A conversation with actor John C. Reilly is like talking to an old friend. He comes across onscreen in films like “Cyrus” as such a good-hearted, ordinary, normal guy onscreen. After the conversation with Reilly, (which took place on Wednesday, October 12, 2011), the Chicago-born-and-bred DePaul graduate who grew up in the Marquette Park area of Chicago, the impression is that he is just as down-to-earth and nice off-screen as he is onscreen.
When asked what reminds him of Chicago, Reilly says his first impression from way-back-when is the color green, in the schools and neighborhood of his youth. The Marquette Park area was a rough neighborhood (“The old Chicago lumbering into the future”) where the interiors and exteriors of the Irish/Polish neighborhood under “Daley I” were always green in various shades. Reilly said, “Market Park was the only place that physically attacked the Reverend Martin Luther King, before he was assassinated. ..Market Park and Johannesburg had to be two of the most prejudiced places on the planet at that time.”
Reilly, born May 24, 1965, did not grow up a child of great privilege. His Irish father ran an industrial supply linen company and Reilly was one of six children born to his Lithuanian mother. He made his screen debut in Brian DePalma’s “Casualties of War” in 1989 and met his wife, Alison Dickey, an independent film producer whom he married in 1992, on that film. Thanks to the various Chicago programs provided for youth by the city of Chicago, he was able to participate in drama and improv classes beginning at age 8. Music was almost always involved. His later role in the musical “Chicago” would stem from those early experiences and Reilly was even Grammy-nominated for the song “Walk Hard,” which he wrote and performed in the comedy satire “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” In 2002, Reilly, a veteran of 50 films, was in 3 of the films nominated as Best Picture. He was also nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor in the musical “Chicago.”
At DePaul, early in his dramatic training, Reilly was cast as the male lead in “The Way of the World,” a Restoration-era comedy by William Congreve. He soon decided, “This is boring. Being the leading man is not all it’s cracked up to be.” His discovery that character actor parts were more interesting “informed a lot of my later parts.”
Asked about whether he felt he was “a spokesman for your generation,” Reilly said, “I never felt like a spokesman of my generation. I try to portray people who have layers of meaning that you can peel back and expose.”
Q: What was the most fun you ever had on a movie set?
A: “’Boogie Nights’ (1997) was the most fun. “The 1997 film where Reilly wrote and performed “Feel the Heat” and portrayed Reed Rothchild predates his partnership in comedies with Will Ferrell. (Of Ferrell, Reilly said, “Will’s America’s Sweetheart…what can I say?” He added that the two have an almost brotherly rapport and are trying to find the time to make a sequel to “Stepbrothers.”
In commenting on “Boogie Nights,” Reilly noted that large chunks of that Paul Thomas Anderson film were improvised. “Paul Anderson and I made 3 great movies together (“Hard Eight” in 1997; “Boogie Nights” in 1997; and “Magnolia” in 1999). “Paul Thomas Anderson has what a great director needs, which is (1) a great photographic eye (2) the ability to be good at motivating groups of people and (3) the ability to be really enthusiastic about the project.”
When asked what actors or actresses he most wanted to work with, Reilly said that he has already worked with some of the best, including Meryl Streep and his current co-star, Tilda Swinton (“We Have to Talk About Kevin”). He suggested that he is more likely to select film projects based on directors with whom he wants to work, citing Terry Gilliam and the Coen Brothers as some on his “would like to work with” list.
Reilly also mentioned that he was recently asked to appear in “Carnage,” which is based on the French play “God of Carnage” that recently ran in Chicago. (The play is a dark comedy about 2 couples who meet to discuss the schoolyard fight that caused one boy to hit the other boy and knock his tooth out.)“I tried not to wet my pants when Roman Polanski called and asked me to do a movie,” said the humble Reilly.
Reilly said, “When I’m reading a script, I ask, is this how people talk?”(in helping him make a decision about whether to do a part.) “All a character can really control is the part he plays. Film is so much a director’s medium. You have to really focus on your part. I’m looking for stuff that’s different from what I’ve done before. You have to be careful what parts you choose. If you aren’t, you might find that you’ve created a big crappy snowball at the end of your life…An actor needs to try his best, show up every day with his best intentions. “
Asked whether there are any movies he is less fond of, Reilly noted, “I’ve seen them all. I’ve returned to the scene of the crime. You don’t put 6 months in and then don’t go see it. You can learn from even the ones you’re disappointed in. “Refusing to name any less-than-stellar roles, Reilly said, “It’s a miracle when one of them works. I’m not gonna’ kick a dog that’s down.”
Q: “How do you receive scripts now?”
After noting that the usual agent-to-actor filter applies, he joked, “They come by carrier pigeon now. If they are too heavy for the carrier pigeon to carry, then I don’t do it.”
Reilly is in an intense new independent film directed by Lynne Ramsay entitled “We Have to Talk About Kevin.” Ramsay, a 1995 graduate of the UK’s Film and Television School, had not done a film for 7 years. Reilly was interested in doing a film with Ramsay, the female British-born director of “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar”), and sought her out. He found that Ramsay, as a director, knew exactly what she was wanted on set and would often call it a wrap after the first take
John C. Reilly’s advice to other would-be actors? “Be there. Be present. Listen and be enthusiastic. Notice what is going on between ‘Action’ and ‘Cut.’”