While John C. Reilly isn’t exactly an A list celebrity, he’s been a talented supporting role actor for years, demonstrating talent in both comedic and dramatic roles. His supporting roles in films like “The Hours” (2002), “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (1993) and “Boogie Nights” (1997) have given his career a much-deserved push that is now landing him leads in major productions.
In his most recent comedy, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” he portrays a fictional legendary musician in the throes of rock stardom. A spoof on the drug use, sex lives and overall “rock star” life style certainly puts his comedic genius to good use.
Reilly spoke to the Daily about his experiences in acting and working with directors like Judd Apatow and P.T. Anderson.
Question: John, in your career you’ve played a wide variety of roles. What draws you to them?
John C. Reilly: In the case of this role, it was music. Usually, I go for stuff I haven’t done before, stuff that makes me nervous. I try not to repeat myself and to keep surprising people.
Q: What sets this role apart from your others?
JCR: This role is one I’ve been preparing my entire life to play, with all those parts of the movie: the music, the drama, the comedy.
Q: Was this a different acting experience, as a spoof?
JCR: Yeah, we had to think about that constantly – how honest are we being, are we just going for the joke? I tried to play it as honest as I could, but at the end of the scene I still take PCP and run out in my underwear.
Q: You’ve worked with so many great talents – what’s been your favorite project?
JCR: Probably “Boogie Nights.” It was such a crazy shoot; it was before anybody knew what Paul [the director] and I were up to. We were getting that movie done before anybody knew what they’d paid for. I was still anonymous as an actor, so we had incredible freedom and did a lot of improvisation. In general, though, my favorite projects are the ones I haven’t done yet.
Q: What effect did Chicago theater have on your career?
JCR: I owe everything to it. That’s how I learned to be an actor. Everything I know about acting came from my experiences in Chicago. Because Chicago’s less aggressive or competitive than New York or Los Angeles, you learn that the play’s the thing; it’s not about careers or getting famous. It’s a group endeavor about making the whole thing great, not about getting the spotlight on yourself.
Q: How did you prepare for a character that goes through so many changes over the course of the movie?
JCR: For this movie, the real preparation was in the recording studio. Before the movie was made, we recorded songs for six months. Each time we recorded a song, we had to make decisions about the character. We ended up doing a lot of thinking about the plot and the character through the recording process.
Q: What was your favorite thing about playing Dewey?
JCR: My favorite thing was getting to be a rock star. Even though Dewey made bad decisions, he always had this goofy optimism and wouldn’t let himself get too down. It was fun playing someone so oblivious to his own narcissistic side, or the parts of him that were clueless about the real world.
Q: What was it like to work alongside real musicians?
JCR: Eddie Vedder and I hung out and he was very cool. We knew each other a little bit from a Tenacious D show. Jack White was incredible. He had a half day to do Elvis, he came in and improvised with us and was down-to-earth and friendly; he’s a good Midwestern boy like me. I was in awe of him; he’s the greatest rock star in the world, in my opinion.
Q: How did you contribute to the creation of Dewey?
JCR: Jake [Kasdan] and Judd wrote the script, and they contacted me when they were still on ideas, and engaged me about what would be cool, and the best rock stories I’d heard … I had a lot of input on this one.
Q: Is Judd Apatow’s system of comedy (largely improvised collective comedy) taking over comedy? Is this a good thing?
JCR: I don’t think there’s a system to it. P.T. Anderson loves improv, and so does [actor] Adam McKay; a lot of people work like Judd does. I don’t think it will take over the world of comedy.
There’s all different ways to be funny, and no one director is going to close the market on the entire population of moviegoers. The comedy especially is evolving hourly. Comedy, more than other kinds of film, is open to innovative young people with new points of view.
Q: What’s your favorite scene in the movie, or the most enjoyable to shoot?
JCR: I love my PCP rampage scene, flipping cars over and clawing like a dinosaur.
I don’t know that I have a favorite; I just fell in love with this character. It was fun to play old Dewey because it was so different from myself. It’s fun to be an old fart like that.
Q: How is it different to play a lead character?
JCR: Any character I play is the main character of his life story, so I don’t think I’m a supporting character. I just try to be as honest as possible. You spend a lot more time on set when you’re a lead. I just love acting. I’m in denial about having my face on posters – I’m just trying to do my job as an actor.
Q: Did you worry about offending any of the people this movie sends up?
JCR: With comedy and parody stuff, if you start worrying about that, you’re dead in the water. You have to go as crazy as you can, and if you cross the line the audience will tell you.
Also, it was all done with a lot of love. Everyone involved with this movie loves Johnny Cash and Ray Charles and Buddy Holly and Elvis. I hope that these guys’ families would not be offended. If you showed Johnny Cash this movie, I bet he’d have a good laugh about it.
A lot of hardcore musicians have pretty dark senses of humor about the craziness they’ve been through.