The Oscar nominee and well-known English impressionist reflects on his transition from comedy to dramatic acting and on writing for the big screen.
Actor-screenwriter Steve Coogan
Tavis: Steve Coogan is best known in his native England as a comedian, but he’s now a frontrunner for this Sunday’s Academy Award for a movie that tackles a very serious issue.
“Philomena,” which he co-wrote with Jeff Pope and co-stars in with Judi Dench and produced as well, is based on the real-life struggle of Philomena Lee to find the son she was forced as a teenager to give up for adoption.
The film has become an international smash and the winner of several major awards, including a BAFTA, the British equivalent of an Oscar, for Coogan’s screenplay. We will start by taking a look at a clip from “Philomena.”
Tavis: I love Judi Dench. She’s been on this program a couple of times. I absolutely adore her. How did you get her to do this?
Steve Coogan: How did I get her? Well, I got in touch with her agent. I said, “I’ve got this story. There’s a very good part for an older lady,” and she said – I told her the story – and she said, “You know what? Judi has problems reading,” because her eyesight is not good.
Coogan: So she said, “Go to her house and tell her the story.” So I drove up to her house and she (laughter) opened the door in this little cottage in the middle of Sussex, and there she was.
I went in, she made me a sandwich and a cup of tea, and I told her the story. I said, “Do you want to do this?” and she said, “I’m very, very interested.”
Coogan: So, and then I just had to keep reading (unintelligible). But I told her the story and it moved her. She was moved by it, and she – I also showed it would be funny too.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. That’s so cool though, to go to her house and just have a sandwich and coffee and talk her into it.
Coogan: Yeah, yeah. Then I went back there and just read her the script, and then it was a case of just dotting the Is and crossing the Ts.
Tavis: For those who have seen this, and almost everybody has now, as the Academy Awards are approaching, for those who’ve seen it, they understand your point when you say there is some humor in it. Because at first glance, this is not a funny story.
Tavis: So how did you – you’re a comedian so you’re good at this, but how did you find the humor in this story?
Coogan: First of all, you’re absolutely right – whenever I told people this story, I said it’s about this woman searching for her son, and there’s, like, a lot of tragedy in it.
People would say, “Well that sounds really depressing. Who would want to go and see that film?” So I thought, well, I’ve got to make this film funny,” and I met Philomena, the real Philomena, and Martin Sixsmith, who I play in the movie.
I talked to them, and I realized that they’re very different characters. Martin’s this intellectual and Philomena’s this blue-collar, retired Irish nurse. So when you have two people who are so different, you just bang them into each other.
You can find the humor there. But it was very important to have comedy in it, because when you’ve got such a heavy subject matter you don’t want people to – I didn’t want people to leave the cinema feeling depressed or down.
I wanted them, somehow, even though the story has a tragic element to it, I wanted people to leave the cinema feeling somehow positive. Also, it’s dealing with difficult subject matter.
It deals with religion and Catholicism, and there are some criticisms in there. People get very touchy when you criticize their religion. You’ve got to be very careful.
So I knew that if I could make people laugh, then people would relax a little. They’re not so scared about talking about these difficult subjects.
Tavis: When did you come across this story, and how did you know that it was a story that needed to be told?
Coogan: I read it in the newspaper four years ago. I was in New York, I was online, reading a British newspaper, and I came across this story. It made me cry and it made me angry, and I wondered – I was, as you say in your introduction, I was well known as being a comic performer in the UK, and I wanted to do something different.
I was looking for something and I thought this is an interesting story because it’s about an ordinary woman who went through an extraordinary experience. I also thought well, it’s about a mother and a son, and everyone can identify with that bond.
Everyone understands that bond. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your background is, everyone understands that. I thought if I can tap into that and put some humor in it, then it will resonate with people.
Also because it goes, the story takes them to America, and of course everyone here in America way back is from somewhere else.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)
Coogan: So I hoped that would chime with people too.
Tavis: Yeah. I mean this as no disrespect, but given your comedic background, why did – and was it difficult getting people to take you seriously as the guy behind –
Tavis: – this very serious story.
Coogan: Sure it was. I had a very good co-producer, Gabby Tana, who’s from this town, Los Angeles, and she already had some form as a producer of dramas. So she kind of gave me credibility, but it’s true that fortunately I had people at the BBC who put money into this who cut me some slack.
I was very passionate about it. But sometimes when you’re known as one thing, when people put you in a box as being a comic, it’s very difficult to kind of break out. You’ve just got to keep hammering away.
Tavis: What was most arresting for you – I’ve got my own answer to this question, knowing the film. But what was most arresting, emotionally arresting, for you about the story once you got into it?
Coogan: It was that Philomena has this great ill perpetrated against her – I don’t want to spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it. If you haven’t seen it, go see it.
But (laughter) for those – really, it was she forgives. She dignifies her own faith. Because my character’s the cynic, and he criticizes a lot of aspects of religion. But she is – and sometimes – early on in the film you regard her as rather naïve.
A naïvely blind believer in religion, and that’s the way it’s characterized early on. So we have a little fun with her and we laugh at her. But at the end of the film she forgives the people who did this, perpetrated this act against her.
The most effective part of the film for me was that, was seeing real grace. Her grace kind of triumphs over this guy’s intellect, and it shows that you can be as intellectual as you like, but it doesn’t mean you have all the answers.
This working-class woman has a better approach to life than the guy with the Oxbridge degree.
Tavis: For me, it was this realization that at various points they are both trying to find each other. There are instances, I know, and I’ve done enough of this over the years to know that sometimes a child tries to find the parent.
Sometimes in life the parent might try to find the child that was taken or they gave up. But when they’re both on a search for each other, it’s –
Coogan: The one thing that gives you faith is the fact that people can be apart physically but they can still have an emotional connection. That’s something that we played on a lot in the film, and that’s what gives people hope – that you can still love someone from afar and you can still have those feelings across an ocean, which is literally the case in this movie.
Tavis: So let me get a little personal, if I might, Steve. So now that you established this bond and this friendship with Philomena, what’s been your takeaway from that relationship, that personal relationship?
Coogan: Well, I tell you what I’ve learned is that I’m not religious, but it’s given me a lot more respect for people who are religious. Even though I’m not, and this is in the film as well, I’ve learned that no one has a monopoly on wisdom, and that Philomena, what I learned is to see that even for people who aren’t religious, you can learn things from religious people.
That’s what I learned in the process of writing this. I learned to have a little humility about my own views. I think that’s a healthy thing. But it took the writing of the film to help me arrive at that.
Tavis: I think that works both ways, and sadly, there are many of us who are spiritual, who are religious, who think it can’t work the other way.
Tavis: That there’s nothing to learn from agnostics, that there’s nothing to learn from atheists, and I think it works both ways, in fact.
Coogan: It does work both ways, and in fact in the movie, he learns a lot and she actually – and what happens towards the end of the movie is he doesn’t find God, but he does learn to respect her.
She doesn’t try to make him find God. They coexist, they stand – at the end of the film they literally and physically stand shoulder-to-shoulder. He stands with her shoulder-to-shoulder and she makes the sign of the cross and he doesn’t.
But he’s with her and he respects her, and she respects him. I think that’s, there’s something that people can learn from that, which is it’s not an argument you have to win.
You have to have a discussion about it with respect, and you can have a discussion about it with good humor, too.
Tavis: Yeah. To your point about not being a religious person, I happen to be a very spiritual person. I’m not a Catholic, but I had the occasion some years ago to meet Pope John Paul II, and it was quite a moment for me to be in a room with Bono and Quincy Jones and just a half a dozen of us, just a small group of us who got a chance to go in and see the pope two popes ago, I guess.
So even though you’re not a religious person, that had to be pretty cool when you and Philomena are hanging out with Pope Francis.
Coogan: Well when I met Pope Francis he was very gracious, and he listened as I told him about Philomena, how she’s become kind of a lightning rod for other women in her situation.
He extended the invitation, knowing what the film was about, and we went into the Vatican and we showed the movie to his senior advisers. They were very gracious about this film, because some people, some Christian or Catholic people in this country have been seeing the film as being negative.
Tavis: Catholic-hating, yeah.
Coogan: It’s not, it’s not. It criticizes the institution, but it dignifies – Philomena dignifies her faith. What was great about it was that they watched the movie and they laughed and they cried, and they said, “This film is,” I pointed out that there’s been some criticism in the U.S.
They said the church is a broad church, and those people are not who we are. We’re comfortable with this film. We think it sends out the right message. They said the fact that we’ve invited you here, that’s important.
I told them, I told the senior cardinal, I said, “I’m not,” I said, “My parents are Catholic, have many values that I admire that I take from them, but I’m not.” He said, “Not at the moment.” (Laughter)
Tavis: He’s doing his job. You never stop preaching, you never stop converting. Congratulations on a wonderful film and all of the great success you’ve had with it and the honors you’ve already received.
I really want to thank you, because I know that you’ve been doing this everywhere, and here we are days away from the show and you still were kind enough to sit and talk about “Philomena” one more time. So thank you, Steve, I appreciate it.
Coogan: This is the best interview yet. Well done.
Tavis: You are kind. I hope this is the last one you have to do. But thank you. It’s probably the best because it’s last. You’re just a few days away from the show. But thank you.
Coogan: That’s right, yeah, thank you.
Tavis: Yeah, I appreciate it.
Coogan: Thank you.
Tavis: If you haven’t seen “Philomena,” you’ll want to run out and do it just in time for the big night so you will have seen all the movies on the docket when they start passing out the awards this Sunday night.
Again, all the best to you, Steve. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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