When Steve Coogan dropped by the ArcLight theaters one night in April to meet up with Jim Jarmusch after a Q&A following a screening of Coffee and Cigarettes, whose acridly funny nine-minute segment starring Coogan and Alfred Molina has been routinely cited as the hipster sketch movie’s highlight, an ebullient Jarmusch coaxed the reluctant actor out from the shadowy sidelines to meet the mostly appreciative crowd. There was polite applause, followed by a sharp, awkward silence.
“I’m going to stay for, like, two minutes, then fuck off,” Coogan tentatively quipped.
Jarmusch tried to ratchet up the enthusiasm. “Clap if you’re an Alan Partridge fan!” he said, referring to Coogan’s obnoxious talk-show-host creation, as well-known a name in his native England as Homer Simpson is here, and the reason Jarmusch sought out Coogan for his movie. About seven people, Brits no doubt, obligingly applauded.
“Any questions for Steve?” asked Jarmusch. A raised hand at the top of the theater. “Yes, you.” The question went to Jarmusch. Ouch.
Recalling that night over lunch last week at the Four Seasons, just prior to the June 16 release of his biggest film yet — playing Phileas Fogg (opposite Jackie Chan’s Passepartout) in a $100 million remake of Around the World in 80 Days — Coogan admits he felt “eggy, kind of weird.” But he likened it to his standup days, when bombing with a line could induce an almost perverse pleasure: “After a while in comedy, you start to laugh more at the jokes that don’t work, to enjoy the masochism of it.” Still, when it comes to his profile in America, it’s either no recognition or, thanks to Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 cult hit 24 Hour Party People, in which Coogan wittily starred as Manchester rock impresario Tony Wilson, he may get “someone being very nice and flattering. Which is odd, because I don’t expect it.” At this point, Coogan, who doesn’t so much talk in sentences as try valiantly to rope his charging thoughts into workable fragments, ends a long pause with a happy outburst: “I heard the other day that Paul Thomas Anderson is a fan, and I was really excited about that.”
And, indeed, in creative-community tape-swapping circles, Coogan has been a god for years, from the Partridge programs — a mock BBC talk show called Knowing Me, Knowing You and then I’m Alan Partridge, which chronicles the smarmy MC’s banishment to late-late-night radio in Norwich — to a sidesplitting DVD of his live show The Man Who Thinks He’s It, featuring Coogan’s greatest-hit characters: mulleted Manchester pub lout Paul Calf, sleazy Portuguese singer Tony Ferrino and, of course, Alan Partridge. (Those of you with all-region DVD players, get cracking.) The cumulative effect is that of a pitch-perfect chameleon à la Peter Sellers who brilliantly invests his homegrown grotesques with reams of life detail, thereby deepening the jokes. “Comedy losers” is how Coogan describes his logorrheic niche. “They’re people with lots of confidence but not much intelligence,” says Coogan, who admits that Partridge — a majestically petty, reviled media figure prone to wanton rudeness — taps into his own insecurities. “They speak and then think a couple of seconds afterwards. The important thing is don’t stop talking.” Sample from I’m Alan Partridge: Asked how busy he’s been, Partridge merrily articulates, “I’ve been working like a Japanese prisoner of war!” Pause. Grimace. Spirited save: “But a happy one.”
But unlike the dress-up humor on Saturday Night Live or in Mike Myers’ shtick, Coogan doesn’t come with an I’m-above-it-all attitude. He wants you to understand his personas’ lively hostility. “It’s the iceberg thing,” adds Coogan, “where you see this much over the surface, but you believe there’s this other stuff going on underneath, that when I exit the frame I’m not just going over to the catering wagon for a hot dog.”
“He’s a great improviser,” says playwright Patrick Marber (Closer), who helped develop the Partridge character with Coogan and producer Armando Ianucci on early-’90s radio. “He can go on for hours being hilarious until you have to shoot him.” Marber sees Coogan’s comedy of failure, humiliation and compensatory bluster as “part of a proud English comic tradition — Basil Fawlty, David Brent from The Office, et cetera.” Coogan, says Jarmusch, is “an idea fanatic” in rehearsal, who never worried about the fact that he was going to play “Steve Coogan” as an aloof show-biz prick. “He loves to be the jerk, but even then I find him empathetic.” Coogan calls the sequence a kind of “arrogant double bluff. There’s a little bit of jerk in all of us.”
The middle boy of five in a six-sibling Irish Catholic family in north Manchester, Coogan learned to command attention early on with funny voices and escapist behavior, binging on Monty Python and Bob Newhart records. An early fixation on morbid humor led to his parents recognizing their son in Bud Cort’s character in Harold and Maude. Meanwhile, at school, his gift for impressions didn’t always get him in trouble: “Some teachers would say, ‘We’ll skip the lesson. Steve. Do impressions of all the other teachers in school.’ And teacher would sit at the back and watch.”
Coogan auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but didn’t make it and went home feeling like a straw-chewing hick intimidated by cosmopolitan Londoners. “All these guys looked like Byron with their long coats and floppy hair and names like Sebastian.” (Which, incidentally, is how he looks in Coffee as he lords it over Alfred Molina.) Coogan eventually settled at a drama school back in Manchester, then realized his outsider status and Manc-borne sense of dry, often cruel yet self-effacing wit could work for him. “You start to see where you’re from as a virtue,” he tells me. “You’re in college, and one day in the cafeteria you go, ‘Hey, a lot of these guys are idiots.’ From that point on, I knew what I wanted to do.”
After 10 years of U.K. fame, the 38-year-old Coogan is concerned that he’s pigeonholed there in wanker roles, so he divides his time between producing shows back home (under his successful Baby Cow banner) and forging a movie career, which means making inroads in Hollywood. He says, half-jokingly, “Here, things can only get better for me, whereas there, things could potentially get worse.”
Coogan hopes that Around the World in 80 Days, in which he effortlessly finesses Fogg as a vulnerable, underdog English gentleman who finds romance, will allow him to shuttle between “doing work where I’m a kind of pampered passenger, and work where I’m a hands-on driver.” So while he waits out another crack at Partridge — “I miss performing him,” he says, hinting at a possible movie — he’s already filmed a key role as a gay restaurant owner in Don Roos’ ensemble comedy-drama Happy Endings, and is about to start an infidelity thriller, Alibi, opposite Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. What unnerves him slightly about Alibi is that for once he’s playing the hip, charming guy, the guy on top of things, with the funny lines that aren’t at his own expense. In that guise, this fiercely talented Mancunian may just have to transform into a movie star. Coogan’s eyes dart around until he comes up with an analogy: “It’s very hard to dance in a cool way in a nightclub. It’s far easier to dance in a really dumb way and say, ‘Hey, look, I’m being a jerk, and aren’t I funny?’ The worst scenario is when you try to dance in a cool way but you still look like an asshole. ‘Does that guy think he’s cool? Geez.’ That’s the scary part.”