Actor Steve Coogan
I meet Steve Coogan on the phone, since he is in London and I’m in Melbourne. More precisely, I’m propped up in bed like a convalescent, electric blanket on, woollen beanie tugged over my ears, iPhone on my knees, because it’s 1.30am here and happy hour where Steve is. Prior to our interview, I’d left the office, headed to a work event, went from there to a friend’s gig, then crawled into bed with my laptop at 11.30, a few pints in, to watch Coogan’s latest film, The Trip to Spain, before our chat.
In The Trip series, of which Spain is the third instalment, Coogan is joined by fellow comic Rob Brydon for a series of long lunches under the calculatedly rickety pretext of reviewing restaurants in picturesque locations. The films – The Trip (2010), The Trip to Italy (2014) and The Trip to Spain (2017) – are each edited versions of a six-part television series, almost entirely improvised, in which the two actors and master impersonators play fictionalised versions of themselves. Coogan and Brydon trundle around, bickering and bantering over spectacular meals and dazzling scenery.
The Steve of the film is witty, bombastic, mildly lecherous; Rob is, by turns, his comic counterpart, therapist and ego deflator. “It’s kind of an imperfect love story,” Coogan says. In Spain, we learn Steve has reunited with an ex-girlfriend, now married to someone else. Rob’s life is somewhat more settled and suburban, with his wife – on whom he cheated in Italy – and young children.
There are, as always, impersonations of everyone from Mick Jagger to Michael Caine, and a wonderfully berserk imitation of Mick Jagger imitating Michael Caine. There’s also a bit on the late David Bowie. Indeed, themes of ageing and mortality are more prominent than ever.
It’s also the first Trip to take place in a post-Brexit world, which adds a new dimension to the series’ ongoing riff on the Brit abroad. “Rob and I’d be very pro-European, very cosmopolitan,” Coogan says, speaking of their on-screen selves. “We’re middle-class urban aesthetes, anxious to reach beyond the small-minded little Englander status.”
I ask him about the film’s ending, which might be described as “weird” at best. But Coogan believes this was director Michael Winterbottom’s intention. “We wanted to have that anxiety about someone who has liberal intonations, but has an absolute deep-seated white middle-class fear of the foreigner.” I’m not convinced that this fear of the “other” has been explored with sufficient nuance to warrant the racial stereotypes it draws on, but this is Coogan’s interpretation. “I have to say, it’s all Michael’s idea – I’m only guessing.”
The film swerves from profundity to comedy, often in a single scene. In Sigüenza Cathedral, the two men stand in a darkened room to examine the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works displayed in a glass box, lit by garish David Lynch hues of blue and purple. Only a few years after the playwright’s death, muses Steve philosophically, “they already knew what they’d lost”. Then he strikes a pose – “Rob, look!” – behind the dramatically lit case in mimicry of an ’80s techno album.
“It’s nice to do a dance between things that are profound and things that are utterly trivial,” Coogan says. He attributes the franchise’s success, in part, to this juxtaposition. “I think people feel like they’re just spending 90 minutes with two friends. When you watch TV, you either watch something lightweight, or you watch a heavy drama. Those two things tend to be separate kinds of entertainment – whereas in real life, with people’s real friendships, you have great joy, great sadness and great anger. So in that respect, people find [the films] quite familiar.”
For a film that is, at its heart, two men eating lunch, the repartee is tremendously fast paced, almost manic. Is it difficult, I ask, to dial it down at the end of the day, when filming wraps? “Well, when I’m on screen, I’m sort of dialling it up,” he explains, and I can’t help wondering if he’s deliberately missing the point of my question. He says he is “finding those character traits that are unattractive, and amplifying them to make them funny”.
If mortality is one of the main threads of the film, this is one of the threads of our conversation: though he’s careful to distance himself from his on-screen persona, Coogan frequently refers to his character in answering questions, even when I explicitly make it about him. When he does talk about the “real Steve”, it’s mostly in first-person plural, describing emotions and experiences shared by him and Brydon. We try to needle each other because it gives us ammunition. When we finish shooting we’re very cordial to each other.
Speaking about the film’s preoccupation with ageing, for instance, I point out that, sometimes, with age comes confidence. “But Steve of the film doesn’t necessarily seem to have that,” I say. “Do you?”
Coogan responds as though I’ve asked him about his character. “In each series, we have to feel as though we’ve learned something,” he says. “But if we reach a state of equilibrium by the end, we’ve snookered ourselves. We have to make sure we’re not completely resolved.” But what about you, I press. “I feel more at ease,” Coogan concedes. “I do seem more relaxed, and philosophical, and sanguine about things.”
When my allotted 20 minutes is up, we thank each other and disconnect. I sit in bed, in the silvery light of my laptop screen, listening to an early morning street cleaner pass by outside. Coogan, presumably, continues his long afternoon of press. It is a curious, frustrating and oddly charming paradox that although he’s palpably distinct from his on-screen identity, the “real Steve” – whoever he is – somehow seems more nebulous than before we spoke.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 29, 2017 as "Partridge’s inner repartee". Subscribe here.