Why John C. Reilly Was 'Busted' by Roman Polanski (Q&A)
The "Talladega Nights" star takes serious turn in two awards contenders: "Carnage" and "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
Ever since his Boogie Nights porn star Reed Rothchild announced, with conviction, "People tell me I kinda look like Han Solo," John C. Reilly has occupied a coveted place in the hearts of cinephiles as the medium's most endearing underdog. Whether he's crooning the sweetly sad "Mr. Cellophane" for his Oscar-nominated role in 2002's Chicago, "shaking and baking" with Will Ferrell in 2006's Talladega Nights or playing the dad of troubled son in this fall's dark drama We Need to Talk About Kevin, the Chicago native manages to always inhabit the space between emotional realism and absurdity.
Here, the actor reveals how he landed his latest coup, a role in director Roman Polanski's four-person farce Carnage, why he's most proud of his three collaborations with director Paul Thomas Anderson, and why he's dying to play a priest.
The Hollywood Reporter: What has the response been to your performance in Carnage?
John C. Reilly: Really good, actually. It's funny. … You wonder: Are people in Europe going to get this? It's set in Brooklyn; is this movie meant for an American audience? But it got huge laughs in Italy. They were cheering it on like a boxing match! I think people all over the world can relate to its universal story: parents trying to resolve conflict on behalf of their kids.
Every character is ridiculous in some way or another. What's most ridiculous is the characters' hypocrisy, and my guy is the first one to say: "There's an elephant in the room! This is ridiculous! What are we doing?" As an audience member, you're waiting for that relatable moment. He breaks the tension by saying: "F-- it. This is who I am."
THR: For those who follow your career, it has been fun to say "John C. Reilly" and "Roman Polanski" in the same sentence. How did this very different role come to you?
Reilly: Honestly, it sounds strange, but it landed in my lap. Roman actually requested me. One day this phone call comes that says, "Roman Polanski wants you to come to Paris and shoot a movie." Funny enough, I'd actually been approached about doing the play a few years back -- the part that ultimately went to James Gandolfini -- so I was already very aware of the material. I guess he must have seen something he liked in my work!
THR: Likely it was your nailing the semi-coherent TV commentator Dr. Steve Brule on the late-night sketch series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! I don't know this for sure, but I'm guessing you're the only actor who has appeared in both an Adult Swim program and a Polanski film.
Reilly: (Laughs.) Yes, there are probably all kinds of odd facts like that from my career. I've cast a wide net, high and low, to say the least.
THR: Were you nervous or hesitant to say yes to Carnage?
Reilly: Hesitant? No. I was so honored to be asked. But I was definitely nervous. Being an actor is like constantly being the new kid in school -- you don't know anybody. I literally didn't know anyone in the cast. At least Roman had met these other actors before and knew their personalities. But there I was, sitting in this room, struggling to feel like I belonged there. I tried to embrace it, though.
THR: Did you do anything special to prepare for the role?
Reilly: I read the play a few more times, and I didn't really do this for research, but I watched Chinatown again because I was so excited about working with Roman. I wanted to refresh myself. Man, that movie really holds up. The first time I saw it years ago, I hadn't been living in L.A. Now, having been here for a long time, it was like, "Wow, this is an incredible story about this city."
THR: What did you learn about filmmaking from Roman?
Reilly: It's funny, but when you're listening to a director, you usually you have to translate what they say into a usable note for yourself. I've worked with amazing directors like Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, but they don't really speak from an actor's point of view sometimes. But with him, it was like having another actor working with you. He has a great sense of accuracy of human behavior; he will tell you if you're doing something false.
During rehearsals, I'd have this book in my hand, and I have to set this book down in order to do the next bit of acting, and he would say: "Why would you put the book down? You don't know that you're going to pick up the bottle yet. You're doing that because you know you need your hands free, but that doesn't make sense." God, he busted me. He's totally right! He has such a great eye.
THR: Was he as interactive during shooting?
Reilly: Actually, hardly at all. He would give long notes to the lighting and sound departments. With the actors, he would make sure you were on your mark, but he wouldn't give you direction. One day, I started feeling: "Am I getting this? Am I doing it right?" and I asked him, "Roman, how is the acting department doing?" and he goes, "You want me to stroke your ego?" and I'm like: "No! I'm just looking for some feedback." And he said, "If there was anything wrong, believe me, I would tell you."
A lot of great directors work that way. You pick the right people, make sure you're on the same page and let them do their job. I kind of relaxed after that. I realized that Roman tells stories through composition in the photography. I'm so used to directors trying to tell a story through the script, with a lot of focus on actors. After a few days, I loosened up.
THR: You also have the very dark Lynne Ramsay film We Need to Talk About Kevin in the awards conversation this year. Does having appeared in two noncommercial films in a row mark a new chapter in your career?
Reilly: Well, Carnage is a comedy, and in some ways, it's pretty playful. But yes, it's not "jokey" like a lot of what I've done. I just think I take what comes my way. It's not like I deliberately went into comedy at a certain point -- that opportunity arose. I think a lot of people look at actors from the outside and think: "Ah, he's chosen to do this! And his master plan is this!" But I think if you talk to any actor who's honest with him- or herself, you're always hitching to other people's wagons, just hoping to ride a momentum that's been created by other people.
It's a different art from being a painter who's generating his own direction. Actually, it's more about saying no that influences the direction you're going. But what you can say yes to is more about luck and what the world wants to see at a given time. It's changing a little, but for a while, the only thing people wanted to see were comedies! They couldn't make them fast enough. For me, it was like: "Well, OK, I can be funny if that's what the world wants. That's cool."
THR: Are there any roles you're still dying to play?
Reilly: I've always wanted to do a Western. I've actually optioned a book that I'm looking for a director to take on. It's called The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt. I've also always wanted to play a priest. It's such an interesting theatrical and emphatic character I think I would be suited to play. I'm also interested in stories of survival and exploration; I've read a lot of books about that stuff. But, gosh, that's a tough question to answer. I'm so used to surrendering to the randomness of what comes my way as an actor. I rarely make wish lists.
THR: What are you most proud of in your career?
Reilly: The movies I made with Paul Thomas Anderson -- Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia -- were really personal expressions born out of a true creative collaboration. Those movies also marked the first time I was being asked to do something more than just "job in" as an actor. I was part of the storytelling in a deeper, much more personal way. In fact, the character I played in Magnolia, the cop, was born out of some improv sessions I did with Paul. I am really proud of those movies.
But in terms of an overall effort made, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was one of the biggest endeavors I ever undertook. We recorded 35 original songs over a six-month period before we even started shooting the movie! I've heard it's somewhat of a cult classic among musicians. But is that my favorite film? I don't know. It's like picking your favorite kid -- they each have their merits and mark a specific time in your life. I generally don't spend a lot of time looking back -- it's too strange. Someday I'll maybe have a more retrospective attitude; for now, I'm generally too busy worrying about what I'm going to do next.
MY FIRST SAG JOB: "It was my first movie, Brian De Palma's Casualties of War, in 1989. Previously to that I'd been an extra in a beer commercial, but that was AFTRA. So Casualties was my first SAG job. It was a milestone moment for me -- I never dreamed I'd ever be in a movie. I grew up doing plays as a kid. Then suddenly I have this membership card: SCREEN ACTORS GUILD.
The coolest thing was having health insurance and being protected in terms of what I could earn. I'm a big believer in unions. They get a bad rap, but I believe they can be a great force for good. SAG has been a godsend for me. I can't imagine what it would be like to have to hustle out there for health care."