“My career is so important. I’m being ironic. Can you put that in quotes: ‘He said, ironically?’” Lacerating the celebrity interview while in the middle of one, Steve Coogan deftly turns irony into art like a chef demonstrating knife skills. In person and in his roles, this British comedic icon has mastered telling the truth yet making it sound like a lie, and vice versa; his laughs stem from the audience nervously trying to figure out which is which. Likewise, he may be the most important English comedy export since Peter Sellers — and often as star-crossed and complex.
Today, however, Coogan’s past is colliding with his future. He’s in his beloved hometown of Manchester, England, having just finished filming an upcoming BBC miniseries, Sunshine. Before that, he was working in the U.S., starring in two of the summer’s most anticipated films: Ben Stiller’s irreverent, star-studded satire Tropic Thunder and the indie ensemble comedy Hamlet 2, which sold for $10 million at Sundance — one of the festival’s largest acquisitions. This afternoon, however, Coogan, 42, relaxes in his mum and dad’s home, where he grew up amid an expansive Irish-Catholic clan. “This is the house I was born in,” he explains. “I come here so often, I forget there’s profundity in it.” Coogan’s Yank girlfriend, China Chow—the actress, model and über-chic scion of the Mr. Chow restaurant empire—lounges nearby the piano that Coogan would hide under as a five-year-old boy. “Th ere’s stuff that’s been in the same drawers and cupboards for 35, 40 years,” Coogan continues. “It’s weird, but kind of nice, too.”
“Weird but nice” could describe many of the characters Coogan’s indelibly etched over his career. He started as an impressionist and stand-up comic in Northern England in the late ’80s. His U.K. fame cemented in the mid-’90s, however, with the introduction of his Alan Partridge character on the BBC, a deliciously hapless, deeply vain presenter for various provincial TV and radio shows. “I’m not someone who’s remotely bothered about looking uncool,” he says. “If showing my ass gets a laugh, I will do it.” Says Pam Brady, Hamlet 2’s co-screenwriter, “He’s not afraid to look douchey.” As such, Partridge proves shamelessly self-important and sadistic to employees—a clear model for Ricky Gervais’s David Brent character on the original English version of “The Office.” “That’s for you to say, and for me not to disagree with,” Coogan quips.
Offscreen, Coogan stutters a bit: it’s unclear if it’s a tic or if he’s parsing his words as carefully as possible. He’s just as cautious with his career since Partridge’s success quickly turned him into paparazzi bait. “In England, Partridge created an albatross effect,” he explains. “It was a critical success and hugely popular. Even stupid people liked it: they call me ‘Alan’ in the street.” To Americans, however, he’s best known for his nervy tour de force in 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, playing Tony Wilson, the real-life impresario who put Manchester’s music scene on the map thanks to his patronage of revolutionary post-punk heroes Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays. Anglophiles might have also caught his brilliantly edgy BBC sitcom “Saxondale”—about a cynical ex-Jethro Tull roadie-turned-bug exterminator in mid-life crisis—and his turns in art-house favorites like Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. “I only feel real if someone I don’t know knows who I am,” Coogan says. “In the States, I only get recognized at Amoeba Records in Los Angeles. If I need ego affirmation, I just do a couple circuits around Amoeba.”
Coogan’s Stateside wattage should get a jolt from Tropic Thunder and Hamlet 2, as they represent his acceptance into Hollywood’s comedic royal family. Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Janeane Garofalo are all documented Coogan fanatics. Stiller, who first worked with Coogan on his hit 2006 film Night At The Museum, cast him alongside Black, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey and Nick Nolte in Tropic Thunder as a pompous Brit director who hilariously loses his head shooting a war movie in the jungle. “He always comes with truth, but with the innate sense of the funniest way of playing that truth,” says Stiller of Coogan’s genius.
As for his time on set, Coogan raves about working with the “heavyweights” in the cast. “Smart American comedy is not that different spiritually from smart British comedy,” he says. “The only difference is you’re in Hawaii, it’s sunny and everyone’s wearing shorts.” Coogan also recently played Larry David’s psychiatrist on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “The first time he laughed at something I did, it was a huge relief,” Coogan says. “If you decide to interrupt Larry David in the middle of an improvisation, it had better be funny, or you feel like an ass.”
Of late, Coogan has grown close to Tropic co-star Downey. “Just being in the same scene with him raises my game,” Coogan says. “He’s very generous: privately, he would tell me very supportive things about what I was doing. He’s someone I admire and empathize with to some extent.” Indeed, both men share an outsize, irreverent talent that sometimes gets overshadowed by their tabloid appearances—like when Courtney Love accused Coogan last year of getting her pregnant during a brief affair and supplying drugs to a suicidal Owen Wilson (Wilson’s near-fatal malaise was later attributed to his breakup with Kate Hudson). In years previous, U.K. gossip columns buzzed with tales of Coogan’s marriage-crushing womanizing and stimulant-fueled nights out with strippers, only making Love’s claims seem more convincing. “Of course it’s annoying,” says Coogan. “My only response is to not get into a dialogue about it.” However, Coogan (who claims to be drug free since a 2004 rehab stint) felt the Love-Wilson spat required clarification. “I had to make some comments at the time,” he says now. [Coogan denied Love’s allegations.] “If something becomes critical—if silence proves more damaging—then I will make a short statement. But I’m very reluctant to do so.”
Despite growing global fame, Coogan still fancies himself the perennial Irish underdog, a Northern provincial among London sophisticates. “Steve’s lived a life,” says Andrew Fleming, director of Hamlet 2. “He doesn’t need to be liked by everyone. But through his fearlessness, you end up liking him.” Hamlet 2 represents Coogan’s potential mellowing, however—for one, his character, high school drama teacher Dana Marsch, proves relentlessly upbeat. “At one point, Dana exclaims ‘Why does everyone have to die at the end of Hamlet? It’s such a downer,’” Coogan says. “So he writes a musical sequel, the greatness of which he thinks will save his job. He’s like ‘If he’d just had a little bit of therapy, Hamlet could’ve turned his life around.’ How can you argue with that optimism and hopefulness?”Hamlet 2also represents Coogan’s second-ever attempt playing an American, alongside the likes of Elizabeth Shue, Catherine Keener and David Arquette. “We used to think we did American accents better than Americans did British one,” he explains. “Then we saw Spinal Tap and got scared.” There was also debate over whether Dana would travel via rollerblades or rollerskates. “Post-modernism makes everything confusing,” Coogan says. “Are rollerblades retro-’80s funny, or are rollerskates still ’70s funny? And I’m not a natural rollerblader, because I am a heterosexual.” Coogan laughs. “It was fun to play—but I’m still as emotionally repressed as I ever was.” He sighs. “I can be a cynical old bastard, I really can. It’s something I try to fight against—but it’s a losing battle.” “I’m not someone who’s remotely bothered about looking uncool,” he says. “If showing my ass gets a laugh, I will do it.”