Even when he’s dressed smartly with a sleek black shirt and dark sports jacket, his snazzy straw hat lying on the table nearby, John C. Reilly can’t help but elicit one adjective he just can’t shake: craggy.
Perhaps it’s his hound-dog eyes or maybe it’s his mop of curly hair. Or it could be his distinctive voice, reminiscent of Tex Avery’s Droopy Dog character. Whatever. The guy looks like he just rolled out of bed.
Talk to him, however, and you soon learn that not every picture tells the correct story. The 45-year-old Chicago native and alumnus of the Windy City’s revered Steppenwolf Theater Company turns out to be smart, witty, down-to-earth and perceptive when it comes to acting. Perhaps you sort of expect the latter, since he’s been performing for 22 years, 21 years in the movies, beginning with small parts in two 1989 Sean Penn films; Brian DePalma’s Vietnam drama Casualties of War and the comedy We’re No Angels with Robert DeNiro.
Now, after all those years and all those roles—as clueless hubbies in The Good Girl, Chicago and The Hours, as trusted sidekicks in The Aviator, Boogie Nights, The Perfect Storm and Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby, and as bad guys in Gangs of New York and The River Wild—comes something completely different.
In Cyrus, a new dark comedy by Jay and Mark Duplass, pioneers of the so-called no-frills, improvisational “mumblecore” movement, Reilly, regarded by many as an expert “character actor,” is given a rare chance to play a lead in a movie. He’s John, a sad sack divorced editor whose only friend is his remarried ex-wife (Catherine Keener). At a party, in which he performs a drunken impromptu version of Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” John attracts the attention of Molly (Marisa Tomei), a pretty single woman charmed by John’s vulnerability. Things click between the two, and John starts believing he may have met the perfect woman. Then he discovers she has a son named Cyrus (Jonah Hill). John also finds out that Mary and the 21-year-old Cyrus – who is a talented musician and seemingly mature beyond his years—have a very unusual relationship. It is this mother-child union, in fact, that threatens John’s relationship with Mary, and, thus, his hope of future happiness.
Like the 2007 Judd Apatow-produced rock music spoof Rock Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Cyrus offers Reilly the rare opportunity to star in a film. But this time, things were quite different behind the scenes than what Reilly was accustomed to.
“I had seen The Puffy Chair,” says Reilly during a stop in Philadelphia, referring to the Duplass brothers’ first film, a road movie regarded as the seminal effort of the mumblecore movement. “My wife (Alison Dickey) is an indie film producer and she met them at a couple of film festivals. She said I was going to love those guys, they work in this improvisational way, you have to see The Puffy Chair.
“I saw the movie and told her to tell them I’d love to work with them, to tell them to find something for us to do. They took it to heart, they wrote the script and we met. They said, ‘We wrote this character for you and they said if you want to do the movie, great. And if you don’t want to, we’re not going to make this movie, were going to do something else. We tailored it to you.’ That was really flattering. So I said, ‘Yeah. I guess I’m doing it.’”
The Puffy Chair was made for $10,000 and, while the budget on the Duplass brothers’ next production (Baghead) grew, Cyrus cost only a few million to make, a fraction of most movies these days.
Reilly thinks the secret to their filmmaking process and the art of keeping costs down is “being brutally honest every day by trying to get the actors to talk each other every day, a lot of improvisation and you had to be open to the story changing. It seemed like we needed to tell the truth in another way. If anything seemed phony or canned or too movie-ish, they said, ‘Let’s try it another way.’ They said, ‘You play the character now, what do you think you would you do?’ So they would trust my instincts.
“That’s different than most movies. With most movies you get a script and do it. In movies in which I improvised like the ones with Will Ferrell, it was within a framework. You do the scripted version once or twice, and if it’s working well, then we’ll start to riff or change things. But these guys, they won’t rehearse. They didn’t talk too much about what was going to happen in a scene.”
Says Reilly, most scenes in Cyrus were completed in one or two takes, without written dialogue.
“They gave us a lot of freedom—almost too much freedom for my taste,” he admits. “You know, it’s a little easier day at work when you have to memorize something and do your best with it. It’s almost like a screenwriting process when you’re improvising that much. But it turned into a really original feeling, a cool movie I was really proud of.”
Getting ready to shoot a day on Cyrus, Reilly claims, was also unique. “My only preparation for this movie was thinking, ‘What do I have to do to prepare today?’ I just have to prepare to feel totally unprepared. You just have to get into a good mood and let the creative juices flow and don’t get hung up on things or angry at anything or hold on to things. You just let go and surrender to the moment and forgive yourself for not feeling prepared. And that was the same way with the directors.”
Like the recent Ben Stiller starrer Greenberg, Cyrus can be deemed “an uncomfortable comedy,” because the humor stems from edgy situations and character traits that make the film’s principals—and the audience—uneasy.
With Cyrus, there is an added squirm factor because of the bizarre, intimate relationship between mother Tomei and son Hill. “The heebie jeebies were intentional,” confesses Reilly. “What makes peoples’ skin crawl is that they are acting a different age than they are. She’s treating this 21 year old like he’s 12 years old and you can still hug mommy and there aren’t little checkpoints along the way, like maybe I won’t walk around the house in my underwear anymore or maybe I won’t walk around naked when my mom is in the shower.”
Reilly has been a busy actor for most of his career, juggling studio and indie movies with occasional stints in theater (he played Stanley Kowalski to Natasha Richardson’s Blanche DuBois in a 2005 Roundabout Theatre Company production of A Streetcar Named Desire) and television (he’s made cult waves as Dr. Brule, a demented medical expert on Adult Swim’s trippy cable access spoof Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!). Already in the can are We Need To Talk About Kevin, about how a mother copes with her teenage son’s killing spree, directed by Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) and Cedar Rapids, a satire about the economy and downsizing starring Ed Helms from Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl).
With all this varied work, one wonders if Reilly has any interest in going behind the cameras himself.
“It’s a cliché for an actor to say it (that he wants to direct), but definitely,” says Reilly, a DePaul University graduate. “I’ve made 50 movies by now and you start to say ‘I know what to do.’ Like I’ve been on Martin Scorsese’s set and Woody Allen’s set and Terrence Malick’s set and Paul Thomas Anderson’s set and the Duplass brothers’ set and I’ve seen how to do this. I’ve been doing it for 22 years. So, yeah, it’s a natural progression.”
To prove he’s serious about getting behind the camera, Reilly recently optioned a manuscript that has yet to be published. He also has had some experience with writing, working on Step Brothers and Dewey Cox, and is looking forward to doing more of that in the future. Reilly believes one of the steps for an actor to becoming a good director is simple, but something not all actors do.
““You have to be ready to step away from the camera as an actor,” relates Reilly. “ I’ve been directed by actors behind the cameras in the past. They’re like ‘I want to do it,’ but they’re not doing it—I’m doing it! There’s a leap to be made there. And I really respect the director a lot. It’s not something every actor can do naturally. It takes preparation and it’s a lot more work, too, and it’s a big, big time commitment.”
The actor counts his films with Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York, playing a corrupt constable, and The Aviator, in which he plays a close business ally to Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), two of the more memorable experiences he’s had in the business.
“Beyond being the consummate director, it was like watching a great painter with the technical understanding of what camera movement and specific lenses do to an audience,” recalls Reilly. “He just has an innate understanding of it (filmmaking) as a technician.
“He’s probably the only person I’ve worked with as deep an understanding of film history within the context in which he’s working. If he refers to something, it’s deliberate. There’re no accidental references. It’s an education working with him. You have to keep a pencil in your pocket all the time because he talks really fast and he’ll start rattling stuff really fast. ‘Did you see Black Narcissus…da-da-da.’ You have to write things down so you can have Martin Scorsese film festivals when you’re done.”
It seems, then, that the filming of Cyrus would be on the opposite end of the production ladder than a Scorsese film. In fact, Reilly believes Cyrus was closer to his work with another film maverick –Robert Altman.
For Altman’ 2006 adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s radio show A Prairie Home Companion, Reilly was cast as Lefty, one half of a singing cowboy team with Dusty, portrayed by Woody Harrelson.
“With them (the Duplass brothers) and when I worked with Robert Altman, you kind of forget where the cameras are. You’re encouraged to work in this way where you ignore the camera all together. Which you should do anyway, but if the camera is stationary you can’t get up and walk around.
“But with Altman, and this movie, the cameras are so free-flowing. Am I in the frame or not? You can’t tell, so you just stop worrying about it. (You think,) ‘They’ll let me know if I am out of the frame. I’ll keep doing the scene and connecting with the character.’ And there’s a great joy and freedom in that.
“You don’t have to worry, ‘Like, now the camera’s on me.’ You say, ‘I may be on camera now, so I better keep this reality going.’ It was great working with Altman on Prairie Home Companion. There were six cameras roving around on cranes and you just never knew. So you just got to live in this fantasy place where you got to be the character all the time.
“It’s just fun.”