BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - When British comedic actor Steve Coogan first read the mournful story behind his new film “Philomena” in a newspaper, he noticed that the two people in the accompanying picture were laughing.
The photo showed Philomena Lee, an elderly Irish woman looking for the son she was forced to give up as a teenage girl, and former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith who had accompanied her on her search and written a book about it in 2009.
The photograph “struck me as being at odds with the tragic nature of the story,” said Coogan. “I wondered if I could tell a story like this, a tragic and moving story, and find the way to make people smile at the same time.”
That musing led Coogan to co-write, co-produce and co-star as Sixsmith in “Philomena,” opposite veteran British actress Dame Judi Dench in the title role. The film directed by Britain’s Stephen Frears opens in U.S. theaters this weekend.
The film is a step up in the serious department for a man whose name alone makes people chuckle in Britain. There he is best known as Alan Partridge, the buffoonish and politically incorrect regional BBC broadcaster he portrays to parody TV talk shows and commentators.
But Coogan, 48, says the intersection of drama and comedy was a natural place for him to make a film.
“I don’t like the notion that you either have a drama or a serious movie that is taxing and a comedy that is light thing that you don’t have to think about,” Coogan told Reuters.
His goal: that the audience thinks about something real and important, has a “nice time” and feels “uplifted at the end of the story.”
As it happens, Coogan’s deadpan delivery suits the Martin Sixsmith character well. He is portrayed as a world-weary former foreign correspondent for the BBC, fired from a high-profile job in the British government and wary of stories that come under the “human interest” label.
When he meets Philomena, Martin cracks a few jokes that are lost on the plain-speaking, grounded and religious woman. But he agrees to help her find her long-lost son, beginning at the Irish Catholic convent where as a teenage girl she gave birth to an illegitimate son who was given up by the nuns for adoption to a U.S. couple, a fate suffered by many girls in 1950s Ireland.
They then set off to the United States, where the disparity between Philomena’s humble background and Martin’s worldliness is magnified by the foreign locale. But Philomena is undeterred by Martin’s jaded ways.
“I wanted to show Martin not as a cynic but as someone whose heart is moral and has real values but they have been worn down,” said Coogan. “And Philomena helps him discover those.”
While Philomena is more accepting of the fate that befell her, Martin is outraged at the cruelty the girls suffered at the hands of the nuns and the Church, which tried to cover up the adoption scheme. Together, they become a formidable team.
One of Britain’s leading actors, the 78-year-old Dench has garnered critical acclaim for her portrayal of Philomena and is considered a front-runner for a best actress Oscar nomination.
Coogan said that Dench was so good at morphing into character that on set he would only see Philomena, “this slightly eccentric old Irish lady.”
“Between takes I would make her laugh and joke,” he added. “It was only at the end of the day when they took the makeup off and transformed her back into Judi Dench that I would suddenly have a reality check and realize that I had spent the day with this icon.”
As for his next moves, Coogan says there will be comedy but not too much. He wants to work more in the comedy-in-drama vein and keep writing, calling the “Philomena” writing experience “a little revelation” that often made him emotional.
“If you do comedy constantly it is always going to be diminishing returns,” he said.
“You need to be judicious with comedy. You need to save up all the funnies and then do them and walk away. Otherwise, you are going to end up on a treadmill.”
Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Eric Walsh