John C. Reilly's career has been long, distinguished, and—until recently, at least—relatively laugh-free. Since he debuted in Brian De Palma's Casualties Of War in 1989, Reilly has made superb dramatic supporting roles his stock in trade, from Magnolia to his Oscar-nominated turn in Chicago and other big performances in The Aviator, Boogie Nights, and more. All the seriousness befits the stage-trained actor, who came up in the bustling theater scene of his native Chicago. But his hometown also has a reputation for comedy, something few associated with Reilly until 2006's Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby. Starring opposite Will Ferrell, Reilly showed he could not only keep up with a comedic powerhouse, but also excel in the improvisation-heavy environment that was created on Chicago stages. It took the public by surprise, but not people who knew Reilly; this is, after all, the man who played Sasquatch in a Tenacious D short (or now as Dr. Steve Brule on Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job).
In the new biopic spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Reilly not only gets to add to his comedy repertoire, but also be a leading man for the second time in his career. (The first was in Gregory Jacobs' 2004 film, Criminal.) Walk Hard, directed by Judd Apatow associate Jake Kasdan and co-written by Apatow, looks familiar with Walk The Line and Ray in the recent zeitgeist. Although it recalls the Zucker brothers spoofs of old, Walk Hard doesn't follow their gag-a-second formula, or the empty pop-culture references of the Epic Movie variety. As an Apatow project, it has plenty of real heart and pathos, and Reilly once again invests everything he's got in his performance. To wit, during a small concert tour as Dewey Cox, Reilly spoke to The A.V. Club along with Kasdan about his increasing fame, Walk Hard's relentless demands, and building candy houses in the sun.
The A.V. Club: Judd Apatow has joked that this film ends his winning streak.
Jake Kasdan: He says that about all of them. That's what I always say to him: "You think it's easy carrying your thing around on my back all the time?" [Laughs.] I'm sick of hearing about it, Mr. "Smartest Guy In Hollywood." Did you see that thing in Entertainment Weekly, [where] he was named "the Smartest Guy in Hollywood"? So that's been our running thing all week.
Kasdan discusses the role of Apatow in Walk Hard.
AVC: He's never going to live that down.
JK: That's what he's always said: It's just ramping up the backlash.
John C. Reilly: Well, my death has been predicted many times.
AVC: How so?
JCR: Actually, the opposite is true. From the first time I did a movie, people have said, "Oh, it's all going to change now." And it would change, but very incrementally. I think I prefer that to some big explosion of fame all of the sudden. This whole celebrity racket, it's not really my bag. I don't really do that stuff, and I am not looking to get famous, myself. I would love it if my characters get famous, my work was well known and appreciated. But I'm an actor, not a spokesmodel or a celebrity or whatever that is. I don't know how to be that.
AVC: Well, you've said you're glad you can generally go to the grocery store with your wife and kids.
JCR: Yeah. But I am in this strange little pocket of time right now where I'm actually famous because of the billboard. The movie hasn't come out yet, so it's not like people are recognizing the movie or the character. They just say, "Hey, it's that guy. I know you because I saw your face on the billboard." It's a really strange fame. It's really odd right now. We're really proud of the movie, because we think it's a pretty smart take on how to do a comedy version of a musical biopic. In many scenes, I've done the best acting I've ever done, emotionally and stuff. I'm crying—they're very real scenes.
AVC: Yeah, when Jenna Fischer confronts you about your drug use, your eyes are welling up.
JCR: Then I pop PCP in my mouth at the end, and end up in a sumo diaper, running through the streets like the Incredible Hulk. That is the perfect example of why this movie took everything I have. I had to really play those dramatic scenes as real as I could, because you don't want people to just dismiss it like it's only a spoof, and none of it means anything.
AVC: Like Date Movie?
JCR: Yeah. We didn't set out to do that at all. We set out to make a real biopic, and make it as funny and as irreverent as possible. So to go from something emotional, like that scene, to crazy, over-the-top physical comedy right after it, and follow it up with a scene in Yiddish, where I become emotionally worked up while speaking Yiddish to Harold Ramis… It's just insane what I had to do for this movie, and every single day was like that, whether it was sleeping with 20 random women coming in in a line, or having some guy's dick right next to my face while I am talking to him, or putting on bondage gear and having some girl ride me like a horse, or that diaper scene, or the music-performance scenes. Stepping out into the Shrine Auditorium in front of 2,000 people… you're like, "Man, I hope I'm ready to do this." Between the comedy stuff and the dramatic stuff and the music, it challenged every avenue that I've ever attempted to do anything.
JK: It's the world's most complicated and stupid joke. We could not have made it harder for ourselves in terms of telling a stupid joke—in terms of the set-up and the preparation, the amount of groundwork that needed to be laid, starting with having to write the guy's entire biography and then generate his entire oeuvre with John actually singing. [Laughs.]
AVC: Which was tougher, writing the music or the filming?
JCR: The music was not as tough as the filming, just because we had more time. It took six months to make the music; we recorded 40 songs.
AVC: You had a stable of songwriters doing the music, but you had co-writing credits on a lot of the songs. How did that work?
JCR: Well, some things I would pitch as an idea and a title, and so did Jake and Judd. They had things written in the script already that songwriters were working off of. But yeah, sometimes I would pitch an idea, and then the guys would come in with what they wrote, and I'd be like, "Well, that's not exactly what I meant. I meant like this, or this line should be this," and we'd get into a collaborative thing, and then we'd end up writing the song together. A couple times, I had a whole musical idea of what I wanted it to sound like, and I wrote something that way, and then the guys helped me fill it out with lyrics. But in almost every case, we altered the songs as they came in because Jake Kasdan was there in every recording session with me over those six months with [music supervisor] Mike Andrews too. Between the three of us and the musicians and songwriters, we were kind of making decisions about the character as it went along. So it was just necessary that we all collaborate; we couldn't have any songwriters being precious about their song, like, "That's it, don't change it," because we had to find the sense of humor for the movie. If something wasn't exactly funny, we had to add some funny bits in there. As we went along, Jake and I, we discovered who the character was and what the movie was really gonna be. They had a script of course by that point, but a script is one thing, and how you're gonna actually bring that to life is another. So every time we changed a lyric or decided what my voice would sound like in a given song, we're making decisions about the character and what his point of view was in a given time period. So it's almost like meditating about the character for months and months before we did the movie, which helped a lot given how fast we were moving once we started shooting.
AVC: Was the fast shooting just being on a tight schedule, or was it more defined by the way the story progressed?
JCR: It was both. There were many, many scenes in the movie. Like some movies, they're the same amount of time, but there's many fewer scenes. You get into a location, and a five-page scene happens or whatever. We have very few long scenes in the movie. It's like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom—just like a biopic. You're just whipping through the ages, so as a result you have to move really fast as a production to keep hitting all these different things. And also, yeah, we had money, but not the kind of money you need to really pull off a movie like this with all the time periods. [Laughs.] Even a movie like Walk The Line cost twice as much as Walk Hard, and their scope is much narrower, in terms of the time that they hit. We hit like 60 years' worth of material, so we had to hustle when we were making it. It was 50 days or something.
JK: I always said I wanted it to feel like somebody hijacked an actual biopic and replaced something in every frame with something ridiculous. So the filmmaking part of it—like what does the set look like, what they're dressed like, what their hair and makeup—we were trying to make it as accurate as possible to that genre of these kind of well-made Oscar movies that we're sort of making fun of.
AVC: There are a lot of little bits in the trailers that aren't actually in the film. Was a lot left out of the final cut?
JK: There's very little in this movie that needs to be there for the story. [Laughs.] There's some, but there's not a ton. We're always trying to over-cover ourselves, and we did end up shooting considerably more movie than we could fit in the movie. A lot of it will end up being in the extended cut.
JCR: Here's the thing: Both the music and the movie, when we're shooting, it was the wide-net theory. Because we didn't need 40 songs for the movie. But once we get into an era, we were like, "Aww, wouldn't it be cool to have a Buddy Holly song, and wouldn't it be cool to have like an Everly-type song, or wouldn't it be cool to have this and that." Then we get into the '60s and realize like, "Oh man, well, we could do this issue too and this issue and all these different protest kind of songs," and then if it made us laugh hard enough, we would just find a place for it in the movie. The same thing when we were shooting it; we indulged ourselves as much as we could within the schedule. We had an idea of how the arc of the story was going to work, but a lot of comedy is seeing whether the audience wants to come with you. This movie is such an original take on it, it's almost like a new kind of comedy where it's not just a straight spoof, and it's not like an actual biopic, but it does try to do both. It's a weird hybrid.
JK: I always thought we were trying to make it like it's a spoof movie that, by the end of it because of the strength of his performance, you've ultimately invested in the guy enough to at least power you to the end of the movie. It doesn't have to change your life, but in the moment sitting there, there's something kind of genuine about what he's doing. Even within this insane character, on some level you're invested enough to care when things get better for him at the end.
AVC: Was there a lot of room in the script for improvisation?
JCR: Yeah, a lot of stuff with the band especially. We deliberately found actors who could improvise for those parts because they're a little bit underwritten as they were in the script, and so we got like Chris Parnell and Tim Meadows and Matt Besser, like three of the best improvisers out there… The nature of a biopic is you've gotta keep the guy's life moving. If you're going to fit his entire life into the movie, every single thing that happens has to be an evolution of his experience, so we couldn't hang out too long in any given period. But we did improvise a lot within scenes. Whatever the jokes were or the gags were or the general area we're in, whatever the tone of the argument was, we'd do the scripted way a few times. Similar to what I do with Adam McKay and Will Ferrell: Do the scripted thing two or three times, and then once you feel like it's not surprising you anymore, you just try to surprise each other again. Some of my favorite lines in the movie were just one-offs. I was trying to make Kristen Wiig laugh. She's like, "What about my dreams?" and I say, "I can't build you a candy house, Edith. It will not work—it will melt in the sun!" I only said that one time, and I just said it to try to make her laugh. When she's complaining that I'm leaving on tour, I say, "I'll get you a talking crow that I can teach it phrases that I would say." Again, that wasn't in the script, it was just me trying to make Kristen laugh, and vice versa.
Reilly talks about working with Jack White as Elvis, including their improvised "Tupelo Pidgin."
AVC: Speaking of Talladega Nights, how did the offers you received change after that?
JCR: I'm really picky, so I'm only ever looking at a pretty limited amount of things at once. I suppose people with comedies became more aggressive, but I already worked with the best people, in my opinion, so I wasn't interested in doing every kind of comedy that was being offered from the studios. But I worked with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay and Judd Apatow. To me, there's very few other people that I would want to do a comedy with. So I guess things changed, but it didn't seem that different to me—a lot more teenage boys going, "Shake and bake! Shake and bake!" Which I love, you know? I feel like a teenager myself, so I appreciate it when the kids think you're all right.
AVC: But you've done few lead roles, other than Criminal.
JCR: I always think of my characters as the leading characters in their life story, you know? Whether it's that way in the movie, I don't know. I think all good movies are ensemble movies. It's definitely the first time I'm the only guy on the poster—and that's, like I said, an odd experience in itself.
AVC: The press has definitely picked up on the unlikely-leading-man angle, as a lot of stories talk about your "mug"—"He doesn't look like a move star." Does that get annoying after a while?
JCR: Not really. I can appreciate that it's unlikely that someone who looks like I do has gotten the kind of opportunities that I have. I know the way the world works, and the kind of people who are asked to do this job and what they look like. But it doesn't matter to me. I don't care what people say about my appearance as long as I get to keep working. It hasn't held me back so far. If anything, I think if you're too easily pegged with your looks, it holds you back.
AVC: It seems like that's definitely steered you into the character-actor domain. Now that you're doing more comedy, do you feel like you're escaping the character-actor tag?
JCR: I wouldn't want to escape it. I'm really proud of the supporting parts that I've played over the years. It's not something to escape from, I don't think. Most leading-man-type actors that I know personally really appreciate the work that I do, and they want to do work like that. They're almost like, "Oh man, I wish I was given the chance to be those more interesting characters, instead of just the vanilla ingredient in a bigger thing."
AVC: It seems like some people treat the word "character actor" in a pejorative sense.
JCR: I try not to think that it's a way for people to put you in a box or put you down, but ultimately, I don't care. Actors know the truth about that. Anyone who's good is a character actor, no matter the size of the part they're playing. Anyone who's really good knows how to play a character.
AVC: You said around the time of the post-Chicago Oscars that you'd gotten a little sick of doing the cuddly, loveable type.
JCR: I guess so. I just get sick of doing whatever I've done already. You have to be careful as an actor not to let people make you repeat yourself. I've been very slippery so far in that way. [Laughs.] Keeping people from thinking they know what I can or am going to do. I think that's part of the long-range plan, even if it seems like an easier thing to keep doing a certain thing—I want to keep surprising people. Otherwise, they don't want to see you anymore. They know what you're gonna do, you know? That's good for a couple years, and then they're like, "Eh." They wanna dismiss you if they know what you're gonna do.
AVC: Are there any roles that you passed on that you wished you hadn't?
JCR: "Regrets? I've had a few. But then again, too few to mention." Nah. You know, the truth is, the only time I feel bad about not having done something is when someone plays the part who I don't respect, or I don't feel like they nailed it. But in most cases, if someone specifically seeks me out, they're not gonna go from me to someone who's not in the same realm as I am or whatever. I can honestly say, if I pass on something and someone like Phil Hoffman takes the part, I feel really happy that someone good is gonna do that, that that piece is being served. Whatever the reasons that I turn things down, I'm always happy when there's a good result, and I can enjoy it as a movie, you know? I don't feel like, "Oh man, that was really good. I should have done it." You have to make the decisions you have to make, whether it has to do with your family or repeating a character or whatever it is.