Classic Interview: Bafta Nominee Steve Coogan

Steve Coogan is Bafta-nominated for Best Male Performance in a Comedy Programme for Welcome to the Places of My Life, Sky's revival of the Alan Partridge franchise. Coogan's career is a fascinating case study of the way a brilliant, successful character can be hard to shake off. I first saw Coogan do an embryonic version of sports-jumpered presenter Alan Partridge two decades ago when he won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival. Since then Coogan has gone on to play all sorts of roles but Partridge has frequently been lurking in the background. He was there when he played Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People, he was there when he played the lead in A Cock & Bull Story. And judging from the Soho-based trailers and the dodgy hair there is a bit of Partridge in his portrayal of porn king Paul Raymond in the movie, The Look of Love, directed by Michael Winterbottom.

There was very little of Alan Partridge, for a change, in Phileas Fogg, the dashing protagonist of Around The World in 80 Days, which was the project he was promoting when I interviewed him in 2004. I think it would be fair to say that the film was not a great success – maybe it needed that pinch of Partridge. The interview took place straight after a public screening which ended with a polite ripple of applause. Of course he has done other excellent work since. The finest thing is probably his BBC foodie meander The Trip with Rob Brydon and its memorable Caine/Pacino impressions and a subtext of Coogan fretting over his career (see also Coffee & Cigarettes, directed by Jim Jarmusch, for some similar angst). Michael Winterbottom seems to bring out the best in Coogan – in some ways The Trip felt like the final part of a trilogy after 24 Hour Party People and A Cock & Bull Story, but it is great to see them reunited for The Look of Love.

So here we are in 2013 and Coogan is playing Partridge again and this time on the big screen, with Alpha Papa due for release later this year. It looks like the role Coogan was born to play. But will it be the role he plays until he dies?

The Bafta results will be announced on May 12

Steve Coogan knew he was up against it. British comedians seldom fare well in Hollywood. Apart from Dudley Moore's brief success, only Peter Sellers and Charlie Chaplin have reached stardom. Rik Mayall flickered with Drop Dead Fred, Lenny Henry with True Identity. Lee Evans has had mixed fortunes, while Eddie Izzard had been in enough turkeys to last a month of Christmases.

Coogan, in Around The World In 80 Days, recreates David Niven's rold in the 1956 classic, with Jackie Chan leaping to his rescue as Passepartout. In America, the movie has attracted mixed reviews. The problem is a lacklustre script rather than Coogan's comic flair, and it remains to be seen whether British audiences will respond more enthusiastically when it opens here next week. 

"A certain kind of comedy," Coogan reflects, "may not work over there. The British tend to be portrayed as unattractive failures - think of Hancock, Dad's Army, John Cleese. I don't think Americans like failure."

Chatting in the basement of Planet Hollywood, Coogan, 38, appears to have avoided the California makeover. He smokes, wears a mismatched jacket and shirt and speaks hesitantly. On closer inspection, though, his teeth have been straightened, and he seems in good shape thanks to a personal trainer and hotel room sit-ups. 

Coogan's movie lift-off was helped by a role in Michael Winterbottom's evocative 2002 film about Manchester's music scene. "24 Hour Party People registered with the industry. People like Edward Norton and Ben Stiller loved it. Jack Black came up to me in a bar and went on a two-hour homage to it.

"To be honest, I'd rather have been in his School Of Rock. My tastes are more populist. My only strategy is not staying still, to keep going so that you are not saddled with one thing."

His creation I'm Alan Partridge had never aired in America and his success as that cringingly realistic comic impression has impeded his acting credentials back home.

"Most people who meet me say: 'We didn't expect you to look so different,' They forget that Partridge is a character. In Britain, because of Partridge, I can't be a romantic lead. In America I'm simply a new bloke that has arrived."

In the US, he starts on the bottom rung. "I feel very similar to the way I felt in British telly 10 years ago. You only have that window for a couple of years when you are new on the scene. It's a honeymoon period when people might not give you work but at parties people think it is cool to say they've heard of you and like your stuff."

He came close to getting the movie of his dreams when they were casting The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers. Coogan went through screen tests to play Sellers and was in with a chance until Geoffrey Rush stole the scene.

But there is plenty more work in the pipeline. In Happy Endings he playes a gay ex-lover of Lisa Kudrow. In the noir thriller Alibi he runs a company which provides cover stories for adulterous clients. If all goes to plan he will work again with Winterbottom, who plans to shoot Laurence Sterne's Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman with Coogan in the lead and Rob Brydon co-starring.

It will not be his first breeches role. He was an impressive Samuel Pepys in a BBC drama earlier this year, but Sterne's form-breaking 18th-century book will take some adapting, with its blank pages and splashes of black punctuating the text. "It has been said that the book is unfilmable," he admits.

The film that gave him most satisfaction is Jim Jarmusch's Coffee And Cigarettes, co-starring Alfred Molina (to be released later this summer). "I'm really, really pleased with the Jarmusch film. That's the genuine voice of my comedy. Me and Jim discussed on the phone what the scene should be, then he went away and wrote it. Then me and Fred met, workshopped it, rehearsed it and embellished it. I play Steve Coogan, an English actor trying to break America."

Not another Alan Partridge, then.

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