Over the past decade, John C. Reilly has made an unusual evolution from Academy Award-nominated dramatic actor (for Best Supporting Actor for Chicago) to the star/creator of a low-budget, absurdist 15-minute Adult Swim anti-comedy (Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule). Then again, Reilly’s career has been filled with unlikely detours. After emerging from the Chicago theater scene, Reilly made an indelible impression in supporting roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia. His star continued to rise as he stole scenes in The Perfect Storm, Gangs Of New York, and The Hours.
In 2006, Reilly’s career took another unlikely turn when Adam McKay cast him as Will Ferrell’s best-friend-turned-rival in the smash hit Talladega Nights. Reilly became a core member of the Judd Apatow repertory, and unleashed his inner funnyman in Walk Hard and Step Brothers, for which he received a story credit alongside Ferrell and McKay. Reilly also unexpectedly hooked up with cult comic masterminds Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareham, who cast him as a clueless doctor in Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! The character was such a hit that he received a show of his own. In Cyrus, the studio debut of mumblecore titans Jay and Mark Duplass, Reilly teams up with another Apatow favorite—Jonah Hill—to play a struggling divorcée who locks horns with girlfriend Marisa Tomei’s live-at-home son. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Reilly about improvisation, searching for truth in comedy, and why people have a hard time accepting him as a man who sleeps with beautiful women.
The A.V. Club: How did you become involved with Cyrus?
John C. Reilly: I guess I stared hearing about the Duplass brothers from my wife, who’s a film producer. She goes to a lot of film festivals, and she kept saying “There’s this movie, The Puffy Chair. You’d really love it. You’d really love these guys.” I just kept hearing their names, and eventually saw the movie, and really liked it. Then they said they had written a script with me in mind, and I sat down and met them. I liked them, and they said “If you don’t want to do this movie, we’re not going to do it, because you’re the only person we were thinking of when we were writing it.” [Laughs.] So—yeah. And then Jonah [Hill] was also a big fan of theirs, and it kind of all came together.
AVC: At Sundance, a friend of mine said it reminded him of Step Brothers, in that it’s another film about competition between two man-children.
JCR: Well, I don’t see my character as so much of a man-child. He’s actually one of the more mature characters I’ve ever played. There’s an obvious parallel, with an older guy still living at home, but I think that’s the cool thing about this movie. It has all the laughs of a big comedy, or a straight-up comedy, but it’s very real and honest with the way people deal with each other, and the kind of emotional toll these things take on people. I think that is a real asset to the movie, how honest we are. And largely through improvisation—most of the dialogue in the movie was improvised, so it gives it kind of an original feel. I mean, the story itself is not the most groundbreaking story, you know? You could point to other really mainstream movies that have a similar storyline. But the way we executed it and the way you see the toll it takes on the characters as the story goes along is more honest than most movies dealing with this kind of thing. Hopefully.
AVC: You talk about your character being more mature than a lot of the characters you’ve played. But in the very early scenes, he’s a bit of a mess.
JCR: Yeah, but he is mature. He is floundering and kind of failing in his life, and he’s in kind of an emotional freefall. But I didn’t feel like I had to play younger than I am in this movie. It was very much written with me in mind, and the age that I am, and, whatever, the world-weariness that comes with that. [Laughs.] So when we’re improvising, I didn’t feel like I had to, you know, spiff it up. I just had to be honest.
AVC: What do you think Marisa Tomei’s character sees in your character?
JCR: God only knows. I think, not to keep harping on the same thing, on and on, but what she says when she sees me flopping around from person to person at that party where we meet in the movie—she overhears me say something to this girl about how people don’t really see the real me, and I’m actually really fun. I have a lot to give, and I lay my heart out, and then this girl’s like, “I have to make a phone call,” and gets up, and Marisa’s character witnesses that. And so the first thing she says to me is, “I really liked what you said. I think it was really honest and frank.” I think people are like, you get into your 40s—if you’re still looking for somebody, you’ve gone through a lot of different phases of the dating thing, you’re ready to tell the truth. “Let’s not have these illusions. Tell me what’s really going on with you.” I don’t know. I think that can have a real impact on somebody. He’s been working his way through a lot of relationships where people don’t really present their true self up front, you know?
AVC: Something he has in common with a lot of the other characters you’ve played is a vulnerability, and that seems to bring out the maternal side of both Tomei and Catherine Keener’s characters.
JCR: Well Catherine just feels sorry for me. [Laughs.] She’s trying to move on with her life, and I’m like this barnacle on her side who she just can’t help but love. But Marisa’s character definitely—I don’t know. Despite not looking like a matinee idol, I feel like I have a lot to give. I’ve never had any trouble with women. People are always surprised with the romantic aspect of my movies.
AVC: They’re angry that you get the girl.
JCR: “What could she possibly see—that’s not right!” I’m married to a very beautiful woman, and I don’t know.
AVC: What could she see in scum like you?
JR: A lot people like have this weird reaction. “That’s not the way the world works!” It upsets people’s world order, or something. “No, someone who looks like you does not get with someone who looks like her.” Just look around, in life, there’s people who want to date people who look like themselves, and there are people who are just looking for a good fit. And a lot of times, a good fit is someone different than yourself. I’m not one to get too hung up on outside appearances. I find people attractive for more subtle reasons than just the way they look.
AVC: With Steve Brule, there’s kind of element of humor based in discomfort.
JCR: You’re stretching there. [Laughs.] You’re just trying to tie it into Steve Brule somehow.
AVC: You don’t think there’s kind of a through-line between the two?
AVC: You don’t think some of the comedy in this film is derived from the characters feeling awkward, and the audience, by extension, feeling awkward as well?
JCR: I guess so. I hadn’t really put the two together, but yeah.
AVC: And that seems like a form of comedy that you’re attracted to.
JCR: Well, I’m a big fan of not letting the audience of off the hook, as they say. I like it when things feel real, and that’s oftentimes not comfortable. Life is often confusing and sad, and I’m a big fan of the slap and the tickle, as they say. You get them laughing, and then you can… Any movie or play or whatever that’s too downbeat—Like, I’ve seen stories about working-class characters, and it’s just [drumming on the chair] one horrible thing after another, and then just marching through their lives. I come from a working-class family, and that’s just not how it is. The way you get through having a shitty job is to laugh a lot and goof around.
AVC: A Sullivan’s Travels sort of thing.
JCR: Sullivan’s Travels?
AVC: Yeah, where the character wants to make a big message film about society, and then realizes he can do better for society by making silly movies.
JCR: Yeah, well, that’s not exactly the point I’m making. The point I was making is more like, life is varied. Things are often complicated, and in the saddest situations, funny things happen. Oftentimes, a funny situation is funny because it’s uncomfortable or weird. The most memorable stories, or the stuff that you repeat to your friends, it’s not like, “Oh, I had a pleasant day, nothing happened on the bus today.” It’s when strange things happen, when you become uncomfortable or knocked out of your own reality, those are the things that are interesting.
AVC: When you’re improvising in a film like this, is there ever a conflict between wanting to go for the big laugh vs. wanting to go for realism, or staying more in character in the movie?
JCR: There wasn’t in this one. Kind of the exhausting thing about doing pure comedy, or something that’s broader, is you’re kind of a slave to the laugh. If it’s not funny, then there’s not much point in doing it. The kind of über-objective is to make people laugh. You always have to have that in the back of your mind, “Eh, I’ve got to figure out a way to make this funny.” And as much as I love to improvise—it was an incredible, life-changing experience to work with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay on Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. But part of me, coming from a more dramatic background… I love to improvise, but I always thought “Man, it’s like the final frontier for improvisational actors, to really go for something emotional, something that’s not just chasing the laugh.” So this movie was like the Holy Grail of that. It was a funny movie—the circumstances are often funny—but it wasn’t on me to make it funny. I just had to be as honest as I could, and the laughs would just come. In fact, a lot of the biggest laughs in the movie—I’ve only seen it, I think, twice now with an audience—but a lot of the biggest laughs are things where I wasn’t trying to be funny at all. When Jonah’s character goes into the bathroom while Marisa’s in the shower, I have this kind of slow burn, like “What the hell did I just see?” I wasn’t trying to be funny, but it’s this big laugh.
AVC: So can you talk a little bit about the evolution of Steve Brule?
JCR: I think the less I say about Steve Brule, the better. Honestly. I think it’s best just—whenever people ask me about him, I say, “That’s one crazy doctor.”
AVC: You don’t want to ruin the mystique?
JCR: The more I talk about it, the less funny it is. It is this thing. It is what it is. I’m not really interested in analyzing it.
AVC: There was a lot of improvisation in Cyrus, and you’ve also worked with Adam McKay and Robert Altman, who were famous for encouraging improvisation. How would you compare their styles?
JCR: Well, I end up improvising in almost everything to some degree, ’cause it’s often necessary on movies. The script is one thing, and it’s this kind of theory of what you’re going to do, and then you get there on the day and you realize, “Oh, the script is not appropriate to this room, the door’s over here.” So you’re always having to kind of custom-fit things to make stuff work. But Robert Altman was sheer beauty. He would be happy if you said the words, but perfectly happy if something else happened, too. It seemed like Altman was always trying to make you forget where the camera was. He wanted to catch you when you weren’t acting, which was kind of liberating. Because a lot of times when we were doing Prairie Home Companion, there were so many cameras rolling, there was literally no time or no way to figure out where the frame was. “There’s a camera over there somewhere, I guess we’re on!” So it was a kind of immersive experience for that reason. Then, Adam McKay… he and Will work really hard on writing good scripts. They go through a long process of improvising while they’re writing. And we wrote a lot of Step Brothers together, and the whole writing process was like improvisation. And then different people would come in, gagmen or comedy specialists would come in to do little structural things. But for the most part—
AVC: Highly paid professionals?
JCR: Yeah. But then you know, you get there, we usually do one or two takes of what’s written, and then it starts changing. Sometimes very quickly, and sometimes just slowly, things start to evolve. And Adam does shoot a lot of film. But basically, you have that script to rely on. If nothing—in case the inspiration’s just not there, if something doesn’t make us laugh that we wanted to try, we always have the script. We’ve worked really hard on making the script good. It comes from an improvisational place anyway.
AVC: It’s like a safety net.
JCR: Yeah. But this one, [the Duplass brothers] wrote a pretty good script, and then they didn’t want to do it. They didn’t want to do any of the dialogue, so the structure of the story stayed the same, pretty much, with a couple little changes in the editing room, and we would go in pretty much expecting to accomplish what the scenes accomplished in the script, but not with any of the words. So it was really a kind of intimidating responsibility. It was like, “Even though I love to improvise, and I do it a lot, it’s nice to know if I don’t reinvent the wheel this morning, we have the script, we can always do the script.” It was really cool. These guys have an interesting way of working. They really stuck to their guns, too. When they worked on their movies The Puffy Chair and Baghead and other ones they’ve done, they’ve had much smaller budgets, and they’re used to the luxury of time and being able to just, “Well, if we don’t get the scene today, we’ll just go back tomorrow and re-shoot it.” It’s just friends of theirs, and very low pressure. And this was a very different situation for them, but they stuck to their guns. And so we’d go and do these long takes with digital-video cameras.
We’d do like 20-minute takes and just kind of find our way through the scenes, and then they’d stop and go walk around by themselves for 20 minutes, talking about the direction they wanted things to go in. I thought they did a really good job of maintaining their aesthetic and their filmmaking point of view while taking on this heavier baggage of a bigger crew and more money and shooting in Los Angeles with permits and all that stuff. The improv was pretty—every time I would say “Well, what do you want to happen?” they’d be like, “What do you want? What is the character? What does your instinct say?” And I would be like, “Well, my instinct, I could do anything, but you’re the authors of the story, what do you want to happen?” Even though it was often disconcerting and made me uncomfortable to take on the responsibility, they would always pass it back. And it worked great for the movie.
AVC: It’s hard to do improvisation well if you don’t have a baseline of trust.
JCR: Yeah, or a sense of play at least. A lot of times, good improv is when both people, or however many people are in the scene, really have no idea what the next thing you’re going to say is. A lot of times what happens is, people just get scared, and they’re like, “Okay, I’ll say this and this and this,” and they’ll try to remember it, and they’re not really reacting to what you’re saying, they’re just trying to remember this list of things they thought beforehand. But Jonah’s not like that. I thought it was really cool the way Jonah used his ability to riff in the Apatow films, the work he’s done before. It was fun to play with him and riff in a—I keep saying emotional, but in a more real way. Rather than just try to find something to top each other with jokes, or who could say the next outrageous thing, it was more like this game of trying to outsmart each other. We’re often at cross purposes, and we’re trying to manipulate each other, and it was really fun to see the different ways we would come up with to work the next move in the game. And Jay and Mark would encourage that. They would talk to us separately. They would do very little directing to the group. They usually would pull someone to the side and be like, “Okay, this is your agenda,” and then they’d go tell me something else, and then we’d roll cameras. I don’t think we did really any rehearsals, other than some very basic blocking rehearsals without dialogue, just so the camera people would know where we were going. So a lot of the best stuff in the movie is the first take, as soon as we took our first stab at it.
AVC: What part of Chicago did you grow up in?
JCR: I’m from Marquette Park. Southwest side.
AVC: Do you think growing up in Chicago affected your evolution as an actor? If nothing else, it’s a great theater city.
JCR: I started doing plays when I was a young kid. I like Chicago for its lack of aggression. New York and L.A., they’re both such commercial places. New York especially, as an actor, it will just eat you alive, and Chicago—the lessons I learned here doing theater were like, “The play’s the thing, and I only succeed if all of us succeed.” That kind of thinking. It’s a lot different in New York. Usually, the people I’ve met from there have much more of an attitude of, “Well, good luck to you out there, I’m going to take care of myself. Hopefully you’ll be fine too.” [Laughs.] But it’s dog-eat-dog out there, baby.
AVC: There’s more of a sense that you’re in competition with everybody.
JCR: And Chicago’s more of a sense of a community. And it doesn’t seem like, when I was coming up here—maybe it’s different now—no one really felt like, “Well, if I do well in this play, I’m going to be an overnight sensation.” The stakes were lower. Most of the people doing it here do it because they really love it, not because they want to be famous or get rich.
AVC: You’ve made a lot of smaller films. Of all the movies you’ve made, which did you feel didn’t get the attention or the praise you felt they should have?
JCR: Well, they all kind of find their way. They all kind of eventually percolate down and find the audience. I thought a movie I made here called The Promotion really didn’t get a very fair shake. And I think [the writer-director], Steve Conrad, is a really great writer. It’s a weird movie, but that was one I thought—but again, it is finding its audience now on cable and DVD. More and more people come up to me and talk to me about that movie. Hard Eight, Paul Anderson’s first movie, which is really called Sydney, had some of the best reviews of any movie I’ve ever been in, and I think the shortest theatrical run. But as a result of Paul’s work, after that, he has definitely found an audience. I think just getting a movie done is an accomplishment in itself. It’s almost like a success that you’ve got the money to do it, and you made it, and it’s good. Criminal, I thought, was another movie that was pretty good. The smaller movies, it’s tougher. A lot of times, mainstream critics are much tougher on small, independent movies because they can be. If it’s Shrek 3 and they say something really mean about it, they’re not going to be invited to the buffet at the hotel the next time, they’re not going to get the gift bag. They’re not going to be thought of well within the matrix, but the little movie that doesn’t have some big corporation behind it, it’s like they get out all their bile on that. It’s like “Pick on the weak kid in school, what’s he going to do?” Even I can pick on him.