2 be, or not 2 be

Steve Coogan plays it straight (kinda) in the Outfest Award-winning ‘Hamlet 2’

With the queer premise of an offbeat high school drama teacher putting on a controversial musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy featuring song titles like “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” and “Gay as the Day is Long,” is it any wonder why “Hamlet 2” earned the Audience Award at July’s Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles?

“Although the reaction to the movie has been very enthusiastic from virtually everyone, the reaction of the gay community has been extra enthusiastic,” says Steve Coogan, who stars as failed actor-turned-failing drama teacher Dana Marschz alongside a standout cast that includes Amy Poehler, Catherine Keener, David Arquette and Elisabeth Shue.

“It doesn’t surprise me that the gays have responded so well,” Coogan continues. “Aside from the fact that it’s about theater, creativity and passion, I think the reason the film has resonated is because Dana is a very emotionally open person. You don’t often get a protagonist like that in a film: someone who wears his heart on his sleeve.”

“And there’s a gay in it,” adds out director and co-writer Andrew Fleming, referring to the movie’s student theater queen, played by Broadway’s “Spring Awakening” alum Skylar Astin.

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Yet despite common stereotypes of small-town drama teachers, Fleming (who wrote “Hamlet 2” with Pam Brady, a longtime collaborator of “South Park” duo Trey Parker and Matt Stone) decided to make Dana heterosexual, though certainly far from butch.

“I didn’t want to make Dana gay because I didn’t want it to become just about him being gay,” explains Fleming, who first came to LGBT filmgoers’ attention as writer and director of the 1994 comedy “Threesome” before co-writing and directing “The Craft” and “Dick.” “But those theater guys, even when they’re straight, still have this kind of flamboyance where they’re like, ‘I don’t care what people think of me.’ So we were definitely going for that fem-het thing.”

“The two of us did not want him to be that super camp, limp-wristed thing that I’ve seen done to death and find a bit tiresome,” says Coogan, a British comedian best known stateside for his roles in “Night at the Museum,” “Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” and, most recently, “Tropic Thunder.” “But we didn’t want to go the other way either. We did want him to have a feminine quality. He’s what you call a 100 percent metrosexual.”

Coogan explored a similarly honest yet respectful balance of masculine and feminine traits when he played Lisa Kudrow’s gay stepbrother in Don Roos’ 2005 film “Happy Endings.”

“Sometimes if a straight actor plays a gay man, he thinks that he has to have no feminine qualities at all to avoid the stereotype, and that’s not truthful,” he observes. “Obviously you don’t want to be seen as prejudiced or homophobic, and I think actors panic about that. I’ve seen straight actors playing gay, and they don’t do anything overtly gay apart from the fact they’ve got a boyfriend.”

It’s safe to say that Coogan’s Dana acts stereotypically gayer than most modern gay characters, even after the filmmakers took him down a nelly notch. “There was a plotline where the kids think that he’s gay for a while, but it just felt like a cliché,” reveals Fleming. He adds that a filmed but ultimately scrapped threesome scene with Coogan, Keener and Arquette will be included on the DVD extras.
Fittingly, Coogan is secure enough in his own heterosexuality to acknowledge that he has comfortably indulged his feminine side from a very young age.

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“I was never into sports; I was into film, television, acting and being characters, and I also liked to play in the Wendy house,” he shares. “You’re probably going to tell me I’m a closet gay now, but I’m not. But I wonder whether people thought I was gay, because when my brother would go off exploring, I would prefer to sit with my mum and her friend and listen to them gossip.

“I like to think I’m still in touch with my feminine side. If you’re hung up on being perceived as a red-blooded heterosexual, then you probably won’t be a very good actor; you have to be open to all aspects of your personality. I really don’t give a damn about being perceived in a macho way.”

Although Coogan might not be concerned with how people view his sexuality, his body — described in “Hamlet 2” as a fine swimmer’s build while he rocks a wifebeater as “Sexy Jesus” — is another story entirely. “Although I talk about my art and everything, the truth is that the first thing I think about when I see myself on screen is that my face looks fat,” he admits. He adds that he watched his diet during filming but ate a giant bowl of pasta the moment the movie wrapped.

“Even though I’m not as trim as I should be — and I’m not particularly proud of this — there’s a narcissistic streak that I’m very aware of. I try to perfect that unstudied look — when you go out in the evening looking like everything was just thrown on, but of course there’s a lot of careful thought that has gone into it.”

After a moment of reflection, Coogan shares that the metrosexuality showcased in “Hamlet 2” appeals not only to his queer fan base, but also to his significant other. “You know the girls who hang around with gay guys because they have a certain commonality of taste? Well, I said to my girlfriend, ‘Look, you should be really pleased that I like furniture, design and clothes — and yet you can have sex with me.’”

— “Hamlet 2” (Focus Features) is in theaters now. Check local listings for show times.

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