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    How Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly became Laurel and Hardy

    Steve Coogan (left) and John C. Reilly in “Stan & Ollie.”
    Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics
    Steve Coogan (left) and John C. Reilly in “Stan & Ollie.”

    How popular were Laurel and Hardy? Vastly. The comedy duo of “skinny man” Arthur Stanley Jefferson and “fat man” Oliver Norvell Hardy headed down their road to stardom after producer Hal Roach paired the two relatively unknown actors — both of whom were already on his payroll — in the 1927 silent short “Duck Soup.” They were soon a hit team, starring in about 70 silent and sound shorts (a few appearances were cameos, not lead roles) and 23 features. Their 1932 film “The Music Box” was awarded an Oscar for best comedy short. They gained international renown, and their faces today remain instantly recognizable. But here’s another measure of popularity: Their images are on the covers of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the Kinks’ “Everybody’s in Show-Biz,” and Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti.”

    Now there’s a feature film about them. But “Stan & Ollie” isn’t your standard biopic. Rather than a life story, it focuses on two specific periods of their career: the making of the feature “Way Out West,” in 1937 — when they were at the top of their game — and their ill-conceived stage tour of England, in 1953 — when they were trying to get back into that game.

    Funny, sad, and bittersweet, the film is sparked by the performances of British actor Steve Coogan (“The Trip,” “24 Hour Party People”) as British actor Laurel, and Chicagoan John C. Reilly (“The Sisters Brothers,” “Boogie Nights”) as Georgia native Oliver Hardy. Last month, the Boston Society of Film Critics named Reilly best actor for his performance.

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    Both actors are abetted by some uncanny makeup work, ranging from a fat suit on Reilly to a chin piece and ear tips on Coogan. But, as they’ve been adoring Laurel and Hardy fans since childhood, when they watched them on TV, they also nailed their voices and mannerisms.

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    Coogan and Reilly, both 53, and casual acquaintances before working together on “Stan & Ollie,” spoke about the film and its subjects by phone from Los Angeles.

    “Jeff Pope wrote the script, and he is my sometime co-writer,” said Coogan, who shared an Oscar nomination with Pope for their screen adaptation of “Philomena.”

    “I was at Jeff’s house about three years ago and he said he was working on something about Stan and Ollie. While he was talking about it, I was thinking, ‘Well, who’re they gonna get to play them?’ I had a discussion with him about who may be good as Stan Laurel, and it turned out that he and [director] Jon S. Baird had already talked about that, without me being present, and it was suggested it would be me. So, Jeff said, ‘How about you?’ I was glad he asked, because I didn’t want to make it awkward by asking if I could play the role.

    “But,” Coogan added, “I did have some trepidation because you think, if you get it wrong, you have egg on your face. Then I read the script, and I loved the fact that it was a love story, of sorts, between these two guys.”

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    The offer to Reilly wasn’t as nonchalant. The director actually sought him out.

    “Jon came out to see me while I was on vacation,” recalled Reilly. “He sat down with me and said, ‘You’ve gotta do this. You’re the man.’ I think if I had to decide right at that moment I would’ve said no, because it was such an overwhelming responsibility. There will never be another Oliver Hardy. So, on a certain level, I felt that it was a fool’s errand to try to do that. But Jon explained that they weren’t trying to re-create Laurel and Hardy’s act — other than a little bit of it — but were going to try to show who they were as people, what their relationship was. I thought that was a really compelling idea.”

    Then came the research and the rehearsals and the detailed approach it took to transform themselves into the two real men who played those two characters.

    “We did three weeks’ rehearsal, with a clown adviser, Toby Sedgwick,” said Coogan. “He had us do the dance routines and some of the sketches, and all the technical, physical stuff, where we had to be precise. That was very good for John and me because: a) It allowed us to get to know each other, trust each other; and b) It was a little bit like simulating the lives of Stan and Ollie, because they would have had to rehearse their sketches and dance routines, just as we were doing. So, it was like a flavor of what it would have been like.”

    Reilly added, “But before those three weeks of rehearsal, while I was still making ‘Holmes & Watson,’ I was coming out on the weekends to rehearse our dance sequence from ‘Way Out West.’ Then Jon Baird got appendicitis the day before we were supposed to start shooting. He had to have his appendix out, so that gave us another week, and Steve and I went to Ulverston, [England,] Stan’s hometown, and visited the Laurel and Hardy Museum. Steve lives near there, so we watched a bunch of their films at his house. By the time we started shooting, we were really in sync, just by doing what they did — which is rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.”

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    Coogan, whose flair for doing impersonations is on display in his trilogy of “The Trip,” “The Trip to Italy,” and “The Trip to Spain,” in which he pays dead-on comic homage to Michael Caine, Sean Connery, and Al Pacino, had previously done Stan Laurel only in passing, but came to realize how much Laurel put into the act.

    “You forget that there’s so much diligent technical craft to it,” he said. “Whatever Stan Laurel looked like onscreen, no matter how clumsy or throwaway it appeared, you knew that every moment was decided, and every expression he did was chosen. It wasn’t just improvised by him.”

    Reilly was no less impressed by Hardy’s whole-body physicality.

    “Every day while making the film, it was a real grind,” he said. “The fat suit and the makeup were really difficult to do, but what got me through it was that there was a higher calling to this role. For all the discomfort I was experiencing, just look at him, a big guy who spent his life falling down for a living. The discomfort I went through was nothing compared to what he did. This wasn’t just a character I was creating. It was someone who had meant so much to me in my life, that every time I felt worn out or the makeup was uncomfortable, I would actually say to myself, ‘It’s for Oliver.’ ”

    Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.