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Optimistic in Tucson

Steve Coogan talks about his new, Old Pueblo-skewering comedy, 'Hamlet 2'


British actor Steve Coogan is probably best-known stateside for his depiction of a rambunctious centurion in Night at the Museum. Fans of the Manchester music scene might know him as the guy who played British TV icon Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People. After this summer, many more will recognize him as the obsessive director with bad footing in Tropic Thunder.

The summer's other dose of Coogan--in the extremely funny Hamlet 2--provides the comedian with his biggest role yet. Coogan plays Dana, a failed actor-turned-drama teacher right here in Tucson. (See Pages 33 and 44 for more on that.) When his school threatens to shut him down, he writes the epic Hamlet 2, which features Hamlet and Jesus riding around in a time machine.

We interviewed Coogan, who elaborated on the choice of Tucson for the film's setting, his character's eternal optimism and the incredibly good sport that is actress Elisabeth Shue.

Am I the only journalist you'll be

talking to who actually writes for Tucson?

I think so!

Tucson plays a prominent role in the film. Did director Andrew Fleming actually shoot there?

Well, we actually shot in Albuquerque, N.M., because we thought we might get lynched in Tucson if people knew we weren't being entirely kind to the area. Andy, the director, has had some experience with Tucson. He's sort of a cowboy guy; he's got a ranch, and he's into horses and stuff like that.

I think when Andy and (co-writer) Pam Brady chose Tucson as the film's setting, it could've been anywhere. Sometimes, you choose somewhere because it's not a cliché, because it hasn't been used before. And because you've not heard it in movies before, you think, "Well, maybe there could be a guy there like Dana who teaches drama in Tucson?" It makes it seem more real and less cliché.

Have you ever been to Tucson?

I have been there. I was actually there in rehab, which is no secret in the British papers. They used to release us every few days, like once a week, so we could travel to Tucson. I found it a very nice town.

So I guess we can say that the filmmakers have no particular hatred for Tucson?

No, of course not. We wanted to choose somewhere that you wouldn't automatically associate with camp, dramatic people. Tucson had a certain kind of machismo, so that Dana is someone who doesn't easily sit in the environment as a figure to be taken seriously.

There's a moment in the film when a character holds up a newspaper that she "stole from a Starbucks," and the paper looked a little like the Tucson Weekly. We're the free alternative weekly you usually find in coffee shops, although maybe not Starbucks.

Oh, really? Oh, wow, the paper with the picture of Dana dressed as a terrorist, saying something like, "Is this man a threat to society?"

That's the one.


Anybody who has acted in community theater or taken a drama class might know somebody like Dana: an eternal optimist. His play is awful, yet he thinks it will save the drama department, save his job and save his students.

Yeah, which is kind of what makes him so infuriating. He's a bit of a jerk, but it's difficult to hate him. I've met guys like Dana ... eternal optimists where the glass is always half-full. However flawed his judgment is, or however much he lacks talent, the one thing he does have is enthusiasm: He believes in something. He wants to change these kids' lives, to make their lives better. The lesson of the film learned is that if you are enthusiastic enough, and you've got enough energy, it doesn't really seem to matter if you lack talent.

What's with Dana's obsession with

adapting blockbuster movies to the

high school stage?

In the movie, when Dana was reading a review in the school paper that decimated his production of Erin Brockovich, it says that the only good thing that can be said is that "it makes last year's production of Mississippi Burning look dazzling in comparison."

In the original script, it actually said "last year's production of The Shield: Season 2," which I thought was slightly funnier--that somebody would actually do a school production of The Shield: Season 2.

How about Elisabeth Shue, who plays herself in the movie, retired from acting, forgotten and having become a nurse? What a great, self-deprecating turn. What a great sport.

She got the joke straight away. There were people who were not as talented or successful as her who were gently approached for the movie, but they didn't get the joke at all--did not find it funny. She just said, "I really want to do this ... it makes me laugh so much." And she came along, and it was so nice to meet her. She's a great lesson in not believing the hype that people might say about you. She's really grounded, with a good perspective on things. There's a kind of neurosis that affects a lot of actors and actresses, and she was one of those people who is completely free of it. She didn't take herself seriously, and she didn't take me seriously, either.

How was it working with indie-film

goddess Catherine Keener, who plays

your wife in the film?

Sometimes you do a comic performance, and you start thinking: "Well, if I'm getting the laugh, it's all fine." But Andy said that I really had to believe that there was a lot at stake here, that my character was vulnerable, and the emotions had to be real.

When Catherine stepped into the frame with me, she really totally committed, and it made me pull up my socks, focus and make sure I got the emotional truths spot-on. She made funny scenes much more dynamic, interesting, painful and real. They are the scenes that kind of underpin the emotional backbone of the movie, and if you don't have those scenes, you've just got a bunch of gags strung together.

Do you think there should be an Oscar push for the song "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus?" I do ... if South Park's "Blame Canada" can get an Oscar nod, so can "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus." Do you think I'm crazy for believing it could have a chance?

Well, you know what ... maybe? Hopefully, America is entering a slightly more enlightened liberal political phase with the way things look like they're heading. Hopefully, the conservative hawks won't try to nuke the song.

You are also in this summer's Tropic Thunder with Night at the Museum

co-star Ben Stiller.

Yeah, the summer's looking good, touch wood, no complacency. Tropic Thunder is a very funny movie. I only have, like, a little cameo in that, but it's dead, darn funny.

And the fake documentary on the

making of Tropic Thunder, Rain of Madness (which can be seen in parts

at )?

That's a half-hour/40-minute documentary that follows me, the director, around on the set of Tropic Thunder as I slowly have a breakdown. It's sort of like the making of Apocalypse Now.

Do you have anything further planned with Michael Winterbottom, your 24 Hour Party People director?

I like the stuff I do with him, because it sort of defies categorization. He always manages to jam comedy into his serious movies, or at least that's what happens when I'm involved. As the day is long, there is definitely something we'll be doing together. He's like an older brother and mentor.

Good talking to you, Steve, and thanks for all the Tucson love.

OK ... spread it around!

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