How do you remake Shakespeare's "Hamlet," the most revered text in English, into something entirely original, critically acclaimed and incredibly lucrative?
If you're Steve Coogan, the quirky British comic and toast of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, you star in the riotously original comedy, "Hamlet 2," a risky film that made its world premiere at the festival and was immediately offered a $10 million deal from Focus Features.
In an interview with Peter Travers for ABC News Now's "Popcorn," Coogan explains that he was not dissatisfied with the Bard's work when he set out to rework it, and he even gives the English playwright some credit. "Hamlet" is a classic, obviously, and Shakespeare did a pretty good job, all things considered," he says. "I think it's wrong to say that nothing can be improved, and "Hamlet 2" is our attempt to reinvent "Hamlet" for a 21st-century, snowboarding, iPod generation."
Coogan was tapped to play Dana Marschz, a schoolteacher in a fledgling drama department who hopes to save the program by writing a sequel to "Hamlet." Coogan admits that "it's partly a satire on those inspirational teacher movies like "Mr. Holland's Opus" and "Dead Poet's Society," and that genre of inspirational teachers." But Mr. Marschz is not like those other favorite teachers. "What makes it different is that he tells everyone he's an inspirational teacher," says the comic.
Coogan describes his character concisely as "a heroic idiot" and admits that the paradox presented acting challenges for him. "The problem with playing funny, slightly stupid people," Coogan says, "is trying to make the audience laugh at him and then still root for him."
In spite of this characterization, Coogan was thrilled at the opportunity to play a heroic idiot. "I read the script and thought it was very funny, made me laugh out loud on my own. … I knew it was something I wanted to do."
Coogan then fought persistently for the role from "Hamlet 2" co-writer and director, Andrew Fleming, dishing that he "tried to beg him, tried to convince him I was right for the part." After what he describes as months of "almost stalking" Fleming, Coogan jokes that Fleming "tried all the usual things, like exclusion orders via the court, but that failed. So, in the end, he found the best course of action was to give me the part."
"Hamlet 2" offers what Coogan describes as a "myriad of different genres," with musical numbers, moments of inspiration and a cameo by Marschz in the school play as a "sexy Jesus." Coogan explains that the film is "confusing, and yet it makes sense. It is its own little comedy paradox." He continues: "Somehow this strange, weird, odd creation of Dana Marschz ends up working and actually moving people."
Director Andrew Fleming tapped Academy Award nominated actress Catherine Keener to star alongside Coogan as the dissatisfied wife of his heroic idiot. Coogan explains his co-star is "long-suffering in a funny way." And '80's icon Elizabeth Shue plays a modified version of herself; if Elizabeth Shue had given up on Hollywood and turned her professional energy toward nursing in Tucson, Ariz.
This is a veteran American cast for an actor hoping to cross over into mainstream American cinema. Coogan explains how he got there: "I had a fairly comfortable career in England making comedy." But Coogan wanted to appeal to American audiences as well. "I love America so much, I wanted to reach out and grab it with both hands, and kiss it on its national face with a movie. And "Hamlet 2" absolutely fit the bill for that."
Coogan made a foray onto the American silver screen with the role of Octavius, a cantankerous yet miniature Roman figurine in "Night at the Museum," but he admits to a long-standing enthusiasm for American comedy. "There's a lot of interesting comedy coming out of America, and interesting creative people." When pushed to name favorites, Coogan dishes: "'South Park' makes me laugh, 'The Simpsons' makes me laugh … Judd Apatow's movies, stuff that is smart but accessible."
With the success of "Hamlet 2," Coogan is certain to be a welcome member of the American comedy clique. He humbly admits: "I wouldn't be so presumptuous to try to dominate American comedy. But if you imagine American comedy as a party, I would certainly like to be invited. And I would sit quietly in the corner and occasionally propose a toast to the other comics."
Coogan describes his future plans in a manner, like his film, both humorous and paradoxical: "I like to do good work with interesting people. I'm just a simple boy that wants to do simple work … but in a complicated way, if that makes sense."