The Steve Coogan film Philomena is based on a true story about an elderly woman who was forced to put her child up for adoption when she was a teenage unwed mother and her search for that son fifty years later. Coogan stars as journalist Martin Sixsmith, who aided Philomena Lee (portrayed by Judi Dench) in her search of her long-lost son. In addition to his role, Coogan also produced and co-wrote the film, and he spoke to NPR about why he pursued the project and the intimidation of working with Dame Judi Dench.
Though Coogan is recognized for his ability to do spot-on impersonations, he admits that he initially disliked doing comedic impersonations. He confesses, “I used to hate doing impersonations. Because to me it was like watching — it was the definition of style over substance. It’s like watching a juggler, you know. You can be impressed, but there’s nothing to say afterwards, is there? You can’t deconstruct his juggling.”
Coogan has written many of his television roles, and he decided to pursue writing his own screenplay for Philomena because most of his recent film appearances had been small parts scripted by someone else. He explains, “Well, I’ve done a lot of parts in big Hollywood-studio films where I don’t really show off my talents. I just do, I service the part, you know. Because it’s not about me; it’s about someone else. But that’s partly what motivated me to roll my sleeves up and just — roll my sleeves up … change things and try and do something serious. But not entirely serious. I would put people off.”
Of course, writing the screenplay was one thing. Starring opposite Judi Dench? That’s real intimidation. Coogan doesn’t even try to hide it, saying, “I was daunted. I was scared, obviously. But you know, when I was writing it I said, ‘Hey maybe we can get Judi Dench to do this. It’s a good part for an old person. And she’s a senior citizen now.’ And she said yes. I told her the story and she said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it; I’m in.'” However, he adds that when she was actually on set it was a very different story, pointing out, “When I was on set with her — trying to make sure that I didn’t get blown into the weeds by her charisma, I had to bring my A-game — in some ways it was easier, because she didn’t look like Judi Dench. She just looked like this old Irishwoman. So I just made jokes with her all day. Made her laugh. It was only at the end of the day when they took her makeup off and transformed her back into — well, M — that I suddenly went, ‘Wow, I just spent the day working with the head of the British Secret Service.'”
Still, Coogan finds time to make one more joke about how he attracted Dench to the project. He says, “[I said] ‘How’s this? You get to look worse than you look. You get to dress shabby, the clothes are terrible, and what happens to you is really, really awful. How does it sound? Are you in?'”