving that television audiences will be loyal to class-A jerks. (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are apparently recent converts.) With his taffy-hued hair, lips bursting with too many teeth and ugly sweater-vest-tie combos, Partridge provided a successful template for cringe-inducing, socially inept buffoons.

Although Coogan's almost a household name in the UK, the most exposure he's received to date in North America is thanks to former lover Courtney Love, who publicly blamed Coogan for supplying Owen Wilson with hard drugs, just prior to the drawling star's suicide attempt last summer. Like fellow underappreciated Brit Richard E. Grant, Coogan's made appearances as supporting characters in popular movies and television, like Night at the Museum and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He even gets blown up in this summer's mega-Stiller comedy Tropic of Thunder, but he's never had a Hollywood star-maker role. Until now.

In Hamlet 2, his first lead in an American comedy, Coogan plays Dana Marschz---whose name is a running gag in the slapstick film (try pronouncing it)---a rather sweet but stupid, untalented actor-turned-drama teacher, who gets paid in gas mileage, even though he trips and tumbles on roller skates to get to work each day. An ex-user and alcoholic, Dana gave up a career of appearing in herpes medication and juicer infomercials to write and direct underappreciated high school productions of Erin Brockovich. The film is a satire on "let's put on a show" movies and inspirational teacher dramas like Mr. Holland's Opusand Michelle Pfeiffer's Dangerous Minds, which Dana studies to learn how to deal with the crowd of Hispanic students that suddenly appears in his unpopular drama class, held in the school cafeteria.

For most of the year Coogan lives in London, but spends several months in Los Angeles, which is where he received the Hamlet 2 script from Andrew Fleming (whose credits include an episode of Arrested Developmentand last year's Nancy Drew) and Pam Brady (South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut).

"It made me laugh, which is the first thing, but I thought there was something more to it---it was funny and different," says Coogan, calling from Toronto, where he's on a 24-hour press blitz before heading back to Los Angeles. "It's different from lots of things that I've read. It had a freshness to it---interesting and not a character I usually see in scripts. There's something recognizable about him that I was really drawn to."

Growing up in Manchester, UK, Coogan---who, at a wee age, displayed a knack for impressions---performed in the real Hamlet and other school productions before heading off to Manchester Polytechnic to study drama. Dana's blind enthusiasm isn't based on a particular teacher he met there, but he had plenty of fodder to draw on. "I mean, obviously I'm familiar with the world of theatre and the world of comedy and I went to theatre school where I knew people like him," Coogan says. "But he didn't seem unreal to me, he was very, very real. I didn't feel like I was partaking in a caricature."

"It had a freshness to it--interesting and not a character I usually see in scripts. There's something recognizable about him that I was really drawn to."

According to Coogan, authenticity is particularly important to Fleming, who also directed the film. Hamlet 2 was even shot in an Albuquerque high school and some of its students played extras. "Andrew wanted to make people care about him and care about the story; respect him and like him. People do start out laughing at him, but the film wouldn't work unless you rooted for him. I think that's it to me---that was the most difficult part of the whole experience, really, to ensure Dana was committing to it and he was a real person---not just funny."

When the school board cuts drama funding, Dana decides to put on the greatest production ever---a sequel to Hamlet, getting past the little detail that everyone dies in the end of Shakespeare's play by having Hamlet travel back and save the day with a time machine. Meanwhile, Dana's wife (Catherine Keener) is desperate to get pregnant, so she makes him wear non-restrictive pants; the school is desperate to shut down the play, so Dana hires an anti-Semitic, loud-mouthed lawyer (Amy Poehler) to defend him; and in perhaps the best casting of all, he meets Elisabeth Shue, who has given up acting to become a nurse.

"It's a great supporting cast," says Coogan. "They all bring something to the party. They all turned up, punched in, clocked in and did what they do. And do it well."

For Coogan, who also has a busy career as an executive producer, working on films like Hamlet 2 is a vacation, "where I can concentrate a bit more on the acting and not worry about the other stuff. If I'm doing a film like this, I read the script, I turn up on set, have little discussions with the director, go to rehearsal and then we make the film." Beforehand he tries to find a rhythm to the character, what he looks like physically, what clothes he wears. He says, "I don't have to live the life of that character, be that character, as some actors and some directors insist on. I'm not of that school of thought, to be honest."

He's a clear advocate for collaboration and surrounding himself with talent. "If I'm doing other stuff, if I'm writing, I always have to work with other people. One thing I've always said is I don't work alone," Coogan says. And he's attracted some fine partners: Patrick Marber (Notes on a Scandal, Closer) co-created Alan Patridge's character along with Borat writer/producer Peter Baynham. "I always pair myself up with someone who I think is clever."

Shortly after Hamlet 2 opened at the 2008 Sundance Festival, it was quickly snatched up by Focus Features for $10 million, equalling Little Miss Sunshine's 2006 festival bidding war. That film was originally marketed to art-house indie audiences before it blew up in popularity, but Hamlet 2's humour falls closer to Borat's banana-hammock territory. In January, the Hollywood Reporter wrote, "Marketers will face the challenge of inducing the word-snobs of the smart set to slum with slapstick entertainment."

The grandest marketing push and, by far, the funniest scene in the movie, is the big musical doo-wop number, "Rock Me Sexy Jesus," where Coogan rips off his robe to reveal a "swimmer's bod like nobody do," as the song goes. Karaoke tracks, sheet music and lyrics are available on the Hamlet 2 website, a group of Sexy Jesuses strutted their stuff at Comic-Con in July and there's already speculation that it will get an Oscar push for best song. Meanwhile, Coogan, dressed as god's son in Calvin Klein jeans and an undershirt, is plastered everywhere.

"I've seen my face in lots of places on TV in the UK for a long time so I don't really think about it. I'm not really preoccupied with it; it's just part of what I do," he says. Coogan doesn't seem concerned at all with news that The Coast's washroom has a "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" vanilla-scented air freshener with his face on it. "In TV in England, I'm used to seeing my face in stores and on the cover of magazines and on DVDs, on displays. They give away some of my stuff for free in the newspapers, so I pick up the paper in the morning some times and it's good. I'm right there."

Of course, there's already a quiet murmur of Christian groups demanding bans on Hamlet 2. Coogan admits he felt a little weird dressing up as Jesus, but not as far as, "'Oh dear, I shouldn't be doing it.' But because I don't want it to seem like I'm doing it just to be shocking of itself. That's what I think is crappy and not funny and not very likable, to be honest...but in the context of the film it all makes sense. What's funny about it is his slight error in judgment. Also, if you're doing interesting stuff, there has to be a level of discomfort. You have a certain amount of risk-taking; it's part and parcel of doing interesting comedy."

Blurring the lines between character and real life, Steve Coogan is a fantastic meta-asshole: he plays himself in Jim Jarmusch's 2003 black-and-white vignette comedy, Coffee and Cigarettes. During an incredibly awkward scene he disses fellow actor Alfred Molina, who comes seeking love after he discovers they are distant cousins. In 2005, Coogan starred in Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which is a movie about a movie based on the obscure 18th-century book. Coogan plays the roles of Tristram Shandy, his father and himself. Coogan's take on Coogan is completely obnoxious, but there's an underlying vulnerability---much like Dana Marschz---that keeps him from becoming a flat, unlikable portrait.

Coogan also starred in Winterbottom's 24 Party Hour People, about Manchester's incredible music scene from 1976 to 1997, following the rise of Factory Records, its journalist-turned-head-honcho Tony Wilson and artists like Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays. He plays Wilson's spiralling downfall so convincingly, it's like Coogan's channelling Bill Murray's sad-clown roles in Lost in Translationor Broken Flowers.

Like Murray, Coogan doesn't "try to cast myself against type, but I do try roles that are slightly different than what I've done before and put some demand on me. There's a certain kind of fear and insecurity about picking a role and if I feel that, then I think sometimes it's a good thing---if I can contextualize it. 'I wonder if I'll be able to do that? I might not be able to do that. I'll have to really focus. I'll have to really concentrate to do it properly and if I don't it will be a huge mistake.' That really attracts me to a project, rather than, 'Oh, that's really easy.'"

Right now he's incredibly nervous about his big fall stand-up tour---his first in 10 years. Coogan doesn't tell traditional mic-stand jokes; his act is full of characters, a live band and dancers. "I will get over the fear, but yeah, I think, 'Oh my god, I could be in front of thousands of people and not be funny,'" he says. "Sometimes I lie in bed at night thinking about it. But then some days I wake up and I've got a spring in my step and I think, 'I'm going to nail this. It's going to be great.' Part of the reason I wanted to do this was to kick myself in the pants."

He's not sure if he will bring the stand-up show to the US, but he's going to test it out on a few American friends. Coogan concedes that after Tropic of Thunder and Hamlet 2, he might develop a new fan base outside of indie film lovers. But don't expect any special treatment, or pandering to North American laughs. "I mainly go with my instincts. If I try to second-guess too much what an audience will like, it won't work out correctly. But I won't do things that I don't like because I think audiences will find it funny. I have to connect with it."

Hamlet 2 opens in Halifax on Wednesday, August 27. See Movie Times for more info.When she was five, arts editor Sue Carter Flinn dressed up as the Virgin Mary for her school's nativity play. Her favourite Alan Partridge guest is Noel Gallagher.

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