Playing Oliver Hardy, the large comic with the even larger persona, was a burden that became a mission for John C. Reilly.
The actor had early misgivings about becoming the man whose legendary partnership with Stan Laurel is explored in “Stan & Ollie,” which will be released Friday in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics.
“It was a pretty terrifying prospect,” Reilly told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this month after learning the role had earned him a Golden Globe nomination. “Those are some very big shoes to fill, no pun intended. I didn’t know that it was going to work out so well. It was really an act of faith.”
At the beginning of the process, Reilly developed a deep affection for Hardy through books, through Hardy’s letters to his wife and through the more than 100 screen appearances he made with Laurel, played by Steve Coogan.
It was on finding out how neglected Hardy and his partner were late in their lives and careers — the period explored in the film, which documents a trying tour through the United Kingdom in the early 1950s when the men were in their early 60s — that Reilly felt not only a compulsion but also a duty to do it.
“I just didn’t feel I was worthy at first,” Reilly said. “But when you learn about Laurel and Hardy, and how the world kind of forgot them at the end of their life, I realized I had to do this for Oliver. I would just keep saying, ‘do it for Oliver.’”
He took on the entirety of Hardy for the part, mentally and physically, spending four hours in the makeup chair on shooting days and taking on the full feeling of his body.
“I had weights built into the fat suit so that I could always feel that, you know, the heft of it, so I wouldn’t just feel like this light foam suit,” Reilly said. “And I think I started to rue that decision by the end because the weight was just like — it was a lot every day to carry.”
Other aspects of Hardy were easier to imitate.
“Ollie really loved good times, and was always after wine, women and song. I can relate to that,” Reilly said with a laugh. “I mean, I work a lot too, but I can relate to that.”
Reilly, 53, has made a specialty of playing sidekicks, from his breakout role behind Mark Wahlberg in 1997′s “Boogie Nights” through several second-fiddle roles alongside Will Ferrell, most recently in the newly released “Holmes & Watson.”
But with Coogan, he has the equal billing and true partnership of the men they’re playing.
“Steve and I not only got to know each other and found a working relationship through all the rehearsals and the singing and dancing, but we also found the guys themselves,” Reilly said. “That’s what they did all day. So, we started to feel like them after a while.”
“We knuckled down,” Coogan told the AP at a screening of the film in New York early in this month. “We had a long rehearsal period. We learned the dance routines. We learned the sketches, and we devised some of our own in the style of Laurel and Hardy.”
As the two men embodied the characters, they came to see their calling as returning them to the cultural memory.
“It was like this mission to bring back the legacy of Laurel and Hardy,” Reilly said. “The film is really just, it’s just a signpost pointing to their work. We’re hoping this make people re-discover Laurel and Hardy again. It still stands up. It’s still funny.”