Absurding the Bard

Andy Fleming, Steve Coogan talk about creating a straight theater queen.

By: GARY M. KRAMER

HAMLET 2

Directed by Andrew Fleming

Distributed by Focus Features

Opens Aug. 22 Citywide

“Hamlet 2,” is a broad but genial comedy about an insecure Tucson high school drama director, Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), struggling for respect and success. Fighting to teach a class of misfits as budget cuts are shutting down his theater program, Dana slowly sees his job, his marriage, and his life fall apart as he tries to stage “Hamlet 2,” a multimedia presentation in which all of Shakespeare's cast come back from the dead via a time machine and perform songs like “Rock Me Sexy Jesus.”

In separate interviews, Andrew Fleming, the film's openly gay co-writer and director, and actor Steve Coogan, who is straight, spoke about their film.

From Los Angeles, Fleming talked about why he made a “sequel” to one of Shakespeare's most famous plays: “Well, I think the real question is, why has it taken so long? Clearly, over the millennia, people have been crying out for more – and a happy ending, too. It's an absurdist notion, really.”

“Hamlet 2” is absurdist, and Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady (of “South Park” fame) skewer sexuality, religion, actors and acting, ethnicity, and high school musicals. In the film, Dana Marschz says, “Sometimes you have to go a little crazy to make great fucking art!,” and this sentiment seems to reflect Fleming's queer — as in odd and as in gay — sensibilities. He laughed at the mention of the line and admitted it is skewering Dana's self-absorption, but he also acknowledged the truth he sees in that statement.

]So did Steve Coogan, who said, “Some of those things I said in the movie I said in jest, and they sound pretentious. But in actual fact, taken out of context and trying not to be funny,” he paused a moment to scoff, “I agree with them. Being creative to me is everything.”

The actor answered rapidly, and with enthusiasm, despite it being eight o'clock in the morning. He nearly stumbled as he tried to get his thoughts and words out quickly. It is an endearing, telling trait, and very different from how he appears on screen as Dana.

In “Hamlet 2” Coogan throws himself into Dana with vigor, pratfalling, being abusive, and being abused. If he plays a pompous ass, Coogan said that he is happy to be the butt of a joke as long as it makes people laugh.

“Most humans are worried about looking like a fool, being humiliated, or doing the wrong thing – having people laugh at them in a bad way. For me, it is liberating, because you don't have to be concerned about it. I feel more secure being a fool. I'll do anything if I think it will serve the comedy.”

In the film, Dana has a nervous breakdown in front of his students and openly discusses his testicles with them.

“Steve knows you have to go into an uncomfortable zone. That's what he liked about the script,” Fleming said about his leading man, whose character goes nutty and does stuff that makes people squirm.

“Hamlet 2” uses Coogan's comedic stylings and timing well. He generates chuckles wearing a ridiculous caftan, gets to do physical comedy playing both Einstein and Jesus, and rollerblades badly to amusing effect. The actor enjoys doing physical humor and claimed that he did all his own stunts, “apart from the one where I [rollerblade] into a truck.”

He also plays drunk, mimics Jeremy Irons, and has one very funny moment of coprolalia — in a Tourette Syndrome-induced profanity-laced outburst.

“I try to do characters that think they are in control,” Coogan said. “As a comic, you tend to be very controlling about trying to make this or that moment funny, so I've learned not to worry too much and to let go – let things happen to you. One thing in 'Hamlet 2' that is a little different than what I've done before is that the character is very vulnerable and also well-intentioned. He has a good heart. Generally the characters I play are a little more dislikable. Doing a character with empathy is new to me.”

*The actor discussed how to best play Dana at length with Fleming, and one critical decision the filmmaker made was to have the drama director be queeny, but not gay.

“We liked the idea that there was a theatricality about him, but it wasn't necessary to have him be gay,” Fleming explained.

Dana is a gay-acting straight man who pitches hissy fits like a little girl and then dances wildly to the Gay Men's Chorus who perform in his production. But he never crosses over to same-sex love.

“We didn't want to make him a repressed [gay man] who couldn't come out,” Coogan said. “Dana is emotionally open and raw. Reading the script, he sounded gay to me, but Andy wanted to pull back from that. And I didn't want to turn it into a big camp kind of extravaganza. There have been too many flouncy caricature things like 'The Birdcage.' Sometimes when straight guys play gay guys, they play so over the top, it's not believable.”

Coogan's portrait of a high-strung high school theater director is often very funny. In real life, the British actor suggests he has nothing in common with Dana, being more emotionally closed than his egomaniacal screen creation. Yet the actor can't resist admitting, “I feel a lot of what he feels, but in a contained way.”

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