“The Trip to Greece” marks the last stop on one of cinema’s most unlikely franchise journeys.
The film, which once again finds comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing exaggerated versions of themselves, has all the familiar elements that gave the series its cult status in the U.S. There are long, luxurious meals consumed in beautiful locations, interspersed with dueling impressions from two talented mimics channeling everyone from Mick Jagger to Michael Caine.
Beginning with 2010’s “The Trip,” which found the men on a foodie tour of the North of England, the pair have also added Spain and Italy to their itineraries. But the movies are more than just travelogues. What gives “The Trip” its potency is that intermixed with five-star meals and stunning vistas is a meditation on mortality and celebrity. In advance of the U.S. debut of “The Trip to Greece” on May 22, Coogan and Brydon spoke with Variety about why they’ve decided to give their passports a break and end the series, and how they’re weathering the coronavirus shutdown.
Director Michael Winterbottom says this is the final film. Why are you wrapping up after four movies?
Steve Coogan: To avoid jumping the shark. We eked it out by making jokes about it becoming tired and repetitive, but even that joke can become tired and repetitive. It’s the old showbiz adage of leave them wanting more, not leave them wanting less.
Rob Brydon: I was ready to finish it. That’s not to say that years down the road it won’t be interesting to revisit it. But right now I think we should just quit while we’re ahead.
It sounds like you’re leaving the door open to someday returning?
Brydon: One day, when time has passed and the years have been as kind or cruel as they will be, it might be nice to come back and see us again further down the road.
Coogan: It feels like the next one would have to be almost sort of a retrospective or a reckoning on age. I’m sure we’ll have some observations on the autumn of life. Bloody hell, did I just say that?
Are there any locations you’d still like to visit?
Coogan: If we did something in the future, I’d like to return to England. It’s kind of that old T.S. Eliot thing about coming back to where you’ve started, so you can know the place for the first time. That feels poetically correct. We talked about going to America at one point. The thing about Europe is you get a lot of bang for your buck. There’s a lot to see in such a limited space. In America everything is so spread out. We didn’t want to shoot ourselves getting on and off airplanes.
Have you been surprised that “The Trip” became a franchise?
Brydon: So much of it is Steve and myself improvising, and I always worried that we weren’t going to improvise enough good stuff. The fact that we’ve sustained it over four installments amazes me.
Coogan: The contemplative quality, that was a shock.
Brydon: Yes, I was unaware there’d be the melancholic music and the long slow shots of the landscape. When I saw the first episode I was so surprised by how slow it was, but that became its strength.
Why do you think the slow pace is its strength?
Coogan: We live in a time where movie studios and broadcasters assume that the entire world has attention deficit disorder. The YouTube generation’s mind is constantly shifting. I assume these movies are like an oasis in a desert of busyness, but I have no idea how they are received. I don’t engage with social media. I get emails from the odd friend about them.
Why don’t you use social media?
Coogan: I see so many people get sucked into a vortex of pointlessness. I feel intellectual discourse is stimulating, but rarely achieves anything other than people expressing their points of view. No one gets their opinions changed by information, by showing them statistics. But people do get persuaded by story, by emotion. Sometimes that can be nefarious like Donald Trump, who rarely deals in facts. He just deals in dog whistles that elicit Pavlovian responses.
Brydon: I’ve got to come in here — will you give the guy a break, please?
Rob, you are active on Twitter. What do you like about it?
Brydon: I used to say it’s like a very nice country pub that you can go into and exchange views, but then somebody would come over and knock you and hit your pint and a fight would start. There’s so much darkness and negativity in it, but it can also be a good way to communicate.
Coogan: Sometimes I think, “Oh God, I don’t have any social media presence. I wonder if Rob will do something for me.” I might do a tour in a couple of years. Rob, will you tweet about my tour?
Brydon: I would do it gladly.
Coogan: For free tickets?
Brydon: I wouldn’t need that Steve, because I wouldn’t want to see the show. I would want nothing more than to make you happy.
You’ve been doing these films for a decade. How have you changed?
Coogan: Now that I’m getting older, I rail against acerbic cynicism and people who are self-consciously edgy. I don’t care about style over substance. Whatever you do, try to offer some hope and say something inclusive without being naive or overly sentimental.
Do people think that "The Trip" is a documentary and this is how you are in real life?
Brydon: You’re playing a fairground-mirror version of yourself in which some parts of you are expanded and some are contracted.
Coogan: It gets confusing because sometimes I’ll say something in “The Trip'” which is a statement of fact and sometimes I’ll say something which is a bona fide lie. Michael will say, “talk about chasing a Spanish assistant across Europe.” Well, I’ve never done that, but it’s conceivable that I would. It doesn’t bother me if people think it’s me. The people who know me know it’s not me. Rob doesn’t go around doing stupid voices all the time. I’m not as precious as I appear to be in “The Trip.” We’re doing a yin yang, because it makes for better comedy. The Venn diagram of us has a lot of overlapping. If you saw Rob and I having dinner, it would be less cantankerous.
Brydon: All you’d see would be two hot guys, just shooting the breeze really.
Are there impressions that Steve does that you can’t do Rob and vice versa?
Brydon: There’s one that he does better than me, without a doubt. He does Martin Sheen, which I simply cannot do.
Coogan: I hadn’t done any impersonations for about 20 years. Wasn’t particularly interested in them. Had spent a lot of my career trying to get away from them. Michael said, “can you do some impersonations?” I thought Christ. And I honestly believe that any entertainer over 40, who makes his living doing impressions needs to take a long, hard look at himself in the mirror.
Brydon: I agree with Steve. Any person over the age of 60, who does impressions for a living needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror. I mean that’s not true. Martin Short or Dana Carvey are amazing at what they do. I find the term “impressionist” to be somewhat reductive. I kind of bristle when I’m introduced as an impressionist.
Is it weird to be opening a film about traveling at a time when everyone is stuck at home?
Brydon: You hope that it provides some escapism. We did this last year, but it seems like a lifetime ago, and just very different circumstances.
Coogan: Maybe the human race can clean its act up. Hopefully the thing that we learn from this won’t just be to bump elbows.
Brydon: It would be so dispiriting if, after all of this, nothing changed in terms of climate awareness and the environment and that whole thing.
Coogan: They said the free market would answer all our problems, except when there’s an emergency and then suddenly it can’t help us anymore. However they dress it up, we realize we need some emergency socialism right now. But I do think that we all now realize globally that government has a role, except maybe for the f–king rednecks with their semiautomatics. Even some moderate conservatives will start to think that you need big government.
Are you sad that because of the coronavirus most people won’t see the film in theaters?
Coogan: It was never going to be a superhero franchise thing.
Brydon: I think what you mean is that even fewer people will see it in theaters. It doesn’t bother me. You must interview a lot of people who absolutely live for film! But if people see it and enjoy it, that’s all I care about.
Coogan: It’s something we make on our own terms. It’s more art than business. Someone once said to me the secret to a long career is never to peak.
Brydon: That was like something James Corden told me that Bob Balaban said to him: Never be hot. Always be warm.
Coogan: Well, that’s true. “The Trip” has never been hot in America. It’s always been simmering away in a pot in the corner like some soup. It’s a very nice broth.