Steve Coogan talks ‘Philomena,’ stand up and the f-bomb

Steve Coogan
Steve Coogan pulled a triple-threat acting, co-writing and producing “Philomena,” starring with Judy Dench. / Getty

Steve Coogan has been enjoying near-universal positive reception for “Philomena,” the true-life tale he co-wrote, produced and stars in with Judi Dench about a woman trying to track down the baby a group of nuns forced her to give up as a teen. But that adulation train hit a snag in the U.S., where the film was initially given an R-rating by the MPAA for two instances of the F-word. We spoke with Coogan just hours after that decision was reversed.

Congratulations on your MPAA victory.
They reversed their decision today after we appealed this morning, and I was there as a producer of the film putting the case for reappraising the rating. It was myself and Bert Fields — he’s one of the hotshot Hollywood lawyers, a very, very good advocate, very impressive. He’s got a great manner. It’s like watching some sort of seasoned Hollywood actor. It’s like watching Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men” or something. I put forward the artistic side of it. They listened to our arguments and we convinced a two-thirds majority, which is what’s required amongst the panel of people who can challenge the original rating.

It’s such a mysterious organization.
They have these triggers. If you have more than one profanity then you automatically get an R. But there are examples of other films that have many profanities that have been given a PG-13. We have two profanities that are quite marked, but I think they’re entirely justifiable and if you took them out you’d compromise the integrity of the film. The film has to be judged as a whole, and the film as a whole is quite a gentle story that I think should be available to everyone because it’s got something important to say. Sometimes they have these rules that they adhere to, and there’s probably very good reasons for that, but you can’t have a “one size fits all” rule because every film is different.

Has your opinion of journalists changed at all after playing one in this?
My opinion of journalists was never bad. That’s a myth put about by some journalists trying to undermine me, and it’s kind of a part of a campaign by certain journalists who have an agenda to be reductive about the whole thing and make it that I don’t [like them] when actually I love journalists. I admire journalists who plow through a lot of crap to get to the truth. But there are some journalists who are not really interested in the truth. They’re just interested in shifting units and getting a pat on the back from their editors who want to sell units to satisfy proprietors who want to satisfy shareholders, and it’s not really anything to do with getting to the truth. It just has to do with bottom-line making money. Those are the people that I’ve got an issue with. People who have no ethics, basically.

So, they’re cynics?
I think a lot of people end up being cynical, while in their heart they don’t want to be. They just wind up being cynical because they’ve been doing it so long and they’re kind of battle-weary, I suppose. So I wanted Martin to have a humanity about him and have his cynicism challenged by this very ordinary — in some ways extraordinary but in other ways quite ordinary — old lady.

I was curious, at this point in your career, how often do people ask you to do impressions and how annoying do you find that?
People actually stopped asking me about it because I stopped doing them about 20 years ago — I didn’t like doing them. [When] I started out doing stand-up comedy I did lots of impersonations. But then I moved away from it and then it became that people didn’t know I did them. I started saying, “Hey, I can do some impersonations…” It became a party trick. I much prefer it as a party trick rather than as a career. I mean, I know Kevin Spacey does lots of impersonations but people don’t think, “Oh, Kevin Spacey, the famous impressionist.” (laughs)

He does a great Jack Lemmon.
You know what? I don’t do a bad Jack Lemmon. I’ll have to hear his and try mine.


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