Coogan and Winterbottom have teamed up again for Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. The film, which is based on the popular 18th century series The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen, was well in the works before a proper script was even penned. For Coogan, though, this wasn’t a first.
"[Michael] said, ‘Hey, do you want to play this character that’s based on this novel?’ I wouldn’t normally do something like that – it’s kind of crazy. But, I did it before [on 24 Hour Party People] with him and it worked," recalls Coogan. "He makes interesting work and I trust him. I probably wouldn’t have done that with another director – and although it sounds bizarre, not having a script could be an advantage."
Published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767, the ribald satirical series defied the rules of what was considered an established writing style. Winterbottom’s take on the latter pushes the envelope, as well, from a cinematic standpoint – because, although there was an eventual script and storyline to follow, there are also parts of the movie where everyone involved played fast and loose while the cameras rolled.
"Well, obviously there’s no present day stuff in this novel because it was written 200 years ago. But all of that stuff [in the film] is faithful to the novel – the actual part in the movie that’s the period piece," states Coogan. "In the modern day stuff … for us to say lines as ourselves, which was kind of weird, there was also a little bit of improvisation. I’d say, like 30 percent [of the modern day stuff] was improvised, 70 percent was scripted. There was quite a bit of stuff going on there that wasn’t on the page."
In Tristram, there’s a lot of skipping around, from the present to the 18th century and back again, wherein Coogan portrays his real self in addition to characters in the novel’s storyline.
"I guess my favorite thing was playing – I hope it doesn’t sound a bit self indulgent – but I liked playing myself," he says with a chuckle. "Not because it’s easier. But because there’s more subtleties, I think, [that are] in there. As soon as you put a period costume on, people find it difficult to see the part that’s you sometimes. I kind of like doing the modern day stuff."
Considering that he’s playing himself in the new feature, one might wonder exactly how much of the real Coogan leaked out into the Tristram role. "Well, there is a bit of that in me. I’m no Mother Theresa," he admits and then goes on to expound. "But I kind of exaggerate the negative aspects of myself ... I think at one point I was worried though, if it was being self-indulgent. Like, who wants to go see a movie where an actor who most people have never heard of is playing a version of himself in the film? That sounds bad but I knew that if I could make it funny, then that wouldn’t matter."
There are many moments in Tristram that hearken back to the heydays of John Cleese and Eric Idle, when the duo broke new ground with their "Monty Python" act – and this is not lost on Coogan. The actor does, however, note a couple of other influences. "There’s a lot of American influences in there too. I was always a huge fan of This is Spinal Tap. But obviously I love the stuff that I grew up with like "Monty Python," "The Young Ones" and so on," he says matter-of-factly. "As an actor, you take from what you like, dress it up and pretend it’s your own."
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is currently in theatres.