He plays a version of himself in the movie series, which is ending with The Trip to Greece. In reality "I'm not quite as precious as I come across. But there's certainly a lot of truth in it."
As fans of The Trip movies know well by now, Steve Coogan has a shelf full of BAFTAs, the British equivalent of the Oscars. It's a feat turned running gag throughout the films as he flaunts it at virtually every opportunity.
So when Rob Brydon, his travelling companion and comic foil, asks Coogan what he's proudest of in The Trip to Greece, the answer is perhaps not surprising.
"My seven BAFTAs," Coogan says.
"For me, it would be my children," Brydon says.
"Well, because you haven't got any BAFTAs," Coogan replies.
"You have got children," Brydon retorts.
In The Trip to Greece, the preening Coogan and laissez-faire Brydon, playing slightly exaggerated versions of themselves, come to the end of their decadelong series of gastronomic excursions. The structure is familiar: They drive through breathtaking scenery on their way to multi-star restaurants and hotels, peppering their conversations with bon mots, celebrity impersonations and insults.
Only this time, director Michael Winterbottom has given the men six days to retrace Odysseus' 10-year journey from Troy to Ithaca, while finding their own ways back home.
In a Zoom session from his house in Sussex, England, a mustachioed Coogan, 54 — who in real life received two Oscar nominations for Philomena (2013) along with those seven BAFTAs — spoke about staying relevant in middle age, imagining where his character winds up, and quarantining with his 23-year-old daughter, Clare, and her boyfriend.
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"I'm just this kind of slightly annoying dad that comes in and goes, 'What are you guys doing?'" he said, with a flash of goofy laughter. There wasn't a BAFTA in sight.
These are edited excepts from our conversation.
Q: How have you been coping during quarantine?
A: I'm lucky that I'm in lockdown with my daughter, who's just a fantastic cook. Each night I go, "Oh my God, this is the best thing I've ever tasted in my life." And I've been writing a lot, because that's one thing that we are still able to do. We already isolated ourselves.
Q: What have you been churning out?
A: I'm a bigamist writer; I've got various partners. I'm writing a post-woke comedy-drama — a sort of romance, really — with a female writer in L.A. We're navigating the rocks of the new sexual political landscape, shall we say. I've also written a drama about a hippie commune in Wales in 1969. And Jeff Pope and I wrote about the woman who found the body of Richard III in a car park. This is the third screenplay we've written since Philomena, and it's quite odd that two middle-age men write stories about female empowerment. [Laughs] We're desperately trying to hang on by writing things that are proper, modern.
I'll write another Alan Partridge, too [a reference to his vain talk-show host character]. It's nice to do stuff that's pure comedy because then when you write it, you laugh a lot. And when you laugh, it releases endorphins — or is it serotonin? Pleasure chemicals, I get them confused. [It's endorphins.] But anyway, it makes you feel good.
Q: With The Trip movies, you've eaten and written your way through northern England, Italy and Spain. How did you, Rob and Michael decide that Greece would be your last adventure?
A: Four felt right. And Greece, it was a classic. The Greek philosophy and mythology lent themselves to this huge, contemplative quality, and having me returning home and mimicking Homer's Odyssey to this sort of conclusiveness. We also felt on a level, "Let's quit while they're still good." That's not saying we'd never do another one, but it feels like we should wait. Right now our thing is middle-age angst, but pretty soon it will just be old-man angst.
Q: These movies are a showcase for Steve's attempts at erudition. Do you actually have all that knowledge rattling around in your head?
A: I do prep work, but I'm naturally curious. I had a quite good education, I would say. I went to a Catholic school, which in this country was a bit like a free private education. The curse is, if you're from very humble origins and you haven't had a good education, you don't know what you don't know. Then if you're half well educated, the curse is that you're aware of the knowledge you don't have. That's what I felt I was. In answer to that, I love to learn.
So yes, I do my homework. Rob doesn't do his homework, but that's almost deliberate, because he can trivialise my quest for the truth, as it were.
Q: This time around, Steve's father is seriously ill. You lost your own father two years ago. What was it like tapping into such personal memories?
A: Funnily enough, I did a version where I was very emotional. I wept as I would when I re-emulated some of those scenes. Then Michael wanted me to do it again and just hold it all back. I think it's probably better for that, because audiences don't like completely candid displays of emotion, whether happiness or sadness. Audiences like to look for stuff. And painful stuff is where you find good art, I suppose. Otherwise you end up with some vanilla-flavoured mediocrity.
Q: What misconception might viewers of The Trip have about you?
A: I'm not quite as precious as I come across. But there's certainly a lot of truth in it as well.
Q: On screen, Steve grapples with relevancy in middle age. And off screen?
A: Right now I'm probably the happiest I've been — with the proviso that there's no such thing as a state of big happiness. I'd like to work a bit less, to be honest. But I'm grateful that I'm able to make creative choices based purely on whether I believe in the thing I'm doing. Also, weirdly, this lockdown meant that I discovered a parallel universe in my daughter that I hadn't really been aware of before, because I've not spent this long with her since she was a child. That's a kind of strange blessing.
Q: What life do you imagine for Steve now that his journey has ended?
A: When I shot that scene of going home, it felt strangely poignant — almost as if, I said to Rob afterward, I got dementia in my old age, I might imagine that that was my life. It felt real. And in my head I suppose it plays out that he does come home, he does return to the stability of those people that love him. Craving the stability more than the excitement of being rootless, of being nomadic. Yeah, it's a funny little thing, playing a version of yourself.
Written by: Kathryn Shattuck
Photographs by: Alexander Coggin
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