Eating and Acting
May 17, 2011 | by Jennie Yabroff
The British actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon met for dinner recently at an Italian restaurant in New York. As a plate of cheese and meat was passed around the table, Brydon, who was wearing a pink shirt, grabbed his midsection and sighed. “I’ve gained so much weight, and I haven’t been able to shift it,” he said. “It makes me so mad.” The men were in town because their new film, The Trip, was playing at the Tribeca Film Festival. In The Trip, Coogan and Brydon play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves and drive around England’s Lake District reviewing restaurants for The Observer. (The film originally aired as a six-part series on the BBC.) During filming, the men ate each meal three times, to allow for different camera setups. “Steve was smart,” Brydon said. “He just pushed the food around his plate. But I ate everything. Eating makes you a better actor because it distracts part of your brain. It’s like driving—if you’re eating or driving, you’re doing something real, so the acting seems more real, too.” (Much of The Trip takes place on the road, but Coogan did all the driving.)
The salad arrived. Brydon said that Michael Winterbottom, the film’s director, decided to make The Trip after noticing how many movies about food were playing at film festivals. Winterbottom chose the itinerary for the trip. (At dinner, a publicist suggested that the director needed a vacation after his previous movie, the ultra-violent The Killer Inside Me.) Brydon and Coogan worked with Winterbottom on Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, playing similarly exaggerated versions of their public personas: Coogan, the hedonistic, self-destructive comedian unable to shed his most famous role, the blissfully boorish Alan Partridge; Brydon, the contented family man whose fame as radio host and comedian is slowly eclipsing Coogan’s. In The Trip, Coogan spends evenings smoking pot, sleeping with comely hotel staff, and staring discontentedly in the mirror, while Brydon calls his wife for cozy long-distance tuck-ins (“speaking of boiled eggs, I’m not wearing my pajama bottoms”).
Part of the joke of the film is that neither man knows very much nor particularly cares about food or wine, as evidenced at the first stop, The Inn at Whitewell, where Coogan, struggling to describe his tomato soup, says, “Well ... it tastes of tomatoes.” Later, at Holbeck Ghyll in Windmere, Brydon approves a Premiere Cru—“premiere: first, the best”—before getting stuck on what cru means. At the Michelin-starred L’Enclume in Cumbria (“a duck-fat lolly? Why not?”), Coogan declares their appetizer of manioc leaf liquor topped with a ginger whiskey fizz has the consistency of snot—albeit snot that “tastes great.”
“I hate what I call the dot-dot-dot people, where they put the sauce around the plate, dot, dot, dot,” Coogan said, cutting his roast chicken entrée. He was also wearing a pink shirt. “It’s like, put the fucking sauce on. I like simple dishes, well cooked. I don’t like overly fussy-tasting menus. The one really great thing I ate was at Kiplin Hall, in Yorkshire, this forced rhurbarb dessert. It’s grown in the dark, so it’s very pink—it’s kind of the veal of vegetables. If you can have vegetable cruelty, this is it. But it was so good. I ate three of those, and I want to go back for more. I think of it at night, when I’m lonely.”
The wait staff removed the plates. Coogan had cleaned his without seeming to taste much of it while Brydon, a few seats away, had left a few bites of salmon on his plate, as though to prove he could. “Rob and I get on better in real life than we do in the film,” Coogan said, though the actors barely spoke throughout the meal, aside from some light banter about whose shirt was more “vivid”—a road trip can try the strongest of friendships. In the film, their needling competitiveness to out-funny each other veers between mutual appreciation and open hostility. (A clip of their dueling Michael Caine impressions has more than 800,000 YouTube hits.) As The Observer’s real food critic, Jay Rayner wrote about the series, “what rings most true about The Trip is the sense of a friendship ... constantly being reconvened at the table.”
Dessert arrived—poached pears with zabaglione. “This is quite nice,” Coogan said. He took three more bites in quick succession. It was time to go, but Coogan wasn’t ready to leave the table. “This is so nice,” he said, scraping the plate with his spoon, then stood and drank his coffee in three gulps.
Jennie Yabroff writes about art and culture for Newsweek.