Though known as a comedian, Steve Coogan didn't want to be one when playing journalist Martin Sixsmith in Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears and co-written by Coogan himself. In fact, he didn't even think the film would be as funny as it turned out to be. But laughter was something that was integral to the story of the titular Irish woman, whose son was cruelly taken from her, and the journalist who helps her find him.
The film tells the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a woman who became pregnant out of wedlock as a teenager in 1950s Ireland. She was sent to a convent where her son was essentially sold by the nuns to an American couple looking to adopt. Years later, after finally revealing her secret, Philomena tries to find her son with the aid of Sixsmith, who recently had a scandal of his own. "The key to the whole thing was seeing this photograph of Martin and Philomena and seeing her laughing in the photograph," Coogan explained in a recent interview with The Wire. "I just thought—even though it’s only a photograph and everyone can laugh in a moment—it just seemed to me he’s smiling, and she’s laughing, and this terrible thing happened to her. How did she wind up on the park bench with this journalist, and they’re both laughing?"
Coogan used his creative instinct—Sixsmith let him invent parts of the character—and his own reporting skills to tease out this odd couple scenario, building a film that provokes smiles and tears. You feel comfortable giggling, for instance, when Philomena recounts the entire plot of a trashy romance novel to the cynical, Russian-history-book-writing Martin. Reading material was integral to how Coogan saw this relationship. "I had an idea in my head—I thought: What would it be like if they were in a book shop, getting on an airplane together, and she had to buy some magazines or books or he had to ask her what kind of newspaper she’d like. Just that thing where people’s tastes bump in to each other," Coogan said. "That wasn’t a scene we used, but I remember that’s the first thing I thought of." He wanted to get to the "nitty gritty" of their relationship, and asked Sixsmith questions like did Philomena ever ask for a newspaper and what she liked to drink.
But Coogan also traded on his own sense of who Philomena might be. "Old Irish ladies, I’ve known a lot in my time, and sometimes they’re quite funny," he said. "Sometimes they’re quite funny because they want to be funny. Sometimes they're quite funny and they don’t realize they’re being funny. I wanted to tap into that."
And that's not to say the movie doesn't have a very serious side. At its core, it is a story about faith and how faith can be both a force that sustains and corrupts. The film deals with the complex legacy of the Church in Ireland where Magdalene Laundries would force "fallen women" — women like Philomena, who got pregnant out of wedlock as a teenager — into unpaid labor. Members of the Church have argued that the film misrepresents one of the sisters at the abbey where Philomena had stayed. Coogan told us their reaction slightly "depresses" him. "Their first reaction shouldn’t be that they think that we’ve been a little harsh on Sister Hildegarde. Their first reaction should be to apologize for what happened," Coogan said.
Ultimately, the film is a drama—and will campaign as one at the Golden Globes, according to a representative for The Weinstein Company. But it uses humor to connect its audience more deeply to the characters, to show that Philomena is not, in fact, a broken soul, despite what happened to her. Still, Coogan also didn't want to be his more typical comedic self when playing Martin, and acting opposite the "iconic" Dench. "[Director Stephen Frears] said, 'Oh you want to be like--' and he mentioned some comics name," Coogan recalled. "And I said, 'No no no I don’t want to be like that.' I think I said I want to be like Michael Sheen. And I he went: 'Oh, okay I get it.'"