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We Talked to Steve Coogan About the Pope, Bill Clinton, and Protecting Alan Partridge

British comic icon Steve Coogan broke out in America with his dramatic turn in the Oscar-nominated Philomena, but in England, he will always be associated with Alan Partridge—the bumbling, arrogant radio host that first brought him to prominence.
April 3, 2014, 6:24pm

In the UK, Alan Partridge—the outlandish, boorish, arrogant talk-show-host character desperate to escape regional radio and get back to national television prominence—is about as ubiquitous and revered a comic creation as Ron Burgundy or Homer Simpson. Alan's existed in just about every artistic medium you can think of—other than maybe bronze sculpture, slam poetry, and interpretive dance.

In America, Alan Partridge is just another persona of Oscar-nominated writer/actor/producer Steve Coogan. On a recent episode of Charlie Rose, he said he benefited from not being closely associated with Partridge in America. I will never forget seeing a sleepy-looking Coogan perusing the produce aisle of a grocery store on Santa Monica Boulevard. He seemed pleased just to be able to squeeze a grapefruit in peace, which is not even a possibility in his home country. His ability to start over in LA allowed him to do big studio comedies like Tropic Thunder and Night at the Museum, but also to transition successfully into drama.

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The overwhelming success of last year's Philomena put Coogan into a higher showbiz weight class, but now Alan Partridge is about to hit theaters in the US on April 4th. The film—Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa in the UK, but simply titled Alan Partridge in the States—serves not only to act as an introduction to a unique character but also to remind audiences that Steve Coogan is one of the most thoughtful comic minds we have.

VICE: First of all, let me just say congratulations on the last year you have had with Philomena. I’m sure it's quite an overwhelming moment for you.
Steve Coogan: It has definitely been a rollercoaster year for me. There is no doubt about that. It has been a rollercoaster year. I mean, in the last twelve months I did two really tough movies, and we know what happened at the Oscars. I met the Pope, went to the Vatican for the movie. Bill Clinton spent half an hour telling me how much he loved the movie and how it was the best movie in years about faith.

I met so many influential people and people who have been moved and touched by Philomena, especially here in the US and the UK. It's certainly had an impact.

Who is a more majestic person to speak to— the Pope or Bill Clinton?
Well, that’s a very interesting question. This new Pope—I’m not a big Pope guy to be honest with you—but this new Pope, everything he has done so far has been really good and cool. I told him that there is opposition by certain Catholics in America towards Philomena, and his senior advisors in the Vatican said, "Those people are not who we are."

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And when Sarah Palin says, “He sounds like some kind of liberal," [that] is the best compliment I think any Pope could ever have, especially coming from her. But in terms of charisma, they are really pretty close. Bill Clinton, all the stuff they say about him having charisma is absolutely right. Bill Clinton’s one of those guys where he has kind of grown after his presidency. He said, "I’ve just had more constructive influence since I’ve stopped being president than when I was."

Speaking of charismatic figures, let’s talk about Alan Partridge. If you watch everything and listen to everything that you’ve done with that character, there’s a really clear character arc that kind of culminates at the end of this movie. He grows, and he ages. There is so much pathos to him that is not something you see in a lot of broad comic characters in America. Did you plan to have Alan grow this much? Did that come out of doing it for so long, or did you always see this as a great, long tale of a man growing and maturing in very strange ways?
It’s a couple of things. One is that as the years go on we want to make the character more interesting for ourselves. You want to change things, and the way you change things is you make the characters more rounded and you keep sculpting and sculpting. What we find is that when you get more confident with the comedy, you can tamper with a little pathos and find comedy in other areas, more subtle nuance. Sometimes it’s in the movement. In their eyes, you see a kind of insecurity.

It’s not an explicit thing; you have to really be paying attention.
You have to pay attention. If you just look at it broadly, it can pass on you. But those people who are die-hard fans love the movie because there’s a lot more detail and substance in a second viewing sometimes. You have to get in the right mindset to watch it, because if you look closely, you can see the clocks turning around in Alan’s brain as he figures out what to do. That’s what’s delicious about it. He’s still a broad comedy character, but he’s become more nuanced and subtle in the ways I’ve performed him 20 years after we invented him.

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Twenty years ago he was a lot more caricatured, and as the years have gone on, the way we’ve explored the character is we have him reflect the zeitgeist. We have him reflect currents changing. Where Alan would have been very intolerant, slightly nationalistic, and xenophobic in the early days, now we have him trying to grapple with certain liberal sensibilities because the world is changing. There are a lot of people that are economically conservative but socially liberal. I think that Alan figures that’s the way to go about being someone in the media. So you see him grappling with sexual politics and grappling with racial issues, and trying to do the right thing.

It’s interesting that you bring up the media, because the core of the film is that Alan's station is being turned into something very generic. It's morphing into a sort of consolidated media company that nobody is really asking for. The media doesn't have much empathy for eccentrics.
Part of it is me railing against the notion of what is hip, trendy, edgy, and cool, and that’s also in Philomena. That movie was an exercise in saying I don't care about something if it’s hip, edgy, and cool. I just want it to be authentic and sincere. That’s what that movie is about, and Alan Partridge has my kind of attitudes. I’m trying to say that, yeah, Alan Partridge is a jerk, but at least he’s just trying to serve the community. There are people out there, those little guys that we laugh at, that are just trying to serve, do a decent day's work, and be authentic.

The kind of faceless bottom-dollar people who are just talking marketing terms don’t seem to understand or have an ounce of humanity. Although we laugh at Alan, we have an opportunity to take a swipe at those faceless mobs in media conglomerates—guys you meet sometimes. They talk in these marketing terms. There is a bit where I say in the Alan Partridge show, they're just trying to provide more people with constant content delivery. I don't know all that jargon. You’re just thinking, What the hell does all that mean? Like I said, I meet those people, and they scare me, because they’re kind of the enemy of art.

Yeah, and they don't have a connection to communities or cultures or know what people really want. It’s homogenized.
Absolutely. That’s happening more and more. It’s the mentality of one-size-fits-all. I don't want to be totally pessimistic, because of course there are initiatives that spring up all over the place, community initiatives, but the bottom line is, they've got to pay their bills. The notion of public service is that you pay the bills, but you do something because there is an ethical dimension to it. Too many people are put in a place where you just can’t think about stuff, and I applaud all those people that do those things. Community radio and all of those people that do things because they want to—the idea of service, putting something back, which means a lot these days.

It’s not a virtue, especially in the US, to be someone who is not famous. To be someone who is just a local personality who is providing that service that you mentioned or speaking to a small subset of the population. We don't value eccentrics or people who exist off the beaten path anymore, especially here. This movie sees those characters as heroes.
You can laugh at people, but at the end of the day you want to kind of lift them up. You don't want to destroy them. And I don't like the comedy of cruelty—the comedy of just mocking the little guy, of destroying the weak and disempowered. It doesn't leave you with anything. There is hope that you have to elevate the eccentric and those kind of marginalized people, and you can do that in a funny way.

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We are talking about things that matter, but in the UK, it’s a very broad, popular movie. It’s also about something. It is there in the world as a broad, comedic movie, but [a message] is definitely there. The same thing is true in terms of Philomena. That’s more about something important, but that again is done for a movie that is funny. I’m all about trying to make something accessible, make it for a big audience, and try to say something. With too many movies, you say, "What’s the movie about? What’s the movie actually about." The answer is precisely nothing. That’s what the movie is about. It’s about nothing. I find that there are too many movies like that, and I think movies can be about something. Too many movies, it’s all about the execution and the style—not about the content.

Do you want Partridge to be successful here, or do you feel like it’s more advantageous for you to not be associated with it as strongly in the US?
With the movie, I didn't do that thing of making the films generic or making all the references international. I didn't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater to please everyone and wind up pleasing no one. I want to keep it true to its identity. If people in the US like it, that is a bonus. I didn't want to do that thing of trying to make it as accessible to America as possible because that way just doesn't feel right. I’ll do that, but not with Alan. I want to keep that pure.

As a longtime fan of the character, I appreciated that you didn't send him to America or put him in some convoluted action story, like a lot of these characters end up in. He grows. He learns something. It’s of a piece with the entire body of work, and I really appreciate that.
Well, thank you. To me it’s like squaring the circle of trying to make him cinematic, but not losing his DNA. Our touchstones were Dog Day AfternoonAce in the Holewhich was a Kirk Douglas movie, and also Network. We looked at all that, and I think we pulled it off.

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