As soon as the credits began to roll on Hamlet 2 at its Sundance premiere this past January, director Andrew Fleming knew he had a hit. The studio executives who scour the festival each year looking for films to buy had become such a nuisance with their BlackBerrys that organizers began discouraging texting during screenings. “The moment the first credit went up,” Fleming recalls, “I saw, like, 27 little screens light up. People started running around, and my agent gave me this dazed expression. I think he had dollar signs in his pupils.”
But Steve Coogan, who stars in the charming comedy about a high school teacher who writes a sequel to Shakespeare’s tragedy in a bid to save his drama program, was bemused by all the fuss. “Americans,” he says nonchalantly, “always get so excited about things: ‘There’s a bidding war!’”
By the next morning, Focus Features emerged as the winning studio, ponying up an eye-popping $10 million for the film, which costars Catherine Keener, Amy Poehler and David Arquette and will arrive in theaters in late August. “Without putting the film down, I was a bit shocked by how well it went down,” Coogan, a native of Manchester, England, says several months later at New York’s Regency Hotel, before chastising himself: “This is me being British, always trying to play down success. One of the differences between the British and the Americans is that when someone says, ‘Oh, you were really good in that,’ a Brit does that stupid, self-effacing thing: ‘Oh, I wasn’t that good.’ Whereas the American is like, ‘Thank you very much for saying that. I don’t disagree with you.’”
Coogan’s professed modesty aside, it is difficult to overstate how big a comedy star the 42-year-old is in the UK. In the U.S. he is known—if at all—for his roles in Michael Winterbottom’s films 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story. Across the pond, though, Coogan is as much a cultural touchstone as Jerry Seinfeld is in America, largely thanks to the character of Alan Partridge, a provincial, pompous, dull-witted sports anchor that Coogan first played on radio and then on a 1994 BBC newscast spoof called The Day Today. Prone to saying things like “Wings…. They’re only the band the Beatles could have been,” and, before jumping into bed with a woman, “Let battle commence,” the character became so popular that he spawned spin-off series, including a faux talk show called Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge (a reference to ABBA lyrics) on which he coined his ubiquitous catchphrase “Aha!” and, later, the sitcom I’m Alan Partridge, in which the character took up work as a late-night radio DJ.