Steve Coogan: ‘In this world of superhero movies, anything with substance is to be encouraged’

Coogan's latest film Greed is a sharp satire. He talks Britishness, controversy and 'mind-numbing entertainment' in our interview

Steve Coogan’s latest movie, Greed, is a satire which puts a sharp focus on the super-rich, the shocking wealth divide and the corruption behind some of the world’s biggest businessmen (check out our Greed review). It’s a fictionalised portrait of high-street fashion magnate Philip Green which plays out like a Greek tragedy in the lead up to a ridiculously lavish birthday party to be held in a vast mansion on the Greek island of Mykonos while a group of Syrian refugees who have lost everything camp on the beach below.

This is Coogan’s latest collaboration with director Michael Winterbottom who he’s worked with many times since 24 Hour Party People in 2002, Winterbottom’s portrait of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson. 

With a long background in comedy (and Greed is a comedy too, albeit one with a serious message), Coogan is best known for characters like Alan Partridge and the fictionalised version of himself which he plays in The Trip series – also directed by Michael Winterbottom.

But now Coogan says he’s mostly attracted to difficult, meaty and controversial topics.

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“I like to do things that have some sort of substance, they don’t have to be part of an agenda but I like things that are just about something,” he tells us when we meet in a Soho hotel to talk about Greed.

“In this world of superhero movies, mind numbing entertainment, I think that anything that has some substance or breaks the monotony of that is to be encouraged.”

The film has played at various festivals, how have audience reactions been?

People seem to like it. It’s like a Michael Winterbottom film – they’re strange beasts and they don’t have a normal orthodox arc and structure they tend to meander and go in different directions. But if people go on the journey with them, they’re quite enjoyable. You certainly can’t predict where they’re going to go or what’s going to happen. So yeah, people are responding really well to it. And also, I think because it’s put something on the agenda that you wouldn’t expect. It was a novel way of talking about something that’s important.

Was that a big part of the appeal? Did you have any hesitation?

No, I gravitated towards the fact that it was shining a light on something that made me angry and annoyed me, that I thought was wrong or injust.

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In some ways me saying that this film is important because it’s about x is far less effective than just watching the film itself. Because the film is a more eloquent expression of what’s wrong than any pontification I can engage in.

I didn’t know about a lot of the things that the film exposes – how aware were you all the different elements of how it works? It’s quite complicated…

Yeah, all the jiggery pokery of how people get rich by using the law to dance around various rules. It’s just about moving pieces on the chessboard. So a lot of his wealth is not through this idea of hard sweat and slog. It’s through just a bit of nifty footwork. Although that’s not to say he didn’t work very hard, as many entrepreneurs do, but they’d rather you concentrate on that part of it, the old narrative that every single penny has been earned at the coalface of what they do. And of course, it’s not. They don’t want to talk about that because that even to most people it would seem inherently unfair.

Everyone understands working very hard and being rewarded. Everyone understands and identifies with that – they don’t understand people using the system. It’s funny how society judges, or admonishes people who have used the welfare system to pay their bills, they get a slap on the wrist culturally. But when people abuse a system to line their pockets through the same kind of sharp elbowed practices, people think that’s fine. I mean, that’s a generalisation. But that’s something that bothers me.

You’ve collaborated often with Michael Winterbottom. Do you remember when you first met him?

It was 19 years ago. Vaguely. It was 24 Hour Party People. I think I met him in Soho somewhere. I don’t have this seared impression on me about how amazingly charismatic he was. He’s quite a quietly spoken man. But I remember calling up and talking to him about 24 Hour Party People because I read in the newspaper that I was playing the role of Tony Wilson and I wasn’t aware of that. And so I read it in the paper and I rang him up and said “apparently I’m doing a film with you”. And he said, “Oh, yeah, we forgot to ask you. We were gonna get around to asking you.”

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But throughout the years, he’s become part of my life. He’s part of the fabric of life. When you work with someone for a long time you don’t think about it, he’s just always there. He’s always there in the background or the foreground. And we’re always doing something from time to time. I think the most time that’s gone by between us working together is maybe three years. We’ve done eight films together. So, yeah, there’s always something going on.

Tell us a bit about how you work together?

Well, Michael has a skeleton, or sometimes a fuller script, if it’s The Trip or one of his other movies. And depending on the scene, there’s a certain amount of improvisation and development of the character, trying things out. Being able to try ideas and if they don’t work they get jettisoned but there’s always an experimental element to what he does.

He works very quickly. There’s almost no time to think about things when you work with him sometimes. You’re just constantly on the move. Michael is intuitive, and when you work with him, it’s not overly technical. I mean the camera’s always on the move, he doesn’t allow makeup or wardrobe around so there’s no safe place to stand and anywhere could be on camera so people have to go and hide completely. So when you’re in the scene, whatever direction you look in, you never see a camera crew so it’s easier to submerge yourself in the world.

The only one thing is that there’s one single camera with the director stood right behind the cameraman floating around somewhere but that’s constantly moving. Traditionally, working with Michael I’d be doing a scene and I’m never quite sure sometimes where the camera is. Which is fine. You should be thinking about being in the scene.

Was it any different on Greed because your character Richard McCreadie is so much based on Phllip Green?

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We had to be careful. A lot of quotes are directly quoted from [Green] so we haven’t corrupted those. Anything that was conjecture or things said, they’re not things which are negative. The only things that can reflect potentially negatively are the things that he literally did say.

A lot of British people are very used to you playing flawed, but somewhat sympathetic characters but that’s not really the case with McCreadie. Was that part of the appeal and did you find him sympathetic?

Not much but I couldn’t see him without any humanity and no, you’re not drawn into him in the same way, he’s pretty unrelentingly awful but then he’s still human, he’s still flesh and blood. So you have to be mindful of that when you’re playing him, and I think I was. You can understand how people get sucked into the vortex of the pursuit of wealth. Something makes people feel legitimate, makes them feel somehow vital and alive and like they’ve earned their place so I understand all that and understand his need to validate himself in that way.

And he’s entertaining, he’s charismatic, he’s something of an outsider of establishment and rough and ready and he challenged a lot of those business practices. He a little bit of a street fighter in that regard and there’s a certain grudging admiration you can have for that, but it only goes so far. Ultimately we are all, or should be, in some way morally culpable and accountable for our actions. There’s a sort of amorality to the way he acts which needs to be talked about and put under the spotlight.

How do you think you’ve changed as a performer since 24 Hour Party People? Do you find yourself drawn to more political roles now?

I like to do things that have some sort of substance, they don’t have to be part of an agenda but I like things that are just about something. In this world of superhero movies, mind numbing entertainment, I think that anything that has some substance or breaks the monotony of that is to be encouraged. And I like to do anything which has meat on the bone, if you like. I get older I like to do things that just encourage discussion about things that aren’t normally discussed. And I’m in a position where I can sort of pick and choose things.

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Also having come through comedy, and things I write now, I like to talk about stuff which other people don’t like to talk about and I suppose I gravitate towards things that might be contentious. There’s lots of people who have a public profile who might support a certain charity or noble cause and that the causes that are unambiguously noble don’t really interest me even though I think they might be worthwhile. There’s plenty of people who will line up to endorse something because it reflects well on them almost entirely. I’d rather get my hands dirty with something that some people might not like. There’s something that attracts me more to contentiousness. I feel quite comfortable with some people having their noses put out of joint.

Is it important to you to tell British stories?

It’s funny how we’ve come through this whole national discussion over the last few years, and I do feel grateful that I’m British. I’m half Irish. And that’s also important to me. But not necessarily things that make many people proud to be British. I can’t bear the St George’s flag. But there are things about this country, our sense of fair play, the fact that we take things with a pinch of salt, all these things that if you make generalised observations of our national psyche are things that I appreciate and like. America tends to dominate us more and more, especially now we’re out of Europe. Now that the European discussions have come to a conclusion of sorts, and although it should always be alive in one way or another, is, irrespective of the Brexit result, do we see ourselves as an appendage of America or do we see ourselves as essentially culturally European? And I see myself as European.

Greek philosophy and Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance are more useful than Donald Trump’s semi literate musings. The Britishness I feel like celebrating is the Britishness of being countercultural, of holding people to account of having certain values and I think common decency, something people don’t often talk about anymore, but l I like to think that is still there lurking in Britishness. And to that end, I think it is good to have films that talk about ourselves and not just things that talk about American culture.

Even though there are great literary giants from America who have given us a lot of stuff and some amazing movies, in the 1970s some wonderful auteurs who talk about humanity and shone a light on the human condition and I’m very grateful for that. But we often find ourselves subsumed by American stories and not British stories.

It’s important that we talk about our nation in a nuanced way. And a grown up way. So any story that’s viable, that is about this country is a good thing. And it shouldn’t just be stories about the privileged British people. There tends to be a lot of that at the moment. And I like stories that are about not just people living at the bottom of the social pecking order, but people in the middle. Just ordinary lives because that can be made extraordinary and interesting. It would be nice to see a bit more of that

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Can you tell us a bit more about the teeth and the lion…

Well my look, we decided to go for this deep tan, this idea of someone who had that vain look, someone who is pampered. And they tried to whiten my teeth but you can only get so far. They said we’ll try to whiten your teeth and we’ll get some false teeth made. The teeth they make these days are very very good. So you wouldn’t know. They’re so thin, so beautifully moulded that you clip them onto your teeth and you wouldn’t know that I had put these teeth on at all.

I was worried that the ones that have been made were too white almost comical and they are slightly comical but they’re just about believable and there are few individuals who, more often in America than here, whose teeth are so white they’re blindingly white and ridiculous. In the end we went for the clip on ones and you just have to take them out when you eat. That and the spray tan that you have to top up every week.

Does that help you get into character?

It does. You look in the mirror and you think “oh my god, who’s that?” It always helps me when I dress as someone and then look at my hair and my face and I think “I know who that person is now” and I find a voice and then and that’s a sort of starting point.

The lion is, well I think what Michael was saying is that the modern day Emperors are these heads of multinational, international global companies. Those are the real Emperors of today. They’re the new Emperors, that they wield more power than heads of governments often. So the lion – Gladiator and the lion as a play thing is a great thing to have in the movie because it’s about – in retail or when you’re when you’re employing 10s and 10s of thousands of people, you have got a lion by its tail, and it can come and bite you if you’re not careful.

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The film has elements of Greek tragedy. Is that something that you talked about?

We wanted it to have that idea of hubris being someone’s undoing. Which is a perennial story isn’t it? We wanted it to have that although, of course morality stories have satisfying conclusions. Reality often doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion, because things don’t happen the way they ought to. So in that respect, yeah, the film has a fantasy conclusion, which is stylistically and deliberately impressionistic, a caricatured ending. Which we know isn’t reality, but it’s cathartic for the viewer.

You’ve got The Trip To Greece coming up. There’s a reference to Greed in there, I understand…

Oh, yeah. Yeah. Within the new Trip, I do talk to Rob about the fact that I made a movie in Greece, and I’m referring to Greed. And one of the actors I meet in Greed, I meet again. It’s one of the refugees, Kareem, a good kind man who had took his fellow countrymen, many of them orphans, under his wing. He’s a paternal figure, and looked after their welfare and he played himself in Greed. And then the trip with Rob I’m driving through Lesbos and I spot him and I say oh, there’s Kareem and I give him a lift back to the refugee camp and it’s a real refugee camp. The film and the garment workers in Greed are real garment workers. So when we did The Trip Yeah. So we go to a real refugee camp. It’s just where life intersects with art. Although really they’re both fictions.

What else do you have coming up? You’ve got a new show called Chivalry…

I’m in the middle of writing that, which is about the post metoo landscape – navigating that. It’s a middle aged man and a slightly younger woman who have strong views. It’s not like they’re kind of in opposition, but they are navigating it together. You see where their priorities and sympathies lie. The jungle of sexual politics you might call it. We see them journeying through that.

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So that’s fun and then I’m doing a film in the summer about the woman who found the body of Richard The Third in the car park, which I wrote. And there’s a Partridge podcast coming out. The podcast is all finished we did 18 of them and they come out next month. There’s a couple of other things I’m writing at the moment that are coming to fruition shortly and some things I want to direct and so there’s a bunch of stuff. I jump between projects, but I’m not doing that much acting for a while. But I love writing. I love being able to do all these different things.

Greed is out in cinemas 21 February.