SAN FRANCISCO—Dozens of films. Oscar and Tony nominations. A reputation as one of the finest supporting actors in the business.
All of it led 42-year-old John C. Reilly to “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” a mock biopic in which he plays Dewey—tall drink of water, hard walker, bigamist and devourer of every illicit substance that can be bought or bartered for.
The wacky-comedy part might be recent (“Walk Hard” producer and co-writer Judd Apatow also produced “Talladega Nights,” in which Reilly played Will Ferrell’s fellow NASCAR driver and frenemy, Cal Naughton Jr.), but the musical part is not. Reilly has been singing for years, in the films “Chicago” and “A Prairie Home Companion” and, more casually, in rock cover bands.
To promote “Walk Hard,” which opens Friday, Reilly embarked on a series of gigs during which he performed songs from the film, as his alter ego, with a full band. During an interview before his concert at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, Reilly (who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, producer Alison Dickey, and their two children) discussed his ever-shifting career.
What’s it like doing the concerts?
It’s a lot of pressure to pull off any musical performance. You have to go the extra mile, and we do 15 songs every show. But it’s been incredibly energizing and fun, too. I love to play music. This whole thing, from when we recorded the music (for “Walk Hard”) until now, it’s like a rock `n’ roll fantasy come true.
Do you think Dewey Cox and the Hard Walkers could attain a Spinal Tap-style longevity, and you might still be playing years from now?
We’ll see. People have been responding really strongly to the shows. I’m pretty busy being an actor. But if there was a real groundswell of support for another Dewey Cox tour, I suppose you could talk him into it (laughs).
Musical biopics always have seemed ripe for parody. But did you have any misgivings about spoofing things that happened to real people?
That’s one of the things that people have been bringing up: “Don’t you feel bad about doing that to the memories of Elvis or Ray Charles or Johnny Cash?” ... And the truth is, we didn’t set out to make fun of the memories of anybody. We didn’t even set out to make fun of specific movies.
What we set out to make fun of was the mythmaking process of musicians and how you take these human beings and through the alchemy of music, performance, fan expectations and the media treatment of these people, you create these larger-than-life, superhuman, mythic figures. ... I think if you went behind the scenes with any of these (movie subjects), you’d see a much more well-rounded human portrait.
We also wanted to sort of play around with this idea that biopics cram one person’s life into 90 minutes. The whole thing is a little ridiculous. Every time someone walks through a door, it has to be something momentous, because you only have so much time to get through their whole life. ... We didn’t set out to offend anyone, and at the same time, we set out to offend everyone.
Because that was the cool thing about doing this—we got to make a biopic. It’s really fun to make biopics. I did one, “The Aviator,” and it’s really fun. You get amazing costumes, and it’s almost like going into a time machine ... with beautiful photography and exacting period detail. So, what was cool about this is (“Walk Hard”) got all that. We really did. They spent a lot of money on this movie to make it look really beautiful and getting all the details of the time periods correct.
But it was almost like “Invasion of the Actor Snatchers” (laughs). Almost like we descended on a movie like “Walk the Line” and replaced all the actors with funny people but kept the production design the same.
When did you become such a comedy guy?
It’s not like I made a deliberate choice. An actor’s life is fielding opportunities that other people are generating, for the most part. This is just what came my way the past ... few years. ... There are not that many people who can do both (drama and comedy), which is what this movie really requires.
There are some very serious dramatic scenes that turn into harebrained gags by the end. But in order for (the audience) to really feel the character, you have to have a real actor in there.
There’s that, and the fact that audiences want to see comedies right now. They are very popular with the studios. They make a lot of money and don’t cost that much money to make. (But) ultimately for me, I started to do these movies because people would not see it coming. ... As soon as people think they know what you can do, my instinct is to subvert that and do something they really don’t expect.
What’s it like to be carrying a big studio movie for the first time?
It’s kind of surreal to be the guy on the poster (which shows Reilly shirtless, in a Jim Morrison pose). ... In Los Angeles, every couple of blocks, it’s like, “Ah! there I am again!” Sometimes eight stories tall. I never thought I would see my nipples enlarged to quite that extent (laughs).
I kind of got used to being the center of this movie (during filming). I am in every shot of every scene—I think I had one day off during the entire shooting schedule. ... I am just thrilled the studio is supporting it the way they are, and I just hope people show up. Because I may not get another chance if they don’t.
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