Steve Coogan

Around The World In 80 Days

Interviewed by Stella Papamichael

“I can't say, "Yes. I am the new Peter Sellers," because that's tempting some horrible fate ”

Best known for his small screen comic creations Alan Partridge and Paul/Pauline Calf, Steve Coogan is starting to think big. His star turn in Tony Wilson biopic 24 Hour Party People showed that he could act and proved to be a calling card for Hollywood. As well as playing Phileas Fogg in $100 million family adventure pic Around The World In 80 Days, he's also starring in Jim Jarmusch's upcoming Coffee And Cigarettes and Don Roos' Happy Endings.

How did you land the role of Phileas Fogg?

[Director] Frank Coraci had seen the film I did called 24 Hour Party People, which registered very significantly with the industry in Hollywood. Lots of directors and producers really liked that film, and that really helped me. In some ways not being known out there - as I am here for Alan Partridge - has been an advantage in allowing me to do new roles. I wasn't seeking a Hollywood career, this was just an opportunity that presented itself. I'd be a fool not to seize it.

How closely related is the Phileas Fogg you portray here with the character in Jules Verne's novel?

Phileas Fogg is an inventor in this film and that was quite a deliberate decision on the part of the filmmakers - to give him a job, as it were. In the book he's just a man of means who takes this bet because he's got nothing better to do. They've taken some aspects of Jules Verne and injected that into the character, which I think is a right and appropriate development of the original.

As Phileas, you're a whiz with gadgets and gizmos. Are you a techhead in real life?

In some ways my father has inspired the way I play him because he's very much an engineer - a computer engineer, in fact. The way I play Phileas Fogg is someone who relates to machinery rather than people. In real life, I'm not particularly good in that way. I usually pick up the phone if there's hair in the plughole. But I have inherited a few things from my dad, so I'm not entirely useless.

How did you find the action sequences?

I didn't really do that much because I'm not that good at that kind of thing anyway, and Jackie Chan is slightly better than me. I just made a virtue of the fact that I was this slightly clumsy English eccentric. Whenever I did anything action-wise, Jackie would direct those sequences, so I just did what Jackie told me to do - which I'd advise everyone to do.

There's also a lot of physical comedy, which is something of a departure for you...

You know, there are things about physical comedy... I know a few things about comedy per se, but most of mine is about vocabulary, and the spoken word, and is not terribly physical. But Jackie's is, and so watching him was a real education. He actually gave me some things to do that were funny, which was not what I was expecting. I was expecting just to sit and be very impressed, and not for him to be so generous in that way, and actually teach me a few things about physical comedy that I didn't know before.

Did you learn anything else from Jackie?

I think I learned discipline from Jackie. Just being disciplined and watching him being completely focused on what he was doing was really good. I'd be doing a scene and Jackie would be thinking about what he was doing, and also thinking about what I was doing. Sometimes I'm just thinking about, I don't know, something else in the middle of a scene and not hitting the right mark, and Jackie would just secretly stick his foot out and nudge me in the right position.

What do you think he learned from you?

Nothing.

When it comes to comedy, who are the big influences for you?

People who aren't around anymore. British comedy people like Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers, and Monty Python. Present day people who I admire are Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson - who cameos in the film and who Jackie's worked with before. There are a lot of people around at the moment who I admire and would like to work with.

You've been compared to Peter Sellers. How does that sit with you?

Well, I'd like to live slightly longer than he did and be a slightly nicer person. But to have his talent - to be compared to him is very flattering. People have used that comparison before and I can either disagree or... it's very difficult to answer. I can't say, "Yes. I am the new Peter Sellers," because that's tempting some horrible fate. But I'm very happy for people to say that.

This film is very different from the edgy comedy we know you for at home. Did you see it as a risk?

Yes, in some ways. But in another way, I've got nothing to lose. It's snakes and ladders in this business, and for me this was hitting a ladder. I got a chance to be in a big budget movie when my status, as a name - certainly internationally - wouldn't necessarily warrant it. So I was hitching a ride on Jackie Chan's bandwagon in that respect.

You also appear in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee And Cigarettes - a radically different film from 80 Days. How did you get involved with that?

Yes, it's a film I'm very proud of. I got to work with him because he saw 24 Hour Party People. Also, tapes of my show [Alan Partridge] have circulated in America, amongst the 'cognoscenti', if you will, and so he just rang me up and said, "Would you be in my film?" I chatted to him about this idea he had and he came up with a script. We sat down and made it organic and threw things in. It's a nice little piece.

You've also got two other Hollywood films in the works, Happy Endings with Tom Arnold, and Alibi with Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. So is it goodbye to television comedy?

No, no, because I have a reputation I've established here in comedy and that's very valuable to me. Success in Hollywood can be very transient and I'm quite aware of that. I've been working here a long time, and I value my position here and what I've achieved. So I'd like to do more things here, films and more television. I love television and I like radio as a medium. I really don't like people who class television as a poor cousin to film. I think that's really a wrong perception, and there are things you can do in television that you can't do in film. It's an exciting medium, so I'll do more television at some point. I'll try and keep both plates spinning, if I can.

There was talk of Alan Partridge: The Movie. Are you actually considering that?

I am. Peter Baynham and Armando Iannucci, who I write with, probably think it's a terrible idea. They probably think I'd be an idiot for trying it and would have nothing to do with it. I haven't even asked them, actually. It's just that someone asked me and I said "Yeah, that sounds like a good idea to me." I like doing that character and I'd do something else with him.