Stan & Ollie: An Interview with Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda
Those Block-Heads and Busy Bodies, those Brats, Chumps and Saps. Despite the litany of self-depracating film titles they came up with, Laurel and Hardy were masters of comedy who stand alongside Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, stars of the Golden Age beloved in households the world over. Their skits were meticulously worked and reworked, perfected and re-perfected into timeless moments of wholesome entertainment.
But as we know all too well, behind every great artist, there is often a devoted and supportive partner, and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were lucky enough to have Ida and Lucille by their side. In Stan & Ollie, a new film about the great comedy double act, Shirley Henderson (Trainspotting, Harry Potter, The ABC Murders) plays Ollie’s wife, Lucille Hardy, and Nina Arianda (Midnight in Paris, Master of None, Florence Foster Jenkins) plays Stan’s wife, Ida Kitaeva Laurel. Aptly described in the film as a double act in their own right, the two women shared a tense relationship, kept from being true friends and allies by their conflicting loyalty towards their husbands, whose relationship had long moved on from a working friendship to something purely professional and functional.
We spoke to Henderson and Arianda about Lucille and Ida, Stan & Ollie, and the enduring legacy of Laurel and Hardy,
Everyone knows Laurel and Hardy. It’s like we’re born knowing who those two characters are; the legendary comedians, one skinny, one more rounded. But Stan & Ollie is also a film about their respective marriages, to Ida and Lucille, and the little known but nonetheless crucial role these two women played in their lives and their success.
Who were Ida and Lucille and how did their characters take shape?
NINA: Who is Ida? She’s a woman who loved her husband violently, unapologetically. I didn’t know much about Ida at all. I think we where very lucky to have the estate available to give us archival footage and images and a lot of information, that was very helpful. Most useful to me was an audio recording that we were able to get, so I was actually able to hear Ida’s voice and to hear how she spoke to people. She was not afraid to interrupt or speak over people! It was invaluable really.
SHIRLEY: There is only so much footage, and there’s only so much information about them, but I came across a couple of bits of footage of Lucille as a slightly older lady, once Oliver had passed away. She had quite a sweetness to her voice, a warmth and tenderness that she showed her husband and the things she spoke about that were difficult - things that Oliver found difficult. There was a little insight, a little snippet of the private world.
Just to hear her voice, to hear her speak was lovely, and it gives you a clue into how you might begin to even attempt to play these people and give them some respect because there’s obviously nobody here to tell us; she’s not here, we can’t actually talk in person, so you want to be respectful and be inventive at the same time. There were a lot of photographs of the couples in pubs and clubs and dressed up, there was one of when they had just got married and she’s leaning into Oliver, and there’s a lot of affection there. And I found out their life together began, on set, so there were little clues to what we could take and use to form a character.
Lucille and Oliver met on set?
SHIRLEY: Lucille was a continuity girl, I suppose you would call it today. One day she fell and banged her head on set and was taken to hospital. Oliver sent her a bunch of flowers and then when she came back he proposed to her. They weren’t even going out, and she said yes!
He went straight in with the proposal?
Yes, they went on their first date after that, as the story goes. That’s the way to do it, I think. He was compelled to ask her. They obviously had been looking at each other, something had been going on but nobody had said anything so far, so that was a way for him to say something to her. None of that’s in the film, but it gives me a feeling that they did like each other, they fancied each other, you know? And it must have developed into deep love.
What about Stan and Ida, how did they meet?
NINA: They met at a club, was it in San Fernando? I forget. Ida had gone there with her friend and her friend said “Do you see who’s across the room?” and Ida said “No” and her friend then said “That’s Stan Laurel.” Ida had no idea who he was, but she said that when she first saw him she was taken aback by how lonely he looked and that intrigued her. I thought that was such an interesting thing for a woman to be attracted to; what drew her in was how lonely he looked. That was fascinating. She eventually spoke to him, and later that same week he started driving her to the studio. She was working on a Harold Lloyd film at the time and she didn’t drive, so he offered to chauffeur her to the studio, and then eventually she saw a film of his and she was struck by what a genius he was.
A more traditional dating format there.
NINA: Yeah, he drove her to work and that’s a date I guess.
Ida and Lucille complement Stan and Ollie so perfectly on screen, there’s a very gentle and touching portrayal of the push and pull of a marriage.
NINA: In their dynamic, it’s undeniable that they each have flower/gardener relationships, and that Ida and Lucille are the gardeners. When you have that as an understanding you can really play off of that.
And they give Stan and Ollie a voice. There’s so much tension between the men, in their professional and personal relationship, and they just can’t be honest with one another. Ida and Lucille, though, can be as honest as required.
SHIRLEY: They allow you to see the bit that’s normally hidden, the truth and the heart and the concern, and the vulnerability. Rather than us just being all dressed up on their arms, even though we don’t have many scenes, we wanted them to be honest.
But there wasn’t a lot of room for over analysis in the film, this is all stuff that you’re doing in your head, or you pick it up on the way and you hope that there’s room for that. Jon S Baird allowed room, he didn’t stop it. He let us improvise bits and explore. It’s just the desire as an actress to find something ‘other’ so the vulnerability, even in strength, the vulnerability underneath it all.
There’s a nice moment when Ida says, with no sense of irony, it’s very clear that Lucille wears the trousers in she and Ollie’s relationship.
SHIRLEY: But you don’t always see what you are, do you? And you can’t always see what other people see about you, your good and bad stuff.
NINA: Lucille talks smack about me too! What do you say about me when you’re with Ollie?
SHIRLEY: Yeah, I say “Well she is exhausting.” I mean I’ve just spent six weeks on a ship with you, vomiting every day. Ida was actually very sea sick.
There’s a great scene where Ida and Lucille are getting at each other, making a bit of a scene in the Savoy Hotel, and Rufus Jones’ characters says “Two double-acts for the price of one.”
SHIRLEY: The double act line was improvised on the day, we were just mucking about, we didn’t know we were doing that. We were just offering up stuff and that just happened.
NINA: We were up the stairs already and Rufus came up with this brilliant line.
SHIRLEY: We hadn’t gone in thinking, “We must get that and we must get this.” It wasn’t like that, we just helped each other, keeping the accents and playing around and improvising, helping each other feel like the characters so that when we did come to do it there was something there. We didn’t plan for any of it, it just developed as we went along.
NINA: It developed out of fun.
SHIRLEY: It’s hard doing comedy, making it sharp and funny, but Nina and I spent a lot of time together, hanging out and playing around, improvising and trying to get comfortable with the accents and finding out what these characters are, and we eventually took that into the scenes and we just waited to see what might happen with the boys.
What are your earliest memories of Laurel and Hardy?
SHIRLEY: Christmas morning
NINA: Christmas morning for me, too. Babes in Toyland (1934) was on and I watched that every year.
SHIRLEY: They were on all the time, but mainly it would be Christmas morning you would all get up and, after you’d opened your presents, you would sit and watch a Laurel and Hardy. Fond memories and I wish we could have a bit of that today, you know? These kind of things we have now on the television, it wasn’t so stressful as it is nowadays. There were more joyful things to watch. It’s a nice way of beginning the day.
Do you have a favourite film or sketch of theirs?
SHIRLEY: One of my favourites is Brats (1930), with the parents and the children are absolute mayhem.
NINA: Music Box (1932) is my favourite.
What did you think when you first saw Steve (Coogan) and John (C. Reilly) in full costume and make up as Stan and Ollie?
NINA: The first time we saw them in full makeup and the whole thing was on stage, and I was just blown away, I really forgot where I was.
SHIRLEY: They were singing ‘On the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia’ the sketch when they knock Stan on the head and he falls down.
And his singing voice goes all high pitched.
SHIRLEY: So we just watched it, because they wanted us to be in the audience as the wives. We were quite far back, we didn’t know if they could see us or not, but we were later told they could see us and that us being there gave them something, it was a comfort to know we were there.
NNA: It adds a dimension when you’re working in theatre when you know someone’s out there, you either play to them or you avoid them, and they wanted to play to us.
SHIRLEY: They obviously had to do it many times because they had to film different angles, and we watched them get better and better. You wouldn’t think they could get better, but as they got more confident they did.
Why do you think Laurel and Hardy and their legacy has endured?
NINA: They’re good, and it just hits something in you that, it’s fun, it makes you feel good, it makes you laugh, and again I think there’s an artistry in it. When you know there’s a lot of work put into something but you can’t see the work, I think that’s the definition of technique in a sense, so they’re masters.
SHIRLEY: They’d been working at it for years, doing all the bit parts and extra parts and honing their skill.
NINA: And they loved it, that’s the thing you see, this joy comes out of it. They enjoyed their work, they enjoyed playing off each other.
SHIRLEY: They enjoyed being these characters. And it’s just that feeling of life, the past. We know it’s a long long time ago, but it’s either we’re there or they’re here, it’s a feeling you can’t really describe. It’s bigger than us, it’s just life, life passing.
The film joins the boys for their farewell tour of Great Britain. There’s a great sense of nostalgia, a fondness for the past, but also a melancholy.
SHIRLEY: It’s relevant to the human condition and that feeling that life is passing. It’s leaving you, the energy that you once had is fading and there’s very little you can do about it.
NINA: But the hunger is still there, and the struggle.
SHIRLEY: And there’s that crossing over period, everybody’s aware of it, and it’s come to you now. It’s your turn. That’s what happening to Oliver, and then it has a knock on effect for Stan because when one goes the next one has to readjust their life. It’s going to come to each one of us at some point in our lives. There’s a sadness, there’s something missing in life, something bigger. There’s a shiver up your back.
NINA: It’s time, that’s the other character in all this.
SHIRLEY: It’s like when you look at old photographs - not of Stanley and Oliver, but of the time, in the ’50s - places like Glasgow and all the big music halls and the venues, where hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people used to go for their entertainment, and it cost pennies, and Stan and Ollie went up there and they were a huge success, but there’s something haunting about that. Where is that time? You can’t find it. If you hunt the world you will not find it, it’s just a photograph, it’s a feeling, and that’s what I liked about making the film. It was a little bit of a memory.
A good memory.
SHIRLEY: A good memory
Stan & Ollie
It's 1953 and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have legend status. But, with their last film years behind them, legends still need to pay the bills, so they head out on a tour of theatres in the UK, headlining from Glasgow to Newcastle. But old frictions reemerge, audiences dwindle and Hardy's health takes a turn for the worse. Somehow, the old magic returns and we see the comedy masterminds regain their former glory.
Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are uncanny in the title roles, nailing their onstage antics and adding great depth to their offscreen personas. A true insight into a golden age of stardom
Stan & Ollie plays on Curzon screens from Friday 11 January