As a kid, growing up in Lancashire, Steve Coogan daydreamed about being a comic genius, just like his childhood hero, Stan Laurel, a fellow Lancastrian born and bred just around the corner from Coogan. It's no wonder then that he was hell-bent on playing his idol in Stan and Ollie, a biopic of Laurel and Hardy, one of the best-loved comic duos of all time.
"I've always felt a certain kinship with him because when I looked at his life and looked at mine I felt there were certain commonalities; we both write comedy, we both come from the same part of the world and we're both from a fairly modest, lower-middle-class background," explains Coogan, animatedly. "He was someone I grew up with, saw on TV every day and was part of the landscape of my childhood. So, as you can imagine, I was very excited by the prospect of playing him."
Likewise, for John C. Reilly, starring as Oliver Hardy alongside Coogan in Stan and Ollie felt like he was paying homage to his hero too. Initially, though, he had reservations about taking the role.
"They were both legends who were ahead of their time," he says. "They figured out a lot of the rules about comedy and timing and their acting style was also very naturalistic for that era. But, for me, the thought of playing Oliver Hardy was a very daunting prospect because he's a special, touchstone performer for me. That's why my first reaction was 'no thanks' because I love them so much and have such respect for them that I couldn't even imagine that I could take on that responsibility.
"When things really matter to you, or when it involves people who you respect and admire, I'm far more likely to say 'no' to them," admits Reilly. "I'm extra careful about accepting those sorts of roles; there has to be a compelling reason to jump in. But when I met with Steve and we ran through some ideas I knew it would work and I didn't hesitate."
Coogan, like Reilly, admits that while he was desperate to depict Stan Laurel, he also had misgivings about attempting to imitate his hero.
"It felt like there was a lot of pressure on us to try to emulate them. It was a big responsibility and quite a big mountain to climb. But I think anything that's worthwhile carries a risk of failure," he says, shrugging philosophically. "To counterbalance that, it felt like it was also an opportunity to do something that was challenging and interesting, and turn it into something special.
"In some ways, it's not so much that I wanted to do it myself, but more that I didn't want anyone else to do it," adds Coogan. "I mean that from the point of view of wanting to ensure that it was done well, and that it wasn't just a parody of him. I felt that it needed to be done with respect for who he was."
It is, with Coogan and Reilly's phenomenal performances flawlessly capturing the dynamic duo's comic capers. It's a compelling yarn, which also traces the pairs' tumultuous off-stage relationship at a point when their careers are in freefall and they're attempting one last hurrah, with a tour of theatres across Britain and Ireland, in the hope of sparking a revival in their fortunes.
"Yeah, although we do some of their routines, our movie really depicts the unknown story of Laurel and Hardy, which is the emotional story of their friendship and collaboration and what it feels like to be a performer in that kind of situation," says Reilly.
Consequently, Stan and Ollie is not just fun and frivolity. Instead, it's bittersweet and poignant, as it explores the dark underbelly of their relationship and acrimonious, premature split at the height of their careers when Laurel's attempts to broker a better contract for them backfires spectacularly and instead sees the pair going their separate ways.
"Falling out, as they did, is a pretty common thing in creative relationships," insists Reilly. "What happens is that in order to protect the relationship – to keep the act going - people are willing to put up with certain indignities or unkindness from the partner. But instead of dealing with it, they sublimate it and then, 10 years down the line, all of that comes to the surface and explodes."
The result is a compelling insight into the twisted genius of Laurel and Hardy and also their fragile relationship, underpinned by wonderful performances, especially from Coogan, who sparkles as Stan Laurel. It could have been a parody or a farce, but instead, it's a poignant, joyful reminder of just how great Laurel and Hardy were, with Coogan and John C. Reilly doing their heroes more than justice, and giving them a fitting send-off and send up.
Who: John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan
What: The Laurel and Hardy biopic Stan and Ollie
When: In cinemas today