John C Reilly and Steve Coogan on their roles as comedy greats in Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie sees Steve Coogan and John C Reilly play one of the world's greatest comedy duos, Laurel and Hardy. The stars discuss what we can expect from the film, their fears over playing such well-known characters, and why being underestimated has fuelled their own careers

John C Reilly and Steve Coogan, stars of Stan & Ollie

SOMETIMES the roles actors are most scared about are the ones they know they should take. That's how John C Reilly and Steve Coogan felt about playing one of the world's greatest comedy duos, Laurel and Hardy, in new film Stan & Ollie.

"There's a trepidation about doing something like this, but to try and do work that you want to be proud of almost always involves the risk of failure," notes 53-year-old Coogan, who portrays Stanley Laurel, the Lancashire-born star who started working with American Oliver Hardy in the 1920s.

"I was so intimidated that I said no to the movie at first, a couple of times," admits Chicago-born Reilly, who is also 53. "And Jon, [Baird, the director] kept meeting with me like, 'It's got to be you. I'm not sure I'll even do the movie if it's not you'. So, I started thinking about it more seriously."

He adds thoughtfully: "Ultimately, what gave me confidence was that we were not trying to recreate Laurel and Hardy."

Instead, the film takes us behind the scenes of Laurel and Hardy's partnership; it's set in 1953 when, diminished by age and with their golden era as the kings of Hollywood comedy behind them, the pair set out on a variety hall tour of Ireland and Britain, including performances in Dublin and Belfast, where Oliver Hardy became ill and spent time in hospital.

The tour becomes a hit, but there are plenty of ups and downs along the way, including Oliver's failing health (he died in 1957 after a series of strokes), and ultimately, the unfolding of their partnership.

"One of the first things I said when we started to meet about the script, which we changed quite a bit from its original conception, was this idea that we live in a world of Wikipedia and Google," explains Reilly, who as well as being known for his comedy roles in films such as Step Brothers with Will Ferrell – with whom he stars in the forthcoming Holmes & Watson – has also appeared in dramas including Carnage, Magnolia, Gangs Of New York and The Hours.

"If you want to know what Laurel and Hardy were like or what their lives were like, what the personal details of their story were, you can find out in 10 seconds. So I said, in our story, we have to offer something that you cannot get anywhere else. Otherwise, what's the point in going to see the movie?

"And we decided to offer something that no-one could know, even their wives; what were these conversations like when it was just the two of them alone in the dressing room?"

Both actors are huge fans of the legendary comedians, and they certainly both fit their respective parts amazingly well when you see them on screen.

"I thought John and I seemed like a really perfect casting," says Coogan, who was born in Greater Manchester and is most famous for playing Alan Partridge.

"I remember showing my dad, who passed recently, a picture of John and he went, 'Oh, that guy. He's perfect!'"

As for the approach to his own role, he felt the character of Laurel wasn't too much of a stretch.

"I didn't feel like I was playing a Martian," he says. "I write comedy, and I've performed comedy for 25-plus years. Stan was from the north of England, and I am. I've had some success; not internationally the way Stan did, but certainly here..."

"You've had many marriages," chimes in Reilly, who has two children with wife Alison Dickey. Laurel was married five times, twice to the same woman.

"My personal life hasn't been, if you like, super smooth," admits father-of-one Coogan, who divorced in 2005.

Coogan says of playing him: "We had to rehearse dances, and all the technical stuff was quite hard. But you do feel like, 'OK, I'm sharing half the burden and I've got someone with me who I think is really good at his job'."

Indeed, the pair seem to really bounce off each other.

"There's nothing worse than being in a job when you think, 'I'm the most experienced person here and these people aren't really challenging me'," suggests Reilly, who recently returned to voice Wreck-It Ralph in animation Ralph Breaks The Internet.

"I try to avoid jobs like that in the first place, because the only way you can do exceptional work is if you work with people who challenge you."

Coogan, who's also known for series The Trip with fellow British comic Rob Brydon, agrees, saying: "I've been in jobs before where I've thought, 'This seems straightforward' and I've had someone come in who's really good and you think, 'I better concentrate, this person's really good.'"

When I meet the pair, it's the day after the film's premiere at the London Film Festival, and Reilly says he "cried a lot last night when watching the movie", especially during dramatic scenes in which their characters fight.

Coogan also got "quite choked up" sitting in the audience.

"It sounds a bit indulgent, if you can see yourself on screen as someone else and it touches you, then you've done something well, because you're outside yourself."

Another moving element of the film is Hardy being told he is too ill to continue with their tour.

How would the stars feel if they were told they couldn't perform anymore?

"I don't know what kind of life that would be," notes Reilly. "I'm not sure I could do it, because it's just so essential to who I am.

"I don't like it when people tell me anything can't be done – I'm very American in that way," he continues. "Sometimes, I say the road behind me is littered with people who underestimated me."

"That's a very good point," Coogan affirms. "One of my favourite things is to be underestimated, because it's like petrol in my tank.

"I remember someone wrote an article in a newspaper, 'Why they should never make an Alan Partridge movie' and I thought, 'For that reason alone I'm going to make it, and make it funny'."

:: Stan & Ollie is in cinemas from tomorrow.

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