London - Is it possible to discuss an emotive topic like the death penalty with both passion and reason? Steve Coogan hopes so.
The British actor-comedian plays a lawyer battling to keep his client from the gallows in Berlin Film Festival entry "Shepherds and Butchers," set in South Africa in the last years of apartheid. Adding to the ethical complexity, the defendant is a white death-row prison guard, who has killed seven black men in an apparent road rage incident.
Coogan says director Oliver Schmitz's film, which has its world premiere at the festival on Saturday, is "a powerful indictment of capital punishment" but not "sanctimonious or preachy."
"No one is demonized in this film, apart from the system itself," Coogan said over the phone from New York, where he's filming taut domestic drama "The Dinner" alongside Laura Linney and Richard Gere. "It's about the brutalizing effect on those who carry out executions and the dehumanizing effect on all those involved."
There's no doubt where Coogan stands on the issue; he thinks capital punishment is "repellent and morally objectionable." But he said Schmitz's film, which also stars Andrea Riseborough and young South African actor Garion Dowds, approaches the topic without "hand-wringing or pious pontification."
"The film is very honest in its presentation of literally what happens, and sometimes it's hard to watch," Coogan said. "It's a literal representation of the minutiae of what happens when the state kills people.
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"It lets the actions do the talking for themselves."
Like many comedians, 50-year-old Coogan relishes the chance to get serious. He has worked hard to expand his career beyond its comic origins — a particularly difficult task in Britain, where his best-known creation, pompous radio personality Alan Partridge, is a comedy icon.
He has given his comic skills free rein in road series "The Trip" and "The Trip to Italy," in which he drives, eats and banters with Welsh comedian Rob Brydon.
But he also co-wrote and helped produce 2013 feature "Philomena," in which he starred alongside Judi Dench as a jaded journalist who helps an Irishwoman search for the son taken from her decades earlier by Catholic church officials. The film, based on an actual case, was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture.
"I think a film is interesting if the subject matter is divisive or has some tension within it," Coogan said.
"If you try to make films all things to all men you end up with some kind of nondescript soup, which may tick all the boxes in terms of the bottom line, but I don't think it makes for very interesting art.
"With 'Philomena,' one of the most gratifying things about it was that people left the theatre talking animatedly about forgiveness and whether it was appropriate. To provoke discussion is a good thing."
Coogan will soon return to comedy, playing Stan Laurel alongside John C. Reilly's Oliver Hardy in a BBC movie about the slapstick duo. He says the story is set "after their fame, in the autumn of their lives."
The actor says he feels well equipped to play Laurel, another northern English funnyman made good in America.
"I've just got to lose a few pounds," he said — and Reilly may have to gain a few.
"He can have my lunch," Coogan said.
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