Steve Coogan just earned a BAFTA nomination for his performance in “Stan and Ollie” as Stan Laurel, one half of the iconic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. Coogan is a previous Oscar nominee for producing and writing the 2013’s “Philomena,” in which he also starred.
Coogan recently chatted with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum about being asked to play Laurel, having to wear makeup for the film, and his memories of going to the Oscars for “Philomena.” Watch the exclusive chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Steve, I’d love to know your first reaction when somebody approaches you about playing the legendary Stan Laurel.
Steve Coogan: Well, I was flattered and daunted, but also excited because it’s a great opportunity to celebrate the lives of Laurel and Hardy. He was a legendary character actor and writer and I felt when Jeff [Pope] asked me and Jon S. Baird, the director, said, “Will you play this?” I was anxious ‘cause I wanted to get it right but I thought my resume was as good as anyone else’s for this particular role so I went into it with my eyes open. I was reassured and my doubts and anxieties were put to rest when John C. Reilly came onboard because I had such huge respect for John and didn’t know him that well. I knew him a little bit but not that well, but I’d always respected all his career choices and his work, the detail in his work. There’s an honesty to what he does. He’s one of the few actors who’s able to play dramatic roles and comedy roles and knows how to be truthful and funny at the same time, so I thought we would complement each other.
GD: I always wonder when an actor is approached about playing somebody that’s so iconic and so familiar to be people, the look and the sound and everything. Do you think, “Why would you think of me for that,” or, “I don’t look like him,” or whatever the case may be? Did you have any hesitations along those lines?
SC: Well, no I didn’t. John and I are exactly the height of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, so when we stood next to each other we were like, “This is pretty good,” straight off the bat. I felt we were in a very good place. We had makeup, John, his face was all fake and I had a false chin and ears and we had the best people in the business helping us with that. It was a tall order but John and I, I think we felt, “A problem shared is a problem halved,” and this huge task, I’ve used the metaphor climbing a mountain. We just had to make sure we got the right equipment and prepare properly. We had three weeks of rehearsal and the rehearsal was great because we practiced all the dances and the movements and the physicality of Laurel and Hardy, and also then explored who they were as people. Obviously, we all know what they’re like onscreen, but how they were offscreen is a little more difficult. There’s enough information out there to make an informed guess. There’s some archive footage and stuff, and interviews, so it helps us paint a fuller picture of who they were. We did a lot of rehearsal and we got to know each other and we had makeup, so we had the best people around us to make the job as easy as possible, to mitigate the difficulties.
GD: Tell me about the first time you saw yourself in the makeup in the mirror.
SC: It was pretty uncanny. At first, John and I were both very anxious about makeup. We thought it would be, unless it was absolutely top drawer… the tips of my ears were fake and the bottom of my chin was fake and I had this teeth guard that pushed my jaw out a little to make it like Stan Laurel’s. I was shocked at how much it really transformed not only the way I looked but the way you feel and the way you talk, and also John’s weight, he wore this fat suit that had proper weight in it. He was so overweight in the later years that he rocks as walks, and it forced John to adopt that walk. It was completely believable, and for me, we had contact lenses, too. Stan Laurel had blue eyes and I have brown and Oliver Hardy has brown eyes and John has blue. We needed to swap each other’s eyes. You look at yourself in the mirror and I looked at John and thought, “Well, that looks like Oliver Hardy to me.”
GD: Something I found fascinating when watching it I didn’t know, I’ve seen most of their work over the years, just like other comedy teams, especially duos, the one that you think onscreen is the put-upon, dumber one, like Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Tommy Smothers and his brother, Stan Laurel is the writer and the one that kind of puts everything together.
SC: That’s right. Part of the relationship was slightly odd in that Oliver Hardy was really a comic actor who turned up, did the job when they did the movies, and as soon as the job was done, he was off gambling or playing golf. He just liked to have an enjoyable life, hang out with his friends and be sociable. Stan was much more driven and more of a workaholic, so he would be in the edit suite working late and making sure the film was as good as possible. Of course, it is odd when you see them onscreen because Stan plays the fool and Oliver plays the slightly less foolish fool.
GD: I love the part that Jeff wrote in this, getting to England and then the suitcase goes down the steps. That was such a nice touch.
SC: There’s a couple moments when they’re in public, their onscreen personas sometimes would be seen when they’re in their private lives ‘cause the characters they created were extensions of themselves, so we just took that one stage further and that was very nice. Also when they arrive at the hotel they do a little routine just for the benefit of the receptionist. It’s nice to see the overlap, the interplay between their characters and who they were in reality.
GD: I think you mentioned before what they did onscreen you’ve got access to that, you could certainly imitate that as well as you can, but the offscreen private lives, what they said or did, is harder. I really would like to more about how do you play as an actor that personality trait of Stan where Oliver calls him a hollow man. That’s not something in that moment. That’s something Oliver’s noticed for years.
SC: Yes. I think when he says, “a hollow man,” what he’s referring to is the fact that Stan is just consumed by his work and has no real life and that’s often the case with people who are workaholics is that they sacrifice their real life because they’re so driven and committed to their work, especially if they’re creative, if they’re artists. That was certainly some truth in that, having happened to Stan, ‘cause Oliver was more interested in having a nice life and enjoying his life and being sociable. Those conversations are all conjecture and how they were in private is, again, artistic license. What we do is make an educated guess. You have the pieces of the jigsaw, all the movies, we know how they were onscreen. That’s easier to emulate because you have this physical evidence. The rest of it is an educated guess. It’s like a jigsaw with most of the pieces but some of them are missing and you have to make the missing pieces.
GD: We’re an awards website so I wanna ask you a couple questions along those lines. We interviewed you back in the year of “Philomena,” which brought you two Oscar nominations for writing and producing. Tell me about that experience of going to the ceremony as a nominee.
SC: It was thrilling. I went with my mom and dad and that was very special, and my daughter. It was thrilling, what can I say? It’s as thrilling as you imagine it would be. I was still starstruck by a lot of the other people. I think I arrived at some function the first day and Julia Roberts ran up to me and threw her arms around me and told me how much she loved “Philomena.” I was a bit discombobulated.
GD: Were you invited to join the Motion Picture Academy after the nomination?
GD: Are you in the Writers Branch?
SC: I am, yes.
GD: So Writers Branch but not Actors Branch.
SC: Oh, I don’t know, actually.
GD: Probably the Writers Branch. Normally off a nomination you get into that. In the nominations phase, you only vote in your branch and for Best Picture and then on the winners round you vote in all 24 categories.
SC: Right, right. I see.
GD: When you do vote, I love asking Oscar voters this question, you don’t have to give specifics if you don’t want to, but what kind of a screenplay does grab your attention? What makes you wanna vote for it?
SC: I think something which is well-crafted and original and thought-provoking, that’s informative, is entertaining and educates you in some way. Also, beyond that, anything that tries to find something positive about humanity, I would say, personally. I don’t like anything too bleak. Not because I don’t believe the world can be pretty bleak but because I think that art, whatever form that art takes, good movies are good art. They should be transformative. They should make you think about things in a different way if they’re good, or maybe challenge things. It’s very hard to entertain people and at the same time make them think about something and learn something and possibly look again at the way they see the world. Those are the things that a good film does, I think.
GD: You have the two categories, Adapted and Original, and you’ve done both. Do you think it’s harder to adapt a piece of material or to write something with that blank page?
SC: I would say it’s easier to adapt because you already have some components. Any writer will tell you there’s nothing worse than a blank page. Adapting’s quite good because the advantages of having it original is you can do whatever the hell you like but if you’re adapting something then you have templates that you have to adhere to in some way. They say necessity is the mother of invention and if you are obliged to follow certain rules, it’s an easier way to engage with something, I think, and forces you to be creative. Adapting is always more fun.
GD: As we wrap up, “Stan and Ollie” will be out here for Christmas holidays and hopefully a lot of people will see that but where will we see you after that?
SC: You will see me in a Michael Winterbottom film that’s coming out next year, I don’t know at what point, that’s called “Greed.” That’s when you’ll next see me. I’m doing a written film with Jeff Pope, who wrote “Stan and Ollie,” and we’re making that next year, which is about the hunt for the body of Richard III, which was found in a car lot in Leicester in England.
GD: Well this is such a great performance of Stan Laurel and John playing Ollie. Thank you so much and have a great day.
SC: Thank you.