'Stan And Ollie' Star Steve Coogan On Bringing The Iconic Comedy Duo To Life [Interview]

There are few things more satisfying than having modern-day actors pay worthy tribute to their legendary predecessors, and the easily lovable biopic Stan & Ollie, from director Jon S. Baird, is almost nothing but that, with Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly (along with some awards-worthy makeup) portraying arguably the greatest comedy duo in film history, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

The movie documents a period in the later years of their career, during which the two are having less success in motion pictures, so they are forced to take their show on the road, for a series of live theater performances across the United Kingdom. The tour—as well as their advanced age and failing health—takes a toll on them and their decades-long friendship, but with the help of devoted fans and their loving wives (played by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda), the team keeps their work alive and thriving.

/Film spoke to both Coogan and Reilly recently about the grueling rehearsal and choreography that went into playing these iconic roles, as well as their deep devotion to getting these characterizations correct, especially for the benefit of the die-hard fans. First up is the Oscar-nominated (for writing and producing Philomena) Steve Coogan, who began his long career in comedy playing the sniveling radio/TV personality Alan Partridge, but maybe most beloved worldwide for The Trip series of films (three and counting), with fellow actor Rob Brydon, during which the pair drive and eat across different exotic locations in Europe, under the direction of Michael Winterbottom. Stan & Ollie has been in limited release since late last year and is now open wide.

As I was watching the film, the one thing that I kept thinking about with regards to you playing Stan Laurel in particular was that you must have been excited to play the character who was also their writer, because you are also a successful writer, as well as a performer. I have to imagine that truly appealed to you.

Yes, it did. You're dead right. People ask if it was daunting taking on this role, and in some ways it was, because in playing an iconic figure, there's a lot of responsibility. But it wasn't like I was playing an astronaut. It was someone who echoes my upbringing in the north o England, working-class background, which I am too. I felt a lot of things resonating with me already with this role, even though he was 70 years before me. And the mechanics of rehearsing comedy, perfecting a comic moment, there might be differences but it's the same thing—if you want something to be funny, if it's a situation and created some characters, you have to rehearse it so it works. You have to apply yourself to it, fine tune it and craft it, and I'm used to doing that. So that part of it definitely helped.

I'm guessing you didn't have to go through quite the makeup regimen that John did, but do feel like there are things going on with your face that are not your own.

That's true. I have a fake chin, and then I had these gums on the lower teeth that pushed my jaw out slightly because he had a different face. And I had the tips of my ears slightly wider, so my ears bend out slightly the way Stan's did. And contact lenses too. When I saw myself after the makeup test—and admittedly, John's is more spectacular—I was pretty impressed. I was anxious about using any kind of prosthetic makeup. I was like "No, this is a bad idea. We should just go with ourselves. It's about the truth of the character, not some technical thing. It's distracting." But these are the best people in the business, and they came along and nailed it. So when we did the test, I was like "Hell, this is good."

Do you remember your first exposure to Laurel & Hardy, and was there a point in your life where they became important to you?

Yes. As a kid, I used to see these movies. My father's generation used to see them at the picture house on Saturday mornings in the 1940s. And 20-30 years after that, I would watch them on TV, and they would rerun them during school vacation; they were on every morning—they had the same number of shows on every morning. We had some American imports on like "Casey Jones" and "The Banana Splits," and "Laurel & Hardy" would be sandwiched in the middle of it. It was my first exposure to the great, wonderful, heartwarming comedy that was able to appeal to everyone. There's something transcendent about good comedy that manages to make people of differing tastes, politics, points of view, religions, and world views all come together and laugh at the same time. There are very few things that are capable of doing that, actually. So I see this as a love letter to comedy.

One of the reasons doing this film might be daunting is that so many people still hold them in such high regard, and you will hear about it if you get something wrong.

You've hit the nail on the head. That is exactly right. John felt the same way. The Sons of the Desert [The International Laurel & Hardy Society], the British branch, they came along and we chatted to them and wanted to make sure we got them on our side. You have to satisfy people who say "Well, he doesn't look like him." You have to try and be faithful to people who know them, while at the same time not get preoccupied with a facsimile and trying to get under someone's skin. There are a number of things to do, and you have to find your way. I didn't have a game plan. You just feel your way, do the research, rehearse—the rehearsals became quite useful because as you rehearse all the dance routines and sketches with John, it enabled me to get a feel for what it would be like for Stan and Ollie to rehearse their routines. They had to do the same rehearsals John and I did. They had to learn it the same way. Having John as a partner was invaluable. But you're right, you have to line your ducks up in a row to get this right.

It must have a been a real joy to play in those spaces of old Hollywood and British theater of the period.

The funny thing is, a lot of those [British] spaces do still exist. Those weren't sets; those were real theaters, and some of them haven't changed a bit. Some of the ones we played in were ones Stan and Ollie actually played in. But the answer is that it is really enjoyable. There's something warm, kinder and softer about performing in those simpler times. The whole aesthetic, and we had theaters full of people, it's so much easier on the eyes because there are no harsh shades, just different forms of sage and brown—all these autumnal tones. There's no Nike bright orange or Day-Glo red. That was quite enjoyable to be surrounded by all of that.

You mentioned the rehearsal process, if you watch their movies enough, you begin to realize how much they had to rehearse to make their routines look easy and sloppy. But I couldn't help consider how you and John had to rehearse enough to make it look effortless.

That's exactly right. The curse of good comedy is that the easier it looks, the harder it's being crafted. And yes, when we learned the dance routines, we learned it quite rigidly and in a disciplined way, and then sit back and throw it away a little. With all of the mechanical stuff of throwing water in his face or his foot going up on the bed had to be designed precisely. At the same time, as you're focusing on the details of it, you have to put the performance in, this sort of hapless performance. So your face has to read slightly hapless and discombobulated about what's going on, but inside your brain, you're metering and checking every moment as you go, which is similar to what they would have done.

I particularly loved the train station sequence with the two door, and how we get to see it from backstage at one point and really appreciate the timing and choreography of that routine.

That's my favorite moment in the movie, when you see Stan counting down to cue them to go out. That's one of the poignant moments I really love, because it's made you laugh before, but when you see it behind the scenes, you realize how in tune they were.

One of the impressive things the film does is focus on what great teams each of the guys were with their wives. Talk about the importance of Stan's relationship to Ida.

I bumped into someone whose father worked backstage as a minor comic actor who was on the same bill as Stan and Ollie in the 1950s, and his daughter spoke to me and said that her father told her that Stan and Ida would often row. She said this after we made the movie, and I said to Jeff [Pope, screenwriter]: "Hey Jeff, you got it right. Guess what someone just said." And Shirley and Nina would rehearse with each other in their own time, so they had their thing going on as far a routine. Jeff wrote these women and it's good that he fleshed them out and that we got two great actors to play those roles because it could have easily been done as two-dimensional wife characters. But they have their own story arc, which is lovely.

I wanted to mention before I let you go that the film you did with Paul Rudd that came out earlier this year, Ideal Home, was a real pleasant surprise, and I was especially happy to see you re-team with you Hamlet 2 writer-director, Andrew Fleming.

I don't know why they couldn't get that out through the normal channels, because the reviews were all great. Maybe it's because there's a little bit of graphic sex, I don't know, a little gay porn—some things that make people a little antsy [laughs]. I'm really pleased with that film; I think it's a good, fun movie. I'm glad you liked it.

You probably get asked two things all the time: When will we see Alan Partridge return, and when will you and Mr. Brydon take another trip?

I'm doing another Partridge series, I just finished filming it, and that starts on BBC1 in February. And Rob and I are going another trip, this one to Greece, we're going to explore ancient Greece, next summer.

Those are the ones I hold my breath for; that's tremendous. Thank you so much. Best of luck with this. It's a remarkable achievement.

Oh, thank you so much. It's a relief to hear that you liked it.