The life of Reilly

Actor John C. Reilly took some time out on his recent trip to the Phil to discuss his life, his work and his Aran jumper with Catriona Gray.


 John C. Reilly has the kind of face that is instantly recognisable but hard to place. Although his name may not have the same kind of fame that his mug does, John C. Reilly is one of the hardest-working actors around. He has appeared as a background actor in well over 50 films over the last twenty years and possesses an unquenchable passion for his profession, which came across very clearly during his recent visit to Trinity during the summer, to speak at the Philosophical Society.

The 43 year-old actor is currently best known for his collaborations with Will Ferrell, first in Talladega Nights and now in Step Brothers. Reilly said, “we’re good friends, Will and I. We met about six years before we did Talladega and we’ve been working together since then. I love the guy.”

Step Brothers features Ferrell and Reilly as two forty-ish, dysfunctional men who have yet to get a job or leave home and whose lives are completely uprooted when their parents marry and they find themselves having to share a room as step brothers. Despite receiving mixed reviews from critics, there is one thing has been consistently mentioned and that’s how well Ferrell and Reilly play off each other.

The idea for the film came from a story written by Ferrell, Reilly and the screenwriter Adam McKay. Describing how they came to write the story, Reilly said that “the three of us came to that technique from three very different walks of life… it was three different approaches to the same thing.” The actor has certainly spent a lot of time working with Will Ferrell recently, but when asked if he was worried about getting typecast as a result of his recent comedy collaborations with the Anchorman star, Reilly joked that “with a face like this, it’s hard to get cast in the first place, let alone typecast.”

Reilly has just finished work on the film Cirque de Freak, where he stars as ginger haired vampire Larten Crepsley. The film, directed by Paul Weitz and also starring Salma Hayek as a bearded lady, is based on the series of children’s books of the same name by Darren Shan. The film is set in a travelling freak show filled with monstrous creatures and promises to be one of the strangest things to hit our screens next year.

 “My Dad was from the very North… but who knows if even that’s true? He was full of little mythologies”

The sheer diversity of the characters that Reilly has played over the years is fascinating. From playing a racing car pit crew member in Days of Thunder to Renée Zellweger’s husband in the musical Chicago, the actor has consistently looked for different and challenging roles. He spoke at length about the versatility that actors enjoy playing minor characters and the fact that their parts tend to be more eccentric and entertaining compared to those of the principals. He described the disappointment he experienced when playing a conventional protagonist for the first time, back in his college days, and felt that that was when he realised that he preferred playing more off-beat roles, saying that he’s “always looking for a character with some contradiction.”

Speaking of unusual roles, a little known fact about John C. Reilly is his work with Tenacious D. He appeared in an episode of their short-lived TV show as “Sasquatch” and later put in an appearance in the 2006 film Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny as the same character. Reilly played the part in a particularly impressive yeti costume and is completely unrecognisable. Luckily there are clips of it readily available on YouTube – “Sasquatch is my Papa,” featuring Jack Black riding through the clouds on Reilly’s back in a bizarre, drug-induced, father-son sasquatch bonding experience, is most certainly worth a look. If Reilly likes playing eccentric characters, then he definitely struck gold with this one.

If his performance as a yeti trying to play the drums is anything to go by, John C. Reilly is a man of many talents. He has recently made use of his singing abilities in the 2007 film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which features Reilly as fictional musician Dewey Cox in a plot that is undeniably heavily inspired by Walk the Line. Walk Hard parodies the biopic genre as it follows the life of a singer whose quest for stardom is motivated by an understandably overwhelming sense of guilt, caused by accidentally cutting his brother in half with a machete. Quite a strange base for a film billed as a comedy, but it does give Reilly ample occasion to showcase his singing abilities.

Although Walk Hard was the film which drew the most attention to Reilly’s impressive voice, it’s not the first time the actor has turned musician. He sung on the 2006 compilation ent

itled Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys, which was masterminded by Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp and featured the likes of Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker and Bono. Reilly also performed a cabaret number in Chicago, when he played Roxy Hart’s (Renée Zellweger) neglected husband, Amos. Discussing the topic, Reilly admitted to having thought about pursuing his musical career further and releasing an album, since music has always been a passion of his.

Despite his interest in music, what comes across very strongly is Reilly’s need to act. He seemed a little nervous as he introduced himself to the assembled audience at the Phil and he commented “the reason I find it so difficult to speak as myself and give speeches is that I don’t really know who I am.” He then went on to describe how he takes on a lot of acting work, as he “never feels so lost” in terms of his own identity as when he’s not working. Acting seems to be more than just a job for Reilly, it seems a vital element to his character.

Despite his willingness to take on apparently any role, there are limits to what Reilly will stand for. In 2005, he famously gave up his role in the film Manderlay in protest after a donkey was killed on set for dramatic purposes. Although the scene was later deleted from the film, Reilly still refuses to comment on the episode.

When asked about the notoriously tough nature of his profession and whether he initially encountered any opposition from his family, Reilly replied, “My dad wanted me to do something more practical. He thought that I was taking business at DePaul University: my mother didn’t tell him that I was really at the conservatory of acting.”

Growing up in Chicago, with its strong theatrical and musical tradition, meant that from an early age, Reilly was determined to act: “I grew up in a family of six kids, so by the time I reached 18 I was really desperate to get out of the house. My father told me that he’d provide me with an education and healthcare and that the rest was up to me.”

 “With a face like this, it’s hard to get cast in the first place, let alone typecast”

Fortunately Reilly’s dedication and incredible work ethic paid off. Not only is he slowly winning more and more recognition as an actor but he has also been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his part in Chicago and twice for a Golden Globe Award.

Reilly also has connections with Ireland; his father was Irish and emigrated to Chicago, where he established a linen supply company. In a novel tribute to his heritage, the actor arrived at Trinity wearing a new Aran sweater, despite the August sunshine, explaining that he’d bought it as a replacement for one that his father had brought over from Ireland to the States and had later given to him. When asked if he was planning to try to find his roots whilst he was here, Reilly seemed a little sketchy about the details, explaining that “my dad was from the very North… but who knows if even that’s true? He was full of little mythologies.”

Although the precise location of his Irish heritage still eludes him, Reilly nevertheless expressed enthusiasm at returning to the land of his forefathers. Trinity, in particular, seemed to strike him, and he mentioned that it was the main place that he wanted to see on his Dublin sightseeing list (although perhaps he was just being tactful). He also seemed flattered at receiving the University Philosophical Society’s Honorary Patron’s Medal and joked that the Phil was the only thing that could conceivably link Bram Stoker, Helen Mirren, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and himself.

Since the actor is in the middle of a gruelling work schedule, he hadn’t had much time to look around the rest of Dublin. According to Reilly, the best way to discover a place is to work there and he seemed eager to spend some more time in Ireland. Reilly visited the Gate Theatre, where he hopes to work sometime soon. He also met with the director John Carney, who directed the Irish films Once and On The Edge and said that he would be interested in working with him in the future.

When asked to give some advice to budding young actors, Reilly said “if you want to be an actor, choose to go somewhere where you can work as an actor, not work as a waiter and call yourself an actor. New York and LA are incredibly competitive places for actors, so I would say find somewhere like Chicago, where there’s 250 theatres and you can always find acting work. You may not be earning a lot of money, but at least you’re always working.”

Cirque du Freak is in post-production and will be released in 2009.