In director Michael Winterbottom’s 2010’s quasi-fictional road movie, The Trip, British comedians and real life pals, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, cruised, bickered and ate their way through England’s Lake District. In this year’s sequel, The Trip to Italy — out Friday, Aug. 15 in L.A. — the culinary adventure taken by the two men starts at the Trattoria della Posta in Piemonte and ends cliffside at Relais Blu in Capri.
This time around the menu items aren’t as lovingly photographed as they were in The Trip, and though we don’t doubt the delicious factor, the food often looks like high-end tricked-out cuisine, universal fancy food starkly plated on white platters decorated with stripes of sauce.
But The Trip to Italy still contains the same pleasures as its predecessor – breathtaking views, peeks inside opulent hotels and the sparring improvised banter of Coogan and Brydon, both skilled impressionists who turn the imitating of famous actors into a competitive sport.
Recently, we tracked down Trip to Italy star, Rob Brydon, who talked about what his wife and mother of his five kids thinks about his character’s wandering eye, why you shouldn’t expect to read his food and travel essays anytime soon, and when the eating scenes required actual acting.
Squid Ink: As stars of The Trip to Italy, how much input did you and Steve Coogan have about the restaurants visited?
Rob Brydon: Michael Winterbottom gave himself the very hard job of going on a pre-Trip, going to all those restaurants and eating all those meals and choosing which ones [we’d eat at].
SI: What about process? When you did The Trip, didn’t you have to eat every meal twice?
RB: Three times. We had to eat every course three times. And it was the same on this: You’d get the starter, and we’d shoot and we’d cut. Then they’d bring another starter and we’d shoot it again from a different angle. Then they’d bring it a third time. Then you’d shoot again and eat again. And then you’d have the first main course – and the same thing would happen. So by the time you’d get the first [dessert], you’d really be acting when you’d say, “That looks DELICIOUS!”
SI: Given that, could you come up with a #1 dish?
RB: They often say the best sauce is hunger, don’t they? But there must be a comparable saying about the location because on Capri we were eating at a restaurant called Relais Blu and the setting was as good as it is going to get anywhere. It was idyllic. That was beautiful seafood and linguini – which is one of my favorite dishes. The flavors, though, were better than any Italian restaurant I’ve been to in London. Although ALL of them were fantastic. But for the overall sensual experience, it would be that. Again, against the background of the sea and the sky and what have you, that was also superb.
SI: At the start of The Trip to Italy, you mention that your musings on Italian cuisine are going to be published. Is there a companion book in our future?
RB: We never actually wrote any articles. That was actually a fiction. No articles were ever actually written. That’s too much like hard work.
SI: Darn. We imagined a hilarious, pompous-filled send up of celebrities who write about food as if they even have a small clue, maybe something with “Brydon Bites” in the title. Did you even read good food writing in preparation?
RB: No. [laughs heartily.] You’re confusing me with Robert De Niro or someone who does a lot of research. I put on a lot of weight during the filming – but not before. I put on eight pounds during filming. I didn’t really deem [research] necessary. We were supposed to read up on Byron and Shelley. But I didn’t do that either. The poetry I recited I would literally learn while they were setting up the cameras and then say. I couldn’t do it for you now. I’ve already forgotten it.
SI: One thing that felt deeply authentic about The Trip to Italy was the quiet vibe of certain restaurant kitchens in Italy. No pots crashing or shouting. Just one or two cooks taking care of business.
RB: The shots of the food being prepared are like little accents in the film, those cutaway shots. It’s fascinating to see those people just getting on with it. They’re making those meals again and again. There’s a lot of cooking programs on the television in Britain. Is it the same in the States?
RB: …and we’re always seeing people painstakingly going over one dish. But in a professional kitchen, they’re got to get them out there. That added a little pressure to the film because those dishes are time-sensitive and the chefs are very proud of the dishes and of their reputation. Sometimes it was difficult to marry when we’d be ready, when they’d be ready and when the weather would be ready.
That brings its own pressure when you’re shooting with food like that – which we are often eating in real time. There was never a case of the food being removed from the table and reheated. We’d try and do it very real: These beautiful meals would come out and we’d eat. There was a lot of synchronization needed with the kitchen.
SI: If you didn’t choose the restaurants, did you at least have a say in what you ate?
RB: Michael decided that. I think The Trip to Italy is a lot more constructed in some areas than people realize. We improvise lots and lots of the dialogue. Nonetheless, Michael has decided where we’re going, what’s going to happen, the poets that we’re following, what poems we’ll quote.
On [The Trip], I think they gave us some choices with the meals. But on this one, I think he chose the meals in advance. It is, after all, a fiction. It’s flattering, I suppose, that some people think he is literally just following me and Steve around. Whereas, the reality is not that. It’s a construct. A lot of the career stuff we reference is true.
SI: In the film, Steve Coogan has just been laid off from his fictitious medical drama TV series, Pathology.
RB: The irony with Steve is, of course, since we did this he’s been Academy Award nominated for Philomena, which doesn’t quite fit in with the sort of downbeat take on his Hollywood career. While we were shooting, he was looking at edits of the film on his laptop and I think he had a feeling in his bones that he was on to something very good that was going to have a proper life. The family stuff isn’t true. I think I’ve got one child in The Trip to Italy. In reality, I’ve got five.
SI: A recurring bit in both The Trip and The Trip to Italy, is that you do the unfaithful, yet sensitive thing: You have extra-marital affairs, then agonize about it afterwards. What does your wife think?
RB: My wife thinks it’s hilarious It’s very funny: One of the teachers at one of my kids’ schools said something to her along the lines of, [sympathetically] “It must be a difficult time for you.” That’s like seeing Mark Hamill and saying, “It must have been very upsetting for you when you found out Darth Vader was your father.”
SI: Everyone, even the most adventurous eater, has something they don’t like to eat. Where do you draw the line?
RB: I am yeast intolerant. I have to avoid stuff like mushrooms and yeast. But in terms of stuff that I won’t eat? Not much, really. I’ll try most things. Generally I’ll give anything a go.
SI: You hail from Swansea, Wales. Tell us: What’s a Welsh culinary delicacy?
RB: The famous one is Lava bread. How many eat the stuff, I don’t know.
SI: Lava bread? What does Lava bread taste like?
RB: I’ve never had it. But that’s the thing they talk about. [laughs] It’s a seaweed-based dish. In Wales, they make a broth, a type of soup called a Cawl.
SI: Cawl is the Welsh national dish, right? It’s like a soup-stew of bacon, onions, potatoes and beef.
RB: And there’s a famous one called a Welsh Rarebit, which is basically a toasted cheese sandwich.
SI: We’d like to revisit something in our conversation. You gained eight pounds during the filming of The Trip to Italy? Given the fact that you ate each multi-course meal three times over, it doesn’t seem like that much.
RB: I gained it during The Trip, actually. It was the first time I gained weight in my adult life. It was an age thing, you know. You get to an age where you can’t eat anything. You start to put it on. But I was eating EVERYTHING. My theory is that when you’re acting in a movie and you’re eating, it really helps convince the audience because it’s real.
Like when you’re driving in a scene and you’re genuinely driving? I think it helps in two ways: It switches off a part of your brain and also the audience thinks, yep, he really is doing that. So I started [doing real eating] in a show I did over here called Gavin and Stacey…
SI: Which was a British sitcom co- created by James Corden, who plays Gavin’s slobby sidekick and who is slated to be Craig Ferguson’s replacement on The Late, Late Show. And because you can’t say this yourself, on Gavin and Stacey you stole every scene you were ever in as the endearingly clueless and eminently quotable Uncle Bryn.
RB: Wow. God. Okay.
SI: That needed to be said.
RB: In Gavin and Stacey, I would eat in the scenes whereas prior to that I always pushed my food around the plate because I always worried about continuity. Then I embraced this new way of acting which was to actually eat because I think it gives a certain realism to the scene because you are literally doing something real. You’re not acting. You ARE eating.
So on The Trip, I put on weight. So for The Trip to Italy, I was a lot more choosy. I didn’t wolf it down. As a result, I went home weighing the same as when I left.
SI: Can you cook?
RB: Whenever I do, I really enjoy it. Then I say, “This is my new thing. I’m going to start cooking!” But I never do.
SI: The Trip to Italy – much the same as The Trip – aired as a six-week-long television series before being edited into a movie. What was left on the cutting room floor?
RB: Mostly cultural references that an American wouldn’t get. Everybody in Britain of a certain age would be aware of a wonderful comedian called Frankie Howard. He had a very famous series called Up Pompeii. And Steve does a fantastic impression of him. But, of course, nobody [in America] knows who he is, so that went. A lot of stuff has to go just for time. Some of the cultural references work, though.
The analogy that I always use is The Simpsons. There are always references to figures that are famous on the American cultural stage in The Simpsons and we don’t really know who they are, if they are baseball players or football players or politicians. But we sort of get the joke because of the rhythms. So there’s some stuff like that that stays in the film version. But there’s stuff that went because an American would listen to it and say, “I have no idea in the world whose voice he’s doing…”
SI: What do you miss the most about Italy?
RB: The whole experience of filming it was pretty magical. The crew was little, primarily me and Steve beavering away, and then Michael. Because we improvised so much, it gives the whole experience a wonderful creative feeling. Sometimes as an actor, you feel like a hired hand. You come in and say the lines, and then you go sit in your trailer and you wait. And that’s fine.
But on this, there’s no sitting in trailers. There were no trailers and there’s no sitting. One of us is in every scene in the whole thing. And that’s wonderful because you’re working all day and you’re creating all day. The journey we did was the journey we did. We started in the north and we went down to the south. It was all shot in sequence. So the other day I had a coffee and before I drank it, I had a big sniff. I put my nose right down there. And for a minute it took me right back.