We catch up with Steve Coogan about his latest project, PHILOMENA

Best known for playing Alan Partridge, Steve Coogan is no stranger to the box office, appearing in films like NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS and TROPIC THUNDER, while his own production ALAN PARTRIDGE: ALPHA PAPA is probably the funniest film of 2013. His latest project, PHILOMENA is a major change in the direction for the funny man.
Inspired by an article he read in 2010 in The Guardian, entitled “The Catholic Church Sold My Child”, written by journalist Martin Sixsmith. It tells the story of Irish woman, Philomena Lee, now in her 70’s who, after falling pregnant at a young age, was sent to live in a Magdalene Laundry, run by the Catholic Church and had her baby taken away without consent and adopted by an American couple.

You first heard about Philomena’s story through an article written by Martin Sixsmith, what was it that drew you to the story?
Steve Coogan: About four years ago I read an article in the Guardian online. It was the story about what had happened to Philomena. I was very moved by the article, I already wanted to find a project I could believe in and do something with, between the other normal things I do, which are mostly comedy. This one touched me and spoke to me, with regards to my own background as a Catholic. And I thought the story was very universal. It’s about mothers, babies, children – something everyone can identify with.

You co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope, how did that come about?
SC: I didn’t intend to write it at first. Gaby set up a meeting with Christine Langan at BBC Films and she suggested the screenwriter Jeff Pope. I knew of Jeff and liked his work. So I knew he had the right sensibility. When we met, we really hit it off. We had lots in common and really connected. That’s what propelled the project. We developed a script and wrote it together – both of us between other projects. It was a labour of love. We crafted a story that became a road movie in a way – about these two people who have different worldviews but come to accept other world views and change how they view their own lives.

Jeff has a background in drama, and obviously your background is comedy, how did you find a balance in working together?
SC: I learned from him, and we collaborated in the true sense, in that we often brought different things to it. Jeff would talk about the structure of the thing, and the rhythm of the whole piece, whereas I was more about the myopic detail of character and dialogue, so we both had distinct roles. It was a real pleasure, writing is as much fun as acting, because you are there at the genesis of the thing, and it’s very exciting.

You have a strong connection to Ireland, as your parents are Irish, do you feel this helped?
SC: I think because I’m Irish and because I was raised a Catholic, I felt like I had some license to talk about it, and avoid the clichés; there are a lot of clichés about faith. My family, some of them are still very devout Catholics, I’m not and in a way, from a writing point of view, this was a way to address that in a grown up way, and in a way that was about tolerance and understanding, and learning to live and love with people who have different points of view. Part of that is where I’m from, in fact I was raised a Catholic, and even though I’m not one now, I think that a lot of the values I have were because of my religious upbringing. Certainly, my personal experience informed the dialogue.

You mentioned that Philomena and Martin have very different worldviews, how did you find a way for them to balance one another out?
SC: What captured my imagination was a photograph of Martin next to Philomena on a bench. They were both laughing in the photograph and it struck me as odd, because the story was so sad. That intrigued me, and they just struck me as an odd couple. Martin was a journalist, an intellectual, middle-class, Oxbridge-educated, who had got to know this retired working-class Irish nurse. Their relationship struck me as interesting. Jeff and I also wanted the story to be about intuition versus intellect. He and I met up with Philomena and Martin several times, chatted to them and drew on those meetings. A lot of their conversations in the script are based on them.

The film could easily have been a buddy film where they both change one another, but this is not quite true. How did you create the relationship between Martin and Philomena?
SC: I didn’t want him to undergo some kind of conversion, and I didn’t want her to lose her faith either, but I wanted them both to learn something but still stay the same, still hang on to their beliefs. I wanted it more about tolerance and respect for other people’s points of view, and also to use humour to make it an enjoyable film. The subject is quite depressing, and I didn’t want people to leave the cinema at the end wanting to slash their wrists, I wanted people to leave in a positive frame of mind. The way Philomena deals with what happened to her is quite inspirational; I think it’s quite uplifting. The script was built, not so much from Martin’s book, but from interviews I conducted with Philomena and Martin, and that led us the way in terms of how to tell the story.

Did you feel any pressure in playing Martin Sixsmith, a real person?
SC: I have played a handful of real people, including myself, but when I played Martin… There is a certain amount of artistic license in the film, because of the way Jeff and I wrote it, but we were quite ethical about where we invented things and where we didn’t. I didn’t do an impersonation of Martin; I took aspects of his character, but I threw in a few bits of myself into the script, so it was sort of partly martin, a little bit of me, and a little bit of invention. As long as he and Philomena were honoured in the way that the script was done, then I knew I would be happy. He’d been supportive in the interviews I did with him, he was always very encouraging, even when I wanted to change things to suit the script… For example, Martin wasn’t raised a Catholic, he was actually Church of England, but I thought there might be more tension if I played Martin as a lapsed Roman Catholic; I knew that would help the conversations they had with each other.

PHILOMENA is your fifth film this year. THE LOOK OF LOVE was a dramatic comedy, and, of course, ALPHA PAPA was an out and out comedy. Did you find it challenging to move into pure drama?
SC: I love laughing and making people laugh, but I’ve never been defined by funniness. I’d hate that. I don’t want to sit back. I want to explore life and different issues. I’d rather use comedy as a weapon in my arsenal to do other things. It can be used to sugar the pill of serious material. How do you make a story like this an enjoyable, uplifting experience? Challenges like that make it exciting. One way, of course, is to introduce elements of comedy between these two people – and that makes you laugh.

Do you feel this move into drama is a move to the next level for you as an actor?
SC: It’s true that you get pigeonholed in a way, as I did with Alan Partridge, but it’s a high class problem to have because it means that something you’ve done is popular and well liked but the downside is that people can’t imagine you doing anything else, so it was up to me to change that; no-one’s going to do it for me. Just because I am pigeonholed, doesn’t mean I don’t like doing Alan Partridge. It makes me laugh as much as it makes everyone else laugh, and I like doing it. I just want to be able to do other things as well. It’s difficult to achieve, but I didn’t want to achieve that by abandoning Alan Partridge all together.

The subject matter is potentially controversial, how did you tell the true story, without falling into blaming the Church?
SC: I didn’t want it to be a piece that was just an attack on the Church, I felt that with all the things that have happened in recent years to do with the Church, there is no need for me to add to their woes, because they have done that very well themselves. Really, what I wanted to do, I wanted to make sure that I dignified people of simple faith, if you like. In some ways, some of the people in recent years, the people who are forgotten are the people who have led simple, dignified lives, unremarkable lives, where they have observed their faith and they are good, honest, generous, philanthropic people. I wanted to make sure that those people were dignified. We did that through Philomena.

Were you nervous in working with Judi Dench?
SC: Judi Dench was top of my list, I went to her house and told her the story and she responded positively. I was so busy getting the script right and going on locations, making sure everything looked right and all the rest of it, but I was daunted at the prospect of acting opposite Judi Dench, and it was only on the first day, on the camera test, that I suddenly thought ‘Oh god, I’m doing a film with Judi Dench, will I be able to pass muster?’ So I was very nervous. On the first day, when we were trying out a few test scenes, I saw her trying to grapple with it and I realised, despite being a great actress, she is also flesh and blood, so that allayed my nerves. Also, she looks so different, when I was on set with her, I just felt like I was spending the day with a little old Irish lady and it was only at the end of the day when she put her make up back on that I realised ‘Oh god, I have been making a film with Judi Dench!’ When it came to shooting it, she made me feel very relaxed, and in between takes I’d just sit in the car with her doing impersonations and making her laugh, so it was quite enjoyable. There were one or two times when I took a picture of me and Judi on set, and instantly e-mailed it to everyone I know.

Stephen Frears also has a strong connection to Ireland – he directed both THE SNAPPER and THE VAN. What was it like to work with him?
SC: We talked a lot about the story and the fact that it has elements of tragedy as well as comedy. Stephen mentioned the films of Billy Wilder, who he loves. And I’m a fan of Jack Lemmon, who appeared in a lot of Wilder’s films. Together they made films that aren’t easily defined – they’re many things. They managed to walk a line between what’s funny and what’s tragic.

What do you hope audiences take from the film?
SC: I think it’s a universal story, although of course, the subject matter to people here will be very familiar because of all the things that are relevant to Ireland and the Church, the reaction has been no different in anywhere, so far. People all respond in the same way because the fundamental story about the attitude to your life and also the notion of a mother and son; everyone’s got a mother, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, and it seems to cross cultural boundaries.

There is a lot of awards buzz around PHILOMENA, how does this feel?
SC: It’s all gratifying to me because I never thought it would get this far. I thought it would be an interesting little film, I thought it would be diverting and hopefully, entertaining. I never thought it would get the response it has had so far, so to me, it’s all icing on the cake. I’m already happy.

PHILOMENA is in Irish cinemas from November 1st