From director Jon S. Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope, the biographical dramedy Stan & Ollie follows the great comedy team of Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), as they set out on a variety hall tour of Britain in 1953. With their golden era behind them and an uncertain future, the two funnymen quickly reconnect with their adoring fans and the tour becomes a hit, but that doesn’t dissolve the tension between them or cure Oliver’s failing health, leaving the two men wondering just how much they mean to each other.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor John C. Reilly talked about being obsessed with Laurel & Hardy from a very young age, what he learned about the comedy duo from making Stan & Ollie, what made him most reluctant about taking on Oliver Hardy, what he did during his three-hour make-up and prosthetics process, having a partner like Steve Coogan to do this with, the moments in the film that he’s personally most fond of, and what makes Laurel & Hardy so timeless in their comedy. He also talked about how proud he is of the success of Ralph Breaks the Internet.
Collider: I loved this film and thought it was such a beautifully told story. There were so many things that I just had no idea about, with these two men, and it was great to get to know their wives and learn about what those dynamics were like.
JOHN C. REILLY: There’s so much about their lives that even I, who was obsessed with them from a very young age, was stunned to find out. For instance, when they were working together, I didn’t know that they weren’t all that close, socially. They were going off, in their different lives. Oliver was enjoying the fruits of Hollywood, and Stan was a workaholic. During the tour is when they really came to see each other as people and learned to love each other as people, as opposed to partners or members of an act. I thought that was really, really poignant. It was a stroke of genius for Jeff Pope, the writer, to choose to set the movie during that tour, as opposed to a typical biopic.
As someone who was previously such a huge fan of Laurel & Hardy, in what ways were you most reluctant about playing Oliver Hardy, and made you decide to play him anyway?
REILLY: I was reluctant because I don’t really do impressions. That’s not really my thing. And then, the second thing was that I don’t weigh nearly as much as Oliver, and I wasn’t willing to gain a hundred pounds. But the main trepidation I had was that I didn’t want us to make a film about these guys that would end up being a liability to them. To me, they’re in a perfect place already. Their films are brilliant, I love them, and they changed my life. I didn’t want to add anything to the conversation that would distract from that, so I had to be convinced, early on, from Jon Baird, the director, that we were gonna really do it well, and that we were gonna tell a story that you can’t find out on Wikipedia. We were gonna tell a story that was a human story, and that was the secret story of them, behind the scenes, with what their relationship was like and what they were like as people, as opposed to just recreating some of their famous work. You can tell they were great by watching their movies. Their movies are not lost. They’ve never been more available.
I saw that Jon really, really believed in me. At one point, he said, “I’m not sure this movie is gonna happen, if you don’t do it.” That was some added pressure. Then, I saw the computer mock up of what the make-up might look like and I thought, “Wow, I’m gonna look like him, for sure.” And the more I thought about it, I thought, “Well, I do look like him, a little bit, with my ears, the shape of my head, the fact that I’m the same height, the timber of our voice is not dissimilar, and we both sing.” And so, each one of those things gave me a little bit more courage to believe that I could do it. I just kept telling myself, “You don’t have to do the whole thing, at once. You don’t have to film the whole movie, in one day. You just have to do this scene right, and then the next scene right, and the next scene right.”
Luckily, I had such a great partner in Steve Coogan. He was someone who made me rise to the occasion, every day. Steve is excellence in comedy personified. We had this brilliant clown coach, named Toby Sedgwick, who was helping us do these routines. I just slowly found my way to a place of confidence with it because, ultimately, the one thing that gave me comfort, over and over, was the true fact that Stan and Ollie were plucked out of obscurity and put together. They didn’t know each other. Hal Roach told them, “Alright boys, come up with an act.” So, every time I thought the pressure was gonna get to me, or it was just too overwhelming, I thought, “Look, it’s exactly what happened to them. They were just two people who didn’t really know each other, that were pulled together, and told to come up with something.” By doing what they did, rehearsing dances and songs, working out comedy routines, coming up with the double door routine, or the hotel clerk sequence, or whatever it was, by doing that, we found our way to who they were and what they were like.