Interview: Hamlet 2's Comic Mastermind - Steve Coogan
by Marco Cerritos
August 21, 2008
The indie comedy Hamlet 2 first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was bought for an enormous $10 million right when the fest began. It wasn't until the end of the fest that I was able to catch the film myself, but I still remember laughing non-stop during the screening. Steve Coogan, who stars as high school teacher Dana Marschz, was part of what made it such an amazing comedy due to his over-the-top performance. Coogan recently passed through San Francisco on a press tour and our Cannes Film Festival correspondent Marco Cerritos was able to catch up with him. In addition to talking about Hamlet 2, they also chat about comedy and subtle things that make us different from the UK.
There is a warm, comfortable feeling in the air as I wait to interview Steve Coogan. I'm shuffling through my notes and he appears out of his hotel suite to shake my hand and apologize for running late. He also grabs a few cookies from the food tray before running back inside the suite.
Steve Coogan is a household name in the UK but has only recently come to conquer America one step at a time, from television ("Curb Your Enthusiasm"), to independent film (24 Hour Party People, Hot Fuzz) and now Hollywood blockbusters (Night at the Museum, Tropic Thunder). His latest project could be the role that finally breaks him into the mainstream for good. It's called Hamlet 2 and bears no resemblance to Shakespeare or dignified literature. In fact, it puts Coogan in the comedic role of a high school drama teacher so blindly dedicated to his craft that he's willing to create the most audacious plays, including a sequel to "Hamlet", without realizing they're anything but high art.
Photo Credit: Marco's Photographer Marissa Gearheart
How did your relationship with director Andrew Fleming come about?
Steve Coogan: I read the script and I also write a lot of scripts. Comedy's been in my blood for twenty years now so I'm a tough audience. And when you write a lot of comedy you get used to patterns in the writing. You become a little jaded too but this script seemed to confound me at every turn and make me laugh. And the best kind of laughter is the kind when you don't know why you're laughing. This script had uncomfortable and odd laughter and a protagonist that you hadn't seen in a film before. He's kind of eccentric and bipolar and I like that. When I read in the script that my character is putting on a stage production of Erin Brockovich, I thought here's a person who really believes in art but doesn't have what it takes to make it. There's something endearing and tragic to that. At one point the studio had control of the movie but decided they didn't want to do it so Andy Fleming and I went to do it ourselves.
Is this Focus Features or a different studio?
Coogan: A different studio. I'm sure the details are out there but it was a different studio. I don't want to say which one in case I get it wrong. So they didn't want to do it or maybe they didn't want to do it with me but in the end it was all about trying to get the movie made.
I remember seeing Hamlet 2 at Sundance this year and getting a last-minute press invite saying that the movie was a late addition. Basically the publicists mentioned how you guys were rushing to finish the film before the festival. How close was the film to being done when it premiered at Sundance and did you do any additional shooting after the festival?
Coogan: That's not quite what it ended up being but it was pretty damn close [laughs]. It was touch and go trying to get it into Sundance and we thought it would be too late. They saw a rough cut and told us to hurry up and get it in there because if we did we would play the festival. We didn't finish shooting it until November and were at Sundance if January. It was great to have some buzz around the movie. I felt like people saw what I saw when I first read the script and that was nice.
As a comedian, how much of your stand up work has influenced your characters on screen?
Coogan: Every single experience I've had is filtered into what I do whether it's something I've written or something like this that's already prepped for me on screen. Comedy often comes from discomfort and embarrassment and when you put those moments on screen, they can be quite funny. There's no such thing as a bad experience. It's all useful.
You mentioned before that the theme song to this movie, "Rock Me Sexy Jesus," might be considered offensive to some. Where do you draw the line when it comes to comedy? What is off bounds to you and what isn't?
Coogan: I do think there's no subject that comedy can't approach but I do think there's a way to approach things that's bad and offensive, even if people are trying to be funny. If you approach any subject that's volatile with comedy and you don't get it right it can be a hundred times more offensive than it would be otherwise. Having said that, there will always be a percentage of people who will always be offended no matter what. Good comedy will not please all the people all the time.
With this film and also Tropic Thunder, it sounds like you've got this American invasion thing going on. Do you feel like this is going to be your year to break out in America?
Coogan: There's a lot of stuff going on in America so you have to throw everything you've got at it to get people to pay attention. I'm very excited about the stuff I'm doing here. There's a genuine curiosity about what I'm doing here where in England they like me but I'm part of the furniture. Here in America, I'm excited because a lot of it is so new to me. I get good reviews in England but in America my reviews seem to get deconstructed more.
That's surprising considering the British press has a reputation of being catty.
Coogan: It's very surprising. But in England if you try to be ambitious and do something that has depth and meaning they don't want you to be too clever.
Did playing Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People give you any preparation to play a man who's playing Jesus?
Coogan: Since Tony Wilson was a real person, I know some people accused him of having a megalomaniacal God complex. But he was also someone who pioneered many original novel bands who wouldn't have fit a record company's market research idea of what a successful band should be. Happy Mondays, Joy Division and New Order are not cookie-cutter bands and came from a guy who was avant-garde, bold and even a bit pompous, too. I think there's a connection between the two characters in which they both celebrate creativity.
You've talked in the past about adapting to different acting styles. Is there a big difference when you've worked with method actors?
Coogan: There's not a great deal of difference to be honest, you work with good talented people. When it comes to comedy we do the best we can and I think we have a lot in common with our American cousins.
Sometimes a lot of British humor gets lost in translation in America.
Coogan: That's true and sometimes that has to do with references. Your culture has overwhelmed ours more than ours has overwhelmed yours. Therefore when you make contemporary references we know what they are. If you make jokes about New Jersey, people in Britain are familiar with that. If we make jokes about Birmingham, that won't translate in America. They won't know what it means. They'll just look at you and say, "are you talking about Birmingham, Alabama?"
Thanks to both Steve Coogan and Focus Features for a great interview! Hamlet 2 hits theaters on August 22nd this month - be sure to check it out!