Coogan swaps his sneer for sentiment, and reaps the rewards for “Philomena”

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Steve Coogan’s face slips easily into a sneer. Too easily, he worries. A British actor famed for his snark, his doltish snobs such as the failing TV host Alan Partridge, cynicism has become his stock in trade, his persona. He toys with it in films such as “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” or the recent road comedy “The Trip.” It spills into his personal life as he feuds with the British media — journalists, or the hosts of TV’s “Top Gear.”

But a simple human interest newspaper story made him weep, convinced him that story should be a movie and, he says, changed his life.

“We live in a cynical world,” he says. “I’ve made my living from being cynical. But you get tired of it. If everyone’s cynical, how about I try being SINCERE? What would that be like?”

The Guardian newspaper story was about a woman who had her baby stolen by Irish nuns in the 1950s. “The Catholic Church Sold My Child,” the headline screamed. But what moved Coogan was a photo of the reporter, Martin Sixsmith and the woman, Philomena Lee.

“She was laughing,” Coogan says, still marveling at the idea. “I wanted to explore how she got to a place where she could laugh again. Her grace, her serenity, her ability to forgive a church that did this bad thing to her…that piqued my interest.”

“Philomena,” the film Coogan co-wrote, produced and co-stars in, has earned four Oscar nominations and has become something of a game changer for Coogan, 48, whose movie work in the U.S. has mostly been in independent films (“Hamlet 2”) or supporting work in ensemble comedies (“Tropic Thunder,” “Night at the Museum”). He may be “a gifted actor who’s been striving valiantly, but somewhat in vain, to be taken seriously,” as Elizabeth Weitzman declared in The New York Daily News. But his performance opposite Oscar-nominated Judi  Dench is “understated, watchful, his jokester reflexes in check (mostly)” raves Steven Rea of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“There was a sneering quality to a lot of the criticism about me doing this,” Coogan recalls. “‘Who’s he think he is? What, he’s not happy making people laugh? Got to be taken SERIOUSLY? Get OVER yourself!'”

Coogan laughs.

“Yeah, you have to get past that. They might not take me take me seriously on my own. But we pitched it to the BBC, and Gabby (Gabrielle) Tana, my co-producer, who did ‘The Duchess,’ ‘Coriolanus,’ ‘The Invisible Woman,’ held my hand. We showed the script to Judi, and (director) Stephen Frears. So it wasn’t just the funny guy who wants to be taken seriously knocking on doors.”

Coogan realized, from that photo of the real Philomena laughing, that he had license to find the humor in this very sad story. That’s why he allowed himself to be arm-twisted into co-adapting the screenplay, protecting the humor in the situation. He says he sort of backed into co-starring in it. Once that was agreed on, he was well into the movie before he realized that he had a chance to take a few shots at the favorite foil — the British press.

“I didn’t set out to play him because ‘He’s a journalist and I don’t like journalists and this is my CHANCE.’ I like good journalists. The bad ones? They try to caricature me as someone who doesn’t like journalists.”

And he didn’t want the film to be “anti-Church.”

“I learned to respect the Church more. I was raised a Catholic, like Martin in the movie. And I’m not religious. Like Martin. But for all my criticisms of the Church and what it did, that there are people of faith who I can still learn from. I left the film with a lot more self-doubt.”

Coogan & Co. know that “Philomena,” up for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best actress and best musical score prizes, is an Oscar underdog. Category by category, more showy or more cynical fare seems to have the edge. But Coogan? He’s got his fingers crossed.

“I think we’ve got a shot,” he says. “The cynic in me says ‘No chance.'”

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And the cynic in him got back to work with a “broad, drop my pants, literally” Alan Partridge farce and a soon-to-be-released sequel to “The Trip,” which has snooty Coogan and his down-to-Earth foil Rob Brydon driving down the Amalfi Coast of Italy in a Mini Cooper convertible, quipping and bickering the whole way. But is Hollywood finally calling, now that “Philomena” is a hit?

“Well, my fans have stopped calling me. Rob (Brydon) still calls. Who else is he going to call? But yes, I am getting my calls returned, in Hollywood, for at least a few weeks more.”

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