Last year, Scottish director Jon S. Baird’s (Filth, I’m Dying Up Here) loving tribute to the comedy and lives of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Stan & Ollie, appeased critics and audiences alike with its typical biopic sensibilities. As streamlined as writer Jeff Pope’s (Philomena) story for the film was, however, its crowning achievement was the sadly hilarious performances by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, who played Laurel and Hardy respectively.
Ahead of Stan & Ollie‘s home release on DVD, Blu-ray and on demand, I spoke with Coogan and Reilly about the intense (and evident) rehearsal process that went into making the film a reality.
Andrew Husband: There are a lot of references to Laurel and Hardy’s catalog, both the hits and the lesser known material, throughout the film. Obviously, writer Jeff Pope did his homework, but how familiar were you two with their films before doing this?
Steve Coogan: We just buried ourselves in Laurel and Hardy movies and everything from their catalog. We submerged ourselves in that. But beyond that, we also looked at other documentaries about them, or at least featuring them, that were around. We also read many of the books. There are so many! There are also the letters that Stan wrote. He would answer every fan letter that was ever written to him. I also found a few recordings of telephone conversations with Stan that were very useful.
The rehearsal period lasted for nearly a month, which was very useful for us because not only did it give us an opportunity to learn the routines, but it also gave us an appreciation of all the hard work that Stan and Ollie put into their art. John and I got to know each other really well during that rehearsal period, much in the same way that Stan and Ollie would have gotten to know each other. We experienced rehearsing things in the same way that they would have rehearsed things for their own shows. The dance routines, the sketches — all of it. That became a part of the research process.
AH: A full month of rehearsals seems, to me, to be more than what most movie productions do.
John C. Reilly: Yeah, it was definitely longer than usual, I think. I’ve even done a lot of films where we don’t rehearse at all, where you’re trying to save some kind of energy for the camera, the electricity of the first time you’re doing something. But Steve and I knew that would not work for Laurel and Hardy because as soon as you try to do one of the dances or their comedy routines or even one of their trap falls, you realize, WoW! This took hundreds of hours of rehearsal to make it look so easy and nonchalant. It took lots and lots of rehearsal, so, like Steve said, the process of engaging in some of the same kind of rehearsal that they would have been doing was a way for us to find our individual ways to the characters themselves. Because this is what they did for a living, you know?
Plus, in the process of doing all of this together, Steve and I created a great working relationship. It’s almost like going to war with somebody. We were really in the trenches with this one, because there was so much rehearsal and so much to prepare for. The pressure is so high for us. It’s almost like being in a fox hole with somebody. You end up being really vulnerable and scared and nervous in these situations. And once you’ve gone through something like that with another person, or with other people, that forms a pretty strong bond.
AH: Aside from the time and work that was put into learning and recreating their show, the film also focuses on their behind-the-scenes work. Like when Stan bounces sketch ideas off of Ollie and spends time working them out and writing them down. Even in those moments, I imagine there’s a lot of work that you two have to put into it.
SC: It was a funny thing because we’re kind of… It’s weird. When you’re rehearsing and they’re talking about routines, you end up rehearsing what it would be like for them to rehearse. There’s this strange double process of sorts. So when we’re on the train, Stanley is talking about how to do a sketch, or trying to figure out a way to resolve a writing or staging problem, and Ollie will suggest a few ideas and they’ll hash it out. Doing that was a good way to show how they worked together, and how well they worked together, in their heyday. That’s not to say one was better or funnier than the other, though.
JCR: Stan loved putting pen to paper. Ollie did not.
SC: Right. But whenever they were rehearsing, Ollie was fully engaged. It’s just that, when the day was done, Ollie clocked off and washed his hands of Laurel and Hardy until the next time they met up. Stanley, meanwhile, always took his work home with him.
AH: There’s always a temptation in biopics of artists to recreate what they’re known for in otherwise everyday situations. For example, the luggage gag at the train station. How do you go about doing bits like that that stay true to the subject, but don’t become overused or hammy?
SC: It had to feel like something more than just an affectation, but it also had to feel like it was somehow organic. If it wasn’t organic, it wouldn’t work at all. For us, it kind of represented a sort of curse that they were dealing with, which is that when you create these characters that are so successful, that’s who people are going to think they really are. They carry this burden of being this thing that the public wants them to be, so representing that was our hope for gags like the luggage thing. Even their own luggage starts to treat them like they’re actually Laurel and Hardy.
JCR: They were different from most other performers in that they were the authors of these characters. They themselves came up with these two guys. And since they were the authors of these characters, they had to have been kind of like them in some ways. When you’re on screen or on stage in that way for so long, it just becomes even more intense, that connection between person and character.
I love that about the film. I love how playful it is and that we don’t shy away from the uglier things, like their celebrity. And if you know their films really well, then you can probably tell that we’re doing a music box gag with the trunk falling down the stairs. But if you don’t know the films, those things just play like another example of the human comedy of what it’s like to travel long distances together. We deliberately made them echoes of famous routines, as opposed to direct references.
AH: Absolutely, and I’m sure it’s something the both of you deal with on a daily basis, like whenever you’re out in public and a fan decides to shout line or catchphrases from past projects at you.
SC: John and I aren’t novices in the world of comedy. It’s not as if we’re two actors who spent our whole careers doing the classical works of Shakespeare, then suddenly decided to do something outside of our experience. We’re both very much experienced in doing comedy on such a grand scale, but it also certainly helped that John and I were able to empathize with the creative process of trying to make something funny in such a very public way.
JCR: There will never be another Laurel and Hardy. They were so unique, so it’s really a fool’s errand to try and replicate what they did. But the truth is, Steven and I aren’t all that different. We haven’t spent our lives together working like they did, but we’ve spent our lives backstage with other performers, talking about our work and our lives and everything in between. I definitely felt that I understood that part of it, and it helped bring me that much closer to the Oliver character. But yeah, we’ve both been in this business so long that the idea of being an old performer with bad knees, hanging out backstage while producers bug us about ticket sales, was sadly familiar to us.