For those of us old enough to remember, Laurel & Hardy’s comedy double act was part of our TV watching as kids. Laughing at their slapstick comedy sketches and laughing at their carefully choreographed mishaps. They were a loveable duo. Jon Baird now brings Laurel & Hardy back to life in Stan & Ollie, an affectionate and sentimental look at the duo as they tour the UK in the 1950s. We join the partners as the showbiz sun has set on their careers and they struggle to fill live stage venues.
At its core, the film looks at an enduring friendship and a love for each other that brought laughs to so many of us. Laurel & Hardy had such an influence on both John C. Reilly who plays Hardy and Steve Coogan who plays Laurel that they both felt the overwhelming pressure of taking on the roles. As Reilly says, he would have turned it down if he were asked to decide on the spot, but wanting to honor the legacy of the duo led to Reilly saying yes.
I caught up with both Coogan and Reilly when they were in LA to talk about Stan & Ollie.
Do you recall the first time you saw Laurel & Hardy?
John: I have to say I’ve been aware of Stan & Ollie as long as I’ve been aware. I can’t think of the first moment when I saw them, but from my very first memories, they were on TV. There was The Little Rascals, The Three Stooges and Laurel & Hardy. They were such an immediate influence on me from such a young age.
I do remember in college when the next generation of Laurel & Hardy fans were developed through videos of Laurel & Hardy. I remember being in acting school and studying their tapes. I would rewind the tapes and rewatch the videos trying to figure out how they did this amazing work.
Steve: They used to show it in the 70s on TV. During the vacations, they’d show it every morning. There were five shows in a row, it was Casey Jones, Banana Splits, Laurel & Hardy and it was just lots of imports. Laurel & Hardy was one of those shows early on in the morning for kids.
That’s when I first saw them. They are part of the childhood fabric.
Jon said took four years for the film to come together. What did you think when you saw the script?
Steve: It was quite a big ask and a demanding task but coupled with that, there was a huge excitement. They’d been famous forever. I can’t remember a time before I remember Laurel & Hardy. I read the script and Jeff Pope who wrote the script actually wrote the script for Philomena five years ago. I’m still writing with him, but he was telling me he was working on this screenplay. I thought it was interesting and we actually chatted about it even before I was in the frame for it.
He said someone had mentioned I should play it. I thought, “I’m glad you mentioned it because then I don’t have to.” I thought it’d be quite challenging. When John was in the frame for Oliver Hardy, I sent him an email asking him to please do it. I said to him in the email, “I think it’ll be tough, but together we can pull it off.”
He did a dance around it for a while and he wanted to address a few aspects of the script, but when he joined the gang, I knew then we had the best shot. I felt so pleased that I had a good partner.
John: I loved that they screened it at the Middleburg Film Festival. I have friends there. Okay, so the original version of the script was a little bit more of a biopic. It was about life events and my first conversation with Jon was that we live in an era of Wikipedia and Google. People can find out facts in ten seconds on their phone. I told him that we needed to tell a story that people can’t get anywhere else.
I encouraged Jon and Jeff Pope to focus on aspects of the story where we had some artistic license and we could tell a bigger and emotional truth about them or a relationship truth as opposed to the facts of their life. It was such a gratifying film to do as a result of that. I am a performer. I’ve been a performer my whole life and I know what it’s like to have sore knees. I know what it’s like to be all sweaty backstage and ticket sales.
I will never be Oliver Hardy, but I know what it’s like to be a performer and I felt we could say some important things to people that are not part of show business and what it’s like to use your body in the way they used their bodies.
John, your makeup took four hours to get into. What was that like for you?
It took about three hours to actually put the contact lens, the wig, and the fat suit on. Then it took an hour to put it off. Don’t forget that suit needed to slowly be removed. It was uncomfortable and really hot. It took a lot of patience and I’m someone who’s not very comfortable in the makeup chair at all. What got me through it was what’s getting me through the press. There’s a higher calling and it’s paying respect to the legacy of a man who is very important to me personally.
I had to get up at 4 a.m. each day and I had many “I don’t know if I can do this, it’s really tough” moments. I’d say to myself, “It’s for Oliver. It’s for Oliver.” That’s what got me through. I was going through it a few months but imagine what that guy was going through and that body. Doing all those physical gags, the toll on him must have really been something and that’s really what got me through it. I was part of bringing attention to someone who deserved it.
I really enjoyed the story of the wives because it added another dimension to the stories.
John: In the original script, it was very much reflecting the patriarchal society of the time and women didn’t have much agency. It wasn’t true. If you knew these women, they were strong women in their own right. That was one of the delightful surprises of the movie to me, some of those scenes between Shirley and Nina I wasn’t around for the filming of. They were getting a lot of the laughs.
Our characters are funny, but comedy is what they do for a living, but for the purposes of our film, a lot of the big laughs come from the wives. I was really thankful for that. I was also thankful for the way Shirley and Nina took on those characters. They filled them with real detail. They found that great comedy because it wasn’t on the page. That scene where Nina says she doesn’t want to sit next to Delfont, it was Nina who came up with that. I was so proud of those scenes with them. I don’t think the movie would have been fun without the work those actresses did.
Because they meant so much to you and to others, was it intimidating to play legends like Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel?
John: It was very intimidating. I think if I had to make a decision on the spot. I probably would have said no because it was overwhelming. The guy meant so much to me and they were such an important part of my acting growing up. I felt like I didn’t want this to be a liability. Luckily, I didn’t have to make a decision on the spot and I just had to agree to engage with Jon. I agreed to engage with the writing of the script and talk about what I thought was important to focus on. We focused on the stuff that nobody could know other than the men.
Mark Coulier was one of the best in the business to do the makeup and prosthetics. I covered that part. I met Steve in relation to this and thought I’d have a really formidable partner in him. I thought he really knew what it was doing and he understands what it’s like to craft comedy. Each one of these things gave me a little bit more confidence.
We did that Way Out West dance and we’d repeat the first four steps. We got that part down and it was things like that, these small victories that gave me confidence.
All that said, there will never be another Oliver Hardy. I came to believe that I would have to be the person to carry the torch right now and it was a big responsibility and I felt I had to take it.
Steve: The responsibility was pretty huge. There are lots of die-hard fans out there. We knew if we got it wrong, we’d get a lot of flak. So far, people love it, including the die-hards.
You can get it technically right, but getting the spirit right is another thing. You need to convey the essence of them, but that was tough. It was intimidating but you either do the job or you don’t.
You also think, the list of people who could play those two people was quite short, but I think John and I would have been on that list. [laughs]. I think we had a good chance as anyone getting it right.
John would give me advise and I’d give him advise. He’d comment on my performance and I would comment on his. We wanted to know what the other thought of what we were doing. That’s when actors really trust each other because no actor likes notes from another actor.
You had such great chemistry together. What was the prep process?
John: Chemistry is a funny thing. It’s something we talk about in these mysterious terms. It’s this unknowable thing that some people have and others just don’t have it. Going into a project like that, if you consider that to be true. I can tell you having done four movies this year that were all based on chemistry and partnerships, it is possible to find chemistry.
The way Steve and I did it was we learned the dances, we developed those comedy routines. We had to come up with some of those. We’d have little failures in front of each other. We’d flub lines and your partner would forgive you and also give you the confidence to carry on. After four weeks, it was like we had chemistry. We stood shoulder to shoulder and trusted each other to be vulnerable in front of them. As long as you’re not dealing with a real jerk, it’s totally something you can find if you spend a lot of time together.
Steve: We did that dance so many times. We really learned it backwards. We learned the sketches and the timings of things. You have to put the hours in to refine it and refine it. You have to throw it away again to make it look organic and effortless. It was more demanding for John who had a big fat-suit on.
For me, it was more about focusing and trying to do the best job possible. With all the tools in the arsenal. I listened to interviews. He used to live in Santa Monica and people would look him up and call him. He’d talk to them on the phone. Some people recorded the interviews and I used those to get inside his head.
The whole thing was demanding, but we were properly prepped.
I didn’t realize those tapes existed.
Steve: There was more material for Stan. I had spent time writing and performing comedy, so his life wasn’t a million miles away from my life. It wasn’t that big of a leap.
What was it like becoming Stan Laurel for the first time?
Steve: I had about an hour. I had a false chin, ears, and a lot of teeth. John had the major work. First of all, John and I had four weeks rehearsal and we had a makeup test. We were both slightly nervous about that, but these are the best people in the business. We looked in the mirror and thought it looked pretty good. I was shocked. That was the first time I literally stepped into his shoes.
But it was the rehearsal when I felt we were getting into their shoes literally and metaphorically. Learning the sketches, the physical things, that was really important. It was four weeks of John and I getting to know each other.
Also, Jon, our director got appendicitis before shooting so we ended up delaying it. John was in England, not sure what to do, so I invited him to my home in the country which was near the Laurel & Hardy museum. I live near Stan Laurel’s home, so we visited the museum and tried on clothes and it was quite a real bonding experience and definitely helped us in the movie.
How much did you watch to capture the essence of Oliver?
John: I watched everything I could. I still do now. Even the other day, I was sitting in the tub watching one short after another. That’s the mission of this film, we’re trying to get people to remember Laurel & Hardy and remember their work. The reason I’m so passionate about it is not that I’m nostalgic for the 1930s, it’s because the comedy will still make you laugh out loud. Their work is still relevant. They didn’t get their due while they were alive. They didn’t get the respect their peers did. This is the chance to remind the world of how special they were.