Interview: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon talk The Trip
James R | On 28, Apr 2014
Season 3 of The Trip premieres on Thursday 6th April on Sky Atlantic. For more information on how to watch it – or where to catch up on Season 1 and 2, click here.
The Trip is a fascinating project. It stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as themselves, deconstructing their identities through impersonations of others, while also getting plastered.
When they premiere the edited down feature film cut of The Trip to Italy (aka. The Trip Season 2) at Sundance London, the boundaries become even more blurred.
“We’re not just going to do a double act,” Coogan announces to an expectant crowd afterwards. Before even answering a question, though, they do just that, slipping into their familiar personas – as real, you suspect, as the fictionalised versions of themselves on screen.
“Any questions? Or can we wrap this up…” deadpans Brydon, already subverting his affable reputation.
The show’s success relies precisely on that inability to tell what’s true and what’s invented.
“It’s all a creation,” Steve tells us in an interview beforehand. “Rob and I talk about what we’re going to speak about. We also plan how one of us is going to annoy the other.”
That ability to press each other’s buttons is something that comes naturally: the pair are, of course, very good friends.
“If we spend 8 hours having dinner with each other and still want to go out for dinner in the evening, we clearly get on,” says Coogan. “It’s all contrived for the camera, but there’s a kernel of truth… We blow it into a tree of ugliness.”
“If you recorded what we really said to each other at dinner,” he continues, “it’d be very dull!”
Indeed, while Brydon eagerly takes the chance to do a Ronnie Corbett impression for the audience – “Can you do Ronnie?” someone calls out. “Yes,” he replies. “Very well.” – the reality of their mealtime exchanges may be disappointing for Michael Caine fans.
“Rob doesn’t constantly go around doing impressions,” admits Steve. “Frankly, that would be weird! It’s a bit odd even in the film.”
“It’s quite exciting, the more risque you’re prepared to be.”
But as with any project that meshes real life and drama so well, there is still some overlap: the truth inspires the fiction.
“Sometimes, we’ll be genuinely breaking bread together and if the conversation appears to us to be entertaining,” we’d say: ‘We should tell this to Michael, it might be something fun to talk about.'”
As in the first season (and film), the emphasis is very much on loosely scripted improvisation. “Michael mapped out the arc, what story arc there is,” explains Steve, but the rest is a case of seeing how it evolves.
“It’s 70% to 80% improvised,” agrees Brit Rosie Fellner (last seen in the fantastic Two Jacks), who plays Lucy, Rob’s young, sea-faring conquest. “As an actor, it makes you brave,” she tells us. “You can try anything.”
The show is shot in long takes to encourage that bravery. “We go on and on,” says Rosie. “The first time it’s quite rough, then Michael says ‘I like that, let’s concentrate on that’.”
The second take is then built from what they bring to the table – in the case of the dinner scenes, literally. The cameras are moved around to shoot from different directions and the cast try to repeat themselves. Of course, there’s no guarantee that’s what will happen.
“Sometimes, Mike would say ‘They talk about this’ and we would sit down and attempt to cover that ground and then end up talking something else completely!” says Coogan.
“If you have a new idea when your filming that bit, you might throw it in.”
The hard part is trying to keep a straight face – and not getting carried away.
Marta Barrio, who returns as Steve’s old flame Yolanda, points out that they are under less pressure than Steve and Rob: “The thing is we don’t have to say serious!”
“You laugh a lot,” confesses Rosie.
For the lead couple, though, it’s a challenge to appear natural without switching into performance mode – the same mode they so easily adopt in front of the Sundance crowd.
“We’re supposed to be entertaining each other,” says Steve, “not the audience. We have to pretend the camera’s not there.”
“Not always successfully,” he adds.
The pair do manage to underplay much of the dialogue, though, even making their constant Michael Caine impressions seem normal.
The actors are less convinced. “I think you’re aware when you watch us perform, we’re slightly smug because we know the first one was good,” jokes Steve. “A slight complacency.”
“That’s a lovely quality,” chimes in Rob.
“Like modern jazz musicians, we enjoy playing our instruments more than people like to listen,” agrees Steve.
“If you recorded what we really said to each other at dinner, it’d be very dull!”
That self-aware quality helps to establish the show’s surprisingly subtle tone after all, The Trip to Italy is ultimately all about them. The dynamic in this season is reversed to keep things fresh, casting Rob as the womaniser. But while that may be far from the case, the actors certainly identify with their roles – a trait that Winterbottom encourages.
“Michael works like that, he casts people to fit the role,” Rosie says.
Steve, meanwhile, describes on-screen Steve as “a bit more laissez-faire”.
“That’s because I am,” he acknowledges in the Q&A after the screening. “I’m a slightly happier person now than I was then, so I channeled that.”
You might expect a programme so driven by chemistry to spend a lot of time in rehearsal, but that isn’t the case at all.
“The first time,” Marta tells us, “we met the day before only. This time, it was just straight in!”
“I arrived one evening and started the next morning,” adds Rosie.
For Coogan and Brydon, that chemistry has been built up over a very long time, to the point where you can actually believe they’re in a BBC documentary. The illusion is so well done that in the audience after the screening, one person actually asks if they slept with the women in the programme.
“Neither of us had sex with either of them, because they’re actresses,” answers Steve, almost incredulous. “You can’t just hope that the actresses will have sex to serve the narrative.”
They are not the only ones to be so taken in, though. “People will go to [one of the restaurants] and ask ‘Does she still work here?'” reveals Rob.
That’s more understandable. Many of the non-speaking waiters – particularly the French ones – are genuine employees at each restaurant.
“Most of the waiting staff are real,” clarifies Rob. “Except for the ones we sleep with.”
Other elements are also 100% real – the food is as tasty as it appears at home, although they do have to eat every course three times.
“I put on 8 pounds in the first one because I was wolfing it down!” laughs Rob. “Steve, cleverly, didn’t.”
Do they have a favourite? “Il Riccio, the Capri Palace Hotel,” says Steve. “It’s incredibly expensive. It was £8 for a can of Coke. It was disgusting.”
They also have fond memories from Ravello – what they can remember of it, anyway. “Rob and I got very drunk,” says Steve, sheepishly. “I can’t even remember what we talk about!”
“It might be what you call method acting. We’re supposed to be drunk, so we got drunk.”
“If you get the DVD, there are outtakes,” says Rob, “but we’re so pissed.”
“Like jazz musicians, we enjoy playing our instruments more than people like to listen.”
Are they ever upset about things being removed? “There are always things that don’t make it,” Steve says, pragmatically.
Indeed, one of the interesting aspects of the project is the way it is chopped up to sell overseas in a feature-length format, using each episode’s day of the week as a chapter heading. That process sees even more things cut.
“There are things that have come out just for cultural reference,” explains Rob.
“There’s a bit in Pompeii [the episode broadcast on Friday 2nd May], which is my favourite. Steve does an incredibly brilliant Frankie Howard impression and that was originally in this film cut. When we played it at Sundance [in the US], everyone was laughing and then everyone just went ‘Hmmmm’.”
The other impressions are very much present and correct: it is telling that the movie edit of the show features the Batman and Bane skit in its entirety.
Have Bale or Hardy ever seen their impressions?
“I don’t know,” says Rob after the screening.
“Christian Bale was very kind to me,” Steve tells us earlier, “but he hadn’t seen this series, so [now] maybe he wouldn’t be quite so kind to me! I had to tell him we’d had a little dig at him and Tom Hardy in this film, but I haven’t spoken to him since I’ve done them.”
Anthony Hopkins, though, has seen Rob reciting Byron in his Welsh baritone.
“I showed the bit on the boat to him and he laughed his head off!” Rob announces to the cinema audience, who then does an impression of Anthony Hopkins laughing.
The pair clearly enjoy the chance to show off their impersonations, but The Trip’s appeal goes far deeper than that.
“It feels like a very creative thing, because so many lines are being blurred,” says Brydon, in a moment of seriousness. “Sometimes, it’s like being me and other times it takes you somewhere else: it’s a very enjoyable way of working.”
“It’s quite exciting, the more risque you’re prepared to be,” says Steve. “That’s when it gets really interesting.”
“If people take the piss out of me, I can say ‘Well, I did it first, so fuck off!'” he continues, half-jokingly.
There are currently no plans for a third season of The Trip. The way they talk about it so enthusiastically suggests they wouldn’t rule it out.
With their chemistry and personas so effortless both off-screen and on, The Trip is like watching the British equivalent of the Before Sunrise trilogy. In 9 years time, catching up with the couple as they approach old age would make for an equally fascinating follow-up. Presuming, of course, they’re still talking to each other.
As you watch them joking together, though, that seems very likely.
Just don’t ask who does a better Michael Caine impression.
“We never came to an agreement,” says Rob.
“That would escalate into bloodshed,” comments Steve.
Away from the cameras, it sounds like the truth. Then again, doesn’t it always?
The Trip to Spain (aka. The Trip Season 3) premieres at 10pm on Sky Atlantic on Thursday 6th April, with all episodes released immediately after broadcast on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream them live and on-demand on NOW, which gives you access to Sky’s signature channels for £6.99 a month, no contract.