Laurel & Hardy are perhaps the preeminent comedy team of all time. Their work is the stuff of legends, a true milestone in the evolution of the art of comedy. When it came time to make Stan & Ollie, a biopic about the life and times of the iconic duo, director Jon S. Baird was fortunate enough to cast his first choices in the title roles: Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly.
Coogan is best known for satirical comedy characters like Alan Partridge, as well as his numerous collaborations with Rob Brydon, though he has also appeared in a slew of Hollywood films, including Tropic Thunder, The Other Guys, and Rules Don't Apply. John C. Reilly is best known to Screen Rant readers as Rhomann Dey in Guardians of the Galaxy, though his resume includes a stellar mix of comedy and drama, from Chicago to Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Kong: Skull Island.
Related: Stan & Ollie Trailer
Despite growing up on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, both actors were raised on the comedy of Laurel & Hardy, and now they have the opportunity to fill the legendary shoes of their heroes. Stan & Ollie is a drama which explores the relationship between two best friends, but also pays tribute to comedy routines that have entertained audiences for nearly one hundred years and will continue to do so until the end of time.
We spoke to Coogan and Reilly about taking on the role of a lifetime, and they discussed their own adoration with Laurel & Hardy, the importance of optimism in comedy, the perils of cynicism, and how their own experiences making the film echoed those of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy when they first started working together.
Stan & Ollie hits theaters on December 28.
How long have you been fans of Laurel & Hardy?
Steve Coogan: Forever. People under forty--
John C. Reilly: Like us.
Steve Coogan: Yes, like us and Millennials... For people our age, Laurel & Hardy is pretty much the fabric of our youth. For younger people, that's not the case, but we hope this movie will go some way to change that.
John C. Reilly: People ask this question, "When did you first become aware of Laurel & Hardy?" The truth is, I've been aware of Laurel & Hardy as long as I've been aware. They were on television all the time when I was a little kid. To me, they were almost like Saturday morning cartoons. They were always a presence in my life, and then as I got older and started to study acting, they came out on videotape. I was able to really go back and look at their work and find my favorite things that they had done. It's funny, each generation of people since they did their first work has a new way of finding them. They were the most popular comedians in the world; their first audience saw them in the cinema. Then they kinda disappeared and returned in the 1950s on television, and there was a whole new generation of people who had never seen them in the movies, they discovered them on TV. Then the video era I just described, people who hadn't seen them on TV were able to discover them on video. Now we're in the YouTube era, and it's never been easier to see every single thing they'd ever done for free! So we're hoping that younger people who might be interested in comedy or how comedy is made, they might be curious to go and look at some of their work. They figured out some essential things about comedy and timing and what makes comedy work. Comedians are the new rock stars. People are really obsessed with stand-up comedy. I think every single stand-up comedian who exists in the world right now owes a debt to Laurel & Hardy. They figured out how to do this in the first place. They passed along some ancient clowning tricks.
Steve Coogan: They certainly did, and they showed that good, well-crafted comedy can have a universal appeal, and you don't have to water things down to make comedy reach out and be accessible to people. Their comedy transcended... Good comedy, as theirs was the template for, transcends race, religion, political viewpoints, and is a really powerful thing. One of the things we've discovered is, however effortless their comedy looks, the harder the craft that went into it. And also, the comedy itself is something that people often look at as trivial or somehow not really "proper art," somehow. If you're laughing, if you're having too much fun, it can't be proper art. But it is an incredible art form, and one that has the power to unite people in a single moment of laughter. There are very few art forms that are capable of that, making people lose all their differences, even if it's only for a few seconds.
I've been to screenings of comedy movies where I've sat next to critics who are cynical and grumpy and not interested, and when I look over and see them laughing at the fun happening onscreen, it brings me almost as much joy as the movies themselves.
Steve Coogan: The best thing a comedy can do is exactly that, to wear down cynicism. Some comedy trades in cynicism, but good comedy wears it down.
You mentioned the universal appeal of Laurel & Hardy, and I feel a big part of that for this movie is the fact that it's rated PG. It's a movie that parents and grandparents can take their kids and grandkids to see.
Steve Coogan: Absolutely. I'm glad you pointed that out. It also counters the lie that, for something to have a broad family appeal, it has to be lowbrow.
John C. Reilly: The movie is real. It's intense and honest about relationships. That's what the movie is about, a relationship between two performers. That's a lifestyle most people are curious about: "what happens backstage?" and "what do performers talk about?"
That's why I have my job!
John C. Reilly: Exactly! People are curious about how it works behind the scenes. That's what our film is about. And that PG rating reflects the sweetness of the film. I think a lot of people who have seen it, from really cynical friends of mine, to people who are just true lovers of Laurel & Hardy, they all say, "Man, this movie is what I needed to see right now." There's so much bad news in the world, and so much division, it's so wonderful to see something about two guys embracing each other at the end of their lives, and understanding the value of another human being. (Sighs) Unfortunately, it's kind of a revolutionary thing to say in our current cultural moment.
Steve Coogan: There are too many smart-a**es and wise-a**es around, whose comedy is kind of about punching down, when it should be about punching up. Laurel & Hardy, underpinning all the misfortunes that happen to them, there is schadenfreude and we all take a little pleasure in watching someone else screw up, and Laurel & Hardy are no different, but those two guys, however much they annoy each other, they stick around. They never desert each other.
John C. Reilly: Our political leadership in this country, for the most part, especially the President, are based in cynicism. It's based in, like, "Everything is rotten, the country is in terrible shape, and we have to get it back." There's a lot of "Get real, the world is a tough place," and that is not the truth about the way human beings feel about things. I think the vast majority of people, even people who support the president, they feel there is an essential goodness in people. I think that's why the movie is so appealing right now. People can agree, human beings are, at the base of it, good. They do want to reach out and connect with other people. They don't want to be divided. It's a bit of tonic for our age.
Steve Coogan: I couldn't agree more.
Comedy is such a great measure of human potential, that we can do that, make each other laugh.
John C. Reilly: Laurel & Hardy weren't being funny for Democrats or Republicans, or for black people or white people. They were being funny for people. They did something really difficult to do. I can tell you, being a comedian who's tried to sell movies to different countries, it can be really hard! That cultural divide is big! A comedy made in American and brought to Italy might not make sense to Italians. Laurel & Hardy were beloved all over the world. I think, just focusing on the fact that they were like that is a hopeful thing. Maybe we should be more like that. Maybe we should be embracing and understanding that, in order for this world to survive, we have to think of ways in which we cooperate and ways in which we are like each other, as opposed to the difficulties that separate us.
Steve Coogan: Sounds good to me!
John C. Reilly: I think cynicism is a weak point of view to take. It's very defeatist and it's lazy to think, "well, it would be difficult to do something noble and good, so screw it. Let's just give up hope and say everything is crap." What a lazy thing to do! And Laurel & Hardy, you can say whatever you want about them, but they were not lazy. They believed in human beings, and they believed in their fans, and they kept reaching out, and kept working, even when it was killing them, and their bodies were giving out, and they had no money. But they kept giving, and kept believing in the world. Their work said to the world, "Silly humans, beautiful humans." Oliver never leaves Stan; as aggravated as he gets with him, as Stan drops buckets on his head and all these bad things happen as a result of their misadventures, but Oliver never gives up on him. He gets frustrated and angry and shoves him, but they never leave. That says something, in a larger way, to human beings. It says that the discomfort and the annoyance is worth getting through because human beings are beautiful and they're worth sticking around for.
(Having spoken his piece, John's head collapses to the table, exhausted and finished, though it rises again a moment later, ready to engage once again)
You guys rock. I talked to the film's director earlier, and he said you had more rehearsal than you'd normally get on a movie of this scale. Can you tell me a little bit about preparing to play Laurel & Hardy?
Steve Coogan: We had an extended period of rehearsal. That was incredibly useful for a number of reasons. It helped us literally rehearse the dances and the sketches so we were on top of it all, but it also helped John and I get to know each other, which is very good because it makes working pleasurable and helps us have fun while working with each other, which has an effect on the work that emerges. Also, it gave us the chance to appreciate the work and craft that Laurel & Hardy put into their work. It also helped us do some research. Unwittingly, as we rehearsed with each other, it dawned on us that we were doing what Stan & Ollie would have done. They would have had to rehearse.
John C. Reilly: They didn't develop an act over years and years and then get discovered by the movies and made into movie stars; they were toiling away in obscurity as working actors trying to get into the movie business, and they were plucked by Hal Roach, who was desperate for a new star. He had just lost Harold Lloyd, and he threw these two guys together, "Yeah, a fat guy and a skinny guy, that'll be funny!" It had as much nuance as that decision. And yet, it created one of the most miraculous... It just so happened that he picked the two exact right guys. As soon as they appeared together, you can see from their earliest work, I was just watching their earliest films last night, and you realize they were a miracle right away. They have a chemistry and an ability to work together like yin and yang, right from the very beginning. That's a special thing. When Steve and I were putting our nose to the grindstone and trying to work out the Way Out West dance or a comedy routine, that gave us confidence, like, "Well, Laurel & Hardy were thrown together like Steve and I were thrown together without really knowing each other, and they were told to come up with an act!" In some ways, the boys themselves gave us the faith and the courage to go on. They did it, so we'll have to find something together in the same way. The rehearsal helped us find our way to each other, but also to find our way to the characters, because we were doing what they did.
Tell me about playing these characters later in their life, and how the performance changes, and what source material you had to work with, since there were no more movies.
John C. Reilly: There's some newsreel footage, there's photographs, there's letters. First of all, it's a very rich period of time to focus on. These guys were looking back on their lives. This story is kind of an elegy for this life they had together. It's a naturally evocative moment. The research that we found was almost like reverse-engineering their onscreen personalities back to who they might have been. A lot of the conversations we tried to reproduce in the movie, nobody except for Stan and Ollie know. No one. We deliberately did a bunch of scenes where it's just the two of us, one on one. It give us some room to move. It's not something like, "Well, they weren't like that!" Nobody can know exactly what that conversation was like.
Steve Coogan: That's what validates the movie. We're not just trying to repeat or emulate something. We're trying to shine a light on some of the question marks of their relationship and fill in some of the blanks. I like the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle where you have some of the pieces but some of the pieces are missing, and you're never going to find those pieces, so you have to manufacture those pieces and use the emerging picture to guess what's missing and fill that in, make it make sense. That's the case for the writer, for the director, and for us as actors, to try to complete that picture.
- Stan & Ollie (2018) release date: Dec 28, 2018