THERE IS NO greater challenge for an actor than transforming into a real-life person – a challenge that can only get more difficult when that real-life person is a perfomer themself.
But for John C Reilly and Steve Coogan, two modern-day comedic legends, turning into Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel must have been a career high. They play the two comedians in a new comedy drama, Stan & Ollie, directed by Scotsman and Martin Scorsese pal Jon S Baird (Filth, Babylon).
The film is a gentle and loving look at the latter years of their career, when they embarked on a series of dates around Britain and Ireland (including the Olympia Theatre, where our interview with them was filmed). It was period of time where they were struggling financially, and where their personal relationship wasn’t very strong.
Stan & Ollie first brings us the pair in the mid-1930s during their heyday, before fastforwarding to the late 1950s when they’re a little in the doldrums. Gigs are drying up, money is drying up, and things aren’t as bright as they were.
In the film, the testing times are interspersed with moments of the pair’s antics onstage. But it isn’t a laugh-a-minute riot. John C Reilly, who plays Oliver Hardy (and who had to done transformative makeup and costuming in order to look the same size Hardy was during two periods in his life), says that the fact they were two massively well-known stars gave him and Coogan some freedom.
“That’s where we had some creative license – their movies are so well known, you know what they sounded like and moved like. All that is so well known that there’s no point in doing a movie that was just going to recreate that,” he says. “So we recreated it enough to show you this is what they do for a living. But the wonderful film that John and we put together is really an emotional biography of a friendship and it just so happens to be a friendship of two of the greatest comedians who ever lived.”
He says it was a “very sensitive time in their life as well”. That’s made clear in the film through the wonderful and very funny depiction of their wives, Ida Laurel (Shirley Henderson) and Lucille Hardy (Nina Arianda), who get some of the film’s best lines. They’re totally focused on supporting their husbands, and the relationships are wonderfully drawn.
For Steve Coogan, the aim wasn’t to become carbon copies of their idols, but there were moments where they were required to recreate famous Laurel and Hardy scenes. One of those is their dance in the film Way Out West:
The pair learned the entire dance, including the comedians’ original mistakes. “The thing about trying to emulate and make them… a little part of the film, a small part of the film we do have to look and sound like the people we recognise,” says Coogan. “And that’s fun and hard work but it actually is more quite fun to do that and try to get it right, and I think we did a pretty good job.”But the real joy actually is that diving into their personal lives and figuring out who they were. That’s the real hard work and also the real joy of the process we went to.
For the director, it was a matter of trying to balance the light with the dark. “I think there’s a level of expectation when you’re doing a film with Laurel and Hardy that some of it has to be funny,” says Baird. “But we didn’t want to call the film ‘Laurel and Hardy’ because it would give the audience a wrong expectation of it being an out-and-out comedy, so therefore called it Stan and Ollie. Straight away you’re thinking then it’s about the offscreen persona.”
He adds: “But we just felt that that period in their life they were really challenged financially, health-wise their star had fallen a bit as well. It had all these things that were going to add up to a lot of conflict and with conflict you’re obviously going to get drama. And that’s really why we chose that period.”
They never did want to do an out-and-out biopic either, he says. “I think we made the right decision,” is his assessment.
‘Their work is so complete’
But when you spend a good chunk of time delving deep into a character, especially one you are a fan of, you might find out some things you didn’t like. Neither Laurel nor Hardy was an angel – Hardy liked a flutter on the races, and both were trying not to drink too much.
Did playing them change how the actors felt about them? “It’s interesting because we have dived very deep into all the details and the marriages and all of it, and when I watch the films I don’t think about any of that,” says Reilly.
“Their work is so complete and so convincing and so funny still. Just the other day I was taking a bath, put the iPad up outside it and watching one short film of theirs after another and laughing out loud in the bathtub. There are not a lot of comedies that can do that for me these days.”
Though the comedians might be a legendary pair, now that we’re inching towards 100 years from their initial appearance they are not necessarily household names for some people. That is part of the reason for the film too, says Coogan.
“Their stuff is timeless. Part of the reason we made this film was to try and bring Laurel and Hardy to a younger generation that perhaps don’t know them as well as we do.”
Jon S Baird was a big fan of the pair since he was a child, and says revisiting the film helped him to rediscover their work. “There was a big gap in my life where I hadn’t revisited their films for quite some time until we started researching this,” he says. “But I just loved these gentlemen you know.I kind of feel as though I really know them now, and I feel as though I’ll always have them with me, because of what Steve and John did. I feel as though they will be part of my life.