British TV star Steve Coogan made it big in Hollywood five years ago with the true story “Philomena,” in which he portrayed journalist Martin Sixsmith, who helped Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) find her long lost son. The multi-hyphenate Coogan reaped Oscar bids for both Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. He shared the latter nomination with Jeff Pope and they won a BAFTA for their collaboration. The pair have reunited with “Stan and Ollie” with Pope scripting and Coogan portraying Stan Laurel (Oscar nominee John C. Reilly is Oliver Hardy).
Does Coogan prefer playing real people or fictional characters? Both come with vastly differing pressures, of course. “I have played a few real people in my life. And I quite like it because people say, ‘Oh it must be very difficult’ but, in actual fact, in some ways, it’s easier than having a character who just exists on the page.”
As he explains, “When a character exists just on the page, you have to try and find what might be true behind the page. What you can’t see on the page you have to invent or make suppositions. With a real person, they’ve lived a life so all of that is already there, rich for you to mine. They’ve lived the life – you’ve got real stuff that you can just mine and pillage. The real person has done the heavy lifting by living the life.”
While his pal Pope soloed on the “Stan & Ollie” screenplay, Coogan did meet with him in his role as a producer. “We’re friends, really good friends – and I sat down with him and made some suggestions. It wasn’t like Jeff wrote it cold and I just showed up and acted in it.”
As for whether the film is a comedy or drama, Coogan says, “There’s going to be funny moments and there are, I’m pleased. But it’s also about behind the scenes of Laurel and Hardy, behind the mask of the funniness. And often, with people who are funny, if you look behind the facade, it’s not so funny. I think we show that in ‘Stan and Ollie.’”
A key aspect of Pope’s screenplay are the wives Ida Laurel and Lucille Hardy, who are portrayed by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson respectively. Coogan praises Pope for writing such strong roles for women. “We have to try and make the leap of thinking how these female characters think so we don’t remain being outside of them and write them as just some women in our film. ”
He readily admits to being surprised that many people don’t know about the world’s most famous comedy duo. But he hopes his film will remedy that. “What a lot of people do when they go and see a movie that’s about anything that’s true is go home and Google it all and try and find out more about it.“
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