In the arthouse hit, “Philomena,” an elderly Irishwoman searches for the son she reluctantly gave up for adoption. Credit comic Steve Coogan for bringing her story to the big screen. The “Night at the Museum” actor optioned the Martin Sixsmith bestseller, produced, tapped director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) and co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope. He also wisely snagged Dame Judi Dench to play the title role. Coogan also crafted a juicy role for himself as the cranky, recently fired political journalist Sixsmith, who turns to Philomena’s human interest story as the subject of a marketable book with very little interest in humans himself. It put the British comic actor in the perfect position to, as he told Yahoo Movies last week over the phone, “navigate between the rocks of schmaltz.”
Question: The movie starts almost like an episode of the brilliant British TV show “The Thick of It,” which spawned the movie “In the Loop” and the HBO show “Veep.” Sixsmith gets sacked from his job at the ministry and it’s instantly clear this man has just been trampled.
Steve Coogan: It’s funny, that’s one of the notes from Stephen [Frears]. We wrote it originally with only a slight reference to Martin being fired and Stephen gave us a good note to include it. It shows Martin at a low point.
Q: Since Martin is based on a real man, was Sixsmith as cranky as the character in the movie or did you bring that?
SC: I brought that. When I interviewed Martin there was always a kernel of truth. I said to him, how did you feel when you were fired? And he said, “I felt sorry for myself.” I put a lot of myself into Martin. I said I need to change you a bit for this story. When I spoke to Martin about his character, we both referred to him in the third person. The character is a mixture of Martin and me. The cynicism is me and the spikiness. And, although that is me, I’m also aware of the limitations of that viewpoint. I want to attack my own cynicism.
Q: In contrast, Philomena could not be less cynical – but that doesn’t make her a pushover either.
SC: We see her on the surface at first. She’s from an an old conservative generation of women who on one level have a simple view of life, maybe not intellectual but have an intuition that is incredibly incisive. She’s actually experienced life. And Martin’s in some ways a journalist and an armchair theoretician. He has had the luxury to let his thoughts flow freely from his fingertips, while Philomena has had to get on with her life. She’s a doer. She walks the walk and Martin’s all talk.
[Related: Critic's Pick: 'Philomena']
Q: The beauty of the movie is that it sheds light on the human condition, but that condition also includes laughter.
SC: Jeff and I were very keen not to have it be too portentous, to seduce the audience by having them laugh along the way rather than hitting the characters over the head with a book.
Q: Coogan and Dench are not two actors often mentioned in the same breath. Was she always your Philomena?
SC: Whenever I considered who would play the part, I kept thinking Judi Dench. She’d played Iris Murdoch, and I said there aren’t a plethora of great parts for older actors. They tend to be supporting roles. They play an old person and that’s the most defining characteristic of that part. But Philomena, she’s just a human being and her age is only part of it. It’s not what defines her. She had a life. She was young once. So we hoped it would attract her as an actor. We went to her house and told her the story. She was a little trepidatious about playing something like this; she’s no different in that regard. She wants to do something a little different. She has an Irish background and it appealed.
Q: The scare factor: Were you worried about playing opposite Dame Judi?
SC: I was so preoccupied with producing, writing and getting her I almost forgot that I would have to act opposite her. I was a little daunted. And then I saw Judi trying to figure out how she was going to do it at the camera test. She was talking to herself in the character. I saw that she was flesh and blood and she had to struggle with things. I thought, “Oh, good, she’s not able to do it immediately.” She’s a working actor. That was good to see.
Q: As an actor more accustomed to getting laughs than sobs, what worried you about playing the dramatic scenes?
SC: I said to Frears, I don’t want to be overacting. All I did was listen to and react to what she was doing. It would have been a lot harder acting with someone who wasn’t experienced. I just saw Philomena, when I was making her laugh, not Dame Judi Dench. The chemistry we had was real. I spent a lot of time in the car with her, laughing. She used to accuse me of having Botox and Collagen. Stephen wasn’t overly deferential. She likes that. When she was saying she wasn’t happy with some element on set, he’d say in front of her, “Has anyone got Helen Mirren’s number?” That would rattle her a little bit. She’d give him the evil look out of the corner of her eye.
Q: Did you pull out your Bond impressions for Dench since she’s played M so often in that franchise.
SC: Yes. I did my Bonds repertoire. She’d say, “Do some more of this, or that.” I became a performing monkey for her.
Q: A performing monkey that wrote her a role that may land her an Oscar, and potentially one for you as well for adapted screenplay.
SC: It’s a bit surreal but gratifying. It’s a story I pursued from reading something in a newspaper. The process itself is good, and the recognition is fairly nice, but part of me is very nervous. You can be killed with kindness, as Carrie Fisher might have said. I already started writing the next thing with Jeff. It’s good to talk about what you do, but it’s more important to get on with the work. My father used to tell me a Chinese proverb: before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood carry water. You’ve still got to do a day’s work.