Steve Coogan's face slips easily into a sneer. Too easily, he thinks.

For the British actor, who is famed for his snark and his doltish snobs (such as the failing TV host Alan Partridge), cynicism has become his stock in trade. He toys with it in films such as "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" and the recent road comedy "The Trip." It spills into his personal life in his feuds with the British media -- journalists and the hosts of TV's "Top Gear."

But a simple human-interest newspaper story made him weep and convinced him that story should be a movie. That movie, "Philomena," has changed his life.

"We live in a cynical world," he says. "I've made my living from being cynical. But you get tired of it. If everyone's cynical, how about I try being sincere? What would that be like?"

Moved by story

The Guardian newspaper story was about a woman whose baby was stolen by Irish nuns in the 1950s. The headline screamed, "The Catholic Church Sold My Child." But what moved Coogan was a photo of the reporter, Martin Sixsmith, and the woman, Philomena Lee.

"She was laughing," Coogan says. "I wanted to explore how she got to a place where she could laugh again. Her grace, her serenity, her ability to forgive a church that did this bad thing to her -- that piqued my interest."

"Philomena," the film Coogan co-wrote, produced and co-stars in, has earned four Oscar nominations and become something of a game changer for Coogan, 48, whose movie work in the United States has mostly been in independent films ("Hamlet 2'') or supporting work in ensemble comedies ("Tropic Thunder," "Night at the Museum'').


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Turning a new leaf

In the New York Daily News, Elizabeth Weitzman called him "a gifted actor who's been striving valiantly, but somewhat in vain, to be taken seriously." But his performance opposite the Oscar-nominated Judi Dench in the title role is "understated, watchful, (with) his jokester reflexes in check (mostly)," wrote Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Coogan says, "There was a sneering quality to a lot of the criticism about me doing this -- 'Who's he think he is?' 'What, he's not happy making people laugh?' 'Got to be taken seriously?' 'Get OVER yourself!' "

He laughs. "Yeah, you have to get past that," he continues. "They might not take me seriously on my own, but we pitched it to the BBC. And Gabby (Gabrielle) Tana -- my co-producer, who did 'The Duchess,' 'Coriolanus,' 'The Invisible Woman' -- held my hand. We showed the script to Judi, and (director) Stephen Frears. So it wasn't just the funny guy who wants to be taken seriously knocking on doors."

Coogan felt, from that photo of the real Philomena laughing, that he had license to find the humor in this very sad story. That's why he agreed to co-write the screenplay. He says he sort of backed into co-starring in it.

"I didn't set out to play him because he's a journalist and I don't like journalists," Coogan says. "I like good journalists. The bad ones -- they try to caricature me as someone who doesn't like journalists."

He didn't want the film to be "anti-church." He says, "I learned to respect the church more. I was raised a Catholic, like Martin in the movie. And I'm not religious, like Martin. But for all my criticisms of the church and what it did, there are people of faith who I can still learn from. I left the film with a lot more self-doubt."

Coogan and company know that "Philomena," which up for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best actress and best musical score awards, is an Oscar underdog. But he's got his fingers crossed.

"I think we've got a shot," he says. "The cynic in me says 'No chance.' "

And after "Philomena," the cynic in him got back to work with a "broad, drop-my-pants, literally" Alan Partridge farce and a soon-to-be-released sequel to "The Trip," which has snooty Coogan and his down-to-earth foil Rob Brydon driving down Italy's Amalfi Coast in a Mini Cooper convertible, quipping and bickering the whole way.

Is Hollywood finally calling, since "Philomena" is a hit?

"Well, my fans have stopped calling me. Rob (Brydon) still calls. Who else is he going to call? But yes, I am getting my calls returned in Hollywood, for at least a few weeks more."