Steve Coogan takes a chance

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"They're such an odd pair," Frears says. "They got on incredibly well. And they were quite happy to fight with each other in scenes and then laugh a great deal between takes."

What they acted in this case was what Coogan and Pope had written, in contrast to the free-form approach of some of Coogan's previous works.

"This was scripted down to the last word," Coogan says. "There was no room for improvisation at all, which is good. I think if Michael (Winterbottom) had done the film, he would have thrown my script out the window the first day of shooting, because that's the way he works. I slaved over every (expletive) word in this. I'm not going to just let go."

But acting his part presented another kind of challenge.

"The characters I often play are insincere and trapped in their own insincerity and are sort of unwittingly duplicitous," Coogan says. "It's easier to have an agenda as a character. It's easier to play. It's more fun. It's more interesting. But to be someone who's just nakedly saying, 'I care about this,' that's actually really hard."

Coogan says he feels like he couldn't have written such a screenplay 10 years earlier, but now he's more compelled to move from his comfort zone. "If something feels a little scary and uncomfortable, that's probably a good thing, so go and do it," he says. "To be sincere you risk ridicule. I wanted to show that you can be sincere and smart."

The actor followed this line of thinking by filming an ABC-TV drama pilot in Chicago some months ago called "Doubt" in which he played a down-on-his-luck lawyer who "tried to disguise the fact that he cared." The show wasn't picked up, though it prompts a memory as Coogan walks through the Tribune Tower lobby after lunch and recognizes the more-portentous-than-Sinatra quotes engraved into the walls.

"We shot in here," he says. "Yeah, yeah, we used an office in here, because I remember reading this. Yeah, these are great quotes."

At the same time, he hasn't turned his back on comedies, saying that Brydon, Winterbottom and he already have shot "The Trip to Italy." He describes that follow-up BBC series/movie as "the same (as the first one) with better food, better locations. There's even some of the same impersonations."

Says Coogan: "I like stupid jokes as much as anyone. Stupid jokes are like an ice cream. It's great. But you can't survive on a diet of ice cream."

Twitter @MarkCaro

2 of Steve Coogan's favorite movies:

"Harold & Maude," directed by Hal Ashby, 1971.

"The music is just fantastic. Some parts of it are a little mannered in a self-conscious way, but by and large it still works, it still packs a real punch, and Ruth Gordon is still fantastic; it never dates, that performance. I love that film. I saw it a few months ago. Every few months I watch it. If someone hasn't watched it, I have to sit and watch it with them. I want to see it for the first time through their eyes.

"I remember that film as being shown on TV in the 1970s on BBC, and I remember my sister watching with my mum, and they were laughing, and they said (of Bud Cort's suicide-faking character), 'He's like our Steven.' At the time I was like 10 or 11, I found that really upsetting that they thought I was that weird. Because I did used to do fake injuries on myself."

"Kind Hearts and Coronets," directed by Robert Hamer, 1949

"Alec Guinness always gets the credit for that film because of his versatility, but in actual fact the great role in that is Dennis Price. He's the master in that film, because he plays someone who's pompous, self-righteous, sanctimonious, and you're on his side the whole time. That's an amazing feat, to be all those things, and you go, 'I'm with him.'"

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