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Times Magazine - Whos laughing now?

Times Magazine - Whos laughing now?June 26, 2004


Steve Coogan
By Martyn Palmer

American politician on one side of him and a major Hollywood star on the other. But before the tabloid headline writers start sharpening their pencils in anticipation of another naughty Coogan spread - and there have been a few of those - it should be noted that the politician was Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his last role before starting a new job as Governor of California, and the actor was Jackie Chan, Coogan's co-star in a $120-million summer blockbuster, Around the World in 80 Days. Even so, it was still rather odd for the boy from the Manchester suburbs.

"It was one of those moments where I thought, 'Never in a million years could I have imagined ending up here in a Jacuzzi with Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger," he says. "It wasn't, 'Hey, I've arrived, isn't this fantastic!' It was more, 'Is this real?' It was just bizarre, weird and extraordinary." He pauses before adding: "And also a strangely homoerotic experience for me..."

It's nice to know that Coogan can still crack a joke at his own expense. Comedy is what he does, of course, but lately there hasn't been a lot to laugh about, off camera at least. The irony is that as his professional life gets bigger and better, with two Hollywood films in the can and a third on the way, his personal life has suffered terribly. Perhaps the two are linked. Maybe Coogan is the latest in a long line of tragic, self-destructive funny men stretching back to Lenny Bruce, Tony Hancock, his hero Peter Sellers, and the rest?

"I think that's a convenient way of looking at things," he says. "There are a lot of very well-adjusted, very funny people, and I think that I am reasonably well-adjusted. I don't sit and stare at the walls when I go home. I'm not tormented. I've made mistakes in my personal life and, without wanting to diminish that, lots of people do. Not just comedians. Some bank managers do, too."



This is not an easy subject to discuss. Coogan has had plenty of problems with the press, and at one point, a few years back, he refused to do interviews at all. Unsurprisingly, there's an audible, sharp intake of breath when his recent indiscretions are mentioned.

"For the record, what happened was a mistake. What I did was very stupid," he says. "Mea culpa. I'm not in any way making any excuses for that, because it was just an act of stupidity."

That "act of stupidity" meant that, in April, Coogan became the subject of lurid tales of cocaine and lap dancers. "My crazy sex with Steve" and "Smack of the net!" were two of the headlines as 22-year-old Joanne Young kissed and told. She claimed that, along with her friend Jenny Ryan, she met Coogan in the VIP room at the Embassy Club in London, after he'd come off stage at the Royal Albert Hall where he'd finished a show for charity. He invited them back to a hotel, and Young alleged that a night of sex, cocaine and booze followed. Coogan later issued a statement admitting that he'd had a "few lines of cocaine", but denied having "full sex". He did, however, add: "It was madness." That madness cost him his marriage. Within weeks, Caroline Hickman, the 32-year-old society beauty he married in 2002, had walked out of their home in Hove.

It wasn't the first time. In 1996, just after Anna Cole, his solicitor girlfriend of the time, announced that she was pregnant, there were breathless tales of a lap dancer and sex on a bed covered with tenners. Cole is the mother of his daughter, Clare, now seven. It was shortly after this episode that Coogan said he would no longer talk to the press and complained that he was misunderstood.

Coogan's climb to the top saw him start out with voice work on Spitting Image, stand-up shows that rewarded him with the Edinburgh Festival's Perrier Award, and performances on Radio 4's On the Hour, which led to The Day Today, the excellent spoof news show that first gave Alan Partridge TV time as a sports reporter. Coogan as Partridge was given his own chat show, Knowing Me, Knowing You, and has returned for two more series as the Norfolk nerd. Fame, money and all the trappings were his. Back of the net, indeed, as Partridge might say.

Coogan has plenty of other projects on the go these days. There's his own production company, Baby Cow, and his blossoming career as an actor. In Around the World in 80 Days he plays Phileas Fogg, with Jackie Chan in the role of Passepartout. "It's a big, entertaining family movie with some wit. Previously, I've had a lot of control over the whole process so it was an odd experience just acting, but enjoyable."

He was also impressed with the sheer scale of it. "There was minimum use of special effects. In one scene, I'm walking along the Great Wall of China. And we actually flew in for one day and a helicopter took the camera up so that they could get me walking along the Wall. We actually did everything. Money pays for that."

He recently finished filming Happy Endings, in which he was part of an impressive ensemble cast that included Lisa Kudrow and Laura Dern. Next, he's the lead in Alibi, a comedy about a man who provides errant husbands with an alibi if they cheat on their wives. His co-star is Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, of X-Men fame.

But with this latest, new level of success, the stories of drugs and infidelity have surfaced again. Recently, there were reports that he'd been treated at an American clinic which specialises in drug and alcohol addictions.

"I was in rehab," he says. "I was going off the rails a bit and that's why I went into rehab. All I want to say is that there are some issues I'm dealing with and I'm doing it the best way I can. They are there but they are not all-consuming. Because I'm busy doing the things I'm good at. And I'm trying to avoid the kind of distractions that come with the pressure of what I do."

Other, bigger British names were talked of for Around the World in 80 Days, but the director, Frank Coraci (The Waterboy, The Wedding Singer), insisted on Coogan because he'd seen him in 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom's excellent film on the Seventies and Eighties music scene in Manchester, in which Coogan was quite brilliant as Tony Wilson. It's a big break for Coogan and he knows it. "Frank stuck his neck out for me and it's a huge opportunity. I think they wanted other people - the Hugh Grants and Ewan McGregors, the established people. But he had seen 24 Hour Party People and really loved it. It's funny, Partridge barely registers in America, but I've had loads of people come up to me in Hollywood, people like Ben Stiller and Wes Anderson, and quote lines from the film to me."

If Coogan glows when he receives praise, you'd hardly think he would worry too much if he gets a bit of a critical knock now and again. But he certainly did take it to heart, and maybe still does. One reviewer who suggested he wasn't taking risks with his live show was ridiculed by Coogan on his next video, on which he offered to "shove his three stars up his arse".

Does he still feel misunderstood? "I think everyone, and I'm no different, wants to be perceived in a certain way. And I am quite controlling in some ways. So when I lose control of the way I'm perceived, then that's really frustrating."

And when the tabloids portray you as a serial hedonist "love rat" with a weakness for lap dancers and cocaine, presumably it is very frustrating indeed. "What's annoying is it's part of a picture and I'm lots of things. And I suppose a lot of the way I'm perceived is partly tied up with my background. I've talked to other people similar to me about the curse of being lower middle class. I can't go around claiming I'm the horny-handed son of toil, and I can't go around pretending to have that in-built confidence, either."

Recently, he was upset when he didn't win the lead in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. "I really wanted that part so badly. I loved the script. I did a whole day of screen tests and I think I did really well and the casting director told me I did. And then Geoffrey Rush came along and said, 'I want to do it,' and he's got an Academy Award and I haven't, and I was out of the picture. I don't mind admitting I was pissed off about that."

But he's Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days instead. "Yeah, and I wouldn't have been able to do it if I'd been doing Sellers. But doing Sellers would have been special. It's not just because I've been compared to him. He's someone who fascinates me." Coogan uses this as an example that "not everything works out for me". And claims that these days he's more laid-back about the disappointments and the critics.

"I'm at a stage now where I roll with the punches. Critics don't like everything you do. What happens is you have a honeymoon period when you are new, when everyone thinks everything you do is great, it's what I call the critics' syndrome of 'I preferred his early stuff'. There are nerds who think that Partridge was the only decent thing I did and everything after that is a sell-out. It's an extreme view, but those people exist. What irritates me more than anything are the people who come up to me and say, 'I preferred you on Radio 4.' I want to punch them in the face."

Coogan grew up, the fourth of seven children in an Irish Catholic family, in the Manchester suburb of Middleton. As a boy, he would make audio recordings of Monty Python and Not the Nine O'Clock News so he could learn all the different parts by heart. He fluffed his A levels, which put paid to a vague notion to study politics, and instead he won a place on the drama course at Manchester Poly. Before long, he was doing gigs in and around his home town, skits with other students - an early one was a spoof on A Question of Sport called A Question of Revolutionary Politics with Neil Kinnock and Colonel Gaddafi impersonations.

In those early days in Manchester, he found himself hanging out with Caroline Aherne and John Thomson. All would go on to great success: Aherne with Mrs Merton and The Royle Family, and Thomson as a stand-up and actor in Cold Feet. "I'd go out for a drink with Caroline and I would be laughing myself hoarse within an hour," Coogan recalls. "All she would do was take the piss out of me mercilessly. She could just suss you out and keep bursting your bubble. That was a fun time."

Post college, flitting between Manchester and London, Coogan's career could have easily gone in a different direction. At 22, he was popping up on programmes like The Richard and Judy Show, and appeared on Sunday Night at the London Palladium with Jimmy Tarbuck. He's still defensive about it even now, some 16 years later. "I was known as a stand-up impressionist for a while, which I really didn't like, but I could do it. I remember being acutely aware of being perceived by some of my peers and people in the industry as being lightweight, and that bothered me."

He's still very aware of that fine line between cutting-edge cool and mainstream. At one point, when we discuss Around the World in 80 Days, he mentions that he had a small part in a Jim Jarmusch movie, Coffee and Cigarettes. "It's very funny and dark and twisted. Hopefully there's a balance. A couple of films for Guardian readers, and then a film that's mainstream."

He may have issues about his own identity and background, but that background has obviously provided the clay with which he models his best characters - foul-mouthed, beer-swilling Paul Calf and his sex-mad sister, Pauline, at one extreme, and Alan Partridge in his V-neck sweaters and Sta-prest trousers at the other.

"That's something that taxes me," he says of his own self-perception. "But at the same time it's what I draw on to do lots of funny stuff. I know there are dysfunctions within me as a person, but I also know that those are the things that partly help me to be creative. The whole thing about being misunderstood, I mean, it's partly to do with the frustration of people coming up to you and shaking your hand and asking you to sign an autograph, and everything you say they burst out laughing. Because they think everything you say must be funny because you are a comic. That's a crude representation of being misunderstood, and I know people are being nice and friendly, but they laugh at everything. Even if you say, 'Where's the nearest cashpoint?' they burst out laughing."

He obviously works hard. "People overuse that word 'genius'. I really don't like that word. It's not genius, it's just hard work." And plays hard, too - the distractions, as he calls them, from the pressure. Those same distractions that caused his broken marriage. "I regret that. I really do. All I can say is I have unresolved issues that I am resolving. Or trying to resolve. I don't want to talk about it too much, because there are innocent parties who have been subject to enough scrutiny."

The unresolved issues are presumably his attitude towards women and his fondness for class-A drugs. "I'll take whatever is chucked at me on the chin, but it's the other people, my wife and other people, and I don't want them to read any more. Especially me whingeing on about it in the press. I kind of want to draw a line under it. I am focused on my work and ironically work is going very well for me. And, the thing is, I have a daughter and I think I have a wonderful relationship with her, and I want to protect her, too."

Doesn't he sometimes envy his collaborators - Peter Baynham and Armando Iannucci who created Partridge with him, Henry Normal who also runs Baby Cow - because they get the satisfaction of the work without the tabloid scrutiny?

"No, I don't. It's double-edged. I did about 160 shows to approximately 2,000 people a night earlier this year, and when you're holding together a show like that, yes, people have helped you write it, but you are the lynchpin. If it fails it's your fault, but if it succeeds you get all of the glory and kind of deserve it. Two thousand people laughing at what you say and you know if you time a certain line you can just hold them in the palm of your hand. That's incredibly addictive. It's an amazing feeling, and so that's the deal. I get the shit but I get the glory. And I'm absolutely prepared to accept that because the highs are better than the lows."

On the day of our meeting, Coogan looked fit and well. He's 38 now but his small frame and boyish features make him seem younger. He's even been working out. "I was going to the gym during Around the World in 80 Days. I mean, a hot-tub scene with Arnie and Jackie Chan, they're both massive. And on television, by and large, I'm playing people who are unattractive, and I have to be the lead in this one and I have to kiss the girl. So I had to look as good as I can with what I've got."

A couple of days after this interview, Coogan met our photographer in Brighton. He looked like he'd had a big night and wasn't quite so fresh-faced. He may be trying to avoid the distractions that come with pressure, but perhaps he's not succeeding all of the time.

Maybe he would be happier in the States. He doesn't want to move there permanently because he doesn't want to leave his daughter, but he's happy enough to work there at the moment. They don't recognise him the way that we do here, at least not yet, and don't burst out laughing if he asks a mundane question. They are just nice and polite. "Someone said to me, 'Yeah, they're nice to you all the time, but you don't know if they mean it or not.' And you know what? Right now, I don't care if they mean it or not. As long as they're nice to me, that's fine by me."

Around the World in 80 Days opens on July 9


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