John C. Reilly (‘Stan and Ollie’): I developed ‘a lot of empathy’ for Oliver Hardy [Complete Interview Transcript]

John C. Reilly is having another banner year, with films like “Stan and Ollie,” “The Sisters Brothers” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet” earning some award nominations. Most of the individual attention for Reilly is on “Stan and Ollie,” where he plays Oliver Hardy, one half of the iconic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. The performance earned him nominations at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards.

Reilly recently chatted with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum about the literal and figurative weight in taking on Oliver Hardy, how he committed himself to the role and how he would change the Oscars. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Okay John, I’d love to know that moment when somebody approaches you about playing Oliver Hardy, because on spec you don’t look like Oliver Hardy.

John C. Reilly: Well, it’s funny ‘cause I look more like him than I realized. What the makeup is is really just weight. They didn’t alter the bone structure of my face or change my ears at all or anything. If you look at Oliver from behind, he actually does look like me or like my dad or the way one of my uncles looked when they were older. That was an interesting part of getting into the character was at first I was like, “Oh no, I’m not qualified. I’m not nearly as good as Oliver Hardy. I never will be. I don’t look like him. I’m not big like him.” And then each step along the way I started to get closer and closer and started to realize I had more things in common with him than I realized. Certainly the romantic side of our personalities. The physical attributes, on the face of it, I don’t look so much like him but with just a little extra weight I do start to like him. I think you see in the film another thing that was a huge game changer in terms of the way I look was I wore brown contacts in the movie, which even my own family when they would see me like that, “Wow.” It really does seem like someone else.

GD: You mentioned the weight. John was telling me about the weight suit, the weighted suit, not just padding. You must have been exhausted at the end of a given day.

JCR: Yeah, I added weights inside of the fat suit because I’ve seen fat suits work not so great before, where it just looks like it has no heft to it. You can see there’s just an actor in there hopping around, like a mascot or something, and I wanted when I moved to have a reminder of that. Not to say that Oliver ever drooped or hung low. In fact, he would carry himself from the center of his chest in this very dignified, graceful way. That fat suit and the makeup and the wig and the contact lenses, all that was exterior stuff, which, in a way, I didn’t even see as my job. The exterior stuff was expertly handled by other people. My job was going inside the guy’s persona and figuring out, “Why was he like he was? How was this gesture developed or this tie twiddle? What does that mean about a person, if that’s their psychological gesture?” It’s really just an increased version of themselves, especially in Oliver’s case, ‘cause he was a romantic and he was someone that enjoyed the finer things of life and poetry and flowers and women and song. That was a beautiful part of getting to know him, and in that way, I felt like I’m actually really pretty similar to the guy. I had the luxury of being able to take off that fat suit at the end of the day, which he didn’t.

That’s another thing that I developed was a lot of empathy for Oliver as time went on because you realize that’s a lot to carry around. It’s one thing to be paid for it and to entertain people and make people laugh, but then you’ve got the whole rest of the day to get through. In the 1930s, being that big was very unusual. There’s a lot of big people in our world now. We’re all pretty well-fed and taken care of but in the 1930s during the Great Depression to be someone big like that, you were a real freak. You were not like everyone else. That weighed heavily on him. Despite the fact he was always very charming and graceful about it, if you look into what he said about it, he struggled with his weight. It was a problem for him. There were even periods of time when he would say, “I think I need to lose some weight” and the studio would go, “No, no, no, we want you just like you are,” which had to be a struggle.

GD: One thing I liked that you brought to the role and I did not know about him but you see it in the opening sequence, which is that nice long extended tracking, the people loved him on-set. He was so charming, so nice to everybody. Did you know that about him before you started?

JCR: You could see it in their work. You could see in the work of Laurel and Hardy that they were humanists. They didn’t rely on smart aleck, cynical humor or even contemporary references. They relied on some eternal truths about the human condition and they had a lot of sympathy and empathy for the world. You could see that in their work and anytime you look at any of the footage, newsreel footage, for instance, Stan Laurel spent him retirement answering fan-mail. If you wrote him a letter, he wrote you back himself on his typewriter. That shows you a level of commitment to the audience and a care for human beings that was definitely there and certainly Oliver was a very charming guy, despite the fact that the audience asked a lot of them. I know just being an actor that some days when you go out in the world, you just wanna get about your day. You don’t wanna have to stop and talk about your work or whatever. You have to pick up your kid from school or whatever it is. But Stan and Ollie, no matter what they were doing, they would honor that pact with the audience. They would stop and perform for them, and we play with that a little bit in the film. We show even in checking into the hotel room, they feel obligated to give people a little bit of a show or at least surprise people that didn’t know they were coming.

GD: You could see them going into their act without even meaning to, sometimes. I’m thinking about the suitcase going down the steps.

JCR: Yeah, exactly. That’s one of the playful things about the film. We deliberately try to echo their work in their lives in our film, ‘cause that’s one of the things we decided early on. We’re not gonna try to replicate Laurel and Hardy. We don’t need to. Their films exist. It’s never been easier to watch their films. We were after something that you can’t find out on Wikipedia. We’re after something that transcends the facts of their life, that gets at the emotional truth of their lives and their relationship.

GD: But you did have to replicate the iconic dance. How long for you and Steve [Coogan] to feel like you had it down?

JCR: Well, it was a bunch of weekends before we even started rehearsing in earnest. I was doing another film in London at the time and we’d rehearse on the weekends on my days off, because we knew this Way Out West dance, we wanted it to be absolutely perfect, as we could. That’s the one thing in the film that we try to replicate exactly, including the mistakes they made during the dance. The steps are one thing and then the little shambling looseness was something that we really had to study almost forensically. That was very important to get that exactly right because it’s the one place in the film where we try to say this is exactly what they did. Other stuff is inspired by or took a little artistic license, ‘cause there’s no film that exists of those tours, so we had to find the act based on written accounts and some of the scripts.

GD: We’re an awards website as you know. I wanna ask you a couple of awards questions. Until Michael Stuhlbarg last year, three of his movies were up for Best Picture, that year you were nominated you had three Best Picture nominees. Tell me just about the impact of that year for you as an actor.

JCR: I’m not trying to throw shade on Michael Stuhlbarg but I was in three of five Best Pictures and there could only be five. Now there’s up to 10 or whatever so who knows, people might never match that moment. Not to say that I had anything to do with it. I was in those movies. Those movies were lucky enough to be chosen as Best Picture nominees.

GD: You don’t know when they’re all gonna be released when you’re shooting and they happened to be released in the same year.

JCR: That year it was a real accident that they were released because the distribution schedules changed according to some events in the world at that time. But this, I made these back to back. I made “Holmes and Watson” followed by “Stan & Ollie” followed by “The Sisters Brothers,” and “Wreck-It Ralph” all throughout. Where I could I was recording “Wreck-It Ralph.” What you see is what I was doing. There’s a reason they’re all coming out back to back this year ‘cause they were made that way.

GD: And that year at the Oscars, do you have a memorable moment, a story from going as a nominee that year? I know you’ve been other times.

JCR: Actually I’ve never been other times. I’ve only been to the Oscars once. Oh, and then I went as a performer.

GD: You sang with Will Ferrell.

JCR: That was just as a performer. I just came for the act. I didn’t have the experience of sitting there among the other nominees. Yeah, what I remember from that night at the Oscars was knowing pretty much every single person that went by the aisle on their way to collect their award. Being in that many movies, actually, I had four movies that year. “The Good Girl” wasn’t nominated for Best Picture that year but it was another movie that had come out that year. So as people would head down, there would be one person that’d I’d say “I’m sorry to” and there’d be another person like, “Congratulations, man!” I remember the balancing of that, trying to be really happy for the people that won and commiserate with the people that lost ‘cause I knew them all. I had worked with them all.

GD: You’ve been a voter ever since then, or right around then. Do you like that process? do you like doing the nominations and then the winners?

JCR: Not especially. I’m really honored to be a member of the Academy, but I have to say, I got into acting because it was not a competitive sport. I tried wrestling and I didn’t like competition. I didn’t like one person winning, one person losing. I like doing plays where if the play did well, everyone wins. The audience wins, you win, the whole cast wins. So this idea of codifying things into some kind of competitive sport I personally don’t agree with. The part I do agree with and the part that is really satisfying and gratifying to get to do at the end of the year as an Academy voter is to honor people in our business, to say, “Hey, man, good job.” It’s like Salesman of the Year or something, for a shower ring salesman. Ultimately, I think that’s what the Oscars really should be. It should be for our industry to say, “Look what we did this year,” and less a thing of like the Super Bowl, where fans are obsessed with the competition of it. I think it should just be a celebration. If I had my druthers, if I ever became the president of the Academy, I would make the winners known beforehand and just say it’s a celebration of all the great stuff that happened this year. Of course, television ratings would plummet, but so be it.

GD: That’s what they do at the Honorary Oscars. Everybody that’s getting those that night in November knows they’re getting that prize that right. There’s no winners or losers.

JCR: Yeah, I was there. It’s a beautiful thing. It was a lot of fun, I have to say. I went to the Governors Awards this year and it was really cool.

GD: Well, thank you so much. Everybody’s about to go see “Stan & Ollie” and I think they’re gonna enjoy it for the nostalgia but also it’s such a fun and touching story at the same time.

JCR: Thank you very much.

More News from GoldDerby