John C. Reilly has featured in a lot of duos. The actor, who many love for his turns opposite Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers, has perfected the art of the two-hander opposite everyone from Ferrell to Sarah Silverman to Joaquin Phoenix.
In Stan and Ollie, which EW shares an exclusive clip from above, Reilly turns his deft dual dexterities to one of the screen’s most famous duos, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Laurel and Hardy were 1930s comedy stars who at one time consistently topped the box office. Reilly is the rotund Oliver Hardy, while Brit Steve Coogan brings to life his partner, reedy Stan Laurel.
“I’m just drawn to duos. I like sharing the work. I like the dance of it,” says Reilly of his affinity for onscreen partnerships. “There’s one thing that human beings can do that’s actual magic, which is harmony. When one person sings a note, another sings the other and this third note comes into existence that didn’t exist before those people cooperated. It’s magic that we can create this third thing out of nothing.”
In most of his onscreen pairings, Reilly has had to learn the ins and outs of a new acting partner, adjusting to their rhythms and method of working. That was the perfect foundation for this film, given that Laurel and Hardy were the brainchild of producer Hal Roach — two actors slapped together in an unwittingly perfect alchemical combination. “It gave me confidence because it made me think they weren’t in such a place of advantage starting out over us,” says Reilly of taking on such comedy icons. “We’re in the same boat as they were. We’re seasoned performers who were thrown together and have to create something.”
The actor tries to nail down just what it is that makes Laurel and Hardy so enduring, inspiring him for years and directly influencing characters like Wreck-It Ralph’s title role. “Laurel and Hardy had this eternal quality,” he says. “They’re like salt and pepper; fat and skinny; ying and yang; light and shadow. It seems like they had always been there and they will always be here. Their films and their performances have this timeless quality because they don’t really trade in cynical humor or contemporary references.”
Still, despite that, Laurel and Hardy did see their work fall out of favor, their popularity subsumed by the likes of duos like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and Abbott and Costello. “Once people saw just how awful human beings could be to each other [during World War II], these sweet clowns didn’t make sense in their lives anymore,” posits Reilly. Stan and Ollie follows the comedy duo during this later era of their lives when the two sought to reunite for a stage tour of Britain in the hopes of renewing interest in their fading careers.
If they fell out of fashion, does that mean some of their comedy might feel dated? Reilly certainly doesn’t think so – in fact, he feels their work signifies the ebbs and flows of comedy in the world more broadly. “When I watch them, I still laugh out loud…There’s a familiarity to what they’re doing,” he says. “The reason I laugh out loud is because it seems true to me. The frustration of Oliver dealing with this guy or these predicaments they find themselves in, it seems true. It’s not just silliness. It’s based in some kind of character reality. They had a deep understanding of the universality of the human experience.”
Reilly points to the same features in films like Step Brothers as the reason for their success and their cult status in the comedy world. “Yes, there’s big broad stuff in the movie and prat falls and physical comedy and stupid improv riffs, but underneath it is the truth that it’s difficult to live with your parents when you should be moved out. It’s difficult to meld two families together,” he reflects. “That’s the work I’m really interested in – stuff that seems real, that seems like the way life really is even if it’s a silly comedy.”
How much then has comedy evolved since the days of Laurel and Hardy? Or from the decade since the 2008 debut of Step Brothers? Reilly doesn’t see it as an evolution, so much as a cyclical phenomenon, flashes when comedic genius and creativity are permitted to flourish without too much oversight from Hollywood brass. “In certain periods of time in history, the inmates take over the asylum,” he says. “Talladega Nights and Step Brothers are both very subversive, crazy movies…Those are movies that felt like when we were making them, that we better hurry up and finish before they realized what they paid for. When you have that kind of freedom, when you’re that much ahead of people that are giving you the money, great, crazy things happen. It takes a certain amount of chaos for really good comedy to happen.”
But then – where is the chaos in the work of Stan and Ollie? How do you recreate the essence of two great artists that was akin to lightning in a bottle? For Reilly, it’s all about coming back to the truth of the matter and trying to hone that same experience for a new audience. He wasn’t sure it could be successful, but he had a rare moment of clarity during production. He and Coogan rehearsed many of Laurel and Hardy’s famous routines, including a double door routine, for over a month before performing them in their totality without cuts for a live audience on camera.
The extras had not been told what they were going to be doing, and as Reilly and Coogan performed the sketch, Reilly was blown away by their genuine engagement and laughter. “I got offstage that day when we did that double door routine, and I completely started to bawl backstage,” he admits. “Because I realized the enormity of the mission that I was on — touching people in the same way these guys were. I was using their work to touch living people now in the same way, and that was very humbling and very moving.”
Stan and Ollie hits theaters Dec. 28.