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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

November 10, 2005

A comedy that routinely breaks down the fourth wall to address its audience, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a non-linear tale about making a movie based on a book that is considered "unfilmable" due to its flagrant disregard for literary conventions. Jumping between the 18th and 21st centuries, the film tells the story of Englishman Tristram Shandy (Steve Coogan), as well as the modern day story of adapting the novel as a big screen production starring Steve Coogan (also played by Steve Coogan--surprise, surprise). Constantly blurring the line between reality and fiction, the movie features several actors as Hollywood caricatures of themselves, including Gillian Anderson in an amusing cameo.

In this interview, comedic actor Rob Brydon, who stars alongside Coogan throughout Tristram Shandy's time-warping run, talks about working on this project, shooting with Gillian Anderson, and impersonating Al Pacino.

The Interview

MEDIA: Have you read the book this movie was based on?

ROB: No, I haven't read it.

Has anybody involved with the film read it?

Yeah, [director Michael Winterbottom has] read it a few times, and I think [actress] Shirley Henderson has read it twice. I'm not good with big books. I'm not great with fiction. I prefer fact. Instruction manuals are really my thing. I have a video iPod--I've read all the [instructions] for that pretty well.

Shooting the movie didn't make you want to read the book?

Oh, yes it did. But have you seen the book? It's massive!

Is your real life relationship with Steve as combative as the one on screen?

A little, but there's more affection between us than there is in the film. In the film, we sort of heighten the competitive nature. There is a competitiveness, but we're both aware of it and we find it amusing. But yeah, it would be wrong to say that that's just completely made up, because it is definitely not.

Your movie selves seem remarkably vain and egotistical...

I think the kind of comedy that we've done on the television ([jokes] I mean, in England, I'm enormous, you understand) and the kind of comedy we do deals with human failings and insecurities and stuff like that. So what we've done in this film is very much our sort of thing--you know, our kind of calling card stuff, although we're doing it as ourselves. And really, just like with some of the characters I've created in England and performed on the television, you take elements of yourself that you think would work dramatically or comedically--shortcomings, vanities--and you don't mind highlighting them. They're not always direct. You may spot a quality that you have and think, "Well, if I heighten it a little bit, or if I just twist it round a little bit, that would be quite funny." You do it that way. The stuff in the film about hair loss...Yeah, hands up, that's me. If any of you know of a cure, tell me now.

Do you find audience members are savvy enough to distinguish the real you from the "you playing yourself" in the movie?

Well, it depends on the person, doesn't it? I mean, it depends on what level of intelligence you're dealing with--which is not a nice thing to say, but it's the truth.

Is it true that you were "discovered" by Steve?

Well, he was very instrumental in my getting a kind of foothold on television, or in doing stuff that I had created, that I had then written, or co-written. I had made a tape which had been put into the BBC...It was a show called Marion and Geoff, which is the first thing I did which won awards and did very well for me. Steve saw it, and when his production company got behind it, the BBC decided to do it, which perhaps they wouldn't have done had he not.

So you owe a lot to him?

I do, and I'm paying him back in a very strange way. I had been a big admirer of his, because he had been very big on British television and comedy for a long time, and he was very much doing what I wanted to do--character comedy, a little bit dark. So to end up working with him quite so closely has been quite peculiar in a way.

Any plans to collaborate with him on future films?

Yeah, we would like to. There's a few little ideas that we bat around.


Yeah, it would be comedy. I mean, that's our strength. I do straight stuff. I did a thing where I played Kenneth Tynan, the critic, centered around his years at the National Theatre and his time with Olivier, and putting on Oh! Calcutta! at the Roundhouse. But I think Steve and I...Our strength is comedy, and it would be silly to go, "We're going to be very straight now." Maybe later. But there's a few ideas. Especially when we come out here to America, it gets highlighted, because we both feel very British. And immediately, when you get that kind of fish-out-of-water thing, the comic possibilities just come into your head straightaway.

Your character says he has "a sexual thing" for Gillian Anderson. What was your own reaction to her? Were you a fan of The X-Files?

The honest truth is that I wasn't really a big X-Files person. I had never seen a whole episode. And I don't mean that in any disparaging way. I simply hadn't. I was very aware of it, obviously, as everybody is, and I knew who she was, but I had never watched a whole one. So I wasn't that nervous, really. And she's very down-to-earth. Very sweet. What was funny was that...We really only spent one day together, the scene where I'm playing it like Roger Moore, walking around and talking to her and stuff. It was a very cold day, and what I remember about that is we stood there, and I hadn't really got a chance to know her. And she had a lot of lines. She was running them over in her head. And she was standing there [mumbling]. And I kept going, "Sorry, what?" I kept thinking she was talking to me! And she'd go, "I'm just doing my lines." And she had a kind of English accent that day...But she's very nice. Really lovely.

At the end of the film, you and Steve trade impersonations of Al Pacino. Have you ever met Pacino? Do you know if he's aware of your impression?

No, I've never met him. I genuinely admire him. No, I don't know if he's [aware of my impersonation]. I'd love it if he was. I'd love it if he saw it and liked it.

Why mimic Pacino?

I love Pacino. I basically only do impressions of people I sort of admire, really. I have a little bag of them. I like him very much. I'd love to do something with him. I remember when I saw Scent of a Woman, and Chris O'Donnell did that big dramatic scene with the gun. I thought, "Oh, you lucky bugger!" Imagine that.

You and Steve do Godfather Pacino and modern day Pacino. Why not Scent of a Woman Pacino? Why no "hoo-ah!"?

Because it's a bit obvious. To do a "hoo-ah" is a bit obvious, so I prefer to do a, [turns on Pacino impersonation] " my name." I just think it's the obvious route to go "Hoo-ah!" Any idiot could do that. But I'd rather be my own idiot.

Did you get to improvise much material in this movie?

A lot has been made about the improvisation, but there's not that much improvisation. Certainly the opening scene is improvised in the makeup truck, the closing Pacino-esque scene is improvised, and there's the odd line in the movie improvised. But some of the stuff that you may think is improvised, like when I'm kidding Steve about his Alan Partridge television role...That was all in the script already. Maybe a part from that little bit where we have our Gillian Anderson conversation and I say, "Thank you for doing this role" and then I talk about his libido...I think that we added on. But it was pretty much in the script. What did change was that as we were filming, I think Michael saw the relationship that [Steve and I] have, on set--the kind of banter and stuff. And in the original script, I was more deferential to him, and I thought, "I'm not really sure about that," and I said, "Well, our relationship really is more interesting than that. It's a little more complex."

Could you tell us a little about your background? Where are you from and how did you get into acting?

I grew up in Port Talbot...And I went to school because it's the law. I became interested in acting and performing, and then I went to drama college in Cardiff. And while I was there, I had a comedy double act, and I got offered a job on the radio for BBC Wales, and I went and I became a radio presenter for about seven years--radio and television. I did a few little comic characters there, but really, I was feeling quite stifled, when what I wanted to do was perform and to act. Moved to London, did a bit more presenting, then started to do a bit of acting. Eventually ended up getting onto the television doing the stuff I wanted to do. I made a tape of this character that I'm known for in England called Keith Barret, and did a show called Marion and Geoff, and it all kind of went from there. I sort of got my break in about 2000, and since then, everything has gone just fine.

As someone from South Wales, did you have a sort of dream of "making it in Hollywood"?

Well, it's a funny thing because I grew up on American stuff. I was far more an American-phile than an Anglophile, or whatever the phrase is. My comedic influences were Woody Allen, and a lot of the Jewish comedians. Jackie Mason...I love Joan Rivers, Garry Shandling, Mel Brooks. And I grew up a big Elvis fan. American culture...Pacino, Hoffman...Those kind of guys. So I think most actors have a dream of America, and of Hollywood. I'm 40 now. I think if you're like your Colin Farrell or your Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, or you're the young guy, it's different. You get older...I think it becomes more of a, "Well, it'd be nice if it happened, but..." [laughs] You pay more attention to the jet lag and stuff like that.

Thanks for your time.

Well, thank you very much. Nice to meet you all.

Related Material

Movie Coverage: Tristram Shandy


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