STEVE COOGAN & JOHN C. REILLY
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.