In his native England, Steve Coogan is a major comedian, A-list star and perennial bold-faced name known as “celebrity sinner.” But by Hollywood’s constellationary standards, he’s been more of a minor satellite: the fifth-billed supporting player in big-budget studio fare such as “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” and “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” also known for art house star turns in such movies as “The Trip” or “24 Hour Party People.”
Now, however, thanks to “Philomena,” the dramatic biopic Coogan co-wrote, produced and in which he co-stars, the British funnyman has a new renown: awards-season underdog. On Sunday, Coogan claimed a BAFTA award for adapted screenplay, one of four awards (including best film) for which “Philomena” was nominated.
And heading into the Oscars, the drama — about real-life septuagenarian Philomena Lee’s journey to locate the son she was forced to give up for adoption when she was a teenager in ‘50s Ireland — is up for four major awards, including best picture and lead actress for Judi Dench, who portrays Lee in “Philomena.” The Weinstein Co.-distributed film faces off against such stiff competition as “American Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” among others in the Academy Awards’ marquee category March 2.
“I feel a tremendous sense of vindication,” Coogan, 48, said last week. “It’s one of the first times I went with my instinct. It was like an experiment: I wonder what happens when you’re sincere?”
The film is hardly what you’d expect from a master impressionist known for his bone-dry, self-loathing humor, whose alleged cocaine use was assiduously reported by Britain’s tabloid media and who was tarred as a “sex addict” by one-time girlfriend Courtney Love.
But after years of trying to parlay his U.K. stardom into Stateside celebrity, Coogan felt burned out by Hollywood and decided to take a more proactive role in his career.
“Part of me felt like, ‘What the hell am I doing? What am I doing here? Why am I doing this?’ ” he said, speaking from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport where a blizzard resulted in his London-bound flight being canceled. “Because other people are telling you: This is what you ought to be doing. I thought, ‘I’d rather fail on my own terms than fail on someone else’s terms.’ ”
After reading of Lee’s plight in a newspaper article four years ago, he maneuvered to bring former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” to the screen, earmarking the role of Sixsmith for himself.
In a delicious inversion of his celebrity sinner past, earlier this month “Philomena” was screened for Pope Francis’ private secretary. And Coogan and Lee were invited to mass at the Vatican, meeting the pontiff in St. Peter's Square.
“There is definitely something about being put in a box. Being knocked back, being frustrated in that way,” Coogan said. “Had I had a few breaks in studio films that I still didn’t really like but that were still kind of glamorous and well paid, I may not have ended up doing this!
“There’s a little poetry in the fact I was flatlining, I guess.”