He played an eccentric inventor Phileas Fogg alongside Jackie Chan in "Around the World in 80 Days". He portrayed first Roman emperor Octavius in Ben Stiller-starring family comedy "Night at the Museum". Next, he is going to be seen as a failed actor turned high school drama teacher Dana Marschz in the upcoming comedy musical "Hamlet 2". However, before the Focus Features tidbit tickles the laughters out, Steve Coogan sat down to talk about the hit comedy movie at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Recently, the 42-year-old made time to discuss his involvement with the feature film project and the movie itself. In the interview, the actor who is going to be seen sharing the big screen once again with Stiller in "Tropic Thunder" chatted about various topics from his comedic inspiration, his preparation for the musical film to working with Elizabeth Shue and director/co-scribbler Andrew Fleming. The complete Q & A can be read below.
Q: Who inspired you, comedically?
Steve Coogan (SC): I have great love and affection for a lot of British comedy that didn't cross over into America because it's very British in a way that doesn't always travel. But there were also those you would know; Monty Python, of course. John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. Blackadder. Peter Sellers, of course, was a big influence; Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, and the films he did with Blake Edwards - the Pink Panther movies and The Party. I also love American comedy, dry humor. When I was a kid, I would listen to Bob Newhart on vinyl. Mel Brooks, too. I would try to memorize things and try and replicate them, and do impersonations of those who I admired. Later on, Saturday Night Live. This is Spinal Tap was a bench mark in terms of performing and taking a naturalistic approach to comedy.
Q: That film also combines comedy and music...Did you perform in high school musicals in the U.K., like the students do in Hamlet 2?
SC: There are school plays, and sometimes we would do musicals - The Mikado, other Gilbert and Sullivan. There is also a tradition of putting something on at the Christmas holidays; I was in Aladdin when I was 10.
Q: How did you prepare for this movie's musical numbers?
SC: We spent a lot of days off rehearsing. I only did a little bit of - I wouldn't call it "dancing." My daughter wouldn't call it that. When I saw in the script this song "Rock Me Sexy Jesus," I was nervous that people might take it in the wrong spirit and be offended by it. I do think that any comedy that is interesting has got to take some risks. But the way that it's conceptualized in the movie is so generous. In the screenings of the movie that we've had so far, people have seen that there is real heart and proper sentiment. There is some edgy comedy, but it's not a cynical film. Some people come expecting frat-boy comedy, and have found instead universal themes and sympathetic characters. When we screened the film for theater owners at the ShoWest convention, they warmed to my character.
Q: How would you describe him?
SC: He's trying to do his best. However misguided he is, he is earnest and trying to do something for the greater good - save his drama department. That's why people watching the movie have responded to him. Dana is slightly theatrical and neurotic; he's overly demonstrative with his emotions and very effusive with his feelings. This is part of why he has failed as an actor. He's channeled everything into teaching students his love of the craft. What fuels a lot of the humor is that he's obviously not very good at it. But he's someone who genuinely believes in what he says, and there's nothing Machiavellian about him; he's open and honest. On some levels, Hamlet 2 is a parody of inspirational-teacher movies, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Dead Poets Society and Dangerous Minds. Dana is pretty idiotic at times, but he does what he says he's going to do - ultimately, inspire his students.
Q: What kind of research did you do?
SC: I didn't read Hamlet. I mean, I have read it and I've seen several stage productions over the last 20 years, so I'm certainly familiar with the story...In terms of research for the character, I had lots to draw on because I went to drama school and know people from a theatrical background. I experimented with different voices for Dana. In a comedy movie, you have to know what the rhythm of the speech is going to be. I had to make sure that I got the American accent right; I worked with a coach. During shooting, when I would hit a vowel incorrectly, I'd think "I'm an English impostor."
Q: Did you watch Elisabeth Shue's movies?
SC: I was familiar with a few of them, so I didn't go through the catalogue. She's a lovely person. On occasion, she and I would improvise. She was game for anything if it was funny. What was refreshing about working with her was that, for a Hollywood actress, she is self-deprecating and mischievous and very un-self-conscious and un-self-obsessed. She didn't really care so much how she was perceived. I think she found it slightly cathartic to mock her image and the baggage she has from her past work. Catherine Keener and I had met a couple of years ago and did that mutual admiration thing; "You're great." "No, you're great." We said we'd work together if the opportunity came along. The dinner scene with her in Hamlet 2 raised the quality of my game. She's so committed and truthful, and tries different things, so you're really kept on your toes. It was like playing tennis with someone who changed the technique, so you'd have to constantly be alert.
Q: Was it challenging to work with the college-age actors?
SC: Yeah, well, I resented them for making me feel old. But they were very supportive, and you can learn something from everyone. The first day, Skylar Astin came up to me and made a couple of suggestions; "Why don't you do this?" I was a little bit, why is he telling me what to do...Then, when I listened to his ideas they were really good. After that, I kept going back to him and asking, "Have you got any ideas for me?"
Q: How was Andy Fleming's direction?
SC: He would allow improvisation and embellishment if the film benefited from it. If I tried to do too much of a comic performance, he would rein it in to be more grounded. He made sure that, however animated the performance was, I kept it rooted in reality. Having that integrity to the character is what takes you through the film. If it had just been me doing comedy schtick, I don't think that would have sustained it. Hamlet 2 is different from what I've done before; playing American, and playing a character who is by nature slightly larger-than-life while still being truthful. It was an opportunity to go big yet not be un-naturalistic.
Q: In terms of the comedic approach, how does Pam Brady's sensibility come into play?
SC: They have a shared, reciprocal sense of humor. It's about what makes them laugh, and Pam is a very strong comedy voice. She's quite uncompromising; her material is always slightly twisted, and that appeals to me.
Q: They have you getting into some physical comedy in the movie...
SC: In my contract, I insist on being able to take my trousers off because I think it enhances the narrative. I won't do a topless scene...I like physical comedy, but you have to plan it properly and be very specific with it. You can improvise dialogue, but with physical stuff - you have to know where and when you're going to do something and the camera needs to be there. There was a healthy chunk of physical comedy in the script, balancing the funny dialogue. We had a discussion that went on for a while about whether Dana should wear blades or skates, and for some reason we figured that skates were funnier. Since, in terms of roller-skating, I could propel myself along, the falling-over helped those scenes, too. I did take some lessons in Venice Beach, and I am now pretty good at it.
Co-scripted by the writer of "South Park" TV series and "Hot Rod" movie, Pam Brady, "Hamlet 2" is an irreverent comedy resolving around Marschz and his a politically incorrect musical sequel to William Shakespeare's Hamlet which he makes in his effort to keep his theater department alive. Co-starring Catherine Keener, Elisabeth Shue, David Arquette and Amy Poehler, the tidbit deemed to be a ludicrous film by critics will arrive in the theaters across the country on August 29.