He starred in the 2010 film The Trip, its follow-up The Trip To Italy and the critically-acclaimed Philomena, but Steve Coogan has been blazing a comedic trail on British TV for many years. Now, Coogan is busting out on US TV with Showtime’s Happyish, in which he plays disaffected advertising executive Thom Payne opposite Kathryn Hahn as his wife Lee. From first-time showrunner Shalom Auslander, and co-starring Bradley Whitford, Ellen Barkin and Carrie Preston, Happyish originally had Phillip Seymour Hoffman as its lead. After Hoffman’s tragic passing, the show was eventually re-worked for Coogan, but as Coogan says, “It’s testament to how good it was that (Hoffman) made that pilot.” With A Walk In The Woods‘ Ken Kwapis directing the pilot and three episodes in the first season, the show was primed for success, yet its biting wit and iconoclastic approach has proven somewhat polarizing. Coogan says, “The people who like it, love it. The people who don’t, don’t understand it. I think it was always going to be like that.”
What made you come on board with Happyish?
It’s just a good, original way to look at the world through advertising and it’s quite angry, and it’s frustrated with the world and I think a lot of people can identify with that. Also it was just the quality of the writing, really, that sort of drew me to it. I don’t have a burning desire to do TV shows, but it was so well-written by Shalom Auslander that I had to do it. It said something. It was about something. It’s not just light, fluffy stuff. It’s got substance. That attracted me too.
The show rails against corporate America – was Showtime always open to that?
Oh, they were quite into it. I think the writer said, “it’s the last taboo – corporate America.” I think it is. We say what we like about anything. But it’s not literally criticizing the products, they’re living in the world of marketing. But it gives them a kick in the ass, which is good.
The vitriol against the world of advertising feels like the anti-Mad Men – is Thom a sort of Don Draper of the future if he’d stayed in the business too long?
Yeah. I think that’s true. It’s funny, the night they had the last episode of Mad Men, I directed a Coke commercial (as Thom on Happyish). Our episode went out with Hitler directing a Coke commercial in my fantasy.
You couldn’t have timed that better. How do you personally identify with Thom?
I do identify with Thom a lot. I mean, I’m not quite as elite as the character, which is kind of a version of Shalom, the writer. It’s sort of his alter ego in a way that I’m sort of giving life to. But I identify with a lot of it. I don’t do social media. I don’t do Twitter. I don’t do Facebook. I quite like having something like normality in my life. So I identify with it really strongly. I think it just gives voices, like everyone’s so desperate to be hip and with it and up to the minute with new technology and this is kind of like a kick against that.
You have a teenage daughter – you feel like technology gets in the way of connecting with younger people?
Without a shadow of a doubt, it does get in the way. It’s tough. I really think it’s that thing where we think it’s helping out our quality of life, but in some ways it takes something away. I think we always have to get to know who we are and what it is to be a human being and all the rest of it. A lot of people do get distracted. You can get distracted by social media and waste your life on it. I try to avoid getting sucked into that vortex. Of course an office used to be a lot of chat. Now you get to an office and it’s all silent because they’re all just typing away. They’re not even on the phone anymore. No one even makes phone calls. They just type away.
I believe you didn’t watch the original pilot featuring Phillip Seymour Hoffman – what was behind that decision?
I wanted to make it my own and make it my voice and not be distracted by what Phillip did, however good it was, to not have that in my mind. I wanted to go to it fresh. I made it my own and Shalom was really pleased with it. I thought I could bring something valid to it. When I read it I liked the script. I didn’t try to dwell on the fact that Phillip had done the pilot because that wouldn’t have been helpful to me.
The show has quite a British sensibility to it with its iconoclastic humor.
Yeah, I think it does. I think there’s more of an acerbic nature to the British that I think Americans don’t always get. It’s a little bit spiky and I don’t mind that, I quite like it. It had a lot of anger. It also does have heart. Thom is trying to protect his family from this world that’s got no values and is vacuous, empty and meaningless. So I understand that.
Kathryn Hahn had been in the pilot – how did you make that transition to starting over together?
Kathryn’s sort of what tipped me into doing it. If she’d had bailed on it then I might not have done it. She said she heard I was doing it. That really encouraged me. I am an admirer of hers. She’s great to act opposite. She humanizes things, she softens things, make them organic and takes Shalom’s very rich lines, which are very well-crafted and she sort of softens them and makes them more fluid. She’s just great to work opposite. She gives you stuff. It’s like playing tennis, it raises your game when you’ve got a good partner.
Ellen Barkin has a great line about people having a ‘joy ceiling’ – did that resonate for you?
I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t view it quite like that. I think you the mistake is to look for some sort of constant state of nirvana which is never going to exist. Once you accept there are highs and lows in life you deal with it better. So that specifically, the joy ceiling, I don’t agree with the joy ceiling. I think what it’s trying to say in a way is that it’s better to be content with not always looking for that extra thing that will make you happy. It’s a road to ruin.
You’re so well-known in the UK – do you enjoy a little more freedom in the US?
It’s nice just walking down the street and not having to pull the hat down over your face, which I have to do a lot in the UK. So I can walk around New York with my head held high. I only get recognized in Whole Foods really by trendy people.
Comedy nerds with facial hair?
Yeah. People with facial hair recognize me. No one in Wal-Mart ever recognizes me. I do get recognized for The Trip. Some middle-aged women recognize me from Philomena. I get a little bit of recognition, but it’s quite funny. In the UK, I’m just part of the furniture.