Some actors’ rise to fame is short and littered with low-budget B-movies requiring gratuitous nudity. Others, such as John C Reilly, have managed to keep working for 21 years in an industry that has a reputation for spitting out even the most Machiavellian characters. It’s in no small part down to his versatility; nominated for an Academy Award for his (singing) role in the 2002 musical Chicago, he was also widely acclaimed for his portraits of Happy Jack in Gangs Of New York and Reed Rothchild in Boogie Nights and is a regular on the ‘frat-pack’ scene, starring with Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights and Step Brothers.
Most recently, the 45-year-old headed up Cyrus — a comedy directed by Mark and Jay Duplass and released on DVD this week. It pits Jonah Hill’s stay-at-home son Cyrus against his single mum’s new suitor, John (Reilly). Poignant and sharp, it’s a perfect illustration of how Reilly’s kept going, even if he does open the film with a scene of gratuitous nudity…
So, was that you with your pants down? Or was that a stunt double?
No, that was me.
It’s at this point you talk to Marisa Tomei (Cyrus’s mother, Molly) and, gobsmacked she’s flirting with you, announce that you look like Shrek. Did you come up with that?
Yes, I did. We basically followed the plot of the script, but a lot of what we say was in our own words. So the Shrek line just jumped out of my own lack of self-esteem, I suppose.
Were you actually ‘swinging’ out there?
I think I did have one hand on it. But I couldn’t pee on cue. But yeah, isn’t that the way all great lovers in history have met? Isn’t that how Romeo and Juliet met?
I believe so. So, Cyrus is surprising as it’s you and Hill, so people expect it to be a bit more knock-about, but it’s actually quite dark. Did you know what you were getting yourself into?
Yeah, pretty much. What drew me to it was Mark and Jay’s style — the fact that they like to do a lot of improvisation and collaborate with the actors. I’d been doing a lot of improv-based comedy stuff, and I was starting to wonder what it would be like to be able to improvise but not have the burden of being ‘super funny’ all the time.
Step Brothers is, of course, that gag-a-minute improvisation…
Yes, absolutely. The main obligation, the super-objective in Step Brothers, was to be funny. And in Cyrus, I loved the freedom that we had. Things could be awkward for a minute as long as it was truthful and honest. And the film goes to deeper places emotionally than a straight-up comedy might. There are still a lot of big laughs, though.
It’s awards season, so as someone who’s been Oscar-nominated for a dramatic role but is also a comic stalwart, do you think it’s about time someone won an Oscar for a comedy performance?
Yes and no. I mean, on one hand, comedies are beloved movies that audiences really respond to — why shouldn’t they be represented in what is basically our yearly convention as filmmakers? But I also understand why it hasn’t happened, because if you make the jester the king, they’re not a jester any more. His job is to be there as a counterpoint to the king. Comedy in its nature is not very respectable and that’s a good thing.
As someone who has been nominated for many awards, can you tell us something we don’t know about award ceremonies?
You notice at an award show there’s never an empty seat? That’s because if you get up from your seat, there’s an army of volunteers, dressed in formalwear, who are shuttled immediately into your seat if you get up to go to the bathroom.
And then when you come back…?
Well, they’re disappointed, because they were enjoying sitting in your seat and now they have to go back to the holding area.
You’ve worked with some very funny people. Is there anyone in particular whose improvisations are so crazy, you have to record take after take because you keep laughing?
Well, I’m very good at not laughing…
Oh right, so you’re the one who’s making other people laugh?
I go ninja when people start to get really funny, I just become more and more focused. That said, Will Ferrell gets me more than anyone else.
What’s one of his funniest off-set moments?
Will’s a very down-to-earth guy. He’s not someone who — I think this is one of the reasons we’re such good friends — he’s not one of these compulsive comedy people who is constantly on, very competitive and driven by demons. He’s a really nice guy. We both have similar points of view about our family life and how important that is. And he comes from humble beginnings like I do, so we both have the whole thing in perspective in that way [laughs].
You sound like you’ve just remembered something funny…
No, it’s just this quality he has. If you do start horsing around, if we’re playing back and forth with something, Will’s chief attribute is his commitment. He’ll follow something through all the way until the very end. Like I remember one time, when we were making Talladega Nights, I was renting this house in Sherwood, North Carolina, where we were shooting. I was having a little party, so some people came over and we’re all sitting out on the front porch. I’d told Will the address and gave him directions, so I knew he was coming. It was about half an hour after the party started when all of a sudden his car pulls up really slowly with [starts to sing] “I can feel it coming in the air tonight”, with the passenger window rolled down and Will just staring at me dead serious, just creeping along past the porch with this music blasting. Then [makes revving sound], he takes off. He did it, like, five times. He would go round the block and then again, another song would be on. Anyone else would do one song and be like, “Ha-ha, got you.” But not Will. We were just falling down, laughing so much.
On to another of your most famous films — Gangs Of New York. Did you find it odd with Daniel Day-Lewis walking around in character off-set?
Well, it seems like a lot of effort to me personally. Maybe I’m just lazy. I have to save my energy for the camera. But whatever he’s doing, he has an amazing result, so I could never criticise him. The truth is, actors and directors also, everyone has their own way of doing it and their own sense of truth, and their own process on how to do the art that they do. But that film was an incredible experience.
Did you improvise your own stuff with Martin Scorsese?
Not as much. Also, when you’re doing a dialect [Reilly’s character speaks with an old Irish accent], it’s a little tougher. But some of my greatest moments ever happened on that movie. Like that scene when Daniel’s character comes in to tell me that I have to go and kill Leo’s character. That whole negotiation was classic Scorsese. It’s almost like a gangster movie where one character gets a little bit ahead of himself and thinks he’s a little too important. And then in the middle of it realises: “I’m about to die.” So that was a great scene.
Your next film is We Need To Talk About Kevin — have you finished that?
Yeah, we shot that last spring in Connecticut. It’s a very dramatic film and a great book. Tilda Swinton and I are in it together, so I’m really looking forward to seeing that. It’s a real gut-punch of a movie, especially for a parent.
Obviously you’re a singer, and you toured as Dewey Cox [from Walk Hard] — would you ever like to get involved in music again?
Yeah, the truth is I still play a lot. I did a show recently with a friend, we came up with this duet act, a country duet, so it’s something I do on a regular basis. There’s a club in LA called Largo, it’s kind of a community of people who frequent that place. And I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of musicians I met on Walk Hard.
So what’s your karaoke song?
Well, when we wrapped We Need To Talk About Kevin, we had a party at a karaoke place, and I did My Way to great acclaim. And there were some Roy Orbison numbers in there.
And as someone who’s a singer and values their vocal chords, did you try not to get too drunk?
I tried — and failed — not to get that drunk that night.
Cyrus is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 21 February.