John C. Reilly

Telegraph, Jan 2013

“I know I’m not some matinee idol”.


(Also at The Telegraph)

The moment we sit down to lunch, at Smitti’s Grill in Pasadena, a teenage boy appears at the table, holding out a napkin and hyperventilating. “Are you John C Reilly?” he stammers. “Wow! I mean, I loved you in Step Brothers. Wow.”

Reilly signs the napkin, makes the boy’s day and then waits till he has left. “People say, ‘don’t you get tired of people coming up to you all the time?’” he grins. “But what’s wrong with strangers saying they love you? Sometimes that’s exactly what you need.”

From a certain angle he might have gotten away with it, and passed for a regular customer, all be it a dapper one in a blue jacket and jaunty white Panama hat. But once he turns around, there’s no mistaking that mug – meaty and gentle, a face we’ve seen in so many movies over the years from drama to comedy to musicals. We remember him as the corrupt cop, Happy Jack, in Gangs of New York, and as the pitiable, lovestruck cop Jim Kurring in Magnolia; as Renee Zellweger’s much exploited husband Mr Cellophane in Chicago, not to mention his parts in The Hours, The Perfect Storm, Talladega Nights, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. But there are some 50 other credits on his record, and a string of plays besides. You’d clock him in an instant.

“I’ve been getting Step Brothers a lot lately. Last month it was Boogie Nights.” He shrugs. “I think it’s whatever’s on cable.”

He’s a tall man, with a calm and quiet manner, the antithesis to the mop of unruly curls creeping out from below his hat. And for a natural comedian, he doesn’t have a comic’s compulsion to amuse – if anything, he seems quite reticent. In previous interviews he’s said that he’s OK talking about movies, but not so much about himself. So that’s where we start, with his latest hit, Wreck-it Ralph, which arguably extends his range even further. While it’s not his first animated feature– that was the post-apocalyptic feature 9 in 2009 – it is a new adventure all right, a huge Disney production complete with five times the budget, action figures and, given last Thursday’s Oscar nomination, franchise possibility.

It’s a charming story. Reilly plays Ralph, a “bad” character in a video game whose job involves smashing things while the “good” character (the gamer) tries to fix them. But once the arcade closes in the evening, he has to live in squalor while the good guys live in penthouses. And Ralph’s a sensitive soul. So one day he decides to shoot for the high life, to seek out the shiny medals that are typically reserved for the good guys. Along the way he falls for Sarah Silverman’s character in a neighboring game and learns that medals aren’t what matter in life. It’s classic Disney, in other words – heartwarming, sweet and simple.

But Reilly was skeptical at first. “I didn’t want to do it,” he says. Disney had been trying to make a movie about the life inside a videogame long before the writer Phil Johnston called him two years ago (Johnston had just directed him in the Hangover-ish Ed Helms vehicle Cedar Rapids). “I told him that animation didn’t seem like much fun. Most of the time, you’re just in this isolated booth reading dialogue off a page.”

What Reilly wanted was to collaborate with other actors and improvise – all the fun of live action. So that’s how it was done. Not only were the other actors in the room for recording, but Reilly was also given free rein to improvise and attend story meetings. Animators would watch videotape of him recording the audition so as to incorporate his gestures. Reilly’s influence was so huge that in the end, he was given a story credit.

“Animation is a great way to work,” he says now. “No early morning call times, no makeup chair. In live action you’re always fighting the clock, the sun is always going down too soon. This was like a dream.”

He even enjoyed watching the end product, which hardly ever happens. “As an actor, you watch yourself and you’re like, ‘is that what I look like? That’s not what I feel like…’ You’re wrestling in your head. But not with animation. And you know, I could get used to that.”

The one moment, however, that stood out, came close to the end of the process. For two years and 30 sessions, he’d been going to work at the old Disney studios where Jungle Book and Winnie The Pooh were made. “Those movies formed my identity in some ways. Then one day, I walked to the studio and my character was all over the front of the building. There were posters and life size cutouts and scenes from the movie playing on monitors. That’s when it hit me – I’m now associated with the place that made Snow White and Dumbo. Now I’m part of that history.”

He shakes his head. “I was like ‘Wow! How did I get here?’ Because there’s the way everyone sees you, according to what your position in the world is, and then there’s this identity inside. And I feel very much like I’m that same 12 year old kid on the south side of Chicago who just can’t believe how fortunes have turned.”

There might be a Disney movie in the life of Reilly. Today at 47, he’s one of the most respected actors of his generation and a happily married father of two boys. He lives east of Los Angeles, in part to avoid the worst of the “scene”, and counts among his friends and colleagues, more or less everyone who’s anyone in the glitziest business in the world.

But that’s not how he grew up.  Chicago’s south side is rough, what Reilly calls “working class, Irish, Lithuanian, Polish.  Tough, blue collar folks. Not a place for aesthetes.” He was the fifth of six children born to a Lithuanian mother and an Irish father who ran a linen company. But young John Christopher caught the acting bug at the age of eight. He found comfort in what he calls “the fellowship of theater nerds” and fondly recalls his Billy Elliot life in which he would wear makeup and perform musicals by day and then come home to his roughneck brothers.

“They found it amusing,” he says. “It was an odd thing for someone to do in that neighborhood. But I got away with it because my brothers were tough. They liked to fight. So no one would mess with me.”

When the school jocks would ask him why he was acting in plays at the neighboring girls school, Reilly would brag. “I’d say, ‘man, you know how many girls are in that play?’ But really I could give a shit about the girls – I was there because I loved Brigadoon and Hello Dolly!”

Chicago is famous for its actors. A city with dozens of theaters – where audiences actually show up – it’s a place where an actor might stay busy without necessarily “making it”. Reilly studied at the Goodman School of Drama and then joined the esteemed Steppenwolf theatre best known for launching John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. And he has never stopped doing theater – it’s part of his identity. He speaks of the sensitive bohemians and eccentrics that choose to act as if they were his natural tribe. And most of all, he loves musicals. “It feels right” he says, “that I got the most notice for Chicago.” He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 2002.

When his break came it was swift and emphatic. He was only 22 at the time and so green that he’d never even flown on a plane. And yet suddenly, he found himself flying to Thailand to play a small part in Brian de Palma’s Vietnam movie, Casualties of War, alongside Sean Penn. And as it turned out, his naivety served him.

“Most of the actors there were film people, so they were like, ‘I’ll give you this much now, but I’ll save some for the take’,” he says. “But that’s not how we do it in theater. I just gave it my all for every reading.” Some other actors laughed at him. But De Palma loved it. He recast Reilly a couple of times, eventually making him one of the leads. And by the time the film wrapped, Reilly had even met his wife there, Alison Dickey, who was an assistant to Penn at the time. They’re still together. “Just ridiculous luck, really.”

The career that has followed is enviable by any standard. How many can say that they’ve worked with Scorsese, Altman, Mallick and Paul Thomas Anderson? His range is too broad for there to be any clear through line over the years, but it’s fair to say that he came into his own playing working men, regular blue collar Joes that you could root for. “It’s not the whole story, but sure,” he says. “I’ve played my share of house painters, mechanics, cops, GIs…”

His looks have helped him, he says, even though Reilly has had to weather some rather unkind adjectives over the years, such as “bashed-in”, “cauliflower”, “pugnacious” and my favorite, “distinctive-faced John C Reilly.”

He laughs. “Distinctive is good for an actor! Hey, as long as I’m employed people can call me whatever they want. I know I’m not some matinee idol, but I think we’re sold this bill of goods by the media which says that only the most beautiful and dashing people can become movie stars. So when someone like me sneaks in, they have to kind of redo the calculations.”

One of the themes of Ralph is his doomed pursuit of shiny objects and material pleasures, the “good life” as he sees it. It’s the commonest pitfall in Hollywood, but Reilly never tripped. No matter how sharply his fame would spike, he maintained a Midwestern sense of reserve and caution.

“Every year or two, a job comes along where someone says, ‘this is the game changer, after this, it’s Candy Mountain for you my friend!’ In fact, go look at the cast of some old movies and it’s Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Don’t-know-that-person, Don’t-know-that-person. At the time, that third guy was probably being told, ‘you’re working with Humphrey Bogart now!’ So it’s a very fickle town. I’ve always been aware of that. Not much changes in the end. If you do good work then you get the chance to do it again, that’s about it.”

Reilly’s ethic is more that of a jobbing actor than a headline star. It’s something to do with his upbringing and his fealty to the tribe of theater actors. “I’m not of the manor born, I’ve never felt entitled in that way,” he says. “I just came to Hollywood to be an actor. All that lifestyle stuff is something to be managed.”

The one time that, as for Ralph, shiny objects looked quite tempting was in 2002 when he was not only nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but he was the common thread between three best picture nominations. “That was scary. It was like, wow, the rollercoaster suddenly picked up speed!”  He didn’t win – Chris Cooper beat him to it – but he wanted to. “It’s amazing how quickly you go from really not caring at all to, once you’re nominated, ‘well, I don’t want to be a loser…’”

After a few years, Reilly pulled off something that very few character actors can manage – a seamless left turn into comedy. With hindsight, it looks like deliberate – from a standing start, he made Talladega Nights, Walk Hard and Step Brothers in succession, and now his ongoing collaboration with Will Ferrell sees him doing a heap of sketches for Funny or Die. But there was no strategy, he says. He was just following the opportunities as they came up.

“I met Will back before he was doing movies,” he says. “Molly Shannon introduced us and I felt a real kinship with him, he was like a brother almost right away.” So years later, when Ferrell was looking for a comic actor who could improvise for Talladega Nights, it was a simple choice. After all it was Paul Thomas Anderson who said of Reilly’s improvisational ability, “John Reilly is a king. He’s the funniest man I know by leaps and bounds.”

But above all, comedy was just what the market demanded back then, and Reilly as a jobbing actor, took the work that was available. “There were a couple of years in the dark days of the Bush administration when I feel like all anyone wanted to do was make comedies,” he says. “So I didn’t make a conscious decision to do comedy. It just came my way.  A lot of actors, if they’re being truthful, would admit that their life is fielding opportunities that other people generate.”

That said, there are some loose plans ahead. He leads an eight-piece roots music revue called John Reilly and Friends, which he’d like to take on the road. They put out a couple of singles on Jack White’s label last year. He also feels theater tugging at him.

“But you know what – I would consider more animation,” he says.  “It’s rewarding in ways you don’t realize. For example, I was in the supermarket the other day, asking someone where the cinnamon is, and suddenly this little girl comes round the corner and says, “you’re Ralph!””

It’s just like that teenage boy who loved Step Brothers, except this time she’s only going by your voice.

“I know! Those are the moments when you’re like ‘wow.’” He looks into the middle distance and squints. “Because there aren’t many people in the world that get into that little girl’s world the way that I did by doing the voice of Ralph. And that’s an extraordinary place to be.”