John C. Reilly (‘Stan & Ollie’): ‘Watch any Laurel and Hardy film and see the love they had for each other’

After a string of supporting roles, including an Oscar-nominated turn in “Chicago,” John C. Reilly relished being the lead in the “Stan and Ollie,” playing legendary screen comedian Oliver Hardy opposite Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel. Early reviews have hailed his performance as one of the best of his lengthy career.

But Reilly demurs. “Saying something is my greatest or my worst, I’m not in the business of that. I just try to provide things for the world and I want everything to be my greatest thing. I want every effort that I make, I want to put my whole heart into it. It’s like choosing between your children or something, it’s a cruel thing to do.”

Surely, it’s at least his most transformative role, though? Reilly spent three to four hours in the make-up chair daily to physically transform himself into Hardy. Again, however, he was coy. “That’s debatable. You’d have to know what I’m like to know whether I’ve transformed. But I suppose physically, yes, it’s a lot different. That was a key part of it, something that I was really determined, before we even started the movie, I wanted to make sure we did.”

SEE Jeff Pope on chronicling the dramatic lives of comedy team Laurel & Hardy in ‘Stan & Ollie’

And Mark Coulier’s work in the film is astounding, truly. While Reilly says that he doesn’t get a lot of personal satisfaction out of awards, he does say he would be thrilled if Coulier, who is already a two-time Oscar winner for his work on “The Iron Lady” (2012 – turning Meryl Streep into Margaret Thatcher) and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2012 – turning Tilda Swinton into an old woman), was recognised.

Beyond the exterior, Reilly reveals he had a lot of work to do to ‘transform’ into Hardy. “You still have to walk like him, you still have to talk like him and feel like him. What was more important to me as an actor was the internal process of why was he the way he was? What was at the heart of Oliver Hardy to me was the idea that he was a romantic – he was the ultimate romantic,” says the actor, full of admiration of someone he views as a sort of kindred spirit.

SEE Steve Coogan (‘Stan & Ollie’): ‘We go behind the scenes of Laurel and Hardy, behind the mask of the funniness’

After months of research and preparation, he and Coogan spent more months practicing Laurel and Hardy’s famous routines before three weeks of intense, complete rehearsals. “On the weekends I was doing another film and I was coming in and doing that the comedy routines at the hotel, the double door routine, the songs, the playing of the ukulele, the Way Out West dance – we worked so hard to do their act.”

These sketches only made “about 20% of the movie; the bulk of the movie is what they were like with each other, what it felt like to be them, what the tragedies and triumphs in their lives felt like with each other. And that’s more interesting than trying to replicate their performance.”

As for whether “Stan & Ollie” is more of a drama or more of a comedy, Reilly offers a third option: a love story. “You can see that when you watch any of their films, how much love they had and their chemistry. Their movies and their stories were designed that way.”

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