Familiarity breeds content for Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
Reporting from London —
Between bites of a spinach omelet at the exclusive members’ club Soho House in the West End, Steve Coogan is trying to make a point.
The British comedian and actor is itching to elaborate on why the conversations he and his costar Rob Brydon have in Michael Winterbottom’s new film opening Friday, “The Trip” — funny, moody thrusts and parries over fancy meals in England’s picturesque north — are not necessarily reflective of the pair’s warmer, real-life exchanges.
“I think there’s a danger in wanting to be liked on camera,” said Coogan, a nervy fast talker who releases words in spurts, his eyes darting around as he forms an argument. “It can be unattractive, perversely, paradoxically, and even … doing things you know are going to be unsympathetic … you don’t look like you’re trying to govern the way you’re coming across … um … makes you more likable.”
Brydon, nursing a chamomile tea next to his chum, chimed in. “I was waiting to see how you’d get to the end of that sentence.”
An easy rib, Coogan’s smile suggested. “The sentence is finished.”
“It hasn’t reached a point,” Brydon said. “But it has finished.”
Each a well-known comic, Coogan, 45, is perhaps most famous for his media-personality character Alan Partridge, while Brydon, 46, is a sitcom star (“Gavin & Stacey”) and panel show fixture in England. Anyone who’s seen the duo play themselves in Winterbottom’s 2005 comedy “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story” — about the filming of an essentially unfilmable novel — know how entertaining they can be when in the flush of petty one-upmanship.
Their improvised needling of each other in that film spurred Winterbottom to persuade the pair to make a BBC television series consisting solely of them talking to each other. They said no twice, fearing that any such project would fall into the realm of what Coogan feels is a tired trend in self-satire.
“I get a bit fed up when I hear actors saying, ‘Get a load of me, being myself and laughing at myself. Aren’t I cool and post-modern in my self-deprecation?’”
The pair finally relented, making a pact to subtly exaggerate their personae — Coogan the acerbic malcontent and Brydon the avuncular comic — and “push each other’s buttons in a way that risked us being offended,” Coogan said.
The film, “The Trip,” a two-hour version of the BAFTA award-winning, six-episode series that aired in England last November, uses a loose story line involving Coogan being commissioned to critique a handful of high-end restaurants in England’s northern Lake District. What resulted from five weeks of driving, talking and eating for the cameras was a kind of middle-aged character study of showbiz friendship that provides a stark contrast in pop culture virtuosity — whose impressions are better, whose riffing is sharper — and career ambitions.
“My idea was always that it was about two people in their 40s, in a midlife period, who just have very different attitudes to life,” Winterbottom said by phone recently. “It was more about Rob being a family man and content and happy and wanting to stay where he is and Steve being restless and wanting new experiences. But like a lot of comedians, they are quite competitive, and it’s funny seeing middle-aged men behave like that, wanting to be the best. And it’s also quite sad.”
The stars say they wouldn’t have trusted another director with this material, crediting Winterbottom — who first worked with Coogan on “24 Hour Party People” — with being able to add a mystery element that “lifts it beyond the banal,” Coogan said.
“He did that very much with us in terms of the melancholy of the piece,” Brydon said. “My instincts were always comedic, so there were a few gags I wanted kept in that came out. So this melancholy feel surprised me to a degree and makes the film all the richer for it.”
As for the nuts and bolts of verbally sparring on location, the pair concurs that doing it while driving is easier than while eating a three-course meal. “Driving helps your acting because it occupies a part of your brain,” Brydon said. “You know what all these parameters are.”
“It stops you being too self-conscious and over thinking it,” Coogan added.
The dinners, however, were marathons of the same course served three times in succession, rearranged with different camera set-ups, with care to match conversation topics with parts of the meal each time.
“The hardest thing of all in terms of the acting,” Coogan said, “is when they put the plate down in front of you, full of food, and you have to do what is totally counterintuitive, which is go ‘Hmmm, oh, that looks lovely.’ And you’ve just eaten it twice.”
Coogan and Brydon admit to feeling that “The Trip” was more than just a title. They seem to realize they did go on a journey together, deepened their friendship, laughed, got on each other’s nerves, stretched themselves as performers, ate and overate and enjoyed breathtaking scenery.
“There’s a part of it that looks like watching a photo album or a holiday video,” Coogan said. “I think when I’m old and senile, I’ll think that was a genuine trip and be quite happy with it.”
Brydon laughed. “And you’ll say, ‘Rob did a very good job on the camcorder!’”
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