Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan star in the Philomena, based on the story of a woman forced to give up the child she had out of wedlock and her journey to reunite with her long lost son. (Courtesy of the Weinstein Company / November 29, 2013)

The film “Philomena” is based on the remarkable true story of Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench), who gave birth to a son out of wedlock decades earlier in a conservative Irish Catholic community in the early 1950s.

With no family willing to help and no financial means, she was forced to stay at a strict convent, and later gave up her son, against her will, for adoption to a wealthy American family.

After keeping this secret for 50 years, she met renowned BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith. The two embarked on an emotional search for her long lost son, which Sixsmith documented in his 2009 book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.”

“When I read her story, it moved me to tears,” says British actor and comedian Steve Coogan, who co-wrote and stars in the film as Sixsmith. “But what struck me most was this photo of Philomena and Martin and they were smiling, and she looked happy. It made me think that I could tell this tragic story with humor and hope.”

Coogan, the real Philomena Lee and the movie’s young star, Sophie Kennedy Clark (who plays Philomena in flashbacks) recently gathered in Los Angeles to promote the film, which opens this week at the Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and AMC Burbank 16.

“I’ve been stuck by how many people are touched by this story,” says the quietly spoken Lee, now 80. “I was initially reluctant for anyone to even know what happened because I had kept it secret for so long and I was so indoctrinated by my upbringing that I didn’t dare speak of it.”

“Since the book and now this movie, it’s been like a whirlwind for me,” she says. “But what is important is that there are so many other women and their lost children in the same situation and it’s helping them come forward.”

“I knew it was based on a true story but what really impacted me was the chance to meet Philomena,” says 23-year-old Kennedy Clark, who has the tough task of playing Philomena as a teenager, in some of the film’s most harrowing scenes. “These girls were treated like slaves. They worked hard for no money and had no control over their lives and what happened to their children. I think it’s hard for my generation to understand this was how it was then and yet Philomena doesn’t see herself as a victim at all. She is funny and warm and has been able to move on and still lead a happy life.”

Having the great Judi Dench play the elder Philomena, in what will surely be an award-nominated role, was certainly a daunting situation for the actors on set. “We didn’t have any scenes together, but I wanted to meet her,” says Kennedy Clark. “She is so funny and cheeky, you don’t feel there is any hierarchy. It’s not like ‘Dame Judi.’ She is very happy to muck in with everyone.”

“I didn’t really have to emulate her performance as she is what happened to Philomena 50 years on,” she says, “but ultimately we had the same source, the real Philomena. So I think our performances are intricately intertwined with that.”

For Coogan, he feels the “odd couple” pairing is what makes the film. “It’s really a kind of road movie in many ways as the two search for her son, although I am still trying to work out who is Bing Crosby and who is Bob Hope,” he laughs.

“Martin is the intellectual cynic and she is the working class no-nonsense folk-smart woman. At first he is dismissive of her and then he is humbled by her, but what I like is that while they learn from each other, they essentially stay the same, and just accept each other’s views,” he says.

Coogan, who is better known for his satiric roles, admits that playing a more dramatic role presented challenges.

“I definitely had to restrain my comic instincts. I told director Stephen Frears to keep an eye on me and when mugging too much, he would just gently remind me to take it down,” says Coogan. “But the key for me was to just listen to Judi, because when Judi was in character, I didn’t think it was the great Judi Dench, she was just Philomena. When you are working opposite someone like her, all you have to do is react. She does most of the work for you.”

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KATHERINE TULICH writes about film and culture for Marquee.