Steve Coogan, the British comic best known to U.S. audiences who watch a lot of BBC America, is unsurprisingly convincing as a London smut tycoon in the new biopic The Look of Love. His character, based on the now-deceased “King of Soho” Paul Raymond, spends most of the movie having sex with strangers, hanging out in strip clubs, and doing drugs. Coogan, who achieved semi-fame with movies like 24 Hour Party People and Hamlet 2, is no stranger to those particular vices, especially during the last decade. (His marriage ended in 2005 after two strippers bragged to the press about a cocaine-fueled night of debauchery in Coogan’s hotel room.) While art may be imitating life, Look of Love is far more entertaining (and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny) than the reality probably was for either Coogan or Raymond.
I called Coogan, aka Alan Partridge (hello, BBC America fans!), to talk about porn, strippers, and the baby he probably didn’t have with Courtney Love.
About ten years ago, The Who guitarist Pete Townshend got busted for having child porn on his computer, which he said was research for his autobiography. How much Look of Love research porn is on your laptop right now?
No porn at all?
Oh there’s porn. There’s quite a bit of recreative porn on my laptop. Anyone who says they don’t have any is either a liar or a puritan.
Your honesty is refreshing. Most people deny their porn.
Christians, you mean?
Yes, I guess that is what I mean.
I find the more puritanical and fundamentalist Christian a person is, the more likely there is to be a lot of porn on their laptop.
At the London premiere of Look of Love, you claimed you’d visited strip clubs as research. Was that just a joke or was that really a part of your process?
It was half a joke and half true. We did the research and we enjoyed it at the same time.
You have a history with strip clubs, as a longtime fan and patron. Was it a different experience looking at naked women as an actor than it was as a paying customer?
It was. I’m getting older now, so I’m quieting down a bit. It wasn’t the most pivotal part of my research. I mean, it’s an easy connection to make.
That you used to love going to strip clubs and now you’re in a film about strip clubs?
To me, it is not something that I particularly dwell on. I wanted to do this movie because it dealt with an interesting subject. The British often shy away from any cinematic interpretation of real sex. They sometimes have what I call “subtle sex,” which is really introspective and has soft music in the background. Either that or it’s played for comedy. The British are kind of hung up about sex. They find it kind of titillating and they make jokes about it because they’re nervous.
Sometimes sex is genuinely funny though.
I agree. The truth is somewhere in the middle of funny and serious.
A nervousness about sex is not unique to Britain.
Well, it tends to be in Europe anyway. The Europeans — let me talk about the Europeans. When Americans talks about Europeans, they are thinking Britain and the rest of Europe. When we talk about Europeans, we talk about everywhere else. And the rest of Europe tends to be very comfortable with sexuality. The British and the Americans are kind of hung up about it.
Americans are hung up about sex? How dare you, sir!
There’s this strange sanctimonious moralizing that’s more present than ever, especially in the U.S. The fundamentalists are insistent that they know best. It’s a dictatorial attitude towards personal morality, which is a modern creation that came about in the 19th century.
Prior to that it was a moral free-for-all?
Well, look at the 18th century. There was a lot more freedom going on. I’m working on a new film with [Look of Love director] Michael Winterbottom about the Romantic poets. They didn’t have those conservative values where certain lifestyles are imposed and everybody should have 2.4 children and a dog and a cat and a house and you should feel like God and you should believe in God and you should be a capitalist. I don’t buy any of that. I like to do movies that provoke rather than reinforce those conservative values.
Peter Stringfellow, who owns several strip clubs in London, wrote on his website that he allowed Look of Love to shoot in his Angels Soho club “because of my friendship with Steve.” Is that true?
Yeah. I helped open some doors.
Wow. You have strip club connections. That’s pretty badass.
I’m sort of well regarded in the U.K. So that makes things a lot easier. And for them I guess it was one of those “no publicity is bad publicity” kind of things. I think they quite liked the idea that this was an untold story.
Of Paul Raymond? Or British strip clubs?
Both, I suppose. What tends to happen in most movies is that strip clubs are used as a short hand for unsympathetic, sleazy people. And that’s just a lazy cliché. We wanted to do something more than that.
This Stringfellow guy sounds like somebody you should’ve done all your research with. He’s like the Donald Trump of naked lady parts.
He’s done quite well, yes. But his success has kind of been in the wake of Paul Raymond. Raymond really set the template for him. Raymond faced a lot of legal challenges, and had to contend with bribery and corrupt policemen trying to shut down his clubs. He also tried to make it glamorous.
With the pythons and the costumes?
All the theatricality. At the start of his career, he tried to take cues from the Folies Bergère in France, which is a glamorous dance show that both men and women go to and it isn’t seen as risqué or hip or edgy. It’s just what people do. He tried to use a bit of that.
If you went into the strip club business, would your club be wall-to-wall lap dances, or more like one of Paul Raymond’s burlesque shows, with dancers wearing feathers and trying not to be eaten by lions?
The feathers and lions, of course. Raymond, in the end, had to compete with the liberalization of publishing in Britain and America. So he put on these sleazy live bed shows where people simulate sex, which is a little bit depressing.
As opposed to women in feathers?
The stuff he did in the 1950s and the early ’60s was more — there was something celebratory and joyful about it.
And yet it probably isn’t the best strip club business model for 2013.
I seriously doubt it would make any money at all. Because, you know, you can find porn at the flip of a switch. It was much more interesting back in those pre-Internet days, when you didn’t see nudity everywhere. That made it more tantalizing. A woman wearing a revealing dress will always be sexier than a naked woman.
When you see biopics about American porn entrepreneurs, guys like Larry Flynt or the Mitchell brothers, they tend to be smarmy and self-confident. But Paul Raymond, at least the way you played him — he’s kind of a nerd.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. He’s just created this persona for himself, kind of like the Wizard of Oz. He was the man behind the curtain.
A guy surrounded by that many naked women shouldn’t have to name-drop Ringo Starr as often as he does.
Well, that kind of shows you the emotional level he’s at. He surrounds himself with all the packings of an almost adolescent fantasy life. But none of it’s real. It’s all fabricated. He’s not a hero, and he’s not a villain. He’s somewhere in the middle, and those are always the most interesting roles.
Do you have a moral judgment of Paul Raymond? Was his life well lived?
I think you need a balance and I think he got the balance wrong. Let me put it this way: When it comes to morality, I’d rather have an unfaithful president like Bill Clinton, who tried to reform welfare, than a faithful George Bush who propagated an illegal war on the rest of the world. So that is where my morality stands.
You’re with the Romantic Poets.
A hundred percent. I am sick of moral conservatives who tell you to start a family and stay faithful to your wife but feel free to fuck the rest of the world. That to me is far less moral than a guy like Paul Raymond who ran a business that fed the sexual appetite, which is an honest sexual appetite for men.
One could argue that his business was exploitative of women.
You could, yes. But depending on which side of the fence you’re on, you could argue that the sexual liberation of the late ’60s, which Paul Raymond was a very big part of, led to women being emancipated in some ways. That they found a voice during that time, with feminism. It’s complicated. So our view on the way he operated, he exploited people, but I don’t really judge him morally because I think he was so consumed in a nocturnal lifestyle that he didn’t get out and smell the coffee.
Which is… a bad thing, a good thing?
As I was playing him, there were many times when I thought, there but for the grace of God go I. You know what I mean?
It could’ve been your life?
Well, right now I live in the Lake District and I go hiking. But you don’t get headlines like “Steve Coogan Enjoys Leisurely Afternoon of Hiking.” That doesn’t make good copy. Nobody wants to read that.
Given your past addictions, to things like strippers and drugs, it must’ve been difficult to play a guy addicted to strippers and drugs.
I tend to not really give a shit, really. I don’t really care.
Yeah, but it’s like Mel Gibson doing a movie about an alcoholic anti-Semite. You’re inhabiting an identity you worked pretty hard to discard.
People are going to make their connections. Which is fine. As long as the performance of it is good, I don’t care. There were days when we used to say, what was in today’s paper is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper. But that’s no longer the case.
Now we have the Internet.
And you can’t wrap fish and chips in the Internet. So that stuff stays out there. But it’s kind of old hat. It’s what I did a long time ago. When I became successful, I enjoyed myself a little.
But making films about drugs and sex and all the great stuff you used to enjoy — it never feels like revisiting your demons?
Not at all. If anything, it’s like aversion therapy. You keep doing scenes over and over again with three women in the bed with you, and we had to do them all in one week. Three girls would step out and another three girls would step into the bed.
That doesn’t sound too bad.
It sounds like a fantasy but by the end of it, I just wanted to go for a hike on my own in the north of England, in the hills. Because it became a sort of “be careful what you wish for” kinda thing.
You seem very sexually healthy right now. You’ll admit to having porn on your computer but you’re not all that interested in having drug-fueled three-ways anymore. How did you get to that place?
I’m sort of more unapologetic. What happened at the time, when I was in the midst of enjoying myself perhaps a bit more than I should, is I fell into a kind of trap. A trap created by a right-wing conservative press that castigates you for certain lifestyle choices. I don’t apologize for my behavior anymore.
It probably helps that you’re not doing much anymore that requires an apology.
But that shouldn’t matter. Whatever I do or don’t do shouldn’t matter. Moral certainty is dangerous. Moral certainty is what makes people go to war unnecessarily and illegally. Morality, as any halfway intelligent human being would tell you, is a very subjective thing. A lot of people think in a different way than they think they are thinking. You know what I mean?
Look at all those American preachers who got caught with their pants down. They say one thing and they are doing another. I try to be more honest about it, both in my thinking and my behavior.
In that spirit of total honesty, I’d love to ask you about the love child you supposedly had with Courtney Love eight years ago.
I didn’t have a child with Courtney. That was a lie.
Oh, I know. But in the hypothetical gossip world in which this kid exists, is he or she well taken care of?
Is this a joke?
Yes. Did you ever name the child? Does he or she live with you or Courtney?
This is ridiculous.
I agree. So what you’re saying is, the illegitimate son or daughter you didn’t technically have with Courtney Love has never met his or her biological father?
If there was some truth in that I would dignify it with a response. But there’s not truth in it.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)