Two semifamous British actors eating in fine restaurants around Europe and doing impressions of more famous British (and American) actors—not a foolproof premise for a film. But improv masters Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, with director Michael Winterbottom, have parlayed it into a hit franchise with The Trip (through England’s Lake District) and its two sequels, The Trip to Italy and this summer’s The Trip to Spain. Here, Brydon outlines the difference between his real and fictional selves.
Just before I called you I head that Roger Moore just died.
"Yes, I’ve just heard that as well. Very sad. He was 89, wasn’t he."
Yes. He made it a long time and lived a good life, one that you and Steve Coogan seem to take such pleasure in celebrating with your impressions of him.
"Yes, absolutely. That’s what it is. That’s the right word. When you’re doing someone like him, or most of the people that we do, it’s a celebration of him."
How much of a sense of the real you and Steve are we actually getting in The Trip movies?
"It’s a big old mix. Some of it very much just as we are, some of it almost diametrically opposite. The example I always give is, in the first film [set in England’s Lake District] we go to a place called Gordale Scar. And Steve says, 'I’m going up to climb this sort of dried up waterfall,' and I say, 'Oh god, you won’t get me up there.'
Well, in reality, I’d be up there like a shot, but it suits us for the program that I’m more timid, and that he’s very adventurous in all areas. But I’d like to point out to your readers that I’ve been skydiving in my life, and I’ve abseiled down a 90-foot waterfall. I think it’s important that they know this."
Are you given a script, or more of a general direction?
"Some parts of it are scripted. Certainly the parts that are like, 'We have to get out of here because we have to be in Pompeii at three, and your assistant is joining us for dinner.' If it’s something that needs to be said to serve the plot, then yes. Lots of the bits that people like is stuff that we just come up with on the day."
Do you get to actually enjoy yourself on these trips? Or does the food get cold after you’re done filming the Roger Moore impressions?
"With the meals, we eat every course three times. So we have three starters before we move on to the main; three mains… They move the cameras around and what have you, and we finesse what we’ve come up with. In The Trip to Spain, we seemed to cover a lot more ground physically in quite a short space of time, so we’d often get to the end of filming and have a two-hour drive, and then when we get to the other end, [director] Michael [Winterbottom] will be filming us as we arrive.
It’s a lovely way to work. Steve and I often eat together in the evening after the shoot. In reality we would never sit there arguing. We would never sit there doing impressions to each other, really. We would just, like most people, talk about our families, what our friends are up to. I suppose some of the conversations where [our characters are] eating we would probably have, but we wouldn’t be looking for the comic beat every time."
That would be exhausting.
"Well yeah. In the films over the years, we’ve argued about the merits of Wales versus the north of England—that’s not something I’d ever do. We’ve done all sorts of things that wouldn’t happen in real life."
You get the impression that the characters Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon wouldn’t see each other socially if they didn’t have this assignment. Is that the case in real life?
"Yeah, that’s how it’s portrayed. He and I get on better than we ever have, personally. We text each other, may send an email, but he’s not somebody that… We’re big chums but he lives down on the south coast of England and I’m just outside London, so it’s not like we’re on each other’s doorstep. But I would say that we have a warmer relationship now, certainly than ever."
How has your approach to the series changed since the beginning?
"By now we know what we’re trying to do. When it was first offered to us, Steve and I both turned it down twice because it sounded to me very indulgent, and certainly its critics would say that it is. We thought, what’s this going to be? So when we finally did it, I didn’t really know what to expect.
And then when I saw [2010’s The Trip], there was far more melancholy to it than I remembered [from filming it] because my memory of it was just laughing a lot, and coming home on weekends and saying to my wife, 'Oh it was great, Steve said this and then I said that and we laughed.' So then when you go back to the second one [2014’s The Trip to Italy], you think, 'Well I sort of know now what we’re going for.' And then with the third one, even more so. And then the challenge becomes keeping it fresh and not resting on your laurels. And I suppose people are more aware of it."
Has it become easier to book the restaurants you film in?
"The first one that we did, several of them didn’t want to have us because they didn’t know what we were going to say. Michael told them, 'Well look they’re going to be improvising so I don’t know what they’re going to say.' So, they said, 'Well, then you can’t come.' Much to their regret because what the places found was that the booking went through the roof as a result of the films.
So, then as the series has gone on, it’s become a lot easier to get places. And now I’ve got people who send me photographs of themselves in the restaurants we’ve filmed in, saying 'Hey we’ve come here because you recommended it.' Somebody on Twitter put a video yesterday of her husband playing 'Guess the bill,' the game that I play at the end of the meal sometimes. That’s always nice when you hear people have picked up on that kind of thing."
Could you see yourself doing these films for the foreseeable future?
"As long as neither of us felt that it would be diminishing returns, yes. I know there’s an appetite for them. And I rather like charting my aging process, because you can really see us aging. It’s quite interesting.
A lot of people this time around have picked up on the aging and said, 'This one really addresses the whole aging thing.' And my response to that is, 'Well, they all have, really.' Maybe we’re just looking that much older that people are picking up on it more. Because to me it’s always been about that."
In your own travels, what destinations are you most eager to visit or return to?
"Oh, Australia, I spent time in Sydney about 20 years ago doing a TV show there, and fell in love with it totally. I’ll probably take my standup show there in the next couple of years at some point as an excuse to get back there."
What did you love about it?
"Sydney is a remarkable city because it’s this vibrant, bustling, modern city, but it’s built around this incredible harbor. People have told me, 'Oh the harbor’s amazing' and I remember thinking 'It’s a harbor, how amazing can it be?' But it’s full of energy and life. And then you’ve got all these beaches that are literally five minutes away. And if you’re British, Australia is just like a nicer version of Britain. It’s as if Hollywood set designers were doing a British seaside resort and they give it bright sunshine and friendly people."
When you get to a new destination, new location, what’s the first thing you do?
"I think like any man of culture, any man of the arts, I do what any man would do, I get the Wi-Fi code."