“I’ve been on a very happy sort of plateau for about 10 years,” says Coogan, who is slender and soft-spoken, and so self-conscious that when he discusses his love of fast cars, he quickly descends into his signature self-deprecation. “In America it’s okay to drive nice cars if you’re doing well. In England it says that you’re a vulgar elitist, fascist and a philistine.
“Success in Britain,” Coogan continues, “makes people feel envious, whereas failures are sort of loved by the British because they make people feel better about themselves.” This, he notes, goes a long way toward explaining the nation’s endless adoration of his Partridge character. “There’s something funny about someone’s undying belief in himself in the face of humiliation—it’s ridiculous and admirable at the same time.”
Playwright Patrick Marber, who met Coogan around 1990, when both were doing stand-up in London, and has frequently collaborated with him since, says, “Steve invented an enduring comic character because he defined a particular moment in British culture. We were writhing in the dog days of Thatcherism and Conservative government, and Alan Partridge absolutely nailed that. He was this guy from a little place who had big ideas above himself. [He] was one of the first characters on British television who wanted celebrity and fame for no reason whatsoever.”
For his part, Coogan has settled into a sort of love-hate relationship with the character. In his home country, he says, “I’m kind of a part of the furniture now. Over here, only a few people are starting to know who I am. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to feeling young again.”
Though there’s nothing British about Hamlet 2 (Coogan, who started working in comedy as a mimic, does an excellent American accent), the film taps a vein of humor that’s familiar to Coogan. He plays failed actor–turned–drama teacher Dana Marschz, whose school productions are irony-free staged versions of films like Erin Brockovich. When he sets out to write his Hamlet sequel in a bid to reverse the school board’s decision to cancel drama, Marschz is undeterred by the fact that everyone dies at the end of the original play. It’s difficult to imagine anyone besides Coogan selling such a buffoon while remaining likable. “I like odd characters and people who are stupid or annoying—people who are fools, but fools you care about,” Coogan says. “It’s bringing humanity to people who have some kind of dysfunction.”
Hamlet 2, which was bankrolled by an independent film company cofounded by Eric Eisner, a son of Michael, has given Coogan another shot to establish an American presence. His first big-budget vehicle, the 2004 remake of Around the World in 80 Days, in which he costarred with Jackie Chan, notoriously flopped. Though he memorably portrayed Tony Wilson, the TV host who introduced the world to Seventies and Eighties bands like the Sex Pistols, Joy Division and New Order, in 24 Hour Party People, the film wasn’t exactly a Stateside blockbuster. “I get asked if I get recognized,” he says. “Yes, but only when I go into [L.A.’s] Amoeba Music.” He’s also had roles in such ensemble pieces as Happy Endings and Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. And, after striking up a friendship with Ben Stiller, he landed supporting roles in Night at the Museum and this summer’s Tropic Thunder.