IN CON­VER­SA­TION

STEVE COOGAN & JOHN C. REILLY

Total Film - - Contents -

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly tell TF about be­com­ing Stan & Ol­lie.

It’s the day after Stan & Ol­lie has en­joyed its world premiere as the clos­ing film of the Lon­don Film Fes­ti­val, and stars Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are seated on a sofa at the Savoy Ho­tel.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, it is Coogan who plays English­man Stan Lau­rel and Reilly who (fat)suits up as Amer­i­can Oliver Hardy in this con­ge­nial, heart­felt film, an ode to the ge­nius slap­stick duo who went way out west to Hol­ly­wood to de­light au­di­ences with their in­spired work of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s – work that be­came a sta­ple of TV broad­casts on both sides of the pond for decades to come.

The Savoy Ho­tel is cer­tainly an apt choice of venue for to­day’s chat. It was here that the duo stayed when they ar­rived in Lon­don on their 1953 the­atri­cal tour after a some­what dispir­it­ing trek around the coun­try. And it is this last-hur­rah that forms the core of Stan & Ol­lie, di­rected by Jon S. Baird, who fol­lows his Irvine Welsh adap­ta­tion Filth with a much gen­tler film (no talk­ing tape worms, prom­ise).

Coogan and Reilly are still buzzing from the premiere the night be­fore, as well as sti­fling the odd yawn. Bri­tish-born ac­tor/co­me­dian Coogan, 53, is dressed ca­su­ally in a check shirt, black trousers and socks with cher­ries on; Chicago na­tive Reilly, also 53, is go­ing all-out for style, with a three-piece suit, cra­vat and cream trilby, which he leaves on the table. There’s not a bowler hat in sight.

Coogan, of course, is the fer­tile mind be­hind Alan Par­tridge, not to men­tion the Os­car-nom­i­nated Philom­ena. Reilly also has comic chops, thanks to his fre­quent pair­ings with Will Fer­rell (Step Brothers, Tal­ladega Nights), as well as an Academy nod of his own for his turn in Chicago. But next to L&H, they’re mere ap­pren­tices. “These guys make me laugh,” says Reilly. “They still make me laugh.”

On screen, Stan & Ol­lie is less an all-out com­edy than a poignant look at a life in show­biz, with two men fac­ing the re­al­ity that their movie star­dom is on the wane. “It was des­per­a­tion, lit­er­ally that. They were broke and they needed some money,” says Coogan, as his char­ac­ter, the worka­holic Lau­rel, tries to use the tour to gain fund­ing for a Robin Hood pic­ture.

If the film deals with re­tire­ment, it’s not ex­actly a press­ing is­sue for Coogan or Reilly, who both ap­pear in the up­com­ing Holmes & Wat­son. Coogan also has This Time With Alan Par­tridge on the hori­zon, with Alan back on the BBC. But for the mo­ment it’s time to talk Stan Lau­rel and Oliver Hardy, two of Hol­ly­wood’s great­est fun­ny­men. “They were a mir­a­cle,” says Reilly. He’s not wrong…

What were your early me­mories of Lau­rel and Hardy?

Steve Coogan: For me, it was on dur­ing the school hol­i­days, dur­ing the ’70s… it was on ev­ery morn­ing – four or five shows that were all on rote: Lau­rel and Hardy, Ba­nana Splits, Casey Jones and some car­toons. It was the same menu ev­ery morn­ing. As soon as you wake up, bang, down­stairs, and you knew you’d get this. It was great. It started off the sum­mer hol­i­days per­fectly. And Lau­rel and Hardy was part of that. It was just part of the land­scape.

John C. Reilly: It was not quite as reg­i­mented as that [in the States]. It wasn’t at a cer­tain time ev­ery day. It was more like filler on net­work TV at night. At times when they didn’t have some other pro­gramme. It was Three Stooges, Lit­tle Rascals and Lau­rel and Hardy. They were all over the place on TV. But I didn’t re­ally watch that stuff and think, “Lau­rel and Hardy! They’re ge­niuses.” I was just a kid. It was, “Oh, it’s the fat guy and the skinny guy – they’re funny.”

How easy was it to ab­sorb their style with­out mim­ick­ing them?

SC: Well, it does in­volve both mimicry and some­thing more pro­found. But it is a mar­riage of those things. It’s the mar­riage of the sin­cere and the au­then­tic with the stuff that’s tech­ni­cal. And there’s a strange in­ter­play be­tween those two things, so in re­hears­ing a dance – which is a very tech­ni­cal thing – we also have to learn their mis­takes in that rou­tine.

JCR: They’re very small mis­takes, but we were try­ing to repli­cate their dance ex­actly.

SC: Although it’s just a tech­ni­cal, phys­i­cal thing, all that stuff spend­ing time re­hears­ing with each other, helped me con­tem­plate who Stan was and think about his life. On top of that, from my point of view, I used the phys­i­cal side of Stan as a start­ing point to try and claw back­wards into who he

was. The char­ac­ter he played on screen was a part of him, but only a part of him. That’s like a lit­tle win­dow you can use to work back­wards into the core of who he re­ally was.

JCR: The Way Out West dance [seen in their 1937 clas­sic] in par­tic­u­lar is a re­ally beau­ti­ful study at build­ing a joke. So it’s an id­i­otic dance. That’s why it’s funny. It starts out lit­er­ally with tap­ping your toe [Reilly starts tap­ping his shoe]. And they build from tap­ping your toe into a fully syn­chro­nised fly­ing-up-the-stair­case and kick­ing your heels at the same time [dance]

– but the joke is, it’s like a lit­tle kid say­ing, “I’m go­ing to do a dance rou­tine. You ready?” [He stands up, starts clap­ping in time, and Coogan col­lapses in hys­ter­ics]. Like it so far? And on and on…

SC: Toby Sedg­wick, who was our chore­og­ra­pher and phys­i­cal ad­vi­sor, our clown ad­vi­sor, made us learn it in a tech­ni­cal way. Like a band that can re­hearse a song very, very tightly, and then has to loosen it up by be­ing more lais­sez-faire about the way they ren­der some­thing. That’s what we had to do – learn it pre­cisely and then make it a bit more throw­away, if you like.

JCR: It’s al­most like ev­ery sin­gle thing Oliver and Stan did had 10,000 hours of mu­sic hall re­hearsal in it al­ready, so ev­ery­thing they did had this ease to it be­cause they’d been work­ing to­gether so much for so long. The rea­son they were able to do the tim­ing so non­cha­lantly was be­cause they were very prac­tised per­form­ers. You never saw them sweat. If you re­ally study the Way Out West dance, you can see Oliver sweat in a cou­ple of places!

Lau­rel and Hardy are both mar­ried in the movie. But is the film re­ally about their love for each other?

SC: We were say­ing be­fore, the one con­stant in their lives was each other and that be­came ap­par­ent. Cer­tainly in our nar­ra­tive, the way we choose to tell it… although they liked each other and they were some­times friendly

– they so­cialised in the 1930s – their re­la­tion­ship was ce­mented on this tour. They were liv­ing in each other’s pock­ets, which they weren’t be­fore. It’s that thing when you look around and ev­ery­one else has come and gone and the only per­son still in the room that was in the room at the be­gin­ning… for Stan it’s Ol­lie and for Ol­lie it’s Stan. And that counts for some­thing, when you’re in the au­tumn of your life – that guy’s still here.

JCR: Es­pe­cially when you were mar­ried seven times, three times to the same woman, like Stan.

SC: That is nuts!

The big emo­tional arc is Stan’s bit­ter­ness – held for 16 years – about Ol­lie briefly go­ing solo. That seems a long time to hold on to some­thing…

JCR: Was it? That’s long – 16 years? I’ve got fam­ily mem­bers that still hold shit on me from 40 years ago!

SC: I don’t think that’s a long time, re­ally. Peo­ple can put things to one side, not re­solve them, and put them in a drawer. But in the right cir­cum­stances, they will open that drawer and take that stuff out. Peo­ple who work to­gether, there is a com­pet­i­tive el­e­ment. What did Gore Vi­dal say? When any of his friends are suc­cess­ful, part of him dies a lit­tle. There could be some­thing in that. When John’s not here, I slag him off to my girl­friend for hours.

Did you ever come close to get­ting a dou­ble act as a co­me­dian?

SC: Me? Some peo­ple think I have with Rob Bry­don in The Trip. Some would say that’s a dou­ble act. It’s the clos­est I’ve come to a dou­ble act, with Rob, and that’s be­cause we doc­tor our­selves. I play the pre­ten­tious, por­ten­tous, pre­cious suf­fer­ing and sanc­ti­mo­nious artist, and he plays the hap­pygo-lucky, wears-it­light-on-hisshoul­ders jokester. I want to be known as a man of sub­stance – and there is some truth in that. But I’m in­suf­fer­able and he is too, but it’s a com­plete ex­ag­ger­a­tion of our­selves and we play up our worst facets – we re­ally crank up the vol­ume! JCR: Lis­ten, my whole life has been dou­ble acts. That’s the truth. I grav­i­tate to­wards part­ner­ships, where it’s with film­mak­ers like Paul Thomas An­der­son. Or in movies like Boo­gie Nights – that was a dou­ble act [with Mark Wahlberg].

A lot of stuff I do is with a part­ner. Some­thing I think we touch on in the movie and is def­i­nitely true in these cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tions is you are al­ways in­cen­tivised to pro­tect the cre­ative re­la­tion­ship. Some­times at per­sonal cost. “Well, I should call him out on the fact that he was rude to me last night, but if I do that it will screw up our per­for­mance tonight, and then he’s go­ing to be pissed that I called him out on his be­hav­iour, so I’ll just swal­low it and we’ll have a great show tonight.” And then that swal­low­ing, it does some­thing to you, and it builds

these lit­tle prickly things in­side a re­la­tion­ship. But I re­ally do un­der­stand that keep­ing the peace idea: we have a higher mis­sion and our mis­sion is to keep this art, this thing we’re do­ing to­gether…we have to ser­vice that. No mat­ter what it takes, what sac­ri­fices it takes in our per­sonal life, that’s what we have to do. And a lot of ac­tors and artists think that way.

John, you have Holmes & Wat­son com­ing up, and you’re also in it Steve… in an undis­closed role!

SC: I am in it. I like to be mys­te­ri­ous when I do cameos, es­pe­cially when I do films with John!

JCR: He likes to hedge his bets in case the movie’s shit!

What was it like mak­ing that?

JCR: That was a lot of fun. Will [Fer­rell] is one of my clos­est friends and we’ve had great suc­cess to­gether. I’m a huge Sher­lock Holmes fan. I’ve read all of those sto­ries. It was one of the rea­sons I jumped at the chance. Be­tween play­ing John Wat­son and get­ting to hang out with Will again, I was like, “What else do I need to know?” Oh, I get to wear tweed suits, per­fect!

It was an of­fer I could not refuse. And Steve came in af­ter­wards.

SC: John couldn’t es­cape then – he was in too deep! It was a lot of fun, though. It was after Stan & Ol­lie that I did my bit in the Sher­lock movie. I’d worked with Will be­fore…

…yet you and John had never been on screen to­gether un­til Stan & Ol­lie, had you?

SC: No, we hadn’t. I did know John a bit. I met up with him – there was a thing we nearly did and didn’t do. I still think we should do that thing! But, yes, it didn’t feel like an alien thing. I as­sumed we would work well to­gether.

JCR: Me too. I re­spected Steve. You can do a lot if you re­spect the other per­son. That said, it still took us a sec­ond to trust each other and re­alise that… oh, he gen­uinely thinks I’m funny and I gen­uinely think he’s funny. You have to earn it with each other.

SC: Also, we got to a place re­ally quickly… there were three weeks of re­hearsal we had, and that was very use­ful. Not just tech­ni­cally, to spend time with each other, but to feel each other out a bit. And I think we got to know each other well enough to be hon­est with each other. Some­times you do have to play a po­lit­i­cal game with who­ever it is you’re work­ing with. But I al­ways felt with John we were able to be hon­est with each other and re­alise that the thing that was big­ger than both of us was this movie.

JCR: That’s usu­ally how I work. If I make a point or take a strong stand on some­thing, it’s not be­cause I want it for my ego. It’s al­ways to ser­vice the thing we’re try­ing to do, and I can be talked out of things too. Steve and I would de­bate things.

SC: We wouldn’t al­ways agree but we would re­solve things.

JCR: And then we’d say, “Let’s try it this way… oh, you were right, it’s fun­nier like this.” Steve was usu­ally right!

What about the pros­thet­ics work you had to en­dure, John, to play Hardy? Have you done any­thing like that be­fore?

JCR: No, and I’ve stu­diously avoided it. I was of­fered a part in one of those Planet Of The Apes movies at one point and I was like, “I don’t think I can sit in that chair for that long for that rea­son – to be a mon­key.” I re­alised I could sit in a chair for this long to be Oliver Hardy. That’s a holy mis­sion. That’s some­thing I could en­dure.

SC: I’ve done a lot of things where I’ve spent time hav­ing wigs glued on me, and in re­cent years I’ve done less of it and I’ve felt so lib­er­ated. In my ca­reer, early on, stick­ing stuff on your­self felt slightly un­so­phis­ti­cated. But as the years rolled on, I thought, “It’s like dress­ing up, this fun thing.” But I have avoided it. I only had a tiny bit [in the film] – a chin and teeth. It took me 40 min­utes. It took John nearly two hours.

Can you tease us with what to ex­pect for This Time With Alan Par­tridge?

SC: It’s pretty much done. All we’re do­ing is tin­ker­ing with it. We take a lot of care to make sure it’s good be­cause we want to make sure peo­ple can’t say… there is al­ways this ter­ror of jump­ing the shark, hav­ing been this char­ac­ter for so long. So we are su­per-crit­i­cal with our­selves. When

I say “our­selves”, I mean me and the Gib­bons who write it. The Gib­bons are not apes by the way, they are real hu­man be­ings [brothers Rob and Neil] who write com­edy. It’s sort of a bit like a mag­a­zine show where Alan has a co-host. We wanted to do some­thing dif­fer­ent, mov­ing things on. Alan’s got a break on a TV show. It’s a fic­ti­tious es­tab­lished show called This Time.

JCR: He’s go­ing to blow it, I just know he’ll blow it!

SC: He gets a break. The main male an­chor on the show is un­well. Alan stands in and things go his way – well, the guy dies ba­si­cally. So Alan is try­ing to be sad! He’s try­ing to be suit­ably re­spect­ful and sad. It’s like a live show, but you see stuff in be­tween. You see chat when he’s off air, with the cam­era framed badly and he’s talk­ing. You see his as­sis­tant come on and say, “You’re do­ing very well. Re­mem­ber there’s a va­cancy at the end of the show.” And he goes, “Be quiet

– his body is barely cold!”

STAN & OL­LIE OPENS ON 11 JAN­UARY.

leave ‘em laugh­ing The leads went to great lengths to make the fa­mous dance moves look ef­fort­less.

way ouT wesT Re­cre­at­ing Stan & Ol­lie’s most fa­mous dance scene.

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