John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan Talk Timeliness of Laurel & Hardy's Comedy

John C. Reilly - Getty - H 2018
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The actors first met with 'Stan & Ollie' director Jon S. Baird about transforming into the iconic duo in 2014.

All week at AFI Fest, red carpets for films screening at TCL Chinese Theatre such as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Bird Box, Destroyer, Widows and Thursday's closer Mary Queen of Scots were cancelled as first responders quelled fires that have claimed 59 lives near Los Angeles and Sacramento. A few blocks down Hollywood Boulevard on Wednesday evening, Stan & Ollie stars Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly did speak to press outside the Egyptian Theatre ahead of a special screening, but the blazes remained on everyone’s minds.

During his opening remarks, festival director Michael Lumpkin informed guests that the film’s respective U.S. and U.K. distributors — Sony Pictures Classic and eOne — would donate funds to the American Red Cross and the Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation, supporting disaster relief efforts.

The third feature from Vinyl and I’m Dying Up Here director Jon S. Baird, Stan & Ollie tracks comedians Stan Laurel (Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (Reilly) through the vaudeville tour they took through England and Ireland in 1953. One of the few silent era acts that kept prospering after the introduction of talkies, the slapstick legends anchored 107 films — including Men O’War (1929), Busy Bodies (1933) and The Flying Deuces (1939) — and inspiring the likes of Jackie Gleason, Peter Sellers and Jim Carrey (on the TV sitcom Friends, Joey and Chandler’s apartment even flaunted a Laurel and Hardy poster).

“It's almost like they were salt and pepper, or like light and shadow, or yin and yang — it seemed like they had been that way forever when I first saw them, and that they would be that way forevermore,” Reilly told The Hollywood Reporter, remembering childhood viewings of their work. “There's something really timeless about them, and I think it's because they didn't ascribe too much of their humor to contemporary humor in their time. They really stuck to concepts that were universally funny to people all over the world.”

When Academy Award-nominated Stan & Ollie screenwriter Jeff Pope (Philomena) introduces the duo in the pic, both men are ailing, never again to complete a movie together (Hardy died first, of a blood clot, in 1957). On set, Reilly spent hours daily in two-time Oscar-winner Mark Coulier's (The Iron Lady, The Grand Budapest Hotel) makeup chair, donning prosthetics and a fat suit to match his alter-ego’s 280-pound frame.    

“I cried a lot watching this movie,” Reilly said of its world premiere at October’s BFI London Film Festival. “Not so much at my own performance, but it's just so moving when you think about their lives. They were two really fascinating people that I feel a great debt to, so I'm moved — like anyone else, objectively — by their story, what life was like for them and how dedicated they were as performers.”

Since then, the final product has also been shown at Virginia’s Middleburg Film Festival and the Rome Film Festival. Before Stan & Ollie’s late-December release, Reilly will attempt to charm multiplex audiences with Disney Animation’s Ralph Breaks the Internet and Columbia Pictures’ Holmes & Watson.

Like Reilly, Pope was a school-aged Laurel and Hardy acolyte. “The thing that stuck out for me as a kid was in their films, they were so close, they were the best friends,” he said. “But in real life, they weren't as close,” at least until the later events explored in his script. “They were friendly, but they were very different personalities, and Stan was very, very work-driven and he was very passionate about the process of making movies, and Oliver was just a brilliant, instinctive actor who said, 'Okay, I'll turn up when you need me, and when you don't, I'm going to go and play golf.'”

Laurel’s great-granddaughter, Cassidy Cook, explained why her kin supports this 2018 account, even though the family "has never blessed anything” in the past: “This was different because Jeff actually wrote a script that portrays my great-grandfather in the light that he needed to be seen, which [is] he was a writer, a director, an actor — he was not just this stupid little man that played a silly little character.” She hopes that when the narrative plays on both sides of the pond, a younger generation will “do their own research to find out who they were and how much they affected comedy."            

Despite the comic twosome’s black-and-white, analog oeuvre, Baird said the filmmakers were “spoiled” with enthusiasm by eOne, the company that financed the entire production (Alex Hamilton, the company’s managing director of film for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is a “massive Laurel and Hardy fan,” the director revealed.) Securing their dream cast’s availability took plenty of time, however, as Baird first sat down with Coogan and Reilly to discuss the project in 2014, and they were announced as its leads in January 2016.  

Composer Rolfe Kent (Sideways, Young Adult) laughed off his own Stan & Ollie nail-biter: The day before musicians were scheduled to record the score, Baird nixed the arrangement that once played over the end title credits, requiring Kent to write “two-and-a-half minutes of elaborate orchestral music” in mere hours.

Speaking to THR, Coogan delved into how his own personal and professional life informed his Laurel portrayal. “I spent the last 20 years writing and performing comedy, which is exactly what he did,” said the Oscar-nominated scribe/producer (Philomena). “I am from the north of England, he was from the north of England, and from a working-class background, and so am I. … I tapped into my own experiences: the frustrations of trying to make decent comedy."   

He continued: “Culture, language, nationality, religion, class, all that was transcended by two guys who could make people laugh.” Coogan also drew parallels between today and the “turbulent” post-Great Depression, pre-World War II age Laurel and Hardy knew so well: “Right now, we're living in similar times, with the rise of nationalism all around the world — nationalism and populism, in the most dangerous sense — and people are going through tough times as well, economically. And I think it's important to appreciate how important laughter is, and how it can bring people together, and it's like a balm on people's wounds.”

Sony Pictures Classics co-founder and co-president Tom Bernard, who attended the screening with co-founder and co-president Michael Barker, also believes Stan & Ollie is arriving right on schedule. “In the political climate of today, it's a movie that there's no politics; it's a story about friendship and redemption, it's like everything the world is asking for, and with two great actors,” he said. “[It's] a story about two people that a lot of people know and a lot of people don't know, and discovery of these guys is an amazing thing.”

Stan & Ollie is set to be released Dec. 28 in the U.S.