There are far worse things to talk about at a junket than Laurel and Hardy. The famous comedy duo is the subject of a tender new buddy movie, Stan & Ollie, which focuses on a slump in their relationship, both personally and professionally, as they toured and performed live long after their days of movie stardom. Director Jon S. Baird‘s (Filth) celebrates the lives of Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) without ever falling into hero worship and stripping them of their humanity like many biopics tend to do.
Speaking with Coogan and Reilly, it was evident right away how much their love and respect for the performers grew during the making of Stan & Ollie. “It was really fun to remember these guys and how amazing they were,” Reilly told us over the phone, seated next to Coogan. “That’s one of the great things about promoting the movie is to remind people of the genius of Laurel and Hardy.” During our interview with the two performers, who are also both known for their work as comedic duos (with Will Ferrell and Rob Brydon), they reminded us of their genius as well.
It’s nice to think this movie could introduce a whole new generation to Laurel and Hardy’s movies.
Coogan: Well, that’s part of the kind of mission that John and I were on. We were kind of shocked that many people under 40, aren’t that familiar with Laurel and Hardy apart from the image of the fat guy and the thin guy. So really, part of our hope was the movie got some traction and people liked it, that it would have a knock on a bit, and that people would take a fresh look at these guys.
What was your relationship with their work growing up? Were you fans?
Coogan: Yeah, I think both of us, we watched their stuff on TV, because it was during the period ’70s and ’80s when they would rerun a lot of Laurel and Hardy’s movies on TV during vacation during the kids TVs.
Reilly: Yeah, it’s funny, I almost thought they were almost like cartoon characters. I didn’t think of them as real people. I saw them as this delightful kind of pair of guys that were just … I mean, I couldn’t even think of them as actors, or whatever. When I was a kid, I would think of them like going home together after they made their movies, and cooking dinner, and with the cameras still on. So it’s hard to imagine them apart.
When you were performing research and looking at their material again, what maybe stood out to you about them as performers that you admired?
Coogan: Well, Stan obviously was obviously the workhorse behind the relationship in terms of generating material. But for me, it was going through the rehearsal process, because we found a lot of information about them, but it was the experience that was a revelation because going through the rehearsal process that John and I did before we started shooting you sort of discovered how the … almost however throwaway and disposable and sort of random that their shows seemed to me, their short films seemed to be, it was almost a direct correlation of how hard that they worked and how much craftsmanship there was in their short films.
Reilly: Yeah, you quickly realized the nonchalance of their work was a result of hundreds of hours rehearsal and working the gag over and over and over again so that it seemed effortless.
It’s never effortless when it’s that good, right?
Coogan: Absolutely. So it was a lot of sweat and toil. It was good to go through that rehearsal process. It was good that we did demanding work, and John and I had to do the sketches, the dance routines, and all the rest of it. And that whole process helped us not only learn about Laurel and Hardy and how hard they worked together, the process of rehearsing gave John and I, a taste of the process that Laurel and Hardy would’ve had to go through.
Steve, being a writer, was there anything about Laurel’s process as a writer that you connected with as well?
Coogan: Yeah, I do a lot of comedy, and I write a lot of comedy. I mean, there have been times in my life when my personal life hasn’t gone exactly the way I’ve wanted it to, and sometimes I’d kind of console myself and think, “Well, I’m pretty good at my job.” I feel that Stan Laurel took that to an extreme, in that he was so dedicated to the craftsmanship of his comedy that he kind of sacrificed his personal life in a way that Oliver did not do. Oliver tried … John and I, we talk about it. We say that Oliver worked to live, but Stan lived to work.
Oliver had a pretty big zest for life, right?
Coogan: Yes. Well, John will talk about this, but Oliver certainly had a kind of bon viveur, and he loved life.
Reilly: He was like a romantic. He enjoyed the fruits of their relationships. Hollywood, for well known actors at the time, had a lot of fruits, just wine, women, and song. And then he was great at playing golf. He’s like a savant at playing golf. He used to love to go to the horse races. And he spent his money as fast he could make it, because he was just trying to enjoy life. As someone came from pretty humble backgrounds, both Stan and Ollie, once they got a little cash in Hollywood, it made them feel really great. I think that’s one of the reasons why they didn’t push for a better financial arrangement with their producer in the first place, because they were so relieved to be employed during a period like the Great Depression.
He’s a really passionate guy, and that was what I found at the center of this kind of onscreen stage persona: the over-the-top romantic stuff that he would do when he was meeting a lady and twiddling the tie and all that, that was just like a more extreme version of, I think, his real personality.
Was there anything about him as a performer you found relatable?
Reilly: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I consider myself a romantic. I’m someone that … I work very hard, and I work a lot. And when I’m not working, I don’t concern myself with it at all. I don’t talk to my agent. If I decide that I need time off, I completely disengage, and just go out and enjoy the world. And it’s something I actually say to actors all the time, younger actors that I meet on films. I say, “Listen, just because you’re away on location at work, it doesn’t mean that your life has stopped and that you’re just here to work, and that you should not be comfortable and not be enjoying yourself because you’re ‘at work’ Your life continues no matter where you are. You have to enjoy where you’re living, enjoy what you’re eating, take care of yourself, see the world, and continue to grow as a human being.”
And I think Oliver and I have that in common. It’s not just about endless devotion to work. Luckily, he had a partner who was devoted and can keep the quality level of their work so high that he has the luxury of having someone like Stan making sure that due diligence was done for the scripts and the gags. One of the things about their movies that’s really stunning, they did a lot of playful stuff with special effects, actual practical effects. Like, the way things would hit them, it took a lot of planning. A lot of their work is physical pratfall-ing kind of comedy, but behind their films took a lot of planning and art. That’s where Stan really made sure that all the Ts were crossed.
I was just watching this interview with them called “This Is Your Life,” which is around the same period as the movie. In 25 minutes, they just gave the audience so little, and you got no sense of their personalities.
Coogan: Yeah, I think that wasn’t a good time in their life, and I think it was kind of disingenuous the way that was set up, because they were promised by [manager] Bernard Delfont, who helped set them up, and who’s actually a character in our movie, promised they were meeting someone about making a movie. So, it was kind of almost a disappointment when they found out that it was “This Is Your Life.”
Reilly: Yeah, the first moment when that wall pulls away and it’s revealed that they’re on a TV show, to me, is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. You see Oliver look out as if to think, like, “What on earth?” They were there hoping to have some kind of good news for their future, and in fact, they were sort of being used by the television show.
Coogan: Yeah, but people just want to go over the same old stuff.
Reilly: And also, they were of an older style of entertainer, where they didn’t really share so much of their personal story. It was about maintaining characters, these beloved characters, for the audience and never disappointing the audience, always letting them feel like I felt when I was a little boy, that these two characters are real, and the sweetness of them is real.
Coogan: They didn’t court celebrity in the same way. They wanted to make their movies successful, which they were, but they didn’t go tarting around on this that and the other.
Reilly: We look at great filmmakers and great actors in films now with a sense of their ongoing legacy, or a life career in this art form called filmmaking. But at the time these guys were working it was a very new art form, and in fact, most people thought of it as just a disposable art form. Films, you come out, you just make another one. They almost felt like we feel about reality TV, how like, this stuff just comes out, and you keep making it, and then things change, and you make some different stuff. And now, looking back on their work, you realize, “Wow, these guys, they actually are a very important part of filmmaking history, and they do have a legacy.” But I think it was somewhat lost on them and everyone else at the time.
Coogan: They couldn’t imagine there were people that were yet to be born who were going to enjoy their work.
One scene that really stands out to me is when their manager, Bernard, is just blown away and moved by their performance, partially because I think we’ve all experienced that feeling watching a performer. Is there a performance or two you’ve witnessed that left you both in awe?
Reilly: Well, I remember the first concert I ever went to was to see Steve Martin in concert. And well, some of my peers were more excited to see Rush, the rock band, or AC/DC or whatever. I was just so into Steve Martin, and that was a life-changing experience, getting to see his comedy onstage, getting to see the sort of mayhem that he created and laugh with him in real time, was a very impactful thing.
In fact, when I left that performance, I remember seeing … I can’t believe I saw this. I was walking out of the Chicago Amphitheater where I saw him in Chicago, and here he comes in his white suit jump into a limo, and then he’s waving out of his back window to me as he drives away from the concert in his white suit at the time. And Steve Martin could not have been bigger at the time. He was hugely popular. Anyway, yeah, that was a major, major performance. Also, seeing Ian McKellen live onstage as a young theater actor was also huge because I saw him in “The Cherry Orchard.” That was another one that really just knocked my socks off.
Coogan: For me, I think it was when Elvis came to my house and cooked me breakfast. I’ll never forget that. [Pauses] Yeah.
Reilly: He loved bacon, I heard. The King loved bacon.
Coogan: He did, yeah. He had a little too much of it, to be honest with you, but very good.
Stan & Ollie is now in theaters.