British comedian Steve Coogan’s curriculum vitae is lengthy: He started acting in the late ’80s and soon became known for his recurring character Alan Partridge (BBC radio’s On the Hour, plus The Day Today and a slew of other TV iterations). His fame spread to the States with films like 24 Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy, and 2010’s The Trip, in which he plays himself. In his most recent film, Philomena, Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a cynical reporter who stoops to writing a human-interest story on Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench), an elderly Irish woman who reveals that she gave birth to a son 50 years prior; her son, however, was adopted while in the care of Catholic nuns, and she knows nothing of him. Coogan—an equally accomplished writer—adapted the screenplay from the real-life Martin Sixsmith’s novel The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. City Paper talked to Coogan about his experiences with Catholicism, writing, and his public quibble with the hosts of the BBC’s lionized car talk TV show, Top Gear.
City Paper: I read that you’re Irish Catholic and from a big family. Did that draw you into the story of Philomena?
Steve Coogan: Yes, it did. When I read the story—I read about it in the newspaper—I felt a connection with it because Philomena was the same age as my mother. I thought it could have been her. I spent most of my summers in Ireland. I’m half-Irish myself so I have a connection with it.
CP: I thought that Philomena’s defense of the church, even in the face of an egregious wrong, was really well done.
SC: Well, it was important to add balance to it, that I didn’t just have this blanket attack on the religious people, ’cause I thought that’s wrong and unfair. And also, I’m not religious—I was raised Catholic—but a lot of people in my life, people I respect, are Catholic, so I want to dignify people of simple faith through the character of Philomena. I wanted to show the decency of some people who have faith, to balance the things that were done in the main and against Philomena.
CP: Did you personally have any unpleasant experiences with nuns growing up?
SC: No, I didn’t. I met a lot, there’s some very good people; I wasn’t motivated to [show] any personal animosity beyond the fact that I have issues with some of the ways the church deals with sexuality, and I wanted to raise those and give face to those. Actually my own upbringing is something I’m very grateful for. I think I was raised with a sense of social justice, and my parents—we had a large family, they fostered children that were abused for a short term, for many years during my childhood. That was quite forming for me. So I wanted to throw criticism in the way with some aspects of the church, but generally the values that I inherited are values that I still hold to this day. I just do it without the religious part.
CP: Did that make Martin Sixsmith a more relatable character for you to play?
SC: I took liberties with Martin’s character—with his blessing, ’cause he’s a writer himself. Martin in reality is not a Roman Catholic; I made him a lapsed Roman Catholic in the story to give some contrast with Philomena’s devotion, as it were, to add tension that I could explore.
CP: What were some other changes that you made in the process of writing the screenplay?
SC: Anything where people do bad things, that’s all real. None of that was changed. I actually—for example, Philomena didn’t go on the journey to America, Martin went alone. That was creative license. It’s probably more important to say what did happen. The nuns did keep it between themselves. [Philomena] did forgive them, the way I portrayed. But certain things, the chronology of the events we played with. But her experiences with the nuns as a young woman, all that’s true. She did keep her secret. So most of the invention really comes to the dialogue, the imagined dialogue. The comedy that we put into conversations between Philomena and Martin, that’s imagined.
CP: It reminded me in moments of The Trip—did that have any influence on your adaptation?
SC: Um, well, it didn’t actually while we were doing it, but I guess that must be subliminal, because that was almost accidental. It wasn’t purposeful. But I guess I must have had that in mind when I was writing. The Trip was largely improvised and this was, like, fully scripted. But certainly the way Martin’s character talks, there’s a little bit of me in Martin, there’s no doubt about that, I made no secret of that.
CP: So I’m a big fan of [BBC show] Top Gear, actually. [Coogan chuckles] I read your letter in The Observer that you wrote a couple years ago.
SC: Oh yeah, I said they were being racist about Mexicans. [Richard Hammond, a Top Gear co-host, said, among other things, “a Mexican car’s just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent.”]
CP: And I was wondering what their reaction was to that, from your perspective.
SC: Oh, from the Top Gear guys? Well, I spoke to [co-host] Jeremy [Clarkson] afterward, he sent me a message saying, “I read your article, I don’t know what to say.” He was kind of angry. But it made me angry, so I said, “It’s called tough love.” And he said, “What? Like being bothered?” Which I thought was very funny, he was mad about it, but I meant it. If you’re gonna be funny or use jokes—I think I’m quite ethical about the use of humor and I just don’t want to—they were using humor to bully powerless people. I mean, if they balanced it by kind of attacking powerful people or the authority or the captains of industry, if they ever had a go at them, but it seems that, almost relentlessly, their targets would be the weak, the dispossessed, and the poor. And maybe you could have a joke at those, but it seems that’s almost always the target and it annoyed me. I did say at the top of the article that I hoped that they’d invite me back.
CP: Have they invited you back?
SC: Mmm, no. Well, actually, they did mention something, the producer of it mentioned, yeah. But it hasn’t happened yet.
CP: Well, I look forward to watching if you go back.
SC: [laughs] Thanks.
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