Coogan says he was moved by the true story that inspired 'Philomena'

By KAREN BUTLER, United Press International  |  Feb. 21, 2014 at 8:24 PM
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NEW YORK, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Actor, writer and producer Steve Coogan, who is half Irish and was raised Catholic, has said he felt a deep connection to the stirring true story at the heart of his Oscar-nominated, big-screen drama "Philomena."

Directed by Stephen Frears, the movie is about Philomena Lee, an unwed pregnant teen sent in the 1950s to the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland, where she was forced to work in the convent laundry and give up her son for adoption when he was a toddler.

Former British Labor party aide-turned-journalist Martin Sixsmith first heard Lee's story in 2004 and traveled to Ireland and the United States to help her find out what happened to her child. Judi Dench and Coogan play Lee and Sixsmith in the film, while Sophie Kennedy Clark plays Lee as a younger woman.

"I'm creative. I write. I wanted to tell a story. I came across this story. It moved me. I felt connected to it. I felt connected to the subject matter. I'm half Irish. I'm Catholic. I was raised Catholic, so I feel like I have license to properly connect with the subject matter and not fall into cliches about how the Irish are rendered and religion is represented," Coogan told reporters at a roundtable interview in New York before the film's U.S. theatrical run began last fall.

The 48-year-old Greater Manchester, England, native said he relied heavily on Sixsmith's 2009 book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," but also conducted his own extensive research as he penned the movie's screenplay with co-writer Jeff Pope.

"I retraced some of Martin's footsteps. I went and looked around the abbey and had a little hunt around as any good, self-respecting journalist would," Coogan recalled. "I did my own research as a writer and sometimes I was walking in the footsteps of Martin."

The actor-scribe went on to say he also spent time with the real Lee and Sixsmith in an effort to fully understand their incredible journey.

"In fact, one of the scenes of the film, just as an example, when I sat down with Philomena and Martin at his house... I did lots of interviews and recorded them, just like you are doing now, and used that as the basis for the script," Coogan explained. "I saw some video footage of [Lee's son] Anthony and I was sitting next Philomena and she hadn't seen this footage before. It was him when he was 3 years old. The footage was of her son the last time she saw him and she suddenly became overwhelmed and grabbed my hand and said, 'I did love him, you know.' And I put that line in the film as if it was happening to Martin, but, in reality, it happened to me. So, there was a lot of art imitating life in the way I went about this."

Co-starring Mare Winningham, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley and Ruth McCabe, "Philomena" is in theaters now. The film earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as a Best Actress nod for Dench.

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