Steve Coogan is a comedic megastar in the U.K., best known for his signature character Alan Partridge. The character has appeared in numerous television shows over the past twenty years, including “Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge” and “Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge.” In America, Coogan is known primarily as a comedic character actor in films such as Night at the Museum and Tropic Thunder, and his brilliant lead role in Hamlet 2. Coogan decided to engineer his own foray into more serious material with Philomena, which he co-wrote with Jeff Pope (Dirty Filthy Love), co-produced, and co-starred with Dame Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love). Coogan plays journalist Martin Sixsmith, who embarks on a journey with Philomena Lee, to find out what happened to the son that was taken from her and sold to American parents fifty years prior by the Catholic Church, after she gave birth in a convent for teenage mothers. Coogan and Pope’s screenplay (adapted from Sixsmith’s book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee”) has already earned Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations, along with numerous accolades for Dame Dench. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Coogan to talk about his work on the film. Here’s what he shared about adapting a work of non-fiction, working with Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears (The Queen), and crafting Philomena.
Jackson Truax: Philomena starts off with a question, about what happened to Philomena’s son, Anthony aka Michael. That question is answered halfway through the film. But a larger question comes into play, about what his relationship with his identity and her memory had been all those years. How did that come to be the central question of the film?
Steve Coogan: We needed to take the facts, and construct a narrative that would fit… The artistic license comes in. Because we made her ask the question, “Did he ever talk about me? Did he ever speak of me? Did he ever speak about where he came from?…” She’d been looking for him… She wanted to know if he was looking for her. He was looking for her. But Philomena didn’t go around asking that question. We created that question, so it’s answered by…the end of the story.
JT: You and co-writer Jeff Pope wrote seven drafts of the script before filming, and the first draft was 130 pages with the shooting script coming in at 98. What was changed or removed in the intervening drafts?
Coogan: It wasn’t just so much a process of whittling it down. It was also making things clearer… And yes, stripping away some stuff… The relationship with [Martin and his] wife and his children; we saw a little bit of that… And then we realized we didn’t need that. We had more things about Philomena in there that were not necessary. We had a whole plot strand about Martin’s real mother, who passed away before we started writing. We took that out as well… We wanted to concentrate on their simple journey… The other thing that we put in there…was Martin’s backstory of having been fired from the government. None that was in the original draft. Stephen Frears said, “All of that stuff’s really interesting. You have to put that in.” I [said] “Really? That’s a different movie. That’s a different story.” [Stephen said] “No. It helps to know what happened to him at the start…” The trimming process was about brevity. And making sure that we didn’t repeat ourselves. If two scenes said the same thing, just get rid of one of them.
JT: The first act is so well-constructed. There’s so much information that’s communicated to the audience so quickly. But it never feels like exposition. How did you walk that fine line, of getting so much in so economically?
Coogan: We just thought the [opening] scene at the doctor’s, would be a good opportunity to find him. So he’s at the doctor’s so you know he’s in trouble. But then you find out there isn’t actually anything wrong with him. There’s something unresolved about him. He’s not in a good place. We also saw it as an opportunity for comedy there. Some of the economy of what you were talking about in terms of establishing the character was arrived at in the edit, to be honest.
JT: Throughout the process of writing the screenplay, you were able to extensively interview Martin Sixsmith, Philomena Lee, and other people involved. Did the act of doing those interviews help you prepare to play a journalist, and if so how?
Coogan: Yes… A by-product of me having to do the research as the writer for the script, was it was quite a good basis to understand the process of being a journalist. I would have to interview Martin and disseminate from him how he came to the story. How he met Philomena. And ask him, as a journalist, factual questions… I would also have to ask him questions as a person and as a personality and ask him how he felt about things. And where he was in his life at the time. So I had to put a recorder down at the time, just like you’re doing, and ask him lots of questions. The same thing with Philomena… In addition to that, I also went to [the convent] itself and had a look around with Jeff [Pope]… We wanted to have a look for ourselves and get a feel for the place. That, in that of itself was retracing Martin’s steps. I sat with one of the sister’s there. I sat with Philomena the first day she saw some of the footage of her son… When you’re watching the film, when Martin’s doing that. I’ve already done that with the real Philomena. A couple of moments I thought, “I’ll just do what I did in the process of writing the film.”
JT: In the U.K., you’re this massively well-known comedy star in film and especially television. When you showed up at the convent, did the Sisters know who you were? Did that impact how they engaged with you?
Coogan: I think some people might have known who I was. I’m not sure… Either way, it was a fairly frosty reception. I did have the problem that because my background is comedy…when I was talking to Philomena at first, and Jane, Philomena’s daughter, probably, understandably…[was] slightly anxious about why I wanted anything to do with her mother… [Thinking] maybe I wanted to sort of mock her mother… My comic background encumbered me. And didn’t help in making this film.
JT: In your capacity as co-producer, how did you decide to approach Stephen Frears? What did he bring to the material that was unique?
Coogan: We had Judi Dench attached before Stephen… Then we got the financing. We could go do any director we liked. The film was financed on the basis of, as long as we got a good director, we were ready to go… The BBC gave the script to Stephen. He responded to it straightaway and called me up and said, “I want to talk to you about this script. It’s really interesting. I really like it. And I want to help you with it…” He leant his support early on… [Stephen] elevated it in terms of the way he shot it. There are lots of conversations between two people. It could have been quite undynamic and dull. He lifted that and gave it breathing space. And didn’t spoon-feed the audience. He would be always economical with things and say, “You don’t need this.” He would make the performances more subtle, including, mostly mine, to be honest.
JT: Once you had written the script, to my knowledge you were told to go to Judi Dench’s house, knock on her door, and talk her into starring in your movie. What was the nature of that interaction?
Coogan: I went to her house twice… I told her the bones of the story, what had happened. How I was going to write it… What I told her was slightly different from what we actually ended up writing. We had ideas we eventually ditched. But it was more or less the same story… Maybe six months later, when we completed the script, the first draft, I went back to her house and read her the script from beginning to end… Her eyesight’s not great. She likes to hear it… So I had to read it to her in her garden… She said, “I want to do this. I want to play this character.”
JT: This is a very dramatic role for you, but you also bring a lot of levity to a very serious story. How did you navigate how comically you could play certain lines or certain scenes?
Coogan: You try to make a judgment about it… The first couple of takes I would always be a little too big. I was almost spelling out to myself what the beats were. After that, I would sit back on it…and be more subtle. As I warmed up more, I would get smaller… And Stephen would sometimes reshoot things because he felt what I was doing was more focused the more times I did it.
JT: The events that inspired the film begin in Ireland in in the 1950s in a culture of sexual repression, heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. Then much of the film takes place in America fifty years later and deals with America’s troubled past with the AIDS epidemic. Did you ever see a parallel, in writing a story about the consequences of sexual repression in two different countries and time periods?
Coogan: We did. We happened upon it in the writing process… We wanted the idea that she could connect with Anthony. Because he’d kept a secret. And she’d kept a secret… She, I think, says in the film, “It must have been terrible, having to keep a secret for all that time about who he was…” There’s so much to get in. We didn’t have time to go too much into Michael/Anthony and what he experienced in America, which is what the book deals with. He had this troubled experience. And to hint at that he was one of the victims of that epidemic. But also he was active in the Republican Party. That was his story of being a repressed, closeted gay working within the Republican Party. That’s not a unique story. So I wanted to hint at that.
JT: To that end, did you ever see that as being a political film, or one with a socio-political message?
Coogan: Not with a socio-political message. I wanted to talk about things that are often not talked about. But I didn’t want to be prescriptive. Jeff and I didn’t want to say, “This is what’s wrong. This is what you have to do.” We wanted to say, “This happened. And this happened.” And at the end of it…not be searching for that…person to kind of roast on a spit… Let’s go beyond that. We do kind of roast the church on a spit a little bit. But the point is, “Let’s go beyond that. And get a feeling of reconciliation.” Which is quite a Christian concept… Philomena dignifies her faith. That’s a very important thing to happen, beyond anger… We didn’t want to shy away from any kind of controversy. Because then it looks like you’re just scared of offending your audience. You need to be provocative… But we’re not at the end saying, “We want a pound of flesh. We want blood.” We had to go beyond that.
JT: If you were to be nominated for or win a BAFTA or Oscar for producing, writing, or your performance in Philomena, what would that mean to you, personally and professionally?
Coogan: It would be incredibly gratifying… It would feel like I’ve changed things. Changed the way I’m perceived. I’ve escaped from a box. Because when you get typecast, when you get put in that kind of situation, I find that it’s very difficult to break out of it. Unless someone comes along and waves a magic wand, you have to do it yourself… And that’s what I did… But by finding a project that I thought was viable. And I could be good in… But beyond that, it was something that I wanted to do anyway. In some ways, the process of getting out of that box, I was doing what I wanted to do once I got out of the box. Now I’m out of the box. People are saying, “What do you want to do now?” Well, “What I just did… I want to do those kind of movies.”