Many twenty-somethings today have never heard of Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel. But they definitely know of Homer Simpson’s catchphrase “D’oh!,” which was inspired by a character in Laurel and Hardy films, and popular modern duos like Key and Peele. John C. Reilly, who played Hardy in Sony Classics’ comedy-drama “Stan & Ollie,” says contemporary comic duos owe everything to the iconic pair.
“From Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, to Key and Peele, Mulaney and Kroll, all those guys owe something to Laurel and Hardy because they perfected that modern comedy duo act. And you can see echoes of their work in everything,” Reilly says. “Laurel and Hardy are the original contrast couple. They’re like salt and pepper, light and shadow, fat and skinny, Laurel and Hardy. They’re like yin and yang. There’s an eternal quality to them.”
Laurel and Hardy were known for their slapstick physical comedy, and “Stan & Ollie,” directed by Jon S. Baird, follows the pair in the early 1950s, when their success had waned and they embarked on a U.K. tour to reinvigorate their careers.
Reilly and his co-star Steve Coogan had to meticulously learn Laurel and Hardy’s dance moves. A two-minute dance in the film actually took about five weeks to nail; even though Reilly was filming “Holmes & Watson” during the weekdays in London, he went in during weekends to rehearse for “Stan & Ollie” with Coogan. They even mirrored Laurel and Hardy’s mistakes during the dance, Reilly says.
Reilly also spent three hours to put on makeup and one hour to remove it every day, but he says it greatly informed his character.
“The makeup and the costume and the fat suit that I wear were the real transformative moments for me as an actor, too, because it allows you to relax and focus on the character as opposed to being worried about whether you look like the person,” Reilly says. “Once I saw the photographs of Steve and [me] in makeup, I was like, ‘Oh, OK. Well we look like them now. Now we just have to find who the heart of these guys are.’
“Every day where I felt intimidated, or overworked or too tired, or the makeup was bugging me, I just had this mantra to myself: ‘It’s for Oliver, it’s for Oliver,’ ” Reilly says.
He adds that despite their heyday being in the 1930s, Laurel and Hardy’s comedy stands the test of time and even younger audiences will “laugh out loud” at their work. Reilly says the movie also pays respect to the ideals of friendship and empathy.
“More than one person has said to me that it felt like a movie that they really wanted to see right now, given the state of the world and how scary stuff is,” Reilly says. “It’s about two guys working out of a conflict, and realizing that they loved each other. It’s almost like the movie says that human beings can be difficult and argumentative and make mistakes and you have arguments with one another, but at the end of the day, human beings are worth loving.”
Reilly had four films released in 2018: “Stan & Ollie,” “Holmes & Watson,” “The Sisters Brothers” and his voice work in “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” As for his and Will Ferrell’s penchant for portraying so many duos onscreen, Reilly says the next pair he wants to tackle are aviation pioneers: “I’m trying to get Will to do the Orville and Wilbur Wright story. Let’s get a groundswell going on that. Kitty Hawk, come on? Think of all the funny crashes we could have,” he says.