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British Comedian Steve Coogan's Improv-Based 'Trip'

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British Comedian Steve Coogan's Improv-Based 'Trip'

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British Comedian Steve Coogan's Improv-Based 'Trip'

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

British comedian and actor Steve Coogan has appeared in several American films, including "Coffee and Cigarettes," "Night at the Museum" and "Tropic Thunder." He's better known in England, where he's a veteran of TV and film. His most famous character is the self-absorbed and clueless talk-show host Alan Partridge.

Coogan and fellow actor and comedian Rob Brydon starred in the film "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story," directed by Michael Winterbottom. Winterbottom recently brought them back together for a BBC TV series called "The Trip," in which they play themselves. Coogan invites Brydon to accompany him on a road trip to review restaurants in the north of England.

The series has been condensed into a film, which consists largely of improvised conversations between the two comics. Both are accomplished impressionists, and they often lapse into dueling mimicry, like this exchange done in the voices of Sean Connery and then Roger Moore. Coogan goes first.

(Soundbite of film, "The Trip")

Mr. STEVE COOGAN (Actor): (as Himself) I'll have a vodka martini, shaken but not stirred.

Mr. ROB BRYDON (Actor): (as Himself) I'll have a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.

Mr. COOGAN: (as Himself) I'll have a vodka.

Mr. BRYDON: (as Himself) I'll have a vodka.

Mr. COOGAN: (as Himself) You look very worried.

Mr. BRYDON: (as Himself) So do you. You should take a look at your face.

Mr. COOGAN: (as Himself) I'll have a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.

Mr. BRYDON: (as Himself) You look like you're recovering from a stroke and learning how to get mobility again.

Mr. COOGAN: (as Himself) I'd like a vodka martini, shaken but not stirred.

Mr. BRYDON: (as Himself) I can feel my legs. It's a miracle.

Mr. COOGAN: (as Himself) I'd like a vodka martini, shaken but not stirred.

Mr. BRYDON: (as Himself) I'd like a martini, shaken, not stirred.

DAVIES: I spoke to Steve Coogan about "The Trip" earlier this week.

Well, Steve Coogan, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I wonder if, you know, because there's not really a story, it's you and Rob in a series of conversations, whether you found yourself wondering: Gosh, can I be that interesting, and does it put pressure on you when the camera rolls?

Mr. COOGAN: Absolutely it does. At first, I took a lot of persuading to do it by Michael the director, and the same goes for Rob. It's very difficult to envisage it before you start doing it. You don't know what it's going to be about until you start making it. So there's a certain kind of insecurity that goes with that.

But we knew that we were good enough improvisers. My biggest fear, really, was that it would be self-indulgent because, of course, I play myself in it. And actors play my parents, actors play various people I meet, but the only real people are Rob and I.

So it's a very difficult thing to try and be creative in that kind of environment. But if you trust the person you're with, the way - Rob and I have worked together many times, then you know when we're improvising, we'll be able to create stuff and come up with ideas. So that sort of takes the heat off it a little.

But you need to have a certain kind of confidence to go to places. I mean, when Rob and I were improvising, when you go to places in each other's personality, that can be sensitive. Rob would ask me - Rob and I had an agreement at the outset whereby we gave each other license to offend each other, as it were, so that we could talk about things that would maybe be slightly unsettling.

And there are a couple of times in the improvisations it got frosty, and it got kind of uncomfortable, because we were sort of pressing each other's buttons, so to speak.

But that's what makes it interesting is that there's an edge to it and a discomfort to it that makes it engaging. It's not just - although there's a lot of comedy in it, it's not just a couple of actors saying get a load of me laughing at myself, you know.

DAVIES: You and Rob Brydon sat down with Michael Schulman of the New Yorker. He wrote a brief piece about this. And he wrote: When comedians get together, they tend to compete, which to the untrained observer can look a lot like funny people being funny. Would you agree? Do comedians compete when they're together?

Mr. COOGAN: I think they do. That is true. I mean, I try to - it depends. If you're in good company, then there's a kind of a - you can compete to entertain each other. But it's a nice kind of competition because the competition involves - the competing involves lots of laughing on both sides.

But I try - I'm not - there are certain comics who feel like they have to be on all the time and be, you know, entertaining constantly. And as you can probably tell from the way this interview's gone so far, I'm not obsessed with being funny all the time, nor am I capable of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: All right, well, listen. I want to play a clip. You're a terrific impersonator, as is Rob Brydon, and there's plenty of that in the film.

And this is a clip, where it actually begins by the two of you kind of having a bit of an argument about whether Wales, which is where Rob Brydon is from, or the north of England, where you're from, is sort of more culturally significant.

Rob starts impersonating a bunch of famous Welsh actors, and you observe that somebody who's over 40 who has to spend his life doing voices ought to think about himself. And then Rob responds this way. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of film, "The Trip")

Mr. BRYDON: (as Himself) Well, broadsheet journalists have described my impressions as stunningly accurate.

Mr. COOGAN: (as Himself) Well, they're wrong. I've not heard your Michael Caine, but I assume it would be something along the lines of: My name's Michael Caine.

Mr. BRYDON: (as Himself) That is where you are so wrong. And you can look at my live video to prove it because that's the very thing I don't do. I say that he used to talk to like that.

Mr. COOGAN: (as Himself) Do your Michael Caine.

Mr. BRYDON: (as Himself) OK. I say: Michael Caine used to talk like this in the 1960s, right? But that has changed. And I say that over the years. Michael's voice has come down several octaves, let me finish, and all of the cigars and the brandy - don't, let me finish - can now be heard.

Mr. COOGAN: (as Himself) OK.

Mr. BRYDON: (as Himself) Look, I'm not (bleep) finished - in the back of the voice now. Well, I'm still not finished.

Mr. COOGAN: (as Himself) Because you're panicking.

Mr. BRYDON: (as Himself) No, because you look like you're a back of bloody talk. Let me finish. Right. So, Michael Caine's voice now, in the Batman movies and in "Harry Brown," I can't go fast because Michael Caine talks very, very slowly.

Mr. COOGAN: (as Himself) Right, this is how Michael Caine speaks. Michael Caine speaks through his nose like that. He gets very, very specific. It's very like that. When he gets loudly, it gets very loud indeed. It gets very specific. It's not quite nasal enough the way you're doing it, all right?

You're not doing it the way he speaks. You're not doing it with the kind of -and you don't do the broken voice when he gets very emotional, when he gets very emotional indeed because she was only 16 years old. She was only 16 -you're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off. That's Michael Caine.

DAVIES: And that's my guest, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, doing a Michael Caine-off in their new film "The Trip." That's an example of the film where the two of you get testy with each other and entertain us in the process.

And one of the themes of the film is that Rob Brydon, who unfortunately couldn't arrange to be with us in the interview, but he does these impersonations just all the time. He does them when you visit your parents. He does Hugh Grant to his own wife.

Is Rob Brydon like that? Is he just so entertained by himself he can't stop?

Mr. COOGAN: No, he's not quite - no, he's not. I mean, he can do them, and he does do them, and he is - to be truthful, his real character, how he is in reality, he's a bit more on or more so than I am in terms of being entertaining, if you like.

But, no, he's nowhere near as forced or exaggerated as he is in "The Trip," when he's doing these voices constantly. You know, he'll do them recreatively, shall we say, from time to time with me. But, no, he would be insufferable, I think, if he really did do that all the time.

DAVIES: Yeah. And do you pepper your own conversation with this? Do you ever lapse into a James Bond?

Mr. COOGAN: No.

DAVIES: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOGAN: I don't. I try to avoid it. I sort of - it's a very strange thing. I had started out 20 years ago in this business being a stand-up comic doing impersonations, and I sort of - I don't know. I sort of really disliked being an impersonator. To me, it was sort of like a substitute for being talented. It's - or a substitute for having any substance.

It's sort of - it's a trick, you know. It's impressive, but it doesn't mean anything. And I like to have a - you know, I sort of search for a bit more depth. So it's something I can do, and I do it at parties, basically, if I've had a drink.

DAVIES: OK. Our guest is Steve Coogan. His new film with Rob Brydon is "The Trip." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is comedian and actor Steve Coogan. He appears with Rob Brydon in the new film "The Trip."

You've done a fair amount of work in American movies recently, and I thought we'd listen to a clip from "Tropic Thunder." This is one where you play the director of a Vietnam War film that's being shot on location in Asia somewhere, I guess Thailand or the Philippines.

And the film is in trouble. You have these, you know, temperamental actors. And so, you've decided you're going to go out on a limb and put these prima donnas in a real situation and do some cinema verite filmmaking, and you kind of deliver a speech here out in the jungle. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of film, "Tropic Thunder")

Mr. COOGAN: (as Damien Cockburn): Gentlemen, I've got good news and bad news. The studio wants to shut us down. That's the bad news. And the good news, if you want to save this movie, you will become a unit. Your objective is to head north to the D'ang Kwook River to liberate the POW camp, at which point Four Leaf will get himself captured, at which point you will rescue him, at which point we will chopper you home.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as Character) Damn.

Mr. COOGAN: (as Cockburn) Four Leaf, since you're the staff sergeant, there's a map, this is the scene list. Think you can handle it? We have rigged this entire valley of death with hidden cameras. And I will be shooting, as well, from unseen (technical difficulties)...they have a certain sort of confidence and, I mean, there's a certain sort of innate pretentiousness that goes with being a British director, I'd say.

I think there are a lot of British directors who go out to Hollywood and who will get a shot with a big budget and, you know, the pressure produces a kind of neurosis.

So - but no one specific. I mean, you can spot various people in it. I wouldn't libel anyone.

DAVIES: It's the kind of director who isn't sort of directing techniques so much as almost acting himself and inspiring his troops.

Your aspirations for more Hollywood roles is one of the themes of "The Trip," the film that you're in with Rob Brydon. There are moments where you're talking to your agent in America.

And there's a scene where Ben Stiller appears, and I thought we would listen to this. This is a dream that you have while you're sleeping in a British inn. And you see Ben Stiller walking around a pool, presumably in Hollywood, and telling you, Steve Coogan, in effect, that you are a hot commodity, and every Hollywood director wants you. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of film, "The Trip")

Mr. BEN STILLER (Actor): (as Himself) Everybody wants to work with you. I got a call from P.T. Anderson. I got a call from Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Todd Haynes, Alexander Payne, look, all of them.

Mr. COOGAN (as Himself): They're all auteurs.

Mr. STILLER: (as Himself) Yeah, and they're all geniuses, and they want to work with the genius.

Mr. COOGAN: (as Himself): I want to do mainstream movies.

Mr. STILLER: (as Himself) Well, the Farrelly brothers want to work with you, OK? The Scotts, Tony and Ridley, they want to do a movie together, never done that before.

They want to do a thing with you, where it's like the future, but it's 500 years in the past, and you're like some guy who is like a warrior that came - I don't even know what it is, but they want to do it with you, OK? It's incredible.

Cohens calling up, Wachowskis, both of them want to work you. All the brothers, my man, all the brothers want a piece of Coogs.

Mr. COOGAN: (as Himself) It's, like, I can't believe it's happening.

Mr. STILLER: (as Himself) Well, Steve, guess what? Wake up, smell the coffee, all right? The dream is happening right now. You're living the dream, Steve, it's all a dream.

Mr. COOGAN: (as Himself) Come back. Wait, come back.

Mr. STILLER: (as Himself) I can't, I've got a thing. But - I don't think I'll talk to you later but at some point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Ben Stiller with Steve Coogan in the film "The Trip." Did you write that scene?

Mr. COOGAN: Did I write - Michael, I think Michael Winterbottom wrote that scene and I helped, and Ben chipped in. It was a collaborative piece. We sort of cooked it up and made some suggestions, emailed them to Ben, and then when we arrived on the day, Ben embellished it. We tried it different ways, and yeah.

DAVIES: You played Hades, the ruler of the underworld, in a film called - was it "Percy Jackson the Lightning Thief," right? It's where he's - a bunch of kids who are demigods and trying - they're involved in essentially a modern-day mythology.

And you play the ruler of the underworld, and you kind of adopt a, what, a rock-star persona. How did you come up with that?

Mr. COOGAN: Well, I mean, it was just the take on it was that the god of the underworld would, rather than being some sort of a frightening beast, it might be funnier to make him sort of a British, decadent louche, hedonistic rock star, a sort of a modern take on Satan, as it were.

Something that people would recognize, you know, because there are so many reality TV shows these days. And, you know, we've all seen Ozzy Osbourne, and there's lots - you know, the British rock star is quite a sort of recognizable cliche for American audiences. So that seemed like a more interesting way to go, really.

DAVIES: Yeah, so there's Hades in a mesh shirt and heels and a vest. It's very funny. What's next for you?

Mr. COOGAN: Well, I'm making a film in New York with Julianne Moore and Evan Rachel Wood called "What Maisie Knew" based on the Henry James book. And, yeah, and after that I'm making a film in Tanzania. I'm writing some Partridge - I'm writing a Partridge movie, an Alan Partridge movie, which we're going to shoot next year. I'm in the middle of writing that. And I'm involved in the day-to-day running of my production company here, making television comedy shows that I'm not in.

DAVIES: OK. The Alan Partridge show, of course, was a talk show. Do you want to tell us anything about the movie? Is it about his life outside of...

Mr. COOGAN: It's about - well, Alan was a talk-show host in his original incarnation on television, hosting a talk show. Then that was followed by a sitcom about a failed talk-show host. And then subsequent to that, we've done -we're writing a movie about a talk-show host whose career is on the skids. And there's a kind of a siege at a radio studio that he exploits for his own ends. So - anyone who's seen "Dog Day Afternoon," a little bit of that in it, but a comedy version.

DAVIES: "Dog Day Afternoon"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Wasn't that about a hostage situation?

Mr. COOGAN: It was, yeah, yeah.

DAVIES: OK.

Mr. COOGAN: There are hostages in this. I like to find - I think hostages can, in the right circumstances, be very funny.

DAVIES: All right. We'll look forward to that. You know, I wanted to come back to "The Trip" for a second. You have some very melancholy moments in the film. And, you know, there is this notion that comics are, at their core, lonely or sad and that they've sort of made a profession of their coping mechanism. Do you buy that? Is that you?

Mr. COOGAN: I think there's some truth in it, but I don't think it's all-defining. I think there's a certain kind of introspection that I have that -but, I mean, at the end of the film, you see me right back at this very soulless, sterile bachelor pad, which I don't - I live in a sort of a rambling, ramshackle Victorian house, which is a bit more warm and sort of more family oriented.

So I don't feel quite like that, but of course there is a certain insecurity and certain - I think sometimes a kind of a malcontentedness that you just channel into your work.

Like I say, being creative means that some of the things, things that bother you, stop bothering you because the work - you exploit them creatively. So it's a kind of a strange process, but you need to have hang-ups and neuroses to be creative. If you're just in a state of Nirvana, you're not going to be very interesting or funny.

DAVIES: OK. Well, Steve Coogan, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. COOGAN: Thanks very much.

DAVIES: Steve Coogan stars with Rob Brydon in the new film "The Trip." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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