Everybody’s Better Half

John C. Reilly is the most dependable accomplice in Hollywood.

Photo: Michael Avedon
Photo: Michael Avedon
Photo: Michael Avedon

John C. Reilly arrives at the posh hotel restaurant in a light suit and straw fedora that make him seem almost jaunty, like a country gent. He often claims he’d like to move through the world unnoticed — the eternal paradox of actors who’ve discovered a safe space exhibiting themselves on stages and film sets but feel exposed in the real world. This is his costume for promoting movies.

Before he came, I was trying to remember when I first really noticed him, when I thought, Hold on, I love this guy. He was good from the start, credibly cretinous in his film debut as a follower of psychotic sarge Sean Penn in Brian De Palma’s grueling Vietnam drama Casualties of War (1989) and as the conflicted sidekick of another psycho (Kevin Bacon) in the Meryl Streep rafting thriller The River Wild (1994). Actors who do well as sidekicks get cast a lot — as Reilly was in the five years between those films — but rarely heralded. Paul Thomas Anderson gave him the male ingenue part in his first feature, Hard Eight (1996), but the showcase role was Philip Baker Hall’s. Reilly was delightful in Anderson’s 1997 breakthrough, Boogie Nights, but as a sidekick again, this time to Mark Wahlberg’s titanically hung porn sensation. He blended into that amazing ensemble.

It was Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) — that was the one. The ensemble was even bigger than in Boogie Nights, but the actors were split into small groups, and Reilly’s scenes as a cop checking on a coke-addled basket case played by Melora Walters were the film’s most grounded. He spoke the familiar cop lines — “You been doin’ some drugs today, Claudia?” — with an almost comically insistent vulnerability, the character’s loneliness (and affection for this jittery young woman) bleeding through.

Then Reilly did something uncharacteristic that made even more people notice him: He pursued the role of the poignantly unnoticed husband in Chicago who calls himself “Mr. Cellophane.” You wouldn’t have guessed he had musical chops, but as a teen he’d played romantic leads in musicals like Brigadoon at a Chicago girls’ high school that imported boys for its theater program. After his Oscar nomination for Chicago, you couldn’t not notice John C. Reilly. He went from a sidekick of Will Ferrell’s in the riotous Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) to a full partner in the even more riotous Step Brothers (2008). Since 2008 (I’ve left out films by Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman), there have been one … two … three … somewhere around 20 more, plus a passel of shorts for Adult Swim and Funny or Die.

Between now and December 31, Reilly will be in four films: Stan & Ollie (as Oliver Hardy); Holmes and Watson (as the doctor to Ferrell’s Holmes); the sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, Ralph Breaks the Internet (as the voice of Ralph); and the film we’re having lunch to talk about, The Sisters Brothers (opening September 21), an eerie gold-rush Western in which he plays the reasonably stable older brother, Eli Sisters, to Joaquin Phoenix’s spasmodically violent younger brother, Charlie. They’re both pretty violent, though — they’re hired killers.

Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in The Sisters Brothers. Photo: Magali Bragard/Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

One reason Reilly is promoting The Sisters Brothers hard is that he and his wife, Alison Dickey, are producers. They bought the rights to Patrick deWitt’s novel when it was still in manuscript and courted director Jacques Audiard, known for grim French dramas like A Prophet and Rust and Bone. Reilly and Dickey wanted a filmmaker who wouldn’t have nostalgia for either the period or other Western movies — someone who’d understand the corrosive effect of the gold rush and the milieu of violence and greed that left the Sisters brothers poisoned before they’d reached adulthood. They wanted a director who’d make the movie personal.

Reilly the producer had to cede a lot of power: “Jacques made it clear from the beginning, ‘The only way I know how to work is with total freedom, which includes casting, by the way.’ ” That was a gobsmacker. Reilly had optioned the book to play Eli, while Audiard saw him as someone else.

“I thought I was having a nervous breakdown,” says Reilly. “But I had to pull myself together and say, ‘This is either a test to see whether I’m really going to give him total freedom, or maybe I am better for this other part and he sees it, because Jacques sees the truth of people right away. It’s almost difficult for him to move through life, because his bullshit detector is so sensitive. He’s a very, very deep thinker.

“I already knew when I met Jacques that I was dealing with someone who was much more intelligent and intellectual than me, and that’s not a criticism of myself. It’s just an acknowledgment of reality!”

Obviously, Reilly did convince Audiard that he was right for Eli, but what if he hadn’t? It’s hard to say what he would have done, because for him the director is king. “Film is a director’s medium,” he says. “It took me a long time to realize that the way your performance is shaped is not done by you, but once I did, it was so freeing. It was like, ‘Just do your thing, man. Just dance. Just let it rip, and let it go, let it go, let it go.’ ” He likes putting himself in the hands of an Anderson or a Malick or a Scorsese or an Audiard or an Adam McKay — who told the cast of Step Brothers to throw away the script and do whatever the hell they wanted and he’d worry about it in the editing room. (McKay shot an unprecedented million and a half feet of film.)

There was another moment that tested Reilly’s hands-off commitment. He’d done a scene with Riz Ahmed (as a loopy inventor), in which Eli reveals how the brothers’ father had abused their mother until Charlie killed the old man, and how Eli now looks after Charlie to keep him from self-destructing.
Reilly prepped for it hard — the scene evoked aspects of his own past — cried all the way through it (which isn’t easy for him), and killed it, he thought. The next day, Audiard said the takes were too dark and they’d have to reshoot.

“I went to the dude, I went, ‘Why didn’t you fucking tell me it was too dark? I’m out there crying!’ But Jacques kept his cool and said we’d have to do it again, and I had to say to myself, ‘This is my job. It doesn’t fucking matter how good it was before.’ ” And then Audiard told him to do the scene without crying.

“That’s what’s in the movie,” says Reilly. “You can see Eli just about to cry but trying to hold on, like Eli would. He wouldn’t want to cry in front of this guy. If I was left to my own devices, it would have been this big sloppy emotional thing that felt really good when I did it, but was wrong.”

When you hear stuff like this, you can understand why directors liked working with Reilly right from the beginning and why Sean Penn, of all people, suggested De Palma give Reilly a lead role in Casualties of War. “I think Sean saw something that I always aspire to be,” says Reilly: “Guileless.”

The Casualties story is amazing. After graduating from the Theatre School at DePaul University, Reilly worked at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, then flew to Thailand to be a “day player” in De Palma’s war film. When a supporting actor was fired, Reilly got a bigger part. After flying home to the U.S., he learned another actor had been fired and De Palma and Penn wanted him back to play one of the leads. He’d missed the last flight of the day going west across the Pacific, so he flew, he says, “across America, across the Atlantic, over to Asia, and then down back down to Bangkok,” where he was promptly whisked to the set, given a haircut and a costume, and escorted to a rice paddy, where he had to pretend to snooze and be jarred awake.

I ask what he thinks they saw in him, and he tells me about the days in “a weird conference room” in a Thai hotel: “It’s full of guys trying to out-impress each other, because Sean sets a high bar. The two guys that got fired were doing that shit: ‘I’ll out-Method you. I’ll outdrink you after work. I’ll fucking say something insulting to you because you think you’re such a fucking hotshot actor.’ I’m like, ‘Guys, What are you doing? Are you insane? You can’t say that to that person. Aren’t we trying to put on a play?’ ”

“A play,” as in what he was doing in Chicago, where actors who pull out-Method-you shit don’t last. “You’re not going to get discovered in Chicago,” he says, “the way you might in New York or L.A., so that takes some of the pressure off. You’re part of an ensemble. You’re there to play.” In that Bangkok hotel, he says, he was ready to do anything. “I’d go nuts. I’d read not just my part but an old Vietnamese man or whoever wasn’t there. ‘Have John do it,’ they’d say.” Penn was so taken with Reilly’s gung ho spirit that he recommended Reilly for parts in We’re No Angels (1989) and State of Grace (1990). As a bonus, on Casualties Reilly met Dickey. She was Penn’s assistant.

Reilly never aspired to stardom, only to make a living. Of his lack of vanity onscreen, he says there isn’t much he can do: “I mean, when you look like I look …” He looks wonderful to me — familiarity has bred affection — but he’s often the first to point out his flaws. He made a joke about looking like Shrek in the improvisatory atmosphere of the film Cyrus, and it ended up, to his chagrin, in the movie. (He looks nothing like Shrek.) He refers to his extremely low brow. He hates seeing himself age onscreen and has stopped watching dailies. “I don’t want to know,” he says. “Tell me if you think I look weird, and let the makeup people know.”

Spotlights make him uncomfortable, as does being singled out for praise in dud movies. “If our enterprise is to create a story that works and the story didn’t work for you, then we all failed. I don’t care if you thought I was funny or whatever. Like, we failed.”

Why this lack of egocentricity?

“I really feel like I’m in the shrink’s office,” he says, “but part of it has to do with self-esteem, too. There’s a certain golden-boy-like way of being. Like Leo DiCaprio, for instance — the kid has been so gifted from such an early age, and, God love his parents, probably from a very early age he was told, ‘You can do anything, and you deserve to be the center of attention.’

“That was not my experience. I come from a family of six kids, from the South Side of Chicago. It was more like, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’ Or, ‘Go get a job. You’re not better than anybody else.’ So I’m much more comfortable working in duos.”

Duos like Laurel and Hardy, or the stepbrothers, or Eli and Charlie Sisters. Reilly generally plays the one who follows, who’s less touched by genius but makes it possible — with the purity of his attention — for the other to exist.

For The Sisters Brothers, he put himself in the company of the wild card Phoenix the way he puts himself in the hands of directors. “Joaquin and I lived together on this movie,” he says. “I would drive him, or he would drive me. Amazing driver, actually: He literally drives like a cop on his way to a crime. When we would move through towns at night, going out to dinner or drinking afterward, I always knew where he was and if he was going to make a bad decision or someone was going to fuck with him. Other than murdering people, the relationship got very close to what you see on film, and not in a tiresome kind of way, like, ‘We’re in character, man.’

“It’s thrilling to work with someone so insistent on honesty and the truth, who doesn’t care about the problems caused by stopping and asking, ‘What the fuck are we doing here?’ With Joaquin, it felt like everything was at stake all the time. I think he wants to give so much of himself that he ceases to exist. There’s a little bit of nihilism in it.”

If it’s hard to think of Reilly seeking self-obliteration in the way of performers like Phoenix or Penn or his sometime co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman, it may be because his definition of self is different from theirs. He still hears the voice from his childhood saying, “Who the fuck do you think you are?”

His answer is a variation of “I’m no one.”

“I was born to be a vessel for emotion,” he says. “I was born to experience things and have other people watch me experience them so that they can feel whatever it is I’m going through. If you really accept that about yourself, and I have, then when people ask you, ‘What are you really like?’ I can say, ‘I don’t know. I’m the cup.’ What is the cup? The cup is what’s in it, right?”

*This article appears in the September 17, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

John C. Reilly Is Everybody’s Better Half