'Stan And Ollie' Star John C. Reilly On Vanishing Under Make-Up And Making Hard Comedy Look Easy [Interview]

When /Film last spoke with John C. Reilly, it was for the recent alternative western The Sisters Brothers, in which he co-starred opposite Joaquin Phoenix. At the end of that interview, Reilly did briefly discuss the narrower focus of his current film, the Laurel & Hardy biopic Stan & Ollie, which centers on a months-long tour the comedy team took throughout Great Britain and Ireland, transforming some of the classic bits (and some newly written ones) into live routines for the stage. By all accounts (including the movie), the tour was a rousing success after a rocky start, all of which is documented in the film, directed by Jon S. Baird.

With the impressive assistance of some flawlessly applied prosthetic makeup and a body suit, Reilly plays Oliver Hardy to Steve Coogan's Stan Laurel, who shared a decades-long comedy partnership and friendship that was certainly tested by their failing film career and a fairly relentless touring schedule. Reilly and Coogan learned the routines, rehearsed the hell out of carefully crafted jokes, and their commitment to the performances is what raises the film above the level of the standard-issue Hollywood biography.

Reilly talked to /Film about his daily transformation regimen (marking his first real foray into acting with so much makeup), his partnership with Coogan, and what he hopes people take away from Stan & Ollie.

Do you remember your first exposure to Laurel & Hardy and how it changed you ultimately?

I actually don't remember my first exposure to them because I've been aware of Laurel & Hardy as long as I've been aware. From my earliest memories as a kid, watching them on TV, they were just always there. There's an eternal quality to them and their work that fits right in with that. It's like "When did you discover salt & pepper?" It's always been there and it will always be there. That's just how it is, and that's the secret of their genius—they made work that was universal. They didn't talk about who was the president at a given time in one of their movies. They just talked about the human experience. Their comedy was broad but so was their reach, because they didn't focus on snarky, contemporary comedy. They focused on great clown comedy, which transcends national boundaries and languages.

Someone asked Stan, "What do you think you guys were able to translate so well from the silent era to the talkie era?" And Stan said, "When the talkies came out, everybody was like 'Blah, blah, blah, blah,'—wall-to-wall dialogue in their movies. And we're doing something really well, this silent work is a our bread and butter, so we shouldn't just stop doing that and start talking the whole time." They were very judicious about how much dialogue they used in their movies, even when they had the ability to do it.

I don't know if you know this, but one of the reasons they became an international success is that they would make versions of their movies in other languages. So they would do a set up, and then say "Alright, we're going to do one in Spanish," and then hold up cue cards and read phonetically the lines. So when that movie went to South American, people would think "They're ours. They're speaking Spanish." To this day, that's a massive accomplishment. How many comedians do you know who are world famous, no matter where they go in the world, people feel like they are their own? In Germany, they're called "Dick und Doff." In Italy, they're " Stanlio e Ollio." In Mexico, they call them "El Gordo y el Flaco." They had their own names for these guys because they felt like they were their own. That's a beautiful thing, and I can tell you from trying to sell comedy in other cultures, it's not easy to do.

Having that understand of the reverence that people have to Laurel & Hardy, does that make the task of portraying them almost impossibly daunting?

Yeah, definitely. My first reaction was "I don't think so. That's someone who means so much to me personally, I would not want to do anything that would be a liability for them or that would detract from how great they were." But every step along the way, something game a me a little more courage. First Jon Baird came to me with the script and said he wanted my ideas. One of the first things I advocated was telling a story that you couldn't look up on Wikipedia. The facts of their lives are very well known and their movies are very well known, so what are we going to talk about in this film? And what we decided to talk about is them as people and their personal relationship, which gave us a lot of artistic license and room to move. We did replicate one of their acts exactly as it happened—with the ending of Way Out West—but the rest of the act in the movie is stuff we developed based on what people have said about their stage shows or routines that have echoes of their film work, but were not the exact thing, like the double-door routine. There's a great double-door routine in this movie Helpmates, but it's much shorter and it's two elevator doors. But we used that as inspiration for this double-door routine that we'd been told they'd done during their stage show.

So each step along the way, from the first mock-up of the makeup, I thought "Well, at least I'm going to look like him." That's a huge thing we got past. And then meeting Steve and realizing I was going to have such a brilliant partner in Steve and a great collaborator. And then actually doing what they did—rehearing the dance, with songs, coming up with these comedy routines. By doing what they did, we found our way to who they were. I don't think I would have done it without all of those things giving me confidence along the way. The eventually it got to the point where I was like "Well, now I have to do this. I'm the guy. I might not be as great as Oliver Hardy, but I'm the one who's going to carry this torch for a little while, and that's fine." Especially younger people, I want them to know about Laurel & Hardy.

They made it look easy, but if you watch enough of their films, you being to realize how exact the performances and choreography were, not just the dances but the movement. Was that the toughest part of creating or re-creating those routines?

That's the secret of all great comedy—that it looks effortless, as if you're doing it for the first time. When you go in there and try to re-create the Way Out West dance, including the mistakes that they made, by the way. One of the beautiful things about that dance is that it has a shambling quality. So we had to re-create the imperfections, which was a challenge in itself. That's the truth of vaudevillians—you see someone who's a clown or other great performer, but what you don't see are the 10,000 hours that they spent failing over and over again before it became second nature to them, so they can look like they're doing it for the first time. That is what Steve and I did, we found our way to them by doing what they did. And they were also thrown together, not really knowing each other, by Hal Roach, who had just lost Harold Lloyd, his big star before them. Anytime I felt like "Oh my god, can I really do this?", I thought, "Well, they did it. They didn't have any more preparation than Steve and I had." That gave me little bursts of confidence as we went along.

You've probably never had to deal with this amount of special effects makeup, have you?

I've had things that took a long time, but not like this, not every single day a complete transformation. That was another one of the reasons I was wondering if I was the right guy for this job because I last about 15 minutes in a makeup chair in general. I get very impatient. I want to just go off and do what I do for a living. I don't like looking at myself in the mirror and I don't like touching my face, so [laughs] I'm not much fun in the makeup room. But I knew I was going to have to change that in order to pull this off. I was going to have to think in different way about it. So I meditated while we were doing the makeup, anytime it got too uncomfortable. And I had to get up so early and I'm not a morning person, so if it got to feel too much, I would tell myself "Oliver Oliver Oliver Oliver." It's for him, it's for the legacy of this guy, this beautiful person who didn't quite get his due when he was alive. This is a way to help people understand who he was. That discomfort was worth getting to do that.

What was the hour count for application?

About three hours in the morning, totally getting ready with the makeup and contact lenses and the wig and fat suit, and about an hour taking it off—so that's four hours out of a film-production, and that severely impacts what you're able to do every day. Thankfully, Jon Baird was such a brilliant, organized director that we just came in ready to go once that makeup was ready.

I liked the way the relationships with the wives is portrayed. How would you describe the importance of that relationship between Lucille and Oliver?

If you look at the history of their relationship, both men were married a few times. Stan, I believe, was married to same woman three times, which is like Laurel & Hardy joke itself. Oliver, he lived the high life in Hollywood when they were very famous and went through a few relationships, not everyone as lucky as I've been, to be married to the same person for 26 years. They had a few different relationships, both of them, so by the time Oliver met Lucille, she was someone who'd already seen the man behind the act, because she worked here on the set—she was a script supervisor—and saw who he really was, as opposed to meeting someone at a party and saying "Oh, the famous Oliver Hardy." She saw him at work, which was a different guy.

There's this funny story about them working when something fell on the set or fell off a camera, and hit Lucille on the head hard enough that she had to go to the hospital, and while she was there, she got a huge bouquet of flowers from Oliver saying "Will you marry me?" And she said yes, and then they had their first date. It was a really romantic beginning to their relationship, and as you can see in the film, they both deeply cared about each other, and Lucille felt that Oliver needed a personal advocate. The world wanted so much from them, and Stan wanted so much from him for the act, she felt like she needed to be the person to say "Wait, there's a human being here who needs to be cared for," and I think Oliver really appreciated that. They certainly loved each other; you can see that from their letters, they seemed like teenagers, the way they would talk to each other.

John, thank you as always for talking. Best of luck with this.

Thanks, Steve. See you in the movies, pal.