'Stan & Ollie' Star John C. Reilly's Fat Suit Featured a Cutting-Edge Cooling System

To become the legendary Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel, Reilly and Steve Coogan turned themselves over to the makeup and hairstyling team, which used an air-conditioned costume to make sure the often frustrated Ollie never lost his cool.
Courtesy of Aimee Spinks; Photofest
Final makeup touches are applied to John C. Reilly as he prepares to play Oliver Hardy in 'Stan & Ollie' (Inset: The real Laurel and Hardy in the 1930s).

Over the course of their 30-year film career, the corpulent and often flustered Oliver Hardy and the slim and often confused Stan Laurel became one of Hollywood's most iconic duos — an instantly recognizable matched pair. And so their very familiarity is what posed the biggest challenge in crafting Sony Pictures Classics' Stan & Ollie, which focuses on the later part of their life together as they embark on a stage tour of England. How to turn Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly into convincing replicas of, respectively, the inimitable Laurel and Hardy?

The makeup and hairstyling team had plenty of photographs and filmed footage for reference, but the work still required a delicate approach so that, as Coogan explains, viewers "get lost in the performance, in the story. We didn't want anything too distracting." So far, the results have been convincing enough that Stan & Ollie became one of seven films on the shortlist for the Academy's makeup and hairstyling Oscar.

The work on the $10 million project was led by makeup supervisor Jeremy Woodhead and Mark Coulier, the prosthetics designer who won Academy Awards for The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Iron Lady. Coulier explains that to transform Reilly into Hardy, he covered the actor nearly head to toe in prosthetics and a fat suit — which took as long as three to four hours a day. "Only my face and the flats of my hands were exposed," Reilly recalls. "In a way it was like wearing a mask on your whole body."

But Coulier, working with makeup artist Josh Weston, made a point of keeping much of the area around the actor's forehead, eyes and nose free of prosthetics so that he would be free to act. "We tried to keep as much expression in the face as possible," Coulier explains. And the surrounding prosthetics were soft, which also helped to give the actor a range of movement.

Because the performances involved a lot of physical comedy and dancing, keeping the actors cool became a concern — both to ensure their comfort and to keep their looks intact — since the production employed a relatively quick 40-day shooting schedule that included filming in some small theaters that weren't air-conditioned.

Reilly's foam suit was soft and lightweight, which helped, and the suit could also be attached to a sort of ice machine. "The jacket had a tube network running though it and a valve on either side," Coulier says. It could be plugged into a tank, and ice water then would be pumped through the tubes. "It's basically designed for endurance or motor sports."

Meanwhile, to transform into Stan Laurel, Coogan wore a flattened cleft-chin prosthetic, false teeth and attachments to make his ears stick out. Both men also wore contact lenses to match the eye color of the comedians they portray.

The first time the filmmakers saw the actors transformed, "there was complete silence," says director Jon Baird. "People were just astounded by how they looked."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.