Steve Coogan has just finished a five-mile run around the Central Park reservoir and is relishing a three-egg-white omelette in a Tribeca restaurant, looking generally pleased about everything. “Vanity,” says the 45-year-old actor, smiling out at the room, “is a great motivator. I used to run in Central Park to pretend I was in a movie. Now I run in the hope someone recognizes me.”
Coogan is in town for the premiere of The Trip, directed by Michael Winterbottom, who also worked with Coogan on 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, in which he plays Tony Wilson, the notorious head of Britain’s Factory Records who signed New Wave bands Joy Division and New Order. “That’s what the cooler people in America know me for,” he says of the small but enthusiastic audience Party People attracted here. “It’s a cold comfort of not being highly successful. But as my father once said, the true secret to success is never to peak. So I’m really on target with that. Not peaking.”
In Britain, getting recognized isn’t something Coogan has to run for. In the States, he’s held in high esteem mainly by comedians, who speak of him in practically hushed tones. “I’ve been in this business so long that I’ve gone in and out of fashion,” says Coogan. “Right now, I’m kind of cool again. I mean, it’s waning, but I do have residual good feelings from some people.”
The Trip, an adaptation of a series that aired on BBC Two last year, finds Coogan teamed with friend and fellow comedic actor Rob Brydon. The two travel the north of England in a Range Rover, ostensibly doing restaurant reviews for a London newspaper. What it’s really about is competition. Any friendship between comedians, if it’s genuine, is composed of equal parts goodwill and bitter hostility, with each comic rotating between hammer and anvil. Though comedians never wish each other success, they also need the approval of their peers more than anyone else. So, for example, in The Trip, a sort of running duel occurs involving impressions of, among other movie folk, Roger Moore, Sean Connery, and Woody Allen. (The two-minute back-and-forth between Coogan and Brydon on how to do Michael Caine was rightly a YouTube hit in Britain.) But the mood can turn cruel quite suddenly: During one of Brydon’s impressions in a restaurant, Coogan begins to push his own head down onto a knife.
“The film has a kernel of truth,” Coogan says, “but it’s hyperbole. If Rob and I were out right now, we wouldn’t be needling each other like that.” Coogan and Brydon established one ground rule for the five-week shoot: “If we upset each other, we weren’t to take it personally. A few times, it did get unpleasant, genuinely unpleasant. Rob crossed a line, and I reciprocated by crossing his line, and we’d stop filming.” Any physical violence? “No, it didn’t get that bad. I didn’t stab a pen into his neck.” Here Coogan actually looks wistful. “That is a wonderful image.”
Despite having gotten his start as an impressionist, Coogan abhors being called one. “What I don’t like about it,” he says, “is that you want to show you have substance, that you have something of your own to say. But now, within the context of Michael Winterbottom, I get a chance to do a whole range of fun, superficial impressions. I’m allowed to show off within the context of an art-house movie!” And, of course, he cannot resist a challenge. “Rob likes doing impressions if he has a good one. Then I’ve got to bring mine out. I’m like a pacifist who’s a really good marksman.”
Coogan’s best impression is of himself—or, more accurately, various versions of himself. Not in the same sense that, say, Gregory Peck always seemed to play himself; Coogan’s subtlest work is centered on portraying the actor “Steve Coogan,” not only in The Trip but in Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, even Party People. Characteristically, all of these “Coogans” are slightly unpleasant, fame-obsessed womanizers, always insecure, and petty on a paradoxically grand scale.
I last spent serious time with him in 2002, when Party People was coming out. Coogan was pale; exhaustion had tangled him up. He was still working long hours on yet another British TV show that centered around his most famous creation, the gloriously dour Alan Partridge, a politically incorrect talk-show host who became, to his British fans, indistinguishable from Coogan. (He has always been a favorite of the English tabloids, most notably in 2007, when his friend Owen Wilson nearly died of an overdose. The Daily Mirror printed accusations by Courtney Love to the effect that Coogan was to blame. “That was an attempt by someone to sabotage my career, and I now steer clear of that person,” he says equably. “When journalists questioned the credibility of the source, it all went away.”) Coogan today, nine years later and 45 years old, is relaxed, even sunny. “I was more of a curmudgeon in those days,” he says. “As I get closer to death, I find laughing at myself very comforting.”
Partridgenever crossed over to American TV; the character, at once arrogant and ignorant, would have needed sweetening up (à la the British Office). Partridge might translate on the big screen: A film is being written now, to be shot next year. Still, Coogan isn’t expecting major stardom; the requisite nobility simply isn’t his line. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable playing someone heroic,” he says. “Some people can do it—George Clooney, Harrison Ford. I don’t think I’m very good at it. I feel more self-conscious, more naked being heroic than I do when I play dysfunctional or unsympathetic.”
As with Partridge and 24 Hour Party People, The Trip is an extremely deliberate improvisation. “We wrote it as we went along,” Coogan says, scarfing down the last of his egg whites. “My biggest fear for the movie,” he adds, “was that it would be two people metaphorically doing mutual masturbation and the whole thing might be a sort of self-congratulatory, smug, pseudo-self-deprecation, like: ‘Get a load of me, on tape having a laugh at myself. Aren’t I cool?’ Which would make me want to throw up.”