Steve Coogan, 42, is perhaps best known for his TV persona, the part-arrogant, part-clueless sports announcer Alan Partridge. And though Coogan could go on playing him forever, he has instead used his budding American film career to branch out, try different things. His collaborations with "serious" director Michael Winterbottom were a good start; 24 Hour Party People (2002) and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006) earned rave reviews here in the States. He appeared opposite big stars such as Jackie Chan (Around the World in 80 Days) and Ben Stiller (Night at the Museum, Tropic Thunder) and answered the call of a handful of cult directors, making small appearances in films by Jim Jarmusch (Coffee and Cigarettes), Sofia Coppola (Marie Antoinette) and Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz).
His name appears alone above the title of his new film, Hamlet 2, in which he plays Dana Marschz, a washed-up American actor now teaching drama at a Tucson high school. To save his class and his career, he writes a sequel to "Hamlet" that causes a huge ruckus. (Hint: it has something to do with "Sexy Jesus.") The one connecting factor with all these movies is that Coogan's characters are more or less awful, but compulsively watchable, people. Coogan -- who is conversely very nice in person -- recently chatted with Cinematical about his new movie.
Cinematical: How did your gallery of humorously annoying characters come about?
Steve Coogan: I don't know. It just sort of happened. I'm just attracted to playing people who are ostensible unlikable. That's not to say that there's something in there that makes you care. It might be that you just find them so awful that you just can't stop watching, like a car crash. And they're not self-aware. I think somehow, whenever I see a character on screen who I feel is trying to get me to like them too much, it has the reverse effect. It kind of puts you off. It's: "Quit looking at me with those doe eyes. I want to kill you." It's not like I've thought this through. It's just, you do stuff often enough and you see patterns. You see them, and I see them too. Sometimes they're not self-conscious. I guess that's why I'm probably doing it.
Cinematical: Your character Dana Marschz is very feminine in lots of ways, and Marlon Brando used to complain that acting is no job for a man. Did this kind of thinking come up in your performance?
SC: He's fascinating, but I definitely don't agree with him. That kind of machismo thing doesn't bother me in the slightest. I don't give a damn about how macho I look. I know I'm a guy. But yes, he's got those slightly effete qualities. Talking about being liked, there's that thing about actors wanting to look good and wanting to look cool. If you're not worried about looking like a complete ass, if you're committed to it, you can end up being cooler than anybody else. So you go through that pain barrier. OK, I'm going to wear a kaftan, I'm going on roller skates, I'm going to have long blonde hair. I'm going to commit to that.
Cinematical: Onto your character's name, Dana Marschz. I've read arguments about how funny names are no longer funny. How did you develop the name?
SC: Dana Marschs...z. I had to practice it a lot of times. I try to say each one of the consonants in a row, to see if it's possible without a gap. And then I add a gap. Without it sounding too dumb. When you write comedy those are the things that take up all the time. Things like the number 37. Everyone uses that as a funny number. It's used quite a lot as a random comedy number, like 'that's the 37th time this has happened.' People should use random numbers more. Like 'fifty.' Alan Partridge's assistant is fifty. That was her age. And it sounded funny; I would say, 'this is my assistant Lynn, fifty.'
Cinematical: How old were you when you started? What were your first experiences like?
SC: I was very self-conscious. I used to do stuff at college. I could do voices. I could make some people laugh. I wasn't the class clown, but I knew I had this skill. And regular people would say, 'you should be on TV.' They would say it a lot. And I thought 'maybe they're right.' I wasn't a naturally confident, extravert, outgoing person. I was very insecure, like a lot of actors are (surprise, surprise). My first experience was, I had to apply to all these London drama schools. I felt like I had something, but I felt insecure. A lot of these people were more cosmopolitan than me. They were from London and I was from Manchester. They had this ease with themselves and a confidence and eloquence. They've had that almost from birth. They would understand Shakespeare and be able to talk about it and the subtext. And I was... I could do some funny voices. But, what at first I felt was my handicap became what I realized was my advantage. My kind of ordinariness of background, I had an edge. And I thought I could draw upon it. I suddenly thought I had something more valid to say that would resonate with ordinary people. And I figured that that would be my key. And to me being popular didn't equate with being lowbrow or unintelligent. So I started to do characters that people could recognize. People would go, 'hey I know that guy... he's like my uncle.'
Cinematical: Legend has it that Alan Partridge was based on real radio presenter. Who was it?
SC: He wasn't based on a real radio presenter. He wasn't based on anyone. It's a complete misconception. Someone said, 'do a radio presenter,' and I did a voice that sounded like the kind of voice that I hear on radio when someone's talking about sport, which I know nothing about. He became a sports presenter, and I didn't know the name of any sports presenters. I'd hear people on the radio, like these jerks, who clearly knew nothing except sports. [Launches into Alan Partridge:] These guys sound like this and they sort of like the sound of their voice, and they're very confident but they're not that bright, not very intelligent...
Cinematical: Another legend has it that there's an Alan Partridge film in the works. Is that true?SC: Everyone keeps asking me about that. I feel like I ought to just to stop people asking me. I guess I should say no, but I can't say no because I might do it one day. In England, it's a double-edge sword, because it's something that's very successful and I'm very proud of, but it's also a creative albatross that stops me from being able doing other things. This movie [Hamlet 2] that I love so much I would never have been able to do in England. Period. This country, people have seen a bunch of different stuff, even though I'm not that well known, which is perversely an advantage. I can move around and do different stuff. So I'm nervous about screwing with that right now. I'm glad I've been able to move away from that character. But still, I'm doing a live show in the fall where I'll be doing that character and a bunch of other characters on stage. So I still love the guy, he's like an old friend... who you don't like.