From some actors, a show of modesty can come off as self-conscious or even contrived. But when Charlie Cooper tells NME he’s still working through “a little bit of imposter syndrome” because he never went to drama school, it doesn’t seem remotely disingenuous. He’s a less gregarious character than his sister Daisy, with whom he made the brilliant sitcom This Country, and doesn’t mind being the butt of the joke.
During our thoroughly enjoyable interview at a plush London hotel, Cooper confides that he “idolises’ Pete Doherty because The Libertines are his “favourite band ever”, then admits he blew an opportunity to tell him so. “Pete was on an episode of [Never Mind the] Buzzcocks with my sister, so she FaceTimed me when she was with him,” he recalls. “But I was like, ‘Why is my sister FaceTiming me, I don’t want to answer it.’ The next day she texted me to say: ‘Why didn’t you pick up, I only had Pete Doherty with me!'”
And in fairness, Cooper’s first big film role in See How They Run would trigger nearly anyone’s imposter syndrome. In this tongue-in-cheek murder mystery romp, he doesn’t just share screen time with Oscar winners Sam Rockwell and Adrien Brody, but also four-time nominee Saoirse Ronan and a starry raft of British acting talent. Ruth Wilson, David Oyelowo and Harris Dickinson all pop up, joined by Fleabag‘s Sian Clifford and The League of Gentlemen‘s Reece Shearsmith.
Though See How They Run was directed by Tom George, who also called the shots on This Country, the production values are rather different. “This Country was [made on] quite a tight budget. You know, we’d be on location in a field somewhere in the Cotswolds, so it wasn’t particularly glamorous,” Cooper says. “Whereas this was, like, proper showbiz, staying in nice hotels and that.”
He isn’t exaggerating: shooting locations included London’s super-fancy Savoy Hotel and Old Vic Theatre. Set in the elegant West End of the 1950s, See How They Run follows sozzled copper Inspector Stoppard (Rockwell) and enthusiastic newbie Constable Stalker (Ronan) as they investigate a murder that takes place backstage at Agatha Christie’s hit play The Mousetrap. There are plenty of in-jokes about Christie’s rote plotting and formulaic characterisation, but it’s clearly very affectionate. After all, we as audience members know that The Mousetrap is still going strong in the West End 70 years later.
Cooper plays Dennis, an underling who becomes a suspect alongside Oyelowo’s pretentious playwright, Wilson’s ruthless theatre producer and Dickinson’s camp luvvie Richard Attenborough (the British film legend really did head up The Mousetrap‘s original cast). “He’s a young, bumbling theatre usher who’s always lurking around in the wings and the aisles,” Cooper says of his character, careful not to give anything away. “For my first big film project, it was sort of the perfect part. It felt manageable and I didn’t feel out of my depth. And I love murder mysteries – I grew up watching Midsomer Murders.”
At this point, Cooper lets out a little laugh, perhaps acknowledging that this probably isn’t the comparison he should be aiming for. “I mean, this [film] is quite different,” he continues, “but it’s the same concept, really.” Was it surreal sharing scenes with so many A-listers, or did he just block it out? “No, that was the only thing I was thinking about the whole time!” Cooper replies. “During rehearsals, Adrien Brody just looking me in the eye was enough to sort of erode my soul. I mean, The Pianist [for which Brody won his Oscar] is one of my favourite films ever, and he’s just such an incredible actor. When you’re in the same room seeing that first-hand, it’s a real lesson.”
Cooper began his acting career sharing nearly every scene with his sister. For three series from 2017 to 2020, he and Daisy starred in the award-winning mockumentary This Country as Cotswolds cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe. The show’s depiction of working-class rural life was warm but authentic: the Mucklowes can make us laugh simply by getting Kerry’s mum to say the word “tomato” in her hilariously bizarre way, but the Coopers’ poignant scripts had a strong social conscience. Kerry and Kurtan are isolated, let down by the school system and desperately lacking in job prospects. Like so much great comedy, it’s rooted in harsh truths.
Charlie and Daisy worked on This Country for half a decade, “writing and rewriting”, before it was finally commissioned by the BBC. A few years earlier, they made a pilot for ITV, but it was apparently so “horrendous” that it halted any momentum the siblings had built up. “We got dropped by ITV and we left our agents; then we got dropped by the production company,” Cooper recalls. “There was a point where we were like, is this worth it? But luckily, we had nothing else to fall back on. We only ever had Plan A.”
Cooper says This Country really blossomed into a viable sitcom when they came up with the sympathetic vicar character played by Paul Chahidi. “They [Kerry and Kurtan] can be brats and do horrible stuff but having someone who sees the goodness in them was a game-changer,” he says. “They just want a bit of responsibility and to be treated like adults. If you’re a naughty kid anyway at school, you’ll always get treated like a naughty kid, and that’s tough.”
Cooper readily admits that his own secondary school experience was “really shit”. He went on to study sports science at Exeter University, but reckons he only got in because his “really crap” college tutor overmarked his grades. “I was out of my depth as soon as I got there,” he says. “I did it for two years, but I should have quit after two weeks.” Eventually, realising he couldn’t face his final year, Cooper jumped on a train to London to visit his sister, who was studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Cooper was so keen to put university behind him that he never even went back to collect his belongings.
Cooper calls his subsequent career as an actor and writer “a pure accident” – one he’d never have had without Daisy. “She just gave me so much confidence and I think she saw something in me that no one else would have,” he says, touchingly. “Growing up, she’d put on plays for mum and dad and she always roped me in somehow – I hated it at the time, but looking back, it was probably necessary to what I’m doing now.”
Since This Country‘s third and most recent series in 2020, Cooper has been incredibly selective. Aside from See How They Run, he’s co-written an episode of Armando Iannucci’s sci-fi sitcom Avenue 5 and guest starred in Jamie Demetriou’s dazzling estate agent comedy Stath Lets Flats. “Being able to do [Stath] as a fan felt sort of like I’d won a competition,” he says, modest as ever.
Cooper and his partner became parents six weeks ago, and he wants to be a “hands-on” dad. “Being a writer [as well as an actor] means I don’t have to do roles I don’t want to do,” he says. And financially, it helps that This Country has been adapted into a hit American sitcom called Welcome to Flatch, which is about to begin its second season. Though the Coopers are credited as executive producers on the remake, Cooper says drily that their involvement begins and ends with “picking up the paycheques”.
Cooper may live a relatively quiet life in the Cotswolds, close to where he and Daisy grew up, but this doesn’t mean he hates being asked for selfies. “No, it’s brilliant!” he enthuses. “You know, me and my sister used to talk about it – like, would anyone ever want a photo with us? And now they do, because of something I made with my sister, that’s just so special.”
‘See How They Run’ is in cinemas from September 9.