Steve Coogan Q&A: ‘Philomena’
“Philomena” is one of the pleasant surprises of Oscar season with its nuanced, measured and heartfelt approach to weighty issues such as forced adoption by the Catholic church.
As co-writer and co-star Steve Coogan, tells Gold Derby in our webcam chat below: “The facts of the story make the audience angry so we wanted to have a moment of catharsis where what the audience wants to say is said by Martin, who I play; but we also have this little surprise at the end from Philomena [Judi Dench]. All the facts of the story came from interviews I conducted with Martin and with Philomena and they led me to the conclusion of the story … I found a way to, as it were, use what they told me to structure this ending that ‘s slightly counter intuitive.”
While this unexpected conclusion may work against the audience's instinctive desires, it is likely the moment where the film most displays its profound heart. As Coogan explains, “It’s like music, you’re trying to take them [the audience] on a journey they didn’t know they wanted to go on. You kind of have to satisfy them, but not in a way they intuitively want to be satisfied. It’s a balancing act; you have to give them a very nice dish to eat but not what they ordered.
"'Philomena' transcends the Catholic context and goes much wider than that," Coogan adds. "There’s something universal about the figure of Philomena … she’s at once infuriating and entirely lovable at the same time, which is how people often review their parents. I’m not religious, and I certainly have issues with the church, but they’re not unresolvable, as far as I’m very interested in religion and I admire many people who are religious. I just want to have this sort of coming together, as the church would call a reconciliation of different views.”
He has a rich background in British comedy, best known for his iconic performance as the over-confident, clueless, radio presenter Alan Partridge. In tackling a more nuanced drama, Coogan admits, “I loved 'Philomena' because it was what I wanted to do; take some of the comic skills I’d acquired and put them to a more interesting use. What I’ve enjoyed is using comedy to temper a subject matter that could otherwise be an ordeal to sit through.”
Unlike some performers he has not abandoned his roots: “I went from shooting 'Philomena' and two weeks later I was dressing up as Alan Partridge so it was a big contrast … Going on to do the film afterwards was in some ways, really enjoyable to go back to where your number-one priority is just being funny … I do want to have my cake and eat it … I mean the big surprise for me is 'Philomena' is going to be more successful than anything I ever did with Alan Partridge, which is bizarre.”