CHICAGO — “Famous person!” the woman declares, her head whipping around as if on a swivel, as John C. Reilly walks by on the underpass from Michigan Avenue to Oak Street Beach.
In 2004 the Chicago native had strolled nearby Olive Park, and a few people approached him asking variations on the question, “What’s your name? I know you ...” Now that Reilly has since starred or co-starred in such high-profile comedies as “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” and “Step Brothers,” they know his name.
“John C. Reilly, how you doin’?” asks one guy after almost spinning out his bike in front of the bench where Reilly eats an Al’s Italian Beef sandwich.
“What’s happening, man?” Reilly returns before politely fielding the guy’s insider queries about where he lives (Los Angeles) and who his agent is (William Morris Endeavor).
“Yeah, I’m starting to sink in,” he says afterward.
“I’ve done, like, 50 movies or something by now. Starting to just saturate. Starting to percolate down into the bedrock.”
Not that fame and recognition have been his goals.
With his tall frame, curly hair, deep-set eyes and face that looks like it was molded from setting clay, Reilly is one of those actors who likes his movies to be about his characters, not any persona he carries with him. He’s no recluse, but he also avoids discussing his wife and kids and making his private life public.
His latest film is a character-driven comedy called “Cyrus.” Directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (“Baghead,” “The Puffy Chair”), this relatively low-budget movie stars Reilly as lonely divorced John, who finds love with warm, bright Molly (Marisa Tomei), whose clinging adult son (Jonah Hill, as the title character) still lives with her.
The movie begins with the kind of broad laughs that fans of Reilly’s pairings with Will Ferrell might expect before it settles into more of a heartfelt exploration.
“I love that the movie takes that goodwill that you get from laughter in an audience and uses it to guide them to this emotional place in the movie,” he says. “That’s what I’m always trying to do in my work: earn the sad moment by making them laugh and vice versa.”
“Sorry to bother you guys,” interrupts a young woman who, like her female companion, is in a bathing suit. “We just wanted to come by and say hi.”
“Hi, how are you?” Reilly says.
“Can we take a picture with you?” the woman says.
Observing their outfits, Reilly asks, “Where’s your camera?”
The woman holds up her phone.
“You’re hot. We love you,” she says as they leave.
“There’s a lot of myself in this character too,” Reilly resumes. “I’m happily married and have been for almost 18 years now, but I know what it’s like to feel lonely. I travel a lot by myself. I’m the same age as this character.”
Such parallels were by design, as he and his co-stars discovered that although the Duplass brothers had written a complete script, they prefer actors to improvise most of their lines on camera. “Through the improv, a lot of the most vulnerable moments of the character are just me reacting as honestly as I can to the moment,” Reilly says.
In a separate phone conversation, the Duplass brothers say it’s no coincidence that Reilly’s character’s name is John.
“When Mark and I started writing this script, we could not stop imagining John playing this stuff,” Jay Duplass says.
“We’ve loved him for years, and we were always very interested in having him play a romantic lead in a movie,” Mark Duplass says. “We hadn’t really seen that before.”
Neither had others, and after the movie’s screenings (such as at the Sundance and South by Southwest Film Festivals), some folks asked how someone who looks like Reilly could win over someone who looks like Tomei. Reilly knows someone who really doesn’t appreciate that question.
“My wife is, like, ‘Wait a minute, what am I, chopped liver? I’m a beautiful woman, and I love you. I see a lot in you.’ ‘Thanks, honey.’ That’s why we’ve been married for 18 years.”
Jay Duplass says he and Mark “welcomed the question because it happened to all of us on set. When John C. Reilly starts operating, you figure out pretty quick that the guy is charming, totally lovable and will surprise you at every turn.”
Another guy strolling the path spots the actor and announces, “I have a wonderful screenplay called ‘Black Man, White Man, Chinese Man’!”
“All right!” Reilly says.
“And I’d love to get something to you, man. How much courage does it take a black guy to walk up to you and tell you that I’ve got a screenplay?”
Reilly cheerfully offers up his agent’s information.
Do these fan interactions happen more in Chicago than LA? “It happens everywhere,” he says. “If I stay in one place long enough, I’ll have some random interactions. But it’s good. Could be worse, you know? I could be famous for doing something really bad.”
Reilly grew up in Marquette Park and attended Brother Rice High School (one passer-by yells, “St. Laurence rules!” as a taunt) and DePaul University, where he studied theater. He also pursued improvisation but not as a vehicle for mining laughs a la Second City. Rather, he says, improv was “a laboratory for exploring character and exploring how to portray relationships. It’s a really magical thing if you really tap into that.”
He had a small part in Steppenwolf’s acclaimed 1987 production of “The Grapes of Wrath” (Chicago Tribune theater critic Richard Christiansen called him “remarkably effective”) and made his film debut in Brian De Palma’s 1989 Vietnam drama “Casualties of War.”
Key roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Hard Eight” (1997), “Boogie Nights” (1997) and “Magnolia” (1999) raised his profile, and his singing, show-stopping performance as sad sack Amos Hart earned him a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for the 2002 musical “Chicago.” Then came the comedies.
“I have to say, you’re hilarious,” a man says as he approaches Reilly at the bench. “I was just watching ‘Anchorman.’”
“All right,” Reilly enthuses. “I’m not in that one, but I’m glad you liked it.”
“No, wait a second. ‘Talladega Nights.’”
“There you go.”
“No worries. I wish I was in ‘Anchorman.’”
Reilly has a theory as to why so many people approach him now.
“When you make someone laugh, it’s an intimate thing,” he says. “So when they see you, it reminds them of that moment when they laughed. I don’t know that people come up to Daniel Day-Lewis after seeing Bill the Butcher in ‘Gangs of New York’ (in which Reilly also appeared) and want to get their picture taken with him.”
Asked what his dream role would be, he names an often-rumored movie musical remake: “It would be Nathan Detroit (i.e., the Frank Sinatra role) in ‘Guys and Dolls.’”
Not “Black Man, White Man, Chinese Man”?
“God bless that guy having the nerve and just jumping at his moment,” Reilly says with a laugh. “He went from walking down the beach with his headphones on to, like, ‘Here’s my chance: the launch of ‘Black Man, White Man, Chinese Man.’”
It’s a heck of a title.
“It is,” Reilly says. “What if it’s really good? That’s why I never try to say, ‘Oh, no, no, no.’ I’m always like ‘Yeah, OK,’ because you never know. Everybody starts somehow, right?”