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John C. Reilly On The Comedy Of Laurel And Hardy: 'It's Almost Like A Ballet'

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly star as the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy in the film <em>Stan & Ollie. </em>
Sony Pictures Classics
Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly star as the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy in the film Stan & Ollie.

Growing up, actor John C. Reilly remembers watching the comedy of slapstick duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and feeling very touched. It wasn't just that the two made him laugh, Reilly says, there was something more.

"The brilliant thing about their work when you watch it, it seems so nonchalant," he says. "It seems like they're doing it for the first time."

Then Reilly got a role playing Oliver Hardy in the new film Stan & Ollie and he realized just how much planning and precision went into those seemingly effortless physical comedy routines.

"It requires this diligence with the timing," he says. "It's almost like a ballet or a piece of music that you're playing when you're doing it."

The film explores Hardy's relationship with his partner Stan Laurel (played by Steve Coogan) in the early 1950s, when the men were trying to revive their sagging careers with a stage-show tour in Britain. Reilly notes that the two comedians were very different temperamentally, and in their heyday, didn't spend that much time socializing outside of work. But at this later time in their lives, during this theatrical tour, they were together in every train car, hotel room and theater backstage.

"They didn't have the luxury of going off and having two different lives," he says. "They've both said that is when they learned to love the other man as a person, as a human being, as opposed to a component in the act."

Interview Highlights

On the heavy prosthetic makeup he wore for Stan & Ollie

I thought of myself as looking very different than Oliver when I started this process, and that was one of the things that I was really nervous about. I thought I don't want it to be some bad makeup job. ... I really want this movie to feel very, very human and real and not theatrical in a way. ...

They do these computer-generated kind of mock-ups of what the makeup will look like before they actually do it. And when I saw the first mock-up from Mark Coulier, who's an award-winning prosthetic makeup designer, when I first saw those pictures I thought, "Wow, maybe I can do this. Maybe I can, because I will look like the guy. I know that now."

So then I thought, "Now I just have to find out 'What is the inside of this human being like? Why was he the way he was? What was his heart?' "

On the bodysuit he wore to play Hardy, who was overweight

I had to wear this cooling suit underneath it, which was a T-shirt filled with plastic tubes, and then you plug those tubes into a cooler with a pump in it that has ice water in it, and it cycles ice water all around your body and the inside of the suit.

Look, I've never done hard drugs, but I have a feeling that it feels a little bit like that cooling suit coming on. After you've done that "Way Out West" dance a few times in that fat suit, in that makeup, you plug that thing in, it was like, "Ahh." It was literally keeping me alive, because if you work that hard and you're that covered up, your body will get heatstroke and you'll just shut down.

On the full-body transformation

Every morning, when I would have that makeup put on, because I was wearing brown contact lenses also, and a wig, and this whole thing was applied to me every day, and it's almost like by the end of that process, I didn't have a choice whether to be myself. I was this other person. I had a little party for the crew at my house at the end of the shooting, and I kept having all these weird conversations with people on the crew at this party, and finally I turned to someone, like, "Why is everyone acting kind of strange with me? I know these people! I've been working with them for three months!" And finally the director said, "John, you got to understand, most of these people have never seen you outside of the makeup and all that. They've never seen you with blue eyes! They've never seen you with that hundred pounds off of you."

On becoming close to Joaquin Phoenix on the set of The Sisters Brothers

I think it's one of the beautiful things about being an actor. When you make these short, intense, intimate relationships happen in order to do a film or a play, oftentimes they last. Some of the closest relationships in my life, some of my best friends of my whole life, are people that I met through work. And, as a result of The Sisters Brothers, I think I'll love Joaquin for the rest of my life in a real way, not just as someone who is an appreciative fellow actor, but as a human being, like I really got to know working very well on that film. ...

[Phoenix] has a very intense reputation as an instinctual actor, and for good reason. I think that he is peerless among actors, myself included. ... Film is such a prepared art form — so much rehearsal and discussion and setup and lights and camera, all of it, and then they say "action" and you're supposed to act like you've never done it before, you know? And it's very hard to do, to be spontaneous after all that preparation, and Joaquin is just amazing in that way.

You can't tell what Joaquin is going to do next when you're watching him on film. I describe it jokingly almost as like watching a raccoon go through the garbage cans. You're like, "What? It's climbing on top? What is he ... ?" Watching Joaquin on film is like watching a wild animal.

On giving directing a try

After doing almost 80 movies and working with some of the greatest directors in the world, I should know something about how to put a movie together at this point. So I've directed a lot of plays, and I think I might do that next, and if a movie comes along that it seems like I'm the only person who could direct it then maybe that. ... I'm hoping to at least to develop more things for myself and produce more things, and I mean, look, the truth is, I want to do everything I can do in this life. I want to give everything I can. I don't want to die thinking like, "Oh, I should have done that, or I should have done this." I want to leave it all on the stage, and maybe directing will be one of those things that comes my way.

Lauren Krenzel and Mooj Zadie produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.