English actor Steve Coogan has starred in a variety of films over the years, including Tropic Thunder, Night at the Museum and Around the World in 80 Days.
He moved on to more dramatic roles with What Maisie Knew and The Look of Love. He continues that trend with the film Philomena, teaming with Judi Dench.
Stephen Frears directs the true story about journalist Martin Sixsmith, who helps Irish birth mother Philomena Lee find the child she had lost to adoption 50 years ago.
The story takes many twists and turns leading to the discovery of her son Anthony all the while marveling at Lee's dignity and charm. At early festival screenings this flick took home the Venice Queer Lion Prize and the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival.
Windy City Times sat down with Coogan at his hotel recently to discuss the little movie that has some big things to say.
Windy City Times: Hello, Steve. I think it's interesting that you started with a puppet show and a stand-up comedy routine.
Steve Coogan: That is how I got started in the industry. I wound up doing stand up because that was the only work I could get.
WCT: You co-wrote, starred and produced Philomena. What drew you to the story?
Steve Coogan: I was reading an article four years ago by Martin Sixsmith who I play in the film. He wrote this article about this Irish woman, who had a son that was adopted and I found the story very moving. I was looking for a project outside of the stuff that I normally do. In England I have this comedy career in the US I play part number three or four in studio films.
I was looking for something more substantial that had some real content. I found this. I had a production company and I had made comedy TV series with other people so I just optioned Martin's book.
I wanted to tell a slightly different story from what he had in his book. I wanted to put him, the author, into the story. That was not the way he had written the book. I wanted to tell a story about a journalist and Philomena going on this journey together to look for her son. Then it was just a case of sitting down and writing it.
WCT: You have a history with Catholic school in the past?
Steve Coogan: My background is Irish and I went to Catholic school, yes.
WCT: So there were personal things in the story for you.
Steve Coogan: I had a connection with it because my mother is the same age as Philomena so I felt like I was equipped to deal with the subject matter. I could talk about it with some familiarity.
WCT: I felt a connection, being adopted, gay and a Nunn!
Steve Coogan: Oh, wow.
WCT: Was it difficult to get the movie made?
Steve Coogan: It was like all of these things. I had a good coproducer, who did the film called The Duchess. I told her the story I had read in the paper and she was willing to help me. She was good because she held my hand and took me through the process of getting this film made.
We went to the BBC. They gave us some money to write it. To have them on board is good because the BBC can legitimize it. You have to go through some leg work but people just loved the script. It makes people laugh and cry. In some ways it is easier to make this film in Europe than it would be in the U.S.
WCT: Was it hard to get Judi Dench on board?
Steve Coogan: That wasn't so hard. We went to her agent and told her the story. It was a screenplay with a good part for an older actress. There aren't many of those around. This was all about Philomena. It is outside what she normally does so that always appeals to any actor who is good. It was a stretch for her and checks all the boxes for her.
I think also when Stephen Frears came along as director that made it even better for her than before so she was comfortable.
WCT: Any diva moments with her throughout the filming?
Steve Coogan: We just laughed a lot. I spent a long time sitting in that car with her. We just laughed and giggled. We had long chats about stuff. It was wonderful. I was blessed in the whole making of this film because it was a delight. I looked forward to going to work every day.
WCT: Is it hard to talk about the movie and not give too much away?
Steve Coogan: There is a big revelation halfway through so it is difficult to talk about. What I think is important for people to know is that it's an important film but it is very enjoyable to watch. It is a really good human story. It has humanity and is about real people.
WCT: Politically, it seems good for the LGBT community to come out and see a film like thisthat will move them.
Steve Coogan: This film scored very highly in Kansas when we tested it. We hope that Middle America will see this film. It is not anti-religious. It actually dignifies people like Philomena, who lead good, honest lives. It is also very nonjudgmental. It is about people who have faith and forgiveness. It is about compassion.
Religion gets hijacked by the right-wing people. This shows it in a very negative light but also in a very positive light with Philomena and her grace and dignity. It touches on issues in Anthony's life that he was a closeted homosexual in the republican administration. He kept it hidden because of intolerance. That is his tragedy and also the whole AIDS epidemic that blew up in the late '80s. He was in the center of that. We glimpse at it but it was an important fact to acknowledge.
I wanted to acknowledge that AIDS funding was withdrawn because of the fact that it was a political football. People were the victims of that political decision. There is a nod to that within the movie and I think that I important. I wasn't going to gloss over that. It was important to make that point.
WCT: I hope the movie does very well during awards season.
Steve Coogan: So do I!
WCT: Was the cartoon Despicable Me 2 easy work?
Steve Coogan: Yes, there was studio with two microphones in it and I put on a funny voice. There is much worse work in the world! It is easy work and the most fun.
WCT: I heard about a television show starring you called Doubt.
Steve Coogan: That is a pilot that I made in Chicago six months ago. It was great fun but it didn't get picked up. Maybe they didn't know I was going to come out with this movie that is going to get all of this heat.
I enjoyed doing it and I think it was good work. I think ABC thought it was too edgy. Maybe they would have liked something a little more polished. It is nice to be back in Chicago.
It is probably a blessing in disguise because if it had been picked up I wouldn't be around to promote Philomena, a film that is so important to me.
Philomena opens in Chicago theaters Nov. 27.