Coogan auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but didn't make it and went home feeling like a straw-chewing hick intimidated by cosmopolitan Londoners. "All these guys looked like Byron with their long coats and floppy hair and names like Sebastian." (Which, incidentally, is how he looks in Coffee as he lords it over Alfred Molina.) Coogan eventually settled at a drama school back in Manchester, then realized his outsider status and Manc-borne sense of dry, often cruel yet self-effacing wit could work for him. "You start to see where you're from as a virtue," he tells me. "You're in college, and one day in the cafeteria you go, 'Hey, a lot of these guys are idiots.' From that point on, I knew what I wanted to do."
After 10 years of U.K. fame, the 38-year-old Coogan is concerned that he's pigeonholed there in wanker roles, so he divides his time between producing shows back home (under his successful Baby Cow banner) and forging a movie career, which means making inroads in Hollywood. He says, half-jokingly, "Here, things can only get better for me, whereas there, things could potentially get worse."
Coogan hopes that Around the World in 80 Days, in which he effortlessly finesses Fogg as a vulnerable, underdog English gentleman who finds romance, will allow him to shuttle between "doing work where I'm a kind of pampered passenger, and work where I'm a hands-on driver." So while he waits out another crack at Partridge—"I miss performing him," he says, hinting at a possible movie—he's already filmed a key role as a gay restaurant owner in Don Roos' ensemble comedy-drama Happy Endings, and is about to start an infidelity thriller, Alibi, opposite Rebecca Romijn Stamos. What unnerves him slightly about Alibi is that for once he's playing the hip, charming guy, the guy on top of things, with the funny lines that aren't at his own expense. In that guise, this fiercely talented Mancunian may just have to transform into a movie star. Coogan's eyes dart around until he comes up with an analogy: "It's very hard to dance in a cool way in a nightclub. It's far easier to dance in a really dumb way and say, 'Hey, look, I'm being a jerk, and aren't I funny?' The worst scenario is when you try to dance in a cool way but you still look like an asshole. 'Does that guy think he's cool? Geez.' That's the scary part."
Around the World in 80 days is reviewed in today's Film calendar.