Four years ago most Americans didn't know British superstar comic actors Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan by name or face. Then a video clip of them doing competing impressions of Michael Caine — from their TV show “The Trip,” in which they went a restaurant tour of England — went viral. The show was cut down to a movie in America, and the same thing has happened with their follow-up, “The Trip to Italy.” The two again play versions of themselves, bickering and riffing while eating scrumptious food. In real life Brydon’s not above giving you a personalized version of his famous Al Pacino, as well as the Neil Diamond you never know you always wanted.
“The Trip” is so English. Do you think Americans have trouble picking up on some of it?
When we did the first one, in England some people said, “Well, we like it, but it won’t go down in America. They don’t know the history of these two guys.” But I’ve sat at screenings in New York and L.A., and people just react to it. You don’t need to know the ins and outs. If you do you’ll get a little more out of it. But we have a classical sort of relationship. It’s pretty universal.
It might have been because your Michael Caine impression duel went viral.
Michael Caine has such prominence again because of the “Batman” films. People forget that unless you start doing stuff that is zeitgeisty, the newer generation wont’ know him. I was watching a documentary on Neil Diamond, and he goes back to Brooklyn, where he used to live. And there’s a guy in his 50s — and he didn’t know who he was. He even said his name. The guy said, “What are you, a photographer?” And he said, [does Neil Diamond] “No, I’m a singer.” He asked him is name, and he says, “I’m Neil Diamond,” expecting him to be bowled over. But he just says, “What do you sing?”
Was that your official Neil Diamond impersonation?
I think it was. It’s based on Will Ferrell’s impersonation more than my own.
You two use your names and bits of your lives, but not all of it is truthful. What’s it like playing a version of yourself?
It’s a real mish-mash. You’re having your cake and eating it. In real life we wouldn’t have these fractious, hostile exchanges. And there wouldn’t be all the impressions. When you’re improvising for the film, you’re looking for conflict and humor and drama. The actual meals wouldn’t be that interesting. It would just be two middle-aged men being pleasant with each other.
In Coogan’s screen persona he’s such a needy monster. But if you talk to him in real life he can be quite nice and friendly.
Did he make you think that? That’s interesting.
You’ve known each other for many years, but it wasn’t until “Tristram Shandy” in 2006 that you hit on this competitive on-screen chemistry.
It all started because I was a huge fan of his. I was his biggest fan. I was a voiceover artist who really wanted to do character comedy. He started as a voiceover artist too, so I looked at him as someone who’s on the path I wanted to go on. After I met him it took awhile for us to have a friendship, because, to start with, I was just a big fan.
This can’t be just you two riffing and a crew filming it. How much of it is structured?
Michael [Winterbottom, director] creates a document for the film and writes some of the more plot-driven scenes that are needed to stitch the thing together. It will say, “Here Rob and Steve talk about aging” or “they talk about how they’re now invisible to women.” And we’ll just start. Quite often we’ll be talking with the crew and eating and we’ll say something, and we’ll say, “Ooh, let’s do that one tomorrow.” Sometimes we’ll say something to each other that we don’t think is interesting or funny, and Michael will say, “We’ll use that tomorrow.” Sometimes it comes really easy, other times less so. Experience teaches you to wait and be patient and something will come.
The “Gentlemen to bed” bit from the first one surely just came out of riffing.
That was Steve’s. He drove that one. On the DVD you can see us doing that again and again. You have to get it from different angles, for coverage. We could so some great stuff but maybe the weather doesn’t match, or maybe there’s suddenly shade or Michael’s not getting what he needs. So when we have those riffs, quite often we’ll do them again and again and again. In this one, the first “Batman” bit we did many times once we found it.
Does that break up the flow?
Yeah, but that’s the discipline. That’s the work. The job is making it seem as fresh as the first time. As actors you don’t believe it’s fresh. But that’s performing. I’ve done stuff where I thought I was going through the motions. That’s not how it appears to the audience. There’s a great part in Jerry Seinfeld’s documentary “Comedian” where he’s talking to Colin Quinn, I think, and he says, “You know the act is good when you’re hating it and they’re loving it.” And I know that feeling. [Laughs]
Are there times where you feel the other way — that you have this great bit and no one’s getting it?
There are loads of moments in “The Trip” that I think are great and nobody ever picks up on. In this one there’s a bit at a restaurant where Steve takes a mouthful of food and goes, “Oh god.” And I said, “Oh, not good?” I think that’s hilarious. I find that endlessly funny. And I think I’ve only witnessed that being laughed at once.
In this film you’re auditioning to be in Michael Mann’s next film. Sadly, you’re not actually in “Blackhat,” his actual next film.
The irony of the Michael Mann storyline was that while that was happening, I got a call from my agent saying he needed me to go on tape for this big American movie. I thought, “This is great. This is destiny, isn’t it?” So I put myself on tape, and the message came back that that they really liked it and they wanted to see more. And Steve, like in the film, he helped me do the tape. I thought, “This was meant to be.” And then I didn’t get it. [Laughs]
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