In his recent movies, Chicago screenwriter Steve Conrad implies that it’s okay to have dreams, but it’s even better to give up on them. In 2005’s The Weather Man, Nicolas Cage plays an angst-ridden Chicago weatherman who hopes for a better career, but sees his life falling apart as he tries to get there. And 2006’s The Pursuit Of Happyness finds Will Smith in a true story of a San Francisco salesman who pulls himself up by the bootstraps against impossible odds. Conrad’s upcoming directorial debut, the comedy The Promotion, is set in an even more vicious and blue-collar backdrop: a Chicago-area grocery store that’s about to open another location elsewhere in the city. John C. Reilly (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby) and Seann William Scott (American Pie, Mr. Woodcock) star as competing mid-level employees aspiring for the coveted manager title at the new store. Before the movie’s release last week, The A.V. Club spoke to Scott and Conrad about being in films that suck and achieving peace and happiness in the land of little champions.

A.V. Club: Seann, how surprised do you think people will be by your subdued performance in The Promotion?
I don’t know. A lot of people, it’s going to take something really extraordinary, you know, because there’s a lot of Seann Scott haters out there. Most of the comedies I’ve done—I’m sure there are a lot of American Pie haters. And then Mr. Woodcock and The Dukes Of Hazzard aren’t the best movies on the planet. So I haven’t really done a lot of really cool films.
AVC: Steve, how much research on grocery stores went into this movie?
I didn’t really do any.
AVC: You didn’t even Google it?
I don’t think I did. I just think that movies are really fake; they should be fake. I don’t think my way is any better than anybody else’s way, but I know they’re not real. I like to lean into the make-believe aspect of movies. That’s why they’re better than real life.

The challenges should be familiar. They should have some relationship to the feelings—like, if this movie’s about being demoralized at work, it should feel familiar to people, whether you’re a roofer or a lifeguard. But there’s a million different ways to be demoralized, especially at work.

One of the things I noticed about the world was—it’s funny, in the movie business, you meet a kind of guy who has a lot of money, and you realize these people aren’t any smarter than you might be, or any more decent than you might be. It’s just this weird fate of the world that it broke one way for someone. I think squaring up success to equal money is silly, because it’s so undeserved. And I started looking at work a different way. I thought, “Well, it can’t be the only thing that can provide peace of mind. There must be another way to be contented.”

I think fate is massive, and it’s never really had its place among forces we respect as having control over us. I think the other aspect of being an American is that we’re in such a race. You wake up and you realize you’re in the middle of a race, and some people are running right by you. It’s not my place to say whether that’s good or bad, but I don’t take for granted that good intentions and hard work will allow someone to come by peace and happiness. I think there’s some other weird function to get that, and it has to be personal. But you’re also born aiming so high—boys want to play in the major leagues, girls want to be princesses. We’re cultivating little champions. It’s like the land of little champions.

AVC: How much of your opinion on success stems from being based in Chicago, and immersed in the Midwestern work ethic?
It’s really important to me. I was unemployed here with a child and couldn’t get a job. And I went to Northwestern, which is a decent school. And still I couldn’t route out a good way to make a living. Not even a great way.
AVC: Did either of you ever work in a grocery store?
I worked at Home Depot—but I didn’t really work there. I didn’t do anything. Any of the jobs I had before I became an actor, I did just [so] I could get a paycheck. I didn’t do anything [at Home Depot]. I just walked around and made myself look busy. I don’t think I helped one person.
AVC: Was it odd, then, playing a more responsible role in The Promotion?
A little bit. Honestly, my main goal was just not to screw up takes and laugh. I’ve always played the guys that end up having the wisecracks. The American Pie movies were fun, because the character was such a nut that I was just trying to rewrite stuff and come up with things to make the other actors crack up. In this movie, I play this very straight, boring, normal guy.
AVC: Steve, a lot of your movies have those kind of Everyman, down-on-their-luck protagonists. What attracts you to that?
The people around whom I’ve lived most of my life, they’re similar. They have these expectations of life that aren’t exaggerated, they could be accomplished, they could get what they want. But they could not, too. It’s not to be taken for granted. Even getting by, and being satisfied, barely, is hard. It’s so hard.
AVC: You said you have an appreciation for people with impossible jobs.
That’s part of it, but I also have this kind of fascination with Don Quixote, kind of like wanting something you’re not going to get. I like that a lot.