Please note: there’s a spoiler for near the end of Alpha Papa in this interview. It’s marked.
Sharing star billing with Steve Coogan on the critically acclaimed Alan Partridge movie (read our review here), Colm Meaney’s varied career has seen him contribute to some prime fillets of geekbait. Second only to Michael Dorn in terms of appearances in Star Trek episodes, he’s also played a henchman in Under Siege, sworn entertainingly at John Cusack in Con Air, and reduced Bruce Willis to tears as the tragic British pilot in Die Hard 2. This on top of roles in The Commitments, Last Of The Mohicans, Layer Cake, and The Damned United (he’s also due to play a truculent Northern football manager in the forthcoming Pele biopic).
We talked to him about Alpha Papa, improvised comedy, and sending up action films…
What first attracted you to the role of the tragic yet violent Pat Farrell?
Well, they sent me the script; I read it and I liked it. It was very well written, a very well finished script…and then we proceeded to change everything as we were shooting! But no, a fun character, well rounded. A gentle type of character that I hadn’t played very often before…I tend to play more active, sometimes aggressive types. This guy seemed curiously gentle and introverted in a way, even though he was a DJ.
Pat felt slightly more grounded than most of the other characters.
Thank you, it’s lovely to hear that.
How familiar with Alan Partridge were you before you got the script?
Not at all, not at all. I’m either in Los Angeles or I’m in Spain – that’s the two places we spend our time. I’m in Calgary in Canada at the moment while I’m doing Hell On Wheels, so…I wasn’t familiar. I’m not familiar with American drama, I don’t watch much American television either but I’m not familiar at all with British television. The PR people have to explain the shows to me. I was doing Saturday Kitchen – which was great, actually – but I didn’t know about it, had never seen it, and they had to explain the format to me first! So, no, I wasn’t familiar with Alan Partridge at all.
Did you base Pat on anyone?
Not really, no. Funnily enough…even with Steve and the comedy process in general…it’s very improvisational and freewheeling like that, though in fact the film had a very good script before we started shooting and the character was there on the page.
I changed a couple of aspects of him, I guess. He was a bit more tragic in the script maybe…less sharp. Instead of having him being a very withdrawn, stay-at-home kind of guy, I made him more…the backstory I gave him was being a social activist, you know? He would’ve been involved in – in his early days – Rock Against Racism, things like that. That, in a sense gave him a…not tragic but a bit of a latent sadness in that a lot of his life’s ambitions would not have been achieved, you know? He went from Rock Against Racism to Thatcherism and kind of retreated in that period into Norfolk and into a quiet life; into more of a community person than a political or social activist.
You say the script was frequently refined on set…
Scenes were always being looked at. I mean, the writers were there – the brothers, Neil and Rob [Gibbons] – they were there all the time. Steve is a writer himself, of course, he wrote the genius film Philomena. So there was very much a sense of ‘It’s a work in progress, we’re going to keep finessing this.’
Presumably with Get Him To The Greek you’d got some experience of improvising stuff…
Yeah, and I think Steve has worked with the Judd Apatow people. I think his way of working is…he tries to work in a very similar way.
And how did you find improvising? Is it tricky keeping things realistic and character-focussed when you’re making it up?
No, I didn’t find it a challenge. I mean, I like…the original term ‘situation-comedy’, y’know, the comedy coming from the situation, you play everything for real. In the theatre, in a way… I come from a tradition, the Abbey Theatre, the Irish National Theatre, playwrights like Sean O’Casey…wrote tragi-comedies. They were terribly serious situations like the Irish War of Independance where people were dying, but there was tremendous comedy within that, within people’s lives, and attitudes of people. Very often comedy comes from people’s attitudes.
The following question has a slight spoiler in the answer. You’re safe again after the picture.
You’ve done a few action films, so was part of the appeal of Partridge sending those up?
Yeah, it was, and Steve…the wonderful scene where we’re on the pier and I know he’s gone round the back of the pavillion and he’s going to re-emerge, there’s nowhere to go except into the sea, so I just sit on the bench and wait for him to come back around, y’know? He’s doing his ramble thing around the pier with the gun…I think that bits very funny. That’s very much an element that I love.
Do you ever feel, with something like Con Air, you’d swap the meaty character to have a go doing the insane fighting stuff?
No, I’m one of those actors…I know there are actors who love doing their own stunts and love doing all that stuff…I’m one of those actors who doesn’t. I haven’t really done a huge amount of stuntwork…I’ve done my fair share of fight scenes, but nothing like the Daniel Craig/James Bond level of stunts. He’s really taken to that like a…[adopts Transatlantic drawl] like a bird to the air.
And finally, what’s your favourite Jason Statham film?
You know what, I’m not a big action fan…there was an American one he did…I just happened to catch it late night and thought it was very good…um…him and…his brother? And they were in the Deep South in America…I can’t remember the name…make one up and I’ll say that!
Colm Meaney, thank you very much.
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is out on DVD, Blu-ray, Double Play Steelbook and download on December 2nd.