John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan on Capturing the Highs and Lows of Comedic Legends ‘Stan & Ollie’

Stan & Ollie” recounts the latter days of the legendary comedy duo Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel. Theirs was one of the great, early franchises in film comedy as their series of films gained world renown, with gags making them as famous as Charlie Chaplin. The duo’s prime was in the 1920s through 1930s, but “Stan & Ollie” is about their struggles late in the 1950s, when the fame dwindled, old scars festered and despite that, their brilliance still shone.

John C. Reilly becomes the rotund Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan plays the more nervous yet perfectionist Stan Laurel. Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda play the duo’s supportive, quarreling wives. Directing is Jon S. Baird, who elegantly brings to life the London of the post-war years and finely balances the sadness and great humor of Laurel and Hardy. The writer is Jeff Pope, who has crafted true life into absorbing drama before in films like “Philomena.”

Reilly, Coogan and Henderson recently sat down with Entertainment Voice to share their experiences in bringing to life the more private sides of screen legends.

“When I first read the script it was a little more straight ahead biopic,” says Reilly. “I think it was originally written for television. Jeff wrote it for English television, so he felt compelled to tell every little bit of their story in case people didn’t know. But when I came on I was like, we live in the age of Google and Wikipedia, so any details that we can find our phones we shouldn’t be focusing on.  Because otherwise, why do people need to see the film? I started early on saying we should tell a story that no one else could tell.” For Reilly simply recreating Laurel and Hardy’s gags and films was not enough, considering their work is preserved and readily available. “If you want to see a real Laurel and Hardy film, it’s never been easier. You have to focus on the moments no one else knew about, the moments backstage or in a train compartment or hotel room. All of us found out this interesting fact about them…when they were working in their heyday they weren’t spending all that much time together. Oliver would play golf and go to restaurants and live a full, Hollywood life, but Stan was a workaholic, he would go back to the studio and editing room. It wasn’t until these tours in the 1950s that they learned to love each other as people.”

Coogan already knew Jeff Pope from having worked in the acclaimed “Philomena.” Coogan says, “I write with him regularly. We wrote ‘Philomena,’ which got some heat. But this one he wrote by himself. I always ask him what he’s working on and he said, ‘I’m writing this film about Stan and Ollie.’ He and director Jon S. Baird had discussed me as being Stan and I was a bit worried at first, but the script was pretty good. It’s like a love story really.” Coogan sees the film as a love letter to comedy. “It’s a way of sort of saluting the great comics of the past. The tipping point was that John agreed to play Oliver Hardy, he was very anxious about it.”

Reilly has himself built an impressive body of work that includes everything from profound dramas to goof and slapstick, which gave him a special insight into playing a consummate artist. “They took their jobs very seriously. They could perform at the drop of a hat, they felt there was this sacred bond with the audience. They didn’t want to let people down, even when it was tiring them out as old men. That speaks to their humanism.”

Humor of course has changed much in the movies and popular culture, with the kind of gags of Laurel and Hardy seeming so innocent by today’s standards. “Yes and no, the truth is Laurel and Hardy figured out some essential things about comedy. They knew some of the ancient clown secrets. They were part of a time in filmmaking when they were refining a certain kind of clowning. So yes, they are different from the kind of cynical, or very contemporary reference kind of comedy…I think every age has that kind of comedy…but Laurel and Hardy figured out how to make people laugh regardless of their language, regardless of their country, their politics, their religion, and that is eternal.”

“There’s a lot of twisted cynicism in modern comedy,” says Coogan, “their comedy doesn’t have that. It has a love of humanity. It’s a celebration of friendship. There’s a lot of subtly in their performances, in the facial expressions, a lot of it is actually not dialogue-heavy.” For Coogan playing a historical personality at times proves to be a smoother task than conjuring fiction. “It’s easier, you don’t have to create a character. Someone has already created the character for you, they’ve done the heavy lifting by living a real life.”

Shirley Henderson shares that to prepare for the role of Oliver’s highly protective wife Lucille she sought what little source materials are left. “I was lucky to find a little bit of footage of her talking, back in the 1970s I believe it was. She was talking about her time with Oliver, and his concerns. I sensed that she was very much in love with him at the time. The voice was very important to me, that’s how you find a way to get into playing someone. I couldn’t find a great deal, but just enough to get started.”

Playing icons of course comes with its own challenges in that a character for the screen is being prepared, while a real life is being evoked. “First of all I’ve been watching them [Laurel & Hardy] for as long as I can remember. They were people I was really fascinated with that. We just did the things that they did. Steve and I were thrown together, we didn’t really know each other, we were thrown together and told ‘come up with an act. Come up with a double door routine.’ We rehearsed for weeks and weeks, hopefully it looks nonchalant. What we found through doing it was that it was the secret to being them. Laurel and Hardy were plucked from obscurity and thrown together. They didn’t know each other.”

“The intensity of rehearsal period brought us together,” adds Coogan. “We devised that double door routine with a clown who advised us. Stan and Ollie actually never did that, that was something John and I invented in the style of Laurel and Hardy. It’s quite technical. You have to be quite disciplined with that stuff. But we got to know each other’s rhythms.” Coogan also did research by hearing recordings of the actual Stan Laurel, in particular telephone recordings. “Fans would call him up at Santa Monica. He was actually in the phone book and fans would call him up and some would record the conversations. That was some of the source material I used.”

“When it’s the big scenes, like the big dinner party, you’ve got to keep your head together,” says Henderson. “You have to quietly fit in there, but when it’s the intimate scenes, between John and me, it felt like a little play every time.”

Henderson senses that in addition to the genuine bond between Stan and Ollie, Oliver’s own marriage was always full of genuine devotion. “I liked that she described him as walking over to her while she brushed her hair and ask, ‘why do you love such a fat old man like me?’ He didn’t like being ‘fat,’ that’s how he would describe himself. She knew he was self-conscious.”

“It should look easy,” says Riley about the whole process of being funny. “There’s nothing good about belabored comedy, or when someone tells a joke and they’re struggling to get through it. That was one of the great things about doing this movie, to show the lay person who doesn’t do comedy what it takes, what are the costs behind the scenes. What it does to your body, to your spirit, to your relationships. What it takes to achieve this sort of magic.”

Stan & Ollie” opens Dec. 28 in New York and Los Angeles with more cities to follow.