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Cyrus - John C Reilly interview

John C Reilly in Cyrus

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JOHN C Reilly talks about working with indie directors Mark and Jay Duplass on new comedy Cyrus, as well as tackling some of the more awkward moments involving his character.

He also discusses his career to date, why he feels lucky and why he intends to keep things as diverse as possible…

Q. Jay and Mark Duplass are famous for their improvisation process… so how did that work for you on Cyrus and how much leeway did you have?
John C Reilly: I felt like I had a lot of leeway. We were using a script… these guys wrote a great script and then encouraged us not to use it. But we used it as a blueprint, so in the back of your mind you’re thinking: “Well, in this scene I need to do this or that…” But that said, every time I just got a wild idea and went off in some direction they were always delighted. They loved being surprised and they loved our honest reactions to things, even if it wasn’t what was planned.

Most days I felt like I almost had too much freedom. I would say like: “Well, what do you want to happen here?” And they’d say: “We want you to follow your instincts!” [Laughs] I’d then have to say: “Well, my instinct is to do what you want me to do, so what do you want me to do.” But they wouldn’t say it. They said instead: “We’re just going to roll the camera and we want you to go for it…” Sometimes you’d feel brave, creative and full of ideas and sometimes you were just terrified. It would be like: “What the f**k am I doing?”

Q. Was that particularly the case with Jonah Hill? Is he a very surprising person to improvise with?
John C Reilly: Yeah, Jonah and I… that was the easiest part, for me. Jonah is such a clever person and such a funny actor and he can go toe to toe with the improvisational stuff. The moments I kind of felt more at sea were in the relationship stuff, during some of the more intimate scenes with Marisa [Tomei], where… I’m just kind of a modest person, so I just felt a little more in need of direction in those moments.

Q. How did the Duplass method compare to working with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay and their style of improvisation?
John C Reilly: Similar but… we do a lot of variations on things when Will and I work together, although that’s mostly just riffing on the same idea, or finding funny ways to say the same thing. Generally, the plot doesn’t really change. But I really felt like on Cyrus this, at times, bewildering world of options. I literally could have said anything and because we were working in a chronological order they said: “You could even change the plot of the movie… if it doesn’t make sense when you do such and such a thing, then don’t do it, and we’ll just… tomorrow we’ll just follow what you did.” You’re used to relying on certain things as an actor… you have this sort of comfort zone. It’ll be like: “Well, today I’ll probably do this.” But almost every day in this movie I walked in and it was like: “Well, here we go, I hope it’s good.”

Q. Was that liberating for you though?
John C Reilly: Yeah, it was liberating and I think it made for a really original, wonderful, emotionally authentic film.

Q. Is there an added pressure having to be funny? Because it’s one thing having to ad lib in a drama but to have to add some comedy, too…
John C Reilly: Well, that was another thing I was going to say about working with Will [Ferrell], a lot of the time, really, the super objective when you’re working on a big broad comedy is to make it funny, even if you go to more dangerous places – it’s got to end up in a funny place. So, the great luxury on this one is that it could have gone anywhere. It was OK if it ended up being kind of sad, or awkward or whatever. Anything was fine as long as it was truthful, and wasn’t some manufactured idea you had before the camera started rolling. I think that’s the great asset that these guys bring to their films… the dogged pursuit of the truth in the way people speak to each other, in relationships, and in the way things unfold.

People have this term, Mumblecore, for this group of filmmakers that are coming up right now, but it’s really kind of a derogative term I think. First of all, there’s very little mumbling. The one through line I see with Mark and Jay, and Andrew Bujalski and Greta Gerwig and those people, and Joe Swanberg, is that these are people who are committed to the truth and to honesty in film. It’s almost like an American Dogme kind of thing… not in an organised way. But everyone just got so sort of sick of artificial stories and contrived, manipulative movies. The biggest sin to these guys would be to say: “You know what? It seems like a movie…” Or: “Let’s not do that, it seems like something that would happen in a movie!” And that’s while we’re making a movie [laughs].


Q. You seem to have made this real shift from drama to comedy in recent years… is it fair to say that? And will you be sticking with comedy?
John C Reilly: I’m only doing comedies from now on… no, I’ve just made a film with Lynne Ramsay called We Need To Talk About Kevin, which is not a comedy at all. I just try to keep employed [laughs]. I try to stay employed and do surprising things. For whatever reason, for the last couple of years, some of the most interesting people to me in films are people making comedies. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are really smart, subversive guys, Judd Apatow is one of the smartest people out there making movies right now, with a really sophisticated sense of storytelling… An actor’s life, for the most part, is really fielding opportunities that come your way. I wish I could say there was some master-plan that I had, but the truth is just someone invited me to come and play and I said “sure”.

Q. How did the character of John initially speak to you? Did they give you some idea of tone?
John C Reilly: No, I had seen Puffy Chair and my wife had met Mark and Jay at some film festivals and she said: “You’d love these guys, you should see this movie…” So, I watched Puffy Chair and I loved it and sent word back to them that I’d love to work with them. But then six months later they came back and said: “We wrote a script for you… here you go.” I wish I could say that happened every time I told a filmmaker I liked them [laughs]. So, they said: “We wrote this part for you, so if you want to play the part, we’d be so excited, but if you don’t want to play the part, we’re not going to make this movie.”

So, no pressure. I was like: “Oh, you wrote this part for me? Let’s see who it is… a pathetic seven-year divorced loner who is masturbating… Oh, this is me. Alright. Only I could be this guy!” [Laughs] No, I was flattered that they’d written this part for me. The truth is, they said: “This is what we wrote but we really are going to be depending on you to bring this character to life and to live out all the things that are not there in the script.”

Q. Was it easy for you to identify with John and his situation?
John C Reilly: Yeah, it was. I’m much luckier in love than poor John has been, I’ve been married for a long time and I have a family. But one of the great joys of playing the character was getting to play someone who was my age, who wasn’t a mental 12-year-old. It was a real pleasure. The guy has some real gravitas and he’s been through the ringer a little bit. I think a lot of what you see in the character would be my own instincts in his situation… a lot of the words that are spoken are the way I put things. So, I do think I have a lot in common with him. I think were’ both kind of romantics.

And often I’ll just meet someone for the first time and start telling them… or giving them my honest opinion about something that’s maybe too much information or a little too frank. My wife is always saying: “You just met that person! You can’t say that!” I’m the kind of person that if I come into a room and there’s an elephant in the room, I’ll be like: “Let’s talk about the elephant! Things are kind of awkward right now, aren’t they? You guys aren’t speaking to each other, so are you getting a divorce?” [Laughs] I just come from a big family where people call it out.

John C Reilly in Cyrus

Q. The Shrek line was apparently yours as well… so, do you feel like Shrek some of the time?
John C Reilly: [Laughs] Yeah, well compared to Marisa Tomei I do look like Shrek. I don’t know why I said that… I almost immediately regretted it. But, at the same time, I thought: “Well, that’s in the movie.” But not only was it in the movie, it’s been in every trailer and literally every press person I talk to brings it up. But Shrek was a nice enough guy and he gets the girl too.

Q. Did you do anything before you started shooting to develop a relationship with Marisa or Jonah?
John C Reilly: No, we were encouraged not to. I think I said: “Hello, how are you?” to Marisa when we met for the hair and make-up tests, but that was about it. So, what you see is what you get! As Marisa and I were getting to know each other in life, it was almost the same timeline that our characters were as well. Jonah and I knew each other pretty well already, since he was in Walk Hard and we have a lot of friends in common. So, there was a lot of bon ami there already. Catherine [Keener] and I have known each other for a long time and I really pushed these guys to get her to play that part. I really begged her to do it because I knew it would be really important to have that sense of intimacy with that person, and it would be hard for me to get that with a person I was just meeting given the style that these guys work in.

Q. Do you think this character in Cyrus is the most vulnerable you’ve felt in a role?
John C Reilly: Maybe… he’s definitely up there. I tend to have a lot of vulnerable moments, for whatever reason, even when I’m playing tough characters. But that’s part of what you do as an actor, you know? Closed characters that are very guarded of their feelings, that don’t reveal much, are not that interesting. So, that’s mostly what drama, or theatre, or film is… people opening their hearts up.

Q. What was the toughest time you’ve had conveying an emotion? Was it something like Magnolia?
John C Reilly: Well, Magnolia was definitely tough. I remember driving to work on the day of Magnolia where I have to do the scene where I lose my gun and have to have this mini nervous breakdown. I remember driving and thinking: “This is not right. What I’m going into right now is not a natural human instinct…” I mean, most people would try and avoid something like that because they know they’ll be upset if they do it. But actors get in the car and say: “I’m gonna go cry today and be really upset!” It’s just not a natural instinct to have and it seems like a crazy thing to do for a living.

Q. How have your expectations of the business changed since you first got into acting?
John C Reilly: I just feel really lucky, honestly. I mean, from the beginning of my career, it’s a complete fluke that a person of my background… it’s amazing that I’ve been able to do what I’ve been able to do, and to continue to be given opportunities… So, my expectation of the business? I don’t know, I just keep hoping that people will continue making good movies and keep putting me in them.

But I would like to see the world come to a place where people are interested in going to the movies to be moved in a dramatic way again. I think the world is in such disarray right now that people are understandably drawn to movies to escape: either to laugh or to be thrilled out of their own reality. But I would love it if the world came to a place where… I think the ‘70s, in some way, was a time when we got to a place where it was a relatively peaceful world and people would go to movies to be reminded that there are intense things in life to deal with and to be moved by. But it’s getting really hard to make dramatic films in Hollywood right now, really hard – even for well respected, big directors. And I think that’s a shame. So, maybe once things settle down and all these soldiers come back from these places where they’re fighting, we’ll look at ourselves again and maybe we’ll do that in the movies.

Read our review of Cyrus