John C. Reilly attends a special screening of "Cyrus" hosted by The Cinema Society and Verizon BlackBerry Bold at the Crosby Street Hotel on June 10, 2010 in New York City. (Getty Images)more pics »John C. Reilly came to notice for his dramatic turns in movies like Magnolia and Gangs of New York, while his gleeful improvisations opposite Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights and Step Brothers helped make him a bankable comedy star. His newest film, Cyrus, neatly splits the difference between the two sides of his career. Reilly plays a shell-shocked divorcee who begins a tentative romance with Marisa Tomei. Complications arise when Tomei's 21-year-old son, played with unnerving blankness by Jonah Hill, attempts to break up the two.
Directed by mumblecore vets Jay and Mark Duplass, the film uses improvised dialogue and documentary-style camera work to give a sense of reality to an elevated situation. Sometimes funny, sometimes deeply sad, Cyrus seems poised to become the indie breakout hit of the summer.
Zimbio sat down with John C. Reilly to talk about about why he's sometimes typecast as the "corpulent mass of a pedophile", the bromance between himself and Jonah Hill, and why he's just joking when he says he'll scratch anybody's eyes out if they get in the way of him playing the lead in Guys and Dolls.
John C. Reilly: Well, I've been told in the past "Oh, we see you as the perfect person to play this character, please read this script." Then I'll read the script and it's like: "The corpulent mass of the pedophile lumbers from the bed." It's like, what? Why am I the perfect person for this horrible character?
Zimbio: The man-pig shuffles into the room.
John C. Reilly: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. But in this case it was really flattering, because Mark and Jay Duplass are really great filmmakers. I had seen their films. I knew the way they liked to work, I knew they had a vision for the way that they like to tell stories, and I was really flattered that they wrote a script with me in mind. I wish I could say it happens every day, but it's a relatively rare occurrence.
Zimbio: Your character starts at a really low point -- his ex-wife stumbles in on him looking at Internet porn -- yet by the end it feels like you've given the character a lot of dignity. How'd you approach that arc?
John C. Reilly: Well, we shot in order, so I just went with it as each moment happened. He's in a really dark place, in this emotional spiral, and I just play that to the fullest. And then Marisa and I get to know each other and that relationship develops. All the characters earn the place they get to by the end of the movie, just by virtue of what they've gone through before that.
Zimbio: Had you ever shot a movie like this, in chronological order?
John C. Reilly: Not entirely. I've shot parts of movies in order, but, a lot of times, you're just hampered by the locations. Like the exterior of a place is only good for the exterior, so you gotta go somewhere else. But the directors made a real strong commitment to shooting in order, to the point where we were keeping three locations running at all times, waiting for us to come back. Which is tough to explain to producers.
Zimbio: This is the first time they've worked with anything close to this kind of budget. What was it like watching them navigate this world?
John C. Reilly: It was pretty funny, some days, because you'd see the studio begging them to put the camera on a tripod. "Please, can we do one set up that's on a tripod?" And they were like, "No! Can't do that. That's not how we're gonna make this movie."
It was really inspiring to watch, because a lot of times I thought, "You guys don't know what you're doing." And they were like, "Yeah! We don't! That's the way we like to work." It took a lot of guts, it really did. We'd shoot for an hour, and then they'd go for a walk for twenty minutes and the more veteran crew members would be looking at each other like "Where are the directors going? Is anybody going with them?" But that was really important for them. That's how they work. They go and digest what they just did and talk it over and see which way they wanna guide it next.
Zimbio: At the beginning of the movie, you sing an incredibly bad karaoke version of "Don't You Want Me Baby." But in Chicago and Walk Hard, you've actually got a pretty good voice. Was it hard singing so badly?
John C. Reilly: It was a hundred times more humiliating than it looks. Because all those people, I didn't know any of them. They were all extras. And all of them are like "Oh it's the guy from Chicago, he's got a beautiful voice, what's he going to do?" And then I'm like [off-key] "Don't you want me baby," just squawking out the song. It was like four in the morning, too. I had passed out for a second because it was getting so late, and the song is also very high. So, it was humiliating, but worth it.
And, I mean, the guy goes for it. Characters that have nothing to lose are really exciting to play, because they don't really play by the normal rules. Anyone else, when they first start singing and get these fish-eyed stares, they would just be like "Ah well, screw you guys" and walk out. But he's just gotten to a point in his life where he's like, "What the hell do I have to lose?"
Zimbio: There's another music scene, when Jonah Hill plays his own music, which is such an awkward scene because he's just staring at you the entire time. What was it like shooting that?
John C. Reilly: I'm pretty good about not breaking on camera. The only person who can kinda consistently get me is Will Ferrell, and not even that often. Usually what happens is when I start to feel like I'm gonna laugh, I get more serious. Like this weird concentration kicks in. But Jonah was having a really hard time, because at least I get to kind of smile and nod my head and be somewhat normal. Jonah had this really odd job of being this super serious, overly hyper-concentrated person while playing the music. He kept breaking over and over while we were doing that. The footage you see in the movie of him playing the music is the only footage of him that exists of him not laughing. There's even a moment where he starts to turn to the side and you start to see the grin kinda creep into his face.
Zimbio: A lot of the movie is the arc between you and Jonah Hill. What was it like working with him?
John C. Reilly: There was kind of a bromance between he and I. We worked together on Walk Hard, and we share a kind of sense of the absurd. It's a very playful friendship. We exchanged a lot of YouTube videos. That's mostly what we did at lunch, is show each other one insane YouTube video after another.
Zimbio: There's a line that's used in the trailers, where you tell Marisa Tomei, "Why are you talking to me? I'm like Shrek." Was that in script, or was that you improvising?
John C. Reilly: That was straight from my lack of self-esteem.
Zimbio: It kills.
John C. Reilly: I say it twice! [Laughs.] It's like, dude, once is bad enough. I wish I could say that I'm much more self-confident than that. I generally feel like -- I don't think I'm horrible looking, but I'm not some preening matinee idol either.
Zimbio: According to Wikipedia, you'd love to play Nathan Detroit in a remake of Guys and Dolls.
John C. Reilly: Yeah, that's one of those weird things -- I've mentioned it a lot over the years at different press things. Because I never know what to say when people are like, "What role would you most like to play?" I don't know, uh, Benjamin Franklin? What do you say?
I did a lot of musicals as a kid and Guys and Dolls was one that got away, and I think it's one of the greatest musicals ever written. I would love to play Nathan Detroit. And then I said this the other day at this round table. These people ask these complicated questions and then you give twenty-minute answers about improvisations, and then I say something like "Yeah, I'd scratch the eyes out of anyone who got in my way of playing Nathan Detroit" and all of the sudden it's everywhere. I was just joking, you know.
It is a great part, and a wonderful musical, and I think I'd make a great Nathan Detroit.
Zimbio: Right now, Wikipedia has that fact listed with a little citation needed mark next to it. Can we use this interview for that citation? Just go ahead and put this to rest.
John C. Reilly: Citation needed? [Laughs] Yeah, sure. Wikipedia is just a collection of rumors and half truths anyway.
See a trailer for Cyrus, and more John C. Reilly pictures, below:
Inset Photo Credits: 1. Fox Searchlight; 2, 3, 4. Getty Images