For most of his career, John C. Reilly was Mr. Cellophane. Like the titular character in his showcase song from 2002’s “Chicago” — a performance that earned him an Oscar nod — there was a long, long period during which Reilly suffered from anonymity, when you could walk right by the multifaceted actor and never know he was there. You’d seen him onscreen, in films ranging from “Boogie Nights” to “A Prairie Home Companion,” and whether he was singing or suffering or cracking a joke, he usually stole the scene. But to even his admirers, Reilly was primarily known as That Guy.
That changed with three comedy blockbusters: a turn as Will Ferrell’s best friend in the 2006 blockbuster “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” then the lead in the biopic parody “Walk Hard,” and finally another pairing with Ferrell in 2008’s “Step Brothers.” Now Reilly has a “Talladega” catchphrase. (“Shake ‘n’ bake!”) And, more importantly, an a-list name.
This month Reilly returns to his offbeat roots with “Cyrus,” a dramatic comedy from mumblecore kings Mark and Jay Duplass. Reilly plays a depressed divorced 40-year old whose relationship with a new girlfriend (Marisa Tomei) is wrecked by her uncomfortably close relationship with her son (Jonah Hill).
Reilly, on tour for “Cyrus,” talks about the film, his Grammy nomination for “Walk Hard,” and how nerve-racking it was to take Marisa Tomei to bed.
OLSZEWSKI: What drew you to “Cyrus?”
REILLY: Well, I knew the reputation of Mark and Jay Duplass. I really liked [their debut] “The Puffy Chair” and thought, These guys are cool. I bet we’d work well together. I like collaborating with directors; I like to improvise. My wife [Alison Dickey] met them, because she’s an independent film producer, at a few festivals. And she said, “You’re going to love these guys, you gotta meet them.” And I said, “Tell them I’m interested!” Then they wrote “Cyrus” with me in mind. So we met and they said, “Well, we hope you want to do this movie, because if you don’t, we’re not going to make it.”
OLSZEWSKI: No pressure there.
REILLY: Yeah! No, believe me, they’re very prolific. If they hadn’t made “Cyrus,” they would have gone on to do something else. So I took it seriously and it was a great experience.
OLSZEWSKI: The film’s serious storyline may surprise people who assume you plus Hill equals wackiness.
REILLY: It’s still pretty funny though, right? It delivers on both. I’m really happy about the movie for that reason. In the film, Jonah’s character and I were supposed to have just met, but we in reality knew each other already through Judd Apatow and “Walk Hard.” So our scenes together were a little more playful, you know, he and I messing with each other. What’s hard is not laughing when you’re working with him. He had a really tough time, actually. There’s that one scene where he’s playing his music for me…
OLSZEWSKI: And you’re staring at each other….
REILLY: …And I swear the footage that ends up in the movie is the only footage where he wasn’t laughing. They couldn’t add another five seconds to that if they wanted, because in everything else, Jonah was cracking up. Just the sound of that music is so silly, and we’re keeping these really serious faces.
OLSZEWSKI:I’m not a big fan of mumblecore, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Duplass brothers took a step away from that here. But was there still a lot of improv?
REILLY: There was tons of improv. It’s a brave thing these guys did. They wrote this great script and then said, “Don’t use the script.” Or they told us, you know what needs to happen here, just find your own way to it.
You know, I don’t think anybody likes the term “mumblecore,” even the people I’ve met who are, quote, mumblecore filmmakers, like Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, Andrew Bujalski, and certainly Mark and Jay. You say the word to them and they’re like, ugh. [Rolls eyes.] It’s a little bit of a diss, too; it belittles the process. I think what these mumblecore filmmakers have in common is a commitment to honesty. And maybe that’s more than you want in a movie. If you’re looking for something that’s more tailored or deliberate, storytelling-wise, then that’s not your kind of movie.
But you can’t fault them for trying to do something subversively honest. There’s a commitment to not being corny. To have people talk to each other the way they really talk to each other. We’re fed so much processed storytelling in movies these days that I really welcome it. I think if the movie does well, it will be because people are ready to have a little bit of honesty in a film.
OLSZEWSKI:How did you like working with Marisa as your love interest?
REILLY: She’s very beautiful. I saw her naked body! I mean, that’s a nice day at work. And she saw mine — unfortunately for her. She’s such a great actor, and if it were just Jonah and me, it’d probably end up being a much sillier movie because we love to goof around with each other so much. But Marisa brought a real kind of grounding, a natural quality to the character.
OLSZEWSKI:What was your favorite scene to shoot?
REILLY: There were a lot of uncomfortable scenes in this movie. I mean, you’d think my favorite scene to shoot would be being naked in bed with Marisa Tomei. But I always get so embarrassed in those situations. I get really clammy and like, unnhhh.
OLSZEWSKI:That’s kind of realistic.
REILLY: No, if that was in real life, I don’t think I’d be feeling nervous and clammy. I think I’d be going, Yes! [laughs] But to have a film crew around you, and be nude and simulating sex, it’s as close to prostitution as you can get as an actor.
I guess the most fun stuff was with the three of us together. Me, Jonah, and Marisa at the dinner table, that weird little first dinner that we had. We came up with some great dialogue in that scene. I liked all the scenes at their house. I did not like the scenes at my house — that depressing little apartment [my character] lived in.
OLSZEWSKI:You’ve proved equally proficient at comedy and drama. Do you have a preference?
REILLY: I prefer to be employed. That’s my preference. I don’t really consider myself a comedian. I’m often funny in movies, but that’s not really how I define myself, and I don’t think it’s how people in general define me. And I like to surprise people; I like to do things that I haven’t done before. A lot of it has to do with what can get made right now. It’s just not what I want to do, it’s what studios and other people with money are willing to pay to get made.
OLSZEWSKI:You must have reached the point in your career where you can say, “I want to do this,” and it gets greenlit.
REILLY: Not really. You have to prove yourself as being a draw at the box office. I think people appreciate my work, but they don’t read my name and think dollar signs.
OLSZEWSKI: I know people who will see whatever you’re in because they know it’s going to be good.
REILLY: Well, that’s cool. I take that really seriously, actually. People do say that to me: I trust you. So when I choose projects, I think about that. I think, well, I don’t want to do some lame thing that the person who said that to me is going to see and go, What?!? Reilly, I trusted you! This is a piece of [garbage]!
OLSZEWSKI:I read a quote that said that you like the fact that people can’t place you, that you’re kind of anonymous as a character actor. That must have changed in the past few years.
REILLY: Yes, it has. People still tend to define me as my characters, though. Definitely people know my name more, but I don’t think people really know me. And if there’s one thing I can hold on to, I hope it’s that. You never want an audience that sits down and thinks, “Oh, I know what he’s going to do.” Because then you’ve lost them.
OLSZEWSKI:When’s the next time you’re going to sing? I love your voice — and you were nominated for a Grammy!
REILLY: Yeah, that was nuts! I didn’t go to the ceremony, but they give you a medal. A big gold medallion. I can’t imagine what you get if you win.
I don’t know, I hope it’s soon. It’s not that often that movie musicals are made. I hope they start making more of them. I grew up doing musicals in Chicago as a kid, all through high school. Music’s always been a part of my life in one way or another.
OLSZEWSKI:You must have had a blast with “Walk Hard,” then.
REILLY: A lot of the big music scenes in “Walk Hard” were really cool and among my favorites. Because that’s, like, rock ‘n’ roll fantasy.
OLSZEWSKI:The great thing about the film is that it’s not a straight parody.
REILLY: To a lot of musicians, it’s almost like a documentary. I have people come up to me all the time and say, “I know you think you’ve made a comedy, but I lived that. I had a giraffe!” [laughs]
OLSZEWSKI:Are there any directors you’d like to work with whom you haven’t yet?
REILLY: I’d love to work with Terry Gilliam. I guess he finally got “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” together.
OLSZEWSKI:What role would you play?
REILLY: I don’t know. I’d do whatever — I’d serve coffee on the set! I love the guy. And I’d love to do something with the Coen brothers. Alexander Payne. Rian Johnson — I thought “Brick” was an incredible first movie. I just did a great movie with Tilda Swinton, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” that was directed by Lynne Ramsay, who did “Morvern Callar” and “Ratcatcher.” Amazing Scottish woman. She was up there on that list.
OLSZEWSKI:You and Will Ferrell make a terrific comedy duo. Any more projects with him in the works?
REILLY: We’ve been talking lately about doing something, but Will’s really busy. He’s got that website, Funny or Die, with Adam McKay, and has a lot of stuff brewing. I don’t know, we’ll see. I’d cut off my left nut to work with Will again. Don’t quote me on that. Well, you can quote me, but don’t make me do it.
OLSZEWSKI:Are there any characters you’d like to revisit?
REILLY: Will and I were recently — [laughs] — because people want us to do it, talking about a sequel to “Step Brothers.” And the only idea that I can think of, which sounds kind of corny but could be funny, is if Huff and Doback adopt a baby. It’d have to be, like, a wolf baby.
OLSZEWSKI:A wolf baby?
REILLY: You know, like a baby from the wild? We’d find one and keep it.
OLSZEWSKI:Is there a role you’ve done so far that you’d like to be remembered for?
REILLY: Geez, that makes me nervous. I’d like to be remembered as being a good father.
OLSZEWSKI:How’s the TV show going, “Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule”?
REILLY: I’ve watched the show, and I find that doctor to be a little bit demented. I don’t think I’d take too much of his advice.