For a funnyman Steve Coogan is noticeably unamused by the suggestion that he tends to play camp men. Its bollocks, he says quickly, before pausing to give the matter more serious consideration.
Well, lets see, he announces, a full two seconds later, before concluding abruptly: I dont think its true.
The English comedian and writer is best known in the United States for his starring role in 24 Hour Party People, which documented Joy Division and the Manchester music scene circa 1980, but in the United Kingdom he is a household name, thanks to his monstrous creation, Alan Partridge. A television talk-show host whose confidence was matched only by the banality of his speech, Partridge had a journey from undeserved success to a life of lost fame and quiet desperation that was a vicious satire of light entertainment and celebrity values as influential in British comedy circles as Ricky Gervaiss The Office or John Cleeses Fawlty Towers.
Such success brought its own pressures -- having sold his Ferrari and discovered the cost of romancing Courtney Love, Coogan is said to be toxin-free and tamed by China Chow, daughter of restaurateur Michael Chow (of the Mr. Chow chain) and model Tina Chow. His Hollywood career is under way, with a supporting role in Ben Stillers Tropic Thunder (as an out-of-my-depth, middle-class, slightly arrogant British film director) and his first starring part, as a camp (very slightly camp) drama teacher in Hamlet 2 -- the hit of this years Sundance Film Festival, where it reportedly sold for $10 million.
Hamlet 2 is directed by Andrew Fleming (who made his reputation with the 1994 film Threesome, about a partly gay college-dorm love triangle), and scripted by Fleming and South Park and Team America writer Pam Brady. It is, Coogan agrees, cheerfully blasphemous, not least in its showpiece musical number, Rock Me Sexy Jesus (sample lyric: Immaculate conception really makes my day / But the dudes got lats that make me feel gay).
I read a lot of comedy scripts, says Coogan, so Im slightly jaded. I can see the joins. But this script has a freshness to it. It wasnt supersmart. It was clever and edgy, but it wasnt cynical. But it certainly sails close to the wind. Even I was like, Oh, my God. Theres a song called Raped in the Face. So I dont think people will be going, Coogans gone and done some soft Hollywood movie. But its actually a quite warmhearted film, if you can imagine such a thing. They manage to do that sometimes -- especially TV shows like South Park and [films like] Team America -- which both have that edgy, blasphemous, radical side, but also, despite it, a kind of heart.
Just that kind of heart is open to speculation. The New York Times has suggested that Hamlet 2 is a fair-minded movie, in that it is offensive to Christians, gays, Latinos, Jews, the American Civil Liberties Union and Elisabeth Shue. But Coogans role does mark a softening of his approach. Hes not a bastard at all. I sometimes play people who have a nasty streak or a slightly dysfunctional side, but his dysfunction is that theres a weakness and vulnerability to him.
Coogan has played gay -- in Don (The Opposite of Sex) Rooss ensemble piece Happy Endings, which also starred Lisa Kudrow and Maggie Gyllenhaal. I didnt want to do that thing that straight actors do when they play gay men, which is to not give [the role] any kind of campery at all for fear of it being a caricature. So they dont do anything that is remotely gay, apart from the fact that they kiss a man. I wanted to give him just a hint of being effete, without him being a camp caricature.
Most of Coogans characters have involved an element of caricature, he says, but theres got to be an element of truth in them for people to find them resonant and then find them funny, but theyre not a mirror of reality. Theres an element of performance in them thats not naturalistic.
Working out where the ego ends and the performance begins is made no easier by the fact that Coogan has twice played himself -- in Jim Jarmuschs Coffee and Cigarettes and Michael Winterbottoms twisted attack on Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story. Neither of Coogans versions of himself is sympathetic; both are vain and weaselly, but, he suggests, I dont think Im as bad as I make out.
And really, he isnt. For an ego monster, Coogan is happier discussing the technicalities of comedy than talking about himself, and he sounds oddly insecure about his reputation. Though tired of being pigeonholed in Britain, he is reviving Alan Partridge for a stand-up tour, and talks, slightly forlornly, about his desire to do some straightforward dramatic acting.
Since Coogan remains resistant to the word camp, I suggest to him that he specializes in soft men. Theyre all weak, he agrees. They embody the frailty of the human condition. They all fail.
Hamlet 2 is in theaters starting August 22.Send a letter to the editor about this article.