Steve Coogan sells himself with disclaimers. He's calling from New York to talk about his new film, The Trip, which began life as a six-episode, highly improvised BBC series. “On paper,” he admits, “it's a very difficult thing to get excited about.”
Directed by Michael Winterbottom, The Trip tracks Coogan (playing a version of himself, whom we'll call “Steve Coogan”) and his fellow British comedian Rob Brydon (as “Rob Brydon”) on a road trip through England's picturesque Lake District. The version of The Trip opening in theaters this week is condensed from six 30-minute episodes of the TV series into a 112-minute narrative, with less focus on the destinations and more on interpersonal relations.
Ostensibly on a celebrity vanity-byline assignment from The Observer to visit high-end restaurants and tourist attractions (the Michelin-starred L'Enclume, the sometime home of opium-addicted poet Samuel Coleridge), “Coogan” uses the getaway for some much-needed contemplation of his encroaching midlife crisis. His angst over his failures (to maintain a monogamous relationship, to stay connected to his teenage son, to translate his British stardom into Hollywood clout) is contrasted against his traveling companion's relative contentment. Happily married with a kid, successful enough but hardly weighed down by the pressure of past triumphs, Brydon has shot for the middle and hit it, while Coogan's life and work have oscillated between very high highs (Alan Partridge) and the lowest of the lows (his American would-be blockbuster breakout, Around the World in 80 Days, is considered one of the biggest box office flops of all time).
As Brydon and Coogan drive, eat and sword-fight with their respective Michael Caine and Sean Connery impressions, the gap between their essential natures, and disparate choices, comes into focus. “I'd rather have moments of genius than a lifetime of mediocrity,” Coogan tells Brydon in the midst of one meal. “I'd rather be me than you.”
It's the third film to cast the actor as some version of himself, after Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story in 2005, and the “Cousins?” segment of Jim Jarmusch's vignette film Coffee and Cigarettes. Coogan's “real” life has long been fodder for the U.K. press, which seems to never tire of making hay of the discrepancy between the squareness of the tacky-sweater-wearing television character Alan Partridge, and the womanizing and sports car hoarding of the man who plays him.
So is this evolving body of meta-work an attempt on Coogan's part to take control of his private identity? Not exactly.
“I'd completely forgotten about the Steve Coogan from Coffee and Cigarettes,” he confesses. “It's not premeditated. If anything, what put me off [The Trip] was that I've already played this part. It gets a bit boring.”
When Winterbottom approached Brydon and Coogan with the concept for The Trip, Coogan says, “We were reticent about it. He was quite vague about it, to be honest. There was no script really, and we feared it being too insubstantial, and too self-indulgent.” Winterbottom persisted, ultimately convincing Coogan that by once again playing himself, he could talk about ideas bigger than himself. “[Michael said] it was going to be about middle age, about identity and all those universal human problems. He said it wouldn't be just about myself and Rob just navel-gazing.
“There's this little thing that Michael does where he makes it more than the sum of its parts,” Coogan continues. “I was in steady hands. It's a very safe, secure place to experiment, and not, you know, feel you're going to …” The actor trails off and rethinks. “I was going to say 'not make a fool of yourself,' but the paradox is that you can make a fool out of yourself, but somehow paradoxically you come out of it intact. Of course, if you're using the aspects of yourself which are ridiculous or unsympathetic, then by nature you sort of make a fool of yourself. But because we're doing it in the context of a film, in a fiction, that's your get-out-of-jail-free card.”
But to what extent are “Steve Coogan” and Steve Coogan the same person? “We took steps to make it one removed from who we really are,” Coogan says, noting that a few characters, like his ex-girlfriend and Brydon's wife, are played by actors. At the same time, he says, “I think actually there's a certain amount of truth in it. Rob wears life lightly on his shoulders, my character doesn't. I think I'm a bit more philosophical and less curmudgeonly, less miserable [than “Steve Coogan”]. But I have to kind of kick against it, I have to check myself now and again so that I don't slide into that introspective, narcissistic, self-indulgent misery.”
As for his alter ego's preference for sporadic glory over steady “mediocrity”? The real Coogan, who is in the process of writing an Alan Partridge movie, has slightly less lofty goals. “My business partner once said, 'The secret to a long career is never to peak.' So I'm trying not to peak.”