MINNEAPOLIS — With his world’s-biggest-leprechaun physicality and sweet watermelon slice of a grin, John C. Reilly is hardly a committee-designed film star. And that has worked to his advantage.
His regular-guy mug (Michael J. Pollard, meet Gene Hackman) and outsized acting talent have won him a raft of roles working for the industry’s best directors, from Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman to Bill Condon and Martin Scorsese (twice). He moves easily between serious roles and levity. His versatility is put to good use on his latest project, a funny/sad whatsit from indie heroes Mark and Jay Duplass.
In “Cyrus” he plays a love-starved divorced man navigating between a co-dependent mother (Marisa Tomei) and her pathologically possessive son (Jonah Hill). Catherine Keener costars as Reilly’s sympathetic ex-wife.
With 50-some films to his credit, Reilly came to the set with a lot more production experience than the Duplass brothers, who cut their teeth on ultra-low-budget do-it-yourself films. But he never felt the temptation — or the need — to offer advice.
“Even though they didn’t have a ton of experience with big-budget movies, they didn’t want a lot of experience with big-budget movies,” he said during a publicity visit to Minneapolis. “They wanted to make movies the way they made them. I think that’s what made this movie so original and genuine was that they didn’t follow the rules of moviemaking or any kind of standard procedure. In fact they ran screaming from those kind of rules, you know?”
The camera work is handheld and sometimes zooms in on a face in mid-take, home-movie style. The film was shot in chronological sequence — unusual for a feature film — so the actors would grow more comfortable together in real time. The Hollywood rule book went out the window.
Reilly doesn’t care to define the resulting movie as drama or comedy. “It’s just weird and authentic,” he said.
Touching one moment, ironic the next, it grew out of freewheeling improvisation. When the actors flail onscreen as their characters attempt to connect, they’re also feeling their way through their own unscripted dialogue, as is the Duplass method.
Reilly has ad-libbed his way through freewheeling farces like “Talladega Nights” and “Step Brothers,” but never was he urged to abandon the script and wing it throughout a realistic film.
“This is a lot of genuine emotion between people. Most of what you see in the movie is the first or second take. We’re improvising, we haven’t rehearsed, we’ve barely talked about the scenes, you know? So you just see these honest kind of exchanges between me and Jonah and Marisa and Catherine.”
Making mainstream comedies for Judd Apatow and Adam McKay has given the Chicago native the financial cushion to stretch himself in specialized movies like “Cyrus.” In fact, that has been part of his plan all along.
He lives modestly in east Los Angeles. “It’s not in a high-paparazzi neighborhood, let’s put it that way,” he said. “I don’t have some castle to pay the mortgage on in Beverly Hills. I have a very simple family life, so I keep costs low. The good money has come in. I’ve made hay while the sun is shining, so I can afford to bounce back and forth” between multiplex movies and “quirky little weird stories that marketing people don’t know what to do with.”
“It’s a miracle when a movie’s any good and it’s a double miracle when people actually show up at the theatrical run,” he said. Reilly got some of the best reviews of his career in his first starring role in Anderson’s gambling drama “Hard Eight” (now in DVD release under its original title, “Sydney”). “It had one of the shortest runs of anything I’ve ever been in, and I’m really proud of it,” he said. He also mentions “The Promotion,” starring Reilly and Seann William Scott as supermarket managers competing for a job. “That one also didn’t quite get a fair shake at the box office, but it’s a good one, it’s got a lot of heart, that movie. So does this one.”
Reilly said he doesn’t weigh the appeal of a role against the film’s commercial prospects. “I never worry about that. I just look for good stuff, you know. That’s the stuff people want to see even if it takes a little while for them to see it. You want something you can be proud of in 20 years. Not just a flavor of the month or whatever. To be honest with you, there hasn’t been a whole lot of disappointment in my life. Pretty much a year after college I was off making a movie and working with the Steppenwolf theater company in Chicago — yeah, I’ve been very blessed. Dumb luck. The life of Reilly, you know?”