Hamlet 2: Interview with Steve Coogan

Coogan’s Law: The Man Behind the Marschz

Question: Who inspired you

Steve Coogan: I have great love and affection for a lot of British comedy that didnt cross over into America because it’s very British in a way that doesnt always travel.

But there were also those you would know; Monty Python, of course. John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. Blackadder. Peter Sellers was a big influence; Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, and the films he did with Blake Edwards, the Pink Panther movies and The Party.

I also love American comedy, dry humor. When I was a kid, I would listen to Bob Newhart on vinyl. Mel Brooks, too. I would try to memorize things and try and replicate them, and do impersonations of those who I admired. Later on, Saturday Night Live. This is Spinal Tap was a bench mark in terms of performing and taking a naturalistic approach to comedy.

Q: The film combines comedy and music. Did you perform in high school musicals in the U.K., like the students do in Hamlet 2

SC: There are school plays, and sometimes we would do musicals–The Mikado, other Gilbert and Sullivan. There is also a tradition of putting something on at the Christmas holidays; I was in Aladdin when I was 10.

Q: How did you prepare for the movie’s musical numbers

SC: We spent a lot of days off rehearsing. I only did a little bit of–I wouldn’t call it “dancing.” My daughter wouldnt call it that.

When I saw in the script this song, “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” I was nervous that people might take it in the wrong spirit and be offended by it. I do think that any comedy that is interesting has got to take some risks. But the way that its conceptualized in the movie is so generous.

In the screenings of the movie that we’ve had so far, people have seen that there is real heart and proper sentiment. There is some edgy comedy, but it’s not a cynical film. Some people come expecting frat-boy comedy, and have found instead universal themes and sympathetic characters. When we screened the film for theater owners at the ShoWest convention, they warmed to my character.

Q: How would you describe him

SC: He’s trying to do his best. However misguided he is, he is earnest and trying to do something for the greater good–save his drama department. That’s why people watching the movie have responded to him.

Dana is slightly theatrical and neurotic; hes overly demonstrative with his emotions and very effusive with his feelings. This is part of why he has failed as an actor. He’s channeled everything into teaching students his love of the craft. What fuels a lot of the humor is that he’s obviously not very good at it. But hes someone who genuinely believes in what he says, and there’s nothing Machiavellian about him; he’s open and honest.

On some levels, Hamlet 2 is a parody of inspirational-teacher movies, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Dead Poets Society and Dangerous Minds. Dana is pretty idiotic at times, but he does what he says hes going to do–ultimately, inspire his students.

Q: What kind of research did you do

SC: I didnt read Hamlet. I mean, I have read it and I’ve seen several stage productions over the last 20 years, so Im certainly familiar with the story.

In terms of research for the character, I had lots to draw on because I went to drama school and know people from a theatrical background. I experimented with different voices for Dana. In a comedy movie, you have to know what the rhythm of the speech is going to be. I had to make sure that I got the American accent right; I worked with a coach. During shooting, when I would hit a vowel incorrectly, I’d think “I’m an English impostor.”

Q: Did you watch Elisabeth Shues movies

SC: I was familiar with a few of them, so I didn’t go through the catalogue. She’s a lovely person. On occasion, she and I would improvise. She was game for anything if it was funny.

What was refreshing about working with her was that, for a Hollywood actress, she is self-deprecating and mischievous and very un-self-conscious and un-self-obsessed. She didnt really care so much how she was perceived. I think she found it slightly cathartic to mock her image and the baggage she has from her past work.

Catherine Keener and I had met a couple of years ago and did that mutual admiration thing; “Youre great.” “No, youre great.” We said wed work together if the opportunity came along. The dinner scene with her in Hamlet 2 raised the quality of my game. She’s so committed and truthful, and tries different things, so youre really kept on your toes. It was like playing tennis with someone who changed the technique, so youd have to constantly be alert.

Q: Was it challenging to work with the college-age actors

SC: Well, I resented them for making me feel old. But they were very supportive, and you can learn something from everyone. The first day, Skylar Astin came up to me and made a couple of suggestions; “Why dont you do this” I was a little bit, why is he telling me what to do. Then, when I listened to his ideas they were really good. After that, I kept going back to him and asking, “Have you got any ideas for me”

Q: How was Andy Fleming’s direction

SC: He would allow improvisation and embellishment if the film benefited from it. If I tried to do too much of a comic performance, he would rein it in to be more grounded. He made sure that, however animated the performance was, I kept it rooted in reality. Having that integrity to the character is what takes you through the film. If it had just been me doing comedy schtick, I dont think that would have sustained it.

Hamlet 2 is different from what I’ve done before; playing American, and playing a character who is by nature slightly larger-than-life while still being truthful. It was an opportunity to go big yet not be un-naturalistic.

Q: How does Pam Bradys sensibility come into play

SC: They have a shared, reciprocal sense of humor. It’s about what makes them laugh, and Pam is a very strong comedy voice. She’s quite uncompromising; her material is always slightly twisted, and that appeals to me.

Q: Physical comedy in the movie.

SC: In my contract, I insist on being able to take my trousers off because I think it enhances the narrative. I wont do a topless scene. I like physical comedy, but you have to plan it properly and be very specific with it. You can improvise dialogue, but with physical stuff– you have to know where and when youre going to do something and the camera needs to be there. There was a healthy chunk of physical comedy in the script, balancing the funny dialogue.

We had a discussion that went on for a while about whether Dana should wear blades or skates, and for some reason we figured that skates were funnier. Since, in terms of roller-skating, I could propel myself along, the falling-over helped those scenes, too. I did take some lessons in Venice Beach, and I am now pretty good at it.