Coogan tackles more serious role in 'Philomena'
Like most performers who are labeled as "comics," Steve Coogan eventually grew tired of being pigeonholed and longed to prove that he could do more than make people laugh.
He got the opportunity when he came across Martin Sixsmith's book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," the true account of a woman who was sent to an Irish convent after getting pregnant as a teenager. There she worked, in deplorable conditions, as a laundry woman and gave birth to her son, Michael, only to see him adopted by an American family when he was 3 years old. It was later revealed that the Catholic Church was in fact selling these children to anyone willing to pay the fee they requested.
The film based on the book, "Philomena," recounts the title character's efforts to track down her son 50 years after he had been adopted. Directed by Stephen Frears, the film manages to do what so many movies fail to accomplish: Not only is it poignant, but it also manages to be an engaging mystery as well as being quite funny at times.
Its two main characters — Philomena, realized by Judi Dench in a performance that will likely net her an Oscar nomination for best actress, and Sixsmith, effectively brought to life by Coogan with an unusually restrained performance — couldn't be more different. As they search for Michael, their different backgrounds and personalities come in conflict to comedic and dramatic effect, creating a genuinely human relationship on screen.
Coogan was immediately taken by Sixsmith's book, so much so that the actor took out an option on it and served as one of the film's producers as well as co-writer of the screenplay. On a recent stopover in Chicago, he sat down for a funny and wide-ranging conversation about why he felt so strongly about bringing this story to the screen as well as how it may change the way audiences perceive him.
Tired from a long round of interviews, Coogan rallied with a cup of warm tea, and when I apologized for talking to him so late in the day and prosbably asking him questions he'd already heard many times before, he said he didn't mind talking about "Philomena" as he took a lot of pride in the project, primarily because it was different from the sorts of roles he usually plays.
"This is definitely a departure for me," he said, as he picked a piece of lint from his sweater and zeroed in on me with an intensity one rarely sees from him on screen. "I wanted to do something smart and funny, but more than anything I wanted to do something sincere."
While Coogan was firm in his intention to bring the story to the screen, he met with some initial resistance when he shared his plans with those close to him.
"I feel it's a huge vindication for me because no one advised me to do it — not my agent, not my friends, no one," he said. "But when I said, 'I want to do this,' and showed the story to people, I started to get the support I needed.
"For so long I had been told, 'You need to do this movie where you're Vince Vaughn's buddy,' which I have done ("Tropic Thunder," "The Other Guys"), but it was all so inauthentic and unsatisfying. So, I needed something like this to do, and it was great to see other people open to the fact that I could be in a film like this."
Knowing that this story required a deft touch, as it had to shift between dramatic and comedic tones at the drop of a hat, Coogan approached Frears ("The Queen," "The Grifters"), a filmmaker adept at successfully making movies in a wide variety of genres.
"The comedy was in the script from the get-go," Coogan said. "Stephen understood that and he was able to get the balance of things right in the film as well as what sort of emphasis to put on it. I think what Stephen brought to the project was his ability to point out when to let the comedy be poignant and when to play it for a bit broader of a laugh.
"We made sure that the comedy was truthful in the scene — we couldn't just drop a gag in — so we made sure that anything funny developed directly from the situation and the characters. In the end, I think it made the situations and the characters more human."
One of the most inventive things in the film is that throughout, the audience sees Michael grow up via various bits of home movies that capture him at different stages in his life. This idea was born when Coogan and Frears were able to track down the boy's adoptive parents, who were willing to share home movies they had taken of him when he was young.
"I went one day to watch some of the footage taken of her son, which Philomena had never seen," Coogan said. "I sat next to her as we watched, and she grabbed my hand and said, 'I did love him, you know.' It was a bit of an awkward moment, but it was genuine. And though I changed the location of this in the movie, I wanted to make sure to include that because I think it says so much about her.
"We were very lucky in finding the real footage and then we mixed it in with scenes Stephen created of Michael's later years."
Coogan said he and Frears wanted the audience to see what happened to her son as the story played out, as if there were parallel narrative tracks, thinking it would help the viewer become more invested in the story.
"Then we'd have it all come together with Philomena watching the film of her son at the end, which is composed of all of the clips the audience has already seen," he said. "We thought this would be an incredibly powerful moment and audiences seem to respond to it."
As one might expect, Philomena's story has caused a sensation in Ireland, as other women have come forward hoping to find their lost children as well.
"The Catholic Church has taken a defensive approach regarding what happened in the past," Coogan said, obviously agitated. "They need to approach this with a sense of humility, and if they did, they'd find the public a bit more accepting.
"People don't want to destroy the church; they just want it to be accountable and accept that mistakes were made. They have this stupid attitude that if you show weakness, people will destroy them, and that's not the case.
"There's been a hesitance by the church to help in these matters, and they are just hoping this will go away. But that's not going to happen."
At the core of the movie is one of the basic tenets of Catholicism: the notion that redemption is attainable through forgiveness.
"Many people who love the film are Catholic, and I think the reason for that is that we stress the power of forgiveness in the movie," Coogan said. "Yet the church has yet to apologize, and instead they come up with the laughable defense that people didn't pay for babies but were simply asked to make a large donation to the church. That's the best you've got? They actually think people will say, 'Oh, it was a donation! Well, that's all right, then!' It's just laughable.
"But in the end, this notion of forgiveness comes completely from Philomena herself, who found a sense of peace once the whole affair was over. If anything, I hope audiences will take that lesson away from her story."