He’s the hero of Disney’s new hit movie and plays in a bluegrass band heading for Glasgow next week. Chitra Ramaswamy meets the multi-talented John C Reilly
WHEN John C Reilly was offered the lead in Disney’s latest big-budget animation, Wreck-it Ralph, he almost said no. He’s not the kind of actor who gets off on speaking dialogue on his own in a windowless booth. He’s a man who thrives on improvisation and a good sparring partner. It’s probably why directors such as Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Brian de Palma keep coming back for more from this character actor turned fully fledged movie star.
“I would say to actors who had done animation, ‘wow, it must have been cool to work with so-and-so’ and they would say, ‘I only met them for the first time on the red carpet at the premiere’,” Reilly explains, scrunching up that famously squashy nose. “But then [Wreck-it Ralph director] Rich Moore said we didn’t have to do it like that. In fact it wouldn’t have made sense with all the great improvisers in the cast. Why would you pass up the chance to have Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch and Jack McBrayer [30 Rock] all in the same room?”
So, unusually for an animated film, Reilly improvised scenes with his fellow cast members, attended story meetings and acted out scenes so that animators could base his character on his actual movements. The result is a sparky, sweet and high- octane romp around the split-level world of video games with an animated lead who looks a bit like John C Reilly. Think of it as Mario: The Movie with all the requisite 21st-century bells and whistles: 3D, CGI and a postmodern appreciation of everything retro.
Reilly plays the titular hero, a conflicted and giant-handed baddie whose destiny – to wreck everything, basically – is causing an existential crisis. His most electric scenes are with Sarah Silverman, the controversial US comedian who voices an outsider called Vanellope von Schweetz in a Japanese anime style game called Sugar Rush. “I’ve known Sarah socially for quite a few years now and so I knew she was going be funny,” says Reilly, who in recent years has done more comedy, such as Step Brothers and Talladega Nights, making him one of the few actors around who can say they’ve worked with both Terrence Malick and Will Ferrell. “What really surprised me was how great she was in the dramatic scenes. You really have to be on your toes when you work with Sarah.”
Why does he enjoy improvisation so much? “I think when actors are allowed to improvise you end up getting a more truthful performance,” he says. “It comes from a real place. You open your consciousness. It’s like a tailor-made suit. Even though it’s made specifically for you, when you put it on there will always be some last adjustments. Improvising is basically screenwriting on your feet. Every single film I’ve done has contained an element of it.”
We meet in London, where Reilly is seated at the far end of an enormous hotel suite, looking wary. He doesn’t like doing interviews and seems more and more to be using the inescapable fact of international press as an opportunity to indulge his other great love: music. We know about his Oscar-nominated turn as Amos Hart, aka Mr Cellophane, in Chicago, and his singing cowboy in Robert Altman’s final film, A Prairie Home Companion. But there’s more. Reilly has shared a stage with Jack White (White Stripes), released two singles on his label and for the past two years has been playing guitar and singing in a bluegrass, folk and roots band. Next week he and two bandmates will embark on a short, idiosyncratic tour, playing churches in London, Dublin and Glasgow.
He is a big, solid man with hands not that much smaller than Wreck-it Ralph’s. He has a kind, malleable face, a deep line across the bridge of his nose and Jack Nicholson-lite eyebrows. Oh, and a babyish tumble of curls. It’s worth describing Reilly because no-one tends to know him by name. Before I meet him, for example, the faces of John Goodman and William H Macy mysteriously appear every time I try to picture him. He is oddly forgettable for such a good actor and – okay, I’ll say it – a man with such a good face. The thing is, people do go on a bit when it comes to describing Reilly, as tends to be the case with perfectly normal looking, even handsome character actors. Here are just some of the words that crop up: pugnacious, distinctive, homely, lumbering, meaty, spongy and “Mount Rushmore remade in cake form”.
“Wow!” he laughs. “That’s a new one.” Then he gets a bit cross, and sighs: “Yet here you are asking me about it. You’re propagating those words all over again. People can call me whatever they want as long as they keep calling me up for work. There are all shapes and sizes in the world.”
Actually, what Reilly gets called most of all is “the regular-guy” (closely followed by “this generation’s Gene Hackman”). Whether he’s playing a porn star in Boogie Nights, Jennifer Aniston’s stoner husband in The Good Girl or a destroyed father opposite Tilda Swinton in We Need To Talk About Kevin, he manages to remain the consummate everyman. “I like it when people refer to me as a salt-of-the-earth type,” he says. “I want to be the face and voice of the audience. And the way I look, the way I sound, for better or for worse is something that people can relate to. There are those people in the movies who are exceptionally good looking, otherworldly or strange. And then every once in a while someone like me or Walther Matthau sneaks through and gets to be a movie actor.”
So he likes the fact that people don’t always know who he is? “It means I’m doing my job properly,” he nods. “The less people know about you, the easier it is to preserve the blank canvas you need as an actor.” Still, there are a few things we do know. Reilly grew up in the working-class southside neighbourhood of Chicago. The fifth of six children, his father was an Irishman who ran a linen company and his mother was Lithuanian. It was not an actorly background, yet at the age of eight Reilly found his calling. “I had this friend at school who said one day that he was going over to the park to ‘do drama’. Did I want to come? Yeah! I went to this workshop and realised that these were my people. I got lucky.”
What did he feel the first time he went on stage? “The first time I went to acting class the teacher asked everyone to lie on the floor and pretend to be pieces of bacon. First the pan was cold and then, as it heated up, we had to start crackling.” Reilly starts to shudder and wriggle like, well, a piece of frying bacon. “I was like, ‘I love this!’.” He laughs, visibly relaxing as he talks about his first love. He went on to study at the Goodman School of Drama, which was “8am to 10pm for four years and lots of fencing, vocal training, and dance”. His father thought he was at business school. “He thought I was a bright kid who might one day take over the family linen business,” Reilly says. “So he wanted me to go to a school with a good business programme. It wasn’t until the end of my third year when he got to one of my report cards before I did and said, ‘where are the business classes?’ I explained that between theatre history and stage combat I didn’t really have time.” He laughs heartily. “He was sceptical, but I said, ‘Dad, I think I want to be an actor’. And then right after college when I got my first movie he was very proud of me.”
That movie was Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War, shot in Thailand (Reilly had never been on a plane or left the States) and starring Sean Penn and Michael J Fox. It’s also where he met his future wife, producer Alison Dickey, who at the time was Penn’s assistant. Apparently De Palma was so taken with the young Reilly that he kept making his part bigger until he became one of the leads. “I remember Sean Penn giving me some excellent advice,” Reilly recalls, leaning back and crossing his long legs. “I had no experience and came from a theatre background so I was throwing everything I had into each take. Eventually Sean said, ‘John, save some for the close-up’. And you know what? I still can’t quite do that. I can’t help but give it my all.”
• Wreck-it Ralph is on general release from today. John C Reilly and his band play St Andrews in the Square, Glasgow, on 12 February