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Q&A: 'Philomena' star/co-writer Steve Coogan

(Lenny Gilmore / RedEye )
November 25, 2013|Matt Pais, @mattpais | RedEye movie critic

About six months ago, “Philomena” star Steve Coogan—the hilarious English actor perhaps best known in America for his roles in “Tropic Thunder” and “The Other Guys”—shot a pilot called “Doubt” in Chicago. He played a lawyer, mastered the Chicago accent and worked two weeks of 18-hour days. I tell him I’m sorry the show wasn’t picked up.

“Yeah, I’m not,” he says, laughing even though he’s serious. “I didn’t know how well ‘Philomena’ was going to do, and if [‘Doubt’] had gotten picked up, I wouldn’t have been able to promote this film. And this is better than the pilot.”

Though no one’s seen the show, the quality of “Philomena,” opening Wednesday, speaks for itself. Co-written by Coogan, the film takes inspiration from the true story of the titular Irish woman (played by Judi Dench), who along with an English journalist (Coogan) searches for the son the church forced her to give up for adoption and whose existence Philomena kept secret for 50 years.

At the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Coogan, 48, talked about the film’s accuracy and controversy, whether Dench really watches Martin Lawrence movies and what he learned from his victorious fight with the MPAA to get “Philomena” a PG-13 rating.

In adapting a true story, can you remember any ideas that came up in conversation that didn’t feel right? Philomena becoming an all-star basketball champion maybe?

[Laughs] I would say [co-writer Jeff Pope] was happier to push it further, to invent things, and I was the one who would always say, “Well, let’s see what happened. Let’s find out what really happened in this situation because it might provide the answer. It might not, but frequently it will give us a kernel that we can grow something from.” We wouldn’t have anyone do anything bad that we couldn’t back up. Withholding information, that’s all real. We have anecdotal evidence about the burning of records. Some [people] deny that, but then they would, wouldn’t they? The fact they didn’t give the girls any medication, that’s backed up by documentary evidence and anecdotal evidence from girls who went to those places. One of the most pathetic [items] in terms of the defense, in Ireland some members of the clergy have come out and said, “We never sold babies to America; we just asked for a large donation.” What’s the difference?! I just burst out laughing when I heard that. Really? That’s your defense? Wow, you think people are really, really stupid.

“We just gave Americans dirty looks and gave them a large basket.”

“And gave them a large bag and said you may want to fill that with notes.”

“There’s a dollar sign on the bag.”

“You might want to fill that with large denomination notes. You might want to.”

There’s such authentic sentiment and subtlety in “Philomena,” whereas if you look at an American movie like “Delivery Man,” it’s a train wreck of trying to be honest and emotional while really not telling a story. Why do you think there is that difference?

I think it’s because an audience can smell sincerity and genuine sentiment because a person’s doing it, believes it and feels it, rather than a marketing man who goes, “Hey, some audiences like sentiment; let’s give ‘em some of that.” … It’s that cynicism that I think audiences smell. They smell bull[bleep]. Most audiences I think are film literate. More literate than they ever have been before so they know these beats. They’ve seen it before. Also anything that’s formulaic, what happens of course with studios, they have to balance their books because ultimately they’re bottom-line people. They have to be; they’re running these huge businesses, so they have to say, “Where does this fit in? How do we sell this?” I’m not saying they’re terrible people for that, but that’s just the system that they’re part of. I have a career in comedy; I wanted to do something different. To me this is kind of an experiment. I wanted to do something that I want to do, no one’s telling me to do, and see if anyone else likes it as well. I want to have those [sentimental] moments because I believe them and I want that authenticity, but as writers when we get to those beats [and] we go, “OK, how do we not make this schmaltzy? How do we avoid those kind of moments in films where you go, ‘Oh, this is the beat where we’re supposed to feel something.’”

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