LONDON — The English actor and comic star Steve Coogan has taken a novel approach to some recent bad publicity about his colorful personal life — meeting his critics head on. The actor — whose latest film, “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story,” opens Friday in the U.S. — reportedly has a penchant for partying, racy love affairs and lap dancers, all dream fodder for the British tabloids. If that weren’t enough, over the summer Courtney Love claimed she was carrying Coogan’s child after a fling at the Sunset Marquis hotel in West Hollywood.
“I’m not Mother Teresa, so what?” he says over a glass of sparkling water and a cigarette in the upstairs bar at the private Century Club near Piccadilly Circus.
“I’m not going around saying I’m a paragon of virtue. I’m just an actor, and I am what I am,” the 40-year-old Coogan adds with a big laugh. He’s less forthcoming, however, about the Love episode. “OK. I know Courtney Love, and the stories in the papers were almost entirely inaccurate. There was some truth in them, but most of it is complete and utter garbage.”
In “Tristram Shandy,” which was directed by Michael Winterbottom, Coogan plays a variety of roles, one of them a comic actor named Steve Coogan, who has a girlfriend and child — as well as a taste for lap dancers. In one scene, his agent says a tabloid paper is about to break a story about him in a hotel room with a stripper named Hedda Gobbler. (In real life, Coogan was granted a quickie divorce last summer from his wife, Caroline Hickman, and he acknowledged his drug taking and womanizing were to blame.) Coogan admits to feeling some nervousness about playing his colorful self, but adds, “I think you have to scare yourself a little to do interesting work. Having said that, had Michael not been the director, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
“Tristram Shandy” is the second collaboration between Coogan and Winterbottom after the cult hit “24 Hour Party People,” about the Manchester music scene in the Eighties. The latest film is based on Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” The narrator, Shandy, digresses so much in the book he never actually gets around to telling the story of his life. In the same spirit, the film is about a cast and crew trying to make a movie based on the book. Coogan plays three parts: Shandy, Shandy’s father, Walter, and a version of himself — the painfully insecure actor Steve Coogan. In between shooting scenes, he gets hit on repeatedly by an on-set assistant, fails to have sex with his long-suffering girlfriend who’s visiting him on location with their newborn baby and is forced to give an interview to the tabloid threatening to break the news of the lap dancer.
The Manchester-born Coogan, who is hugely popular in Britain, mostly for his obnoxious TV talk show host character Alan Partridge, is the first to admit he’s waiting for his big breakthrough role in the U.S. Right now, though, Coogan can’t complain. He’s donned a wig for his role in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie-Antoinette,” which stars Kirsten Dunst and is due out later this year. Coogan plays Count Mercy d’Argenteau, the Austrian ambassador to France and the young queen’s confidante. “Sofia is very charismatic, and enigmatic as well — but funny, too. And she never raises her voice. A little bit of you falls in love with her when you work with her,” says Coogan, who’s also working on a project with Ben Stiller.
“It’s a comedy film with an English guy and an American guy, who are sort of buddies. It’s inspired by an old Seventies TV series called ‘The Persuaders!’ starring Roger Moore and Tony Curtis. He’d be Tony Curtis, and I’d be taking the Roger Moore bit,” he says.
It’s now early evening, and Coogan has a few hours to kill before the film’s premiere at the Haymarket Theatre, near Piccadilly Circus. “I don’t know what I’ll do — have a wander around, maybe take in a few peep shows,” he says with a smile.