Philomena is the true story of a retired Irish nurse (Judi Dench) whose child was put up for adoption — against her will, by the nuns at the convent where she gave birth — when she was a teenager, and unwed. Fifty years later, a journalist grudgingly joins in her search for that son. The British comedian Steve Coogan, who also produced the project and co-wrote the screenplay, plays the reporter.
Coogan spoke with NPR's Robert Siegel about creating the film and finding his way to the character — and even shared what it takes to do a first-rate Michael Caine impression. (Hint: It involves talking through your nose.)
On how his character, a highbrow journalist, initially dismissed Philomena's story
Ironically, what he considers to be punching below his weight — what he would see as a kind of a National Enquirer-type story — is actually something of great substance and great import. Which shows, you know, that these things are often in the last place you look.
I kind of played with that notion in the script when he says to the editor of his magazine — he sort of condenses it to its sort of component parts by saying it's about evil nuns, which is kind of how you'd pitch the story. So it's very tabloidesque in his approach. But of course it's just much more than that.
On leaving flippancy behind for a serious attitude
You often find that, you know, art imitates life and life imitates art. Certainly [it did] in the whole process of making this film for me, not least because I'm known for doing comedy in the U.K., and I wanted to do something a bit more substantial, if you like.
And when I was writing this script, of course I started to put a lot of myself into the part of Martin Sixsmith. So Martin's actually an amalgam of Martin and myself. I certainly felt that Martin's dismissive view of human-interest stories is something [where] I would have taken the same position. I mean, insofar as Martin is a cynic, really, and I kind of identify with that, with the cynic I suppose.
Identifying with the cynic doesn't mean that you don't see the limitations of cynicism. And in actual fact Martin, the intellectual liberal, finds that he's enlightened by this working-class Irish woman, [this] retired Irishwoman who doesn't have the same kind of formal education as him. And he learns something from her.
On his gift for impressions
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.
On his smaller roles in Night at the Museum and other films
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.
This film's about a woman searching for her long-lost son who was forcibly adopted. When I first pitched the idea to my friends they go, "Oh my God that sounds so depressing; why would anyone want to go and see that film?" And so I thought, well, I better ... make it funny.
On acting with Judi Dench
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."
I said to Jeff, my co-writer, "Forget her as M. She played Iris Murdoch. She doesn't have to wear Chanel and be all scrubbed up. She can look like an ordinary person."
In fact 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."
On his pitch to her
[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?"