Sunday 19 January 2020

Aha! I'm Steve Coogan

Evan Fanning

The complex comedian who gave us Alan Partridge admits he's had mixed success in his movie career, while his personal life has been dogged by tabloid stories of cocaine and strippers. His latest film, Percy Jackson, was a chance for fun, he tells Evan Fanning, but now he's looking forward to hard work

If I was only able to make films like this I would go insane," Steve Coogan bellows as he gestures towards the poster for his latest film, Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief.

It's quite an admission from someone who is meant to be here publicising the movie, but then there is nothing in the life of the man who gave us Alan Partridge that would suggest he's ready to concentrate all his efforts on becoming a family favourite just yet. At 44, the Manchester-born star is often seen as one of the more complicated characters of British comedy, a sort of modern-day Peter Sellers.

As he sits here today, his relaxed and casual manner is at odds with the sort of troubled genius persona that has attached itself to Coogan since he made his name on The Day Today, with characters like Paul and Pauline Calf and of course, Partridge, the sports presenter-turned-chatshow-host-turned-travel-tavern-dweller - turned-god-knows-what-next.

The surprising thing about him is that he actually seems quite likeable in person. He's humorous, engaging, and apparently open to questioning, yet able to hide behind a joke, a wry comment or, even better, one of his characters, if he wishes. It's an ability that is aided by the fact that when he makes a joke, it is usually funny.

At an earlier press conference, Coogan provided the comic levity (much as he does in the film) while others talked more earnestly about their roles. "It was a doddle. I just turned up, spent a week in Vancouver and got to kiss Rosario Dawson," was his summation of his contribution.

The reason his warmth is surprising is because his reputation off-screen, or at least in his dealings with the media, would portray him quite differently. Perhaps that's the legacy of his past, where a series of tabloid kiss 'n' tells and wild allegations of drug abuse have made him ultra wary when dealing with the press. "I can't undo what I've done," he has said previously. "If you think my comedy stinks, give me both barrels. Otherwise I'm not going to qualify anything. It's none of anyone's f***ing business."

It's hard to argue with him, but unfortunately everyone knows that this is the world in which he operates. So when a dancer makes a claim that she had sex with him on a bed littered with £5,000 in £10 notes (an incident he has previously described as "me being crassly ironic about what you do when you're famous") or when two lap dancers claim they shared a cocaine-fuelled night in a hotel room with the then-married star, then people suddenly feel that it is their business. Or at least they don't feel that they are intruding on his.

When, in the wake of Hollywood star Owen Wilson's apparent suicide attempt in August 2007, Courtney Love claimed that Coogan was a bad influence on Wilson, and that the Texan's inability to deal with Coogan's hard-living ways may have been a factor in his failed attempt, it sparked a media frenzy (in Britain at least) as they looked to peg Coogan as the bad guy. In his defence, whatever the truth, Love is hardly the most reliable of character witnesses, but that was lost in the media whirlwind which followed.

More telling, perhaps, would be that he remains close friends with Wilson, spending Thanksgiving with his family in Texas the following year, which you could hardly imagine taking place had there been any truth to Love's allegations.

Born in the Manchester suburb of Stockport in 1965, Coogan was the fourth of six children. His summers in the west of Ireland played a big part in his childhood, and he still escapes to a cottage there where he engrosses himself in everything from local politics to mounting traffic problems (he gets annoyed if more than two cars a day pass by his cottage).

As a child, he became obsessed with impersonations, waking his brothers up in the middle of the night to test new voices. He would record episodes of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers with a tape recorder held up to the television and then listen back to it, trying to perfect each of the voices.

He went to drama school in Manchester and began contributing to the Radio 4 show On the Hour, along with Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris. This is where Alan Partridge was born and in turn led to The Day Today, which remains the sounding board for practically all modern British television comedy.

It also set Coogan on his way to a life of fame, notoriety, wealth and all that comes with it. He's managed it badly at times, and been portrayed unfairly at others.

He has a 13-year-old daughter, Clare, from a relationship with solicitor Anna Cole which ended in 1996. He had a brief marriage to Caroline Hickman, which ended in 2005. He currently lives in Brighton, close to his daughter, with his girlfriend China, daughter of restaurateur Michael Chow and model Tina Chow.

Towards the end of 2008, Coogan returned to the stage for the first time in 10 years for a live show called Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters. I saw the show in London, as I had seen The Man Who Thinks He's It in the late Nineties. There was a different atmosphere this time around.

If you compare it to a band doing their first show in a decade, then they would need to strum a guitar once to send the crowd home in raptures. With Coogan's live comeback it was different, an almost a total reversal of that scenario.

It was as if the crowd were there to say farewell to Coogan, to put the nail in the coffin of the characters he had created. It felt like the emphasis was on him showing that he still had it, rather than that he hadn't lost it. Unfortunately for Coogan, some, but not all, of the material in that show fulfilled the crowd's feelings. In fact, he has previously compared the public's longing for Alan Partridge to fans of a band who only want to hear their biggest hit. That night in Hammersmith, that one hit was barely enough to placate the audience.

The show ended with a new character, a slightly pretentious thespian called Steve Coogan, who sings a song called Everyone's a Bit of a C**t Sometimes. The veil over the parody of his own life was not so much thin as non-existent. "I've got houses and cars. I'm good friends with the stars. I've had a life of plenty. Does that make me a c-*-*-t?" he sang. At another point the song focuses on how the tabloids "told tales of cocaine; largely fabricated. Told tales of strippers; some exaggerated."

If his personal life has been complicated, Coogan's movie career has also been a strange affair. There have been the British films The Parole Officer, 24 Hour Party People and A Cock and Bull Story which have been met with varying degrees of success and critical recognition, although none has been a commercial hit.

A lead in Around the World in 80 Days, alongside Jackie Chan, was supposed to make him a star in the US, but didn't, while other performances in the likes of Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes and last year's In the Loop, directed by Alan Partridge writer, producer and director Armando Iannucci, won Coogan widespread acclaim.

Hamlet 2, the high-school comedy about an over-enthusiastic drama teacher (Coogan) who writes a sequel to Hamlet which involves time travel and an appearance by Jesus, sold for $10m at the 2008 Sundance Festival, the second-highest amount ever paid for a film there (behind Little Miss Sunshine). It bombed, however, and on this side of the Atlantic found itself in the straight-to-DVD category.

There have been the cameos in American films, and his friendships with the likes of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson have got him roles in Tropic Thunder, where he played an incompetent film director who gets decapitated after 15 minutes, or in the Night at the Museum franchise where he starred alongside both Wilson and Stiller as a Smithsonian Museum exhibit who comes to life after sundown.

Percy Jackson is in a similar vein to the Night at the Museum films. Though everyone is at pains to stress how different it is from the Harry Potter films, the poster standing behind Coogan states that it is "From the director of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets".

The Lightning Thief is the first in what will in all likelihood be a series of movies based on the popular books by Rick Riordan. Logan Lerman and Alexandra Daddario, in the lead roles, may become the stars of the franchise, but it's in the impressive list of cameos assembled by Chris Columbus where the film really sings. Coogan is joined by Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman, Catherine Keener, Sean Bean, Kevin McKidd and the aforementioned Dawson in the fantasy adventure set around tales from Greek mythology.

Coogan plays Hades, the god of the underworld, whose lair in hell looks like it could be backstage at a Led Zeppelin concert. Hades struts around in snakeskin pants and Cuban heels.

"The bottom line with this film is that I hope that it will be a huge success so that we can have more fun and be paid for it, but if it's a disaster it won't really affect me because I'm not carrying the movie."

He'll next be seen in the new Will Ferrell movie The Other Guys, where he will play the villain, another smallish role, but one with plenty of exposure and which will further ingratiate him into the minds of audiences as part of the comedy troupe led by the likes of Ferrell and Stiller.

In the short term, Coogan is due to reunite with 24 Hour Party People and A Cock and Bull Story director Michael Winterbottom (as well as Cock and Bull co-star Rob Brydon) for a film and TV project called The Trip. "I'm looking forward to it because you have to roll your sleeves up," he says. "It's the nearest thing I get to hard work. It's six half-hours for TV and also a movie."

Beyond that there is still talk of an Alan Partridge movie, but with an emphasis on breaking the character in America. In fact, the plotline of a proposed film is said to involve the Norfolk chatshow host moving Stateside to see if he can hack it with the big guns. Perhaps a case of film imitating life.

You get the sense that Coogan feels that as a film actor, we have yet to see the best of him, and to do that it will take him getting his own projects off the ground, perhaps starting with Partridge. It may take some time, but that seems to suit him.

"My partner once said that the secret of a long career is never to peak," Coogan says. "And in that, I'm doing very well."

Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief is in cinemas now

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