When it comes to comedic duos, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are untouchable legends — but that creates a bit of trouble when it comes to bringing them back to life for a biopic. The two of them had not only an incredible chemistry, but also a challenging friendship that fueled their work. To say the least, Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly had their work cut out for them playing the pair in Stan & Ollie, but what was fortunate is that they could lean on their own duo experience to inform the parts. Coogan recently explained,
I’d say the answer is yes, because whilst it’s a big, big task, a big mountain to climb, we certainly had climbed some little foot hills with other people – and some pretty big foot hills with [John C. Reilly] and Will Ferrell. But there’s no doubt about it. And also, because it’s such a tough task, when I knew that John was doing it, I was like, ‘If he’s doing it, I’m in.’
The subject of comedic duos dominated the conversation when I had the pleasure of sitting down with Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly last month to discuss their work together on Stan And Ollie. Recognizing that both actors have had very strong comedic working relationships in the past, most notably with Rob Brydon and Will Ferrell, respectively, I was curious how they were able to learn from those bonds, as they were enthusiastic in their response.
For John C. Reilly, his work with Will Ferrell is what immediately came to mind, specifically movies like Step Brothers and Talladega Nights, but the actor pointed out that he’s actually done quite a bit of two-hander work with a lot of different talents, citing not only his live-action film work, but also animation and stage.
What he took from those partnerships is not just the importance of chemistry, but something much deeper than that. You need the skill to help you try and find the best way to work with someone else, and he found that was key in working with Steve Coogan:
John C. Reilly: Definitely the partnerships of my past work, and I’ve had a million of them! A lot of different people: Sarah Silverman, Will Ferrell… Philip Seymour Hoffman and I did True West on Broadway, which is a total partnership play. So I was very familiar with what it took to be a good partner to someone. That said, working with Steve was very difficult, and much more difficult than some of my past partnerships. He’s prickly. Prickly would be a nice way to put it.
Steve Coogan: Prickly pear.
John C. Reilly: Of course, it gives you confidence to know like, ‘Well if I found chemistry with this person then, you know, maybe I can find it with this guy.’ When you have the past as prologue, as they say.
Of course, one major element that they certainly had in their favor working together is their general experience, allowing them the strength to take on something as challenging as Stan & Ollie. At the same time, though, one thing that helped relax just a bit was channeling the attitudes of the men they were playing. The real Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy weren’t overly serious about their performing work, and both John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan found themselves inspired by that energy:
John C. Reilly: Stan and Ollie weren’t very precious about their work. It wasn’t like they were method actors, or ‘Oh, we only perform when it’s perfect conditions.’ At the drop of a hat they performed for people in public. They saw fans that liked them they’d start doing routines just to please people. So they were really kind of get-to-it sort of guys.
Steve Coogan: I got the feeling that when they worked in the studio, and the studio system sort of played to this a little, is they were on salary, and they clock on, do the job as best they can, and then clock off.
The discussion I had with Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly on this subject was a great one, and you can watch their back and forth in action by clicking play on the video below.
Directed by Jon S. Baird, Stan & Ollie begins with the titular duo later in their careers, their star not quite as bright as it was during their heyday. In hopes of reigniting their brand, they embark on a theatre tour of Britain, and use the time to try and not only improve their act, but also their friendship. In addition to Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, the film also stars Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, and Danny Huston – and is now playing in limited release.