The British Prime Minister's communications chief, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi, left), gives damage control expert Toby (Chris Addison) an education in the political comedy In the Loop. ((Alliance Films Media) )

Don Rickles has his crass, Catskills-style put-downs. Bob Saget uses the F-word to demolish his Full House image. And Sarah Silverman may look like a nice Jewish girl, but she has a potty mouth that’s practically a biohazard zone. These are the prophets of the profane.

'I think people are smarter than we give them credit for, and want more than dumb comedies.'

— Peter Capaldi

In Britain, there’s a rising star in the field of verbal venom: actor Peter Capaldi. In the BBC television series The Thick of It (2005-07), Capaldi played Malcolm Tucker, the fictional director of communications for the British prime minister. As the tart-tongued avenging angel of 10 Downing Street, Capaldi’s character gained a huge following in Britain.

Capaldi reprises that role in the new film In the Loop. While the character remains the same, this time, the stakes are higher. In the Loop is a political farce in which the U.K and the U.S. join forces for an impending war in a fictionalized Middle Eastern country — think Wag the Dog meets Dr. Strangelove.

Capaldi spoke to about U.S-U.K. relations, facing off against Tony Soprano and mixing fury with funny.

Q: The Thick of It pokes fun at the lives of a minor cabinet ministry in London. How did you feel about making a film about the run-up to the war in Iraq?

A: That was great to do, because I think it deserves to be explored and looked at and talked about. And I think [the war] wasn’t funny at all. But certainly the idea that there could have been incidents in that sort of feeble atmosphere, which could have accumulated into events that helped start a war, is the darkest sort of satire.

Q: Is there a lot of interest back home in exploring how Britain found itself marching to war alongside the United States?

A: There must be, because the movie did very well there. We were surprised, [In the Loop] actually leaped out of what we expected its constituency to be. And so clearly there is an appetite for this kind of thing. I think people are smarter than we give them credit for, and want more than dumb comedies.

Q: The dialogue in In the Loop comes at you like an express train. How much of what is in the movie was improv and how much was in the script?

A: It’s largely on the page. What happens is we develop a script, then we go and read that script, then we immediately improvise and the writers are there and if we come up with anything funny, we put that in. But to be honest, most of the material that really works is the written stuff, because they put a lot of labour into that, and the improvisation tends to be sort of a conjuring trick to help it look immediate. And a lot of those insults, those speeches, they’re almost baroque in construction, so you have to really learn them.


Spin master Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) travels to the United States when a minister's passing comment about war becomes a major news story. ((Alliance Films Media))

Q: Malcolm, your character in The Thick of It, has gained quite a following for his famous put-downs. There are even YouTube clips devoted to his red-faced fury. What’s the secret to swearing effectively?

A: Ha. Well, I think you have to respect the F-word and use it with vigour. You know, I’ve discovered actually what you’ve got to do — you just slip in the secondary words. The profane words are not the important words, it’s the insult which is inside them— that’s the gasoline that propels everything along, which you can then stick any kind of pathology to. And that’s what the writers work on, a really good insult.

Q: Talking about vigour, tell me about your character’s showdown with James Gandolfini’s character, American General Miller, who doesn’t actually support the war.

A: Oh, that was fantastic, because I’m a huge fan of [Gandolfini]. To actually get to be able to go in and insult him — that was great fun. We actually did a week’s rehearsal in New York before we started shooting. And I found it initially quite hard, because I’m going, "Oh my God, it’s Tony Soprano, he’s going to kill me." And then I thought, forget all of that and just go for it and attack him, and luckily, I had a team of writers who supplied me with the necessary ammunition. He was very gracious, and I’d love to have done more with him.

Q: There’s a scene where your character seems to meet his match, facing off against the head of the secret war committee. How did it feel to have Malcolm’s mettle tested like that?

A: That was great, because that’s a challenge. It’s always interesting to take him to new areas, and utter defeat is a great one. I was still able to pull something out of the bag, but it was great to see him go through that process, and deconstruct him. To see that all of his insults and calumny is a kind of tic, it’s just a thing that covers up the person underneath.

Q: A lot of this film is about the culture clash between the Americans and their British counterparts. What surprised you most about working with an American crew?

A: In a way, they’re more verbally adroit than us — we tend to be a bit more slapsticky. I think they got a little bit scared of us and we were scared of them. But we were all after the same thing. And of course, most of us have been brought up on American comedy, so we were full of respect for what they did. And a film like In The Loop, which comes from The Thick of It, really comes from things like The Larry Sanders Show. So what goes around comes around — it’s just like reconnecting all the dots.

Q: Is there a cautionary message under all this hilarity and profanity?

A: Yes, of course. It shows how we should be vigilant about the process of power that we allow to be in place. Because things happen in the film that I suspect are not dissimilar to what actually did happen. But as long as we allow powerful people to conduct themselves in this way, then there are these kinds of dangers.

In the Loop opens in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal on Aug. 21.

Eli Glasner is a syndicated film reviewer for CBC Radio.