Interview: John C. Reilly Talks Honesty, Imperfection and ‘Terri’

By  · Published on June 28th, 2011

Don’t we all know John C. Reilly by now? Does he still need a long introduction? Reilly seems to pride himself on being one of the “that guys,” but in the film community, he couldn’t be further from simply being a face you vaguely recall from one of his many films; if you’re reading this, you probably know him. So what’s the point of listing off Magnolia, Gangs of New York, Boogie Nights, The Good Girl, Casualties of War, The Year of the Dog, Cyrus, Sydney, and Step Brothers?

There is no reason, even though I just did.

I talked to Reilly about a year ago for Cyrus, and I found him to be both thoughtful and subtlety funny. He’d take time with his responses and put things in a new perspective, like the possible laziness digital cameras provide a crew. And as for the funny part, he’d do little things that some could easily misunderstand as seriousness, like moving blinds to look intensely out a window as if he’s stuck in a paranoia thriller or discussing how the hotel smelled like a mixture of puke and cheese (it did…)

This time around, he expressed the same thoughtfulness from that interview we did last year. It was a pleasant chat about the honesty he strives for with his characters, bringing yourself to material, and the intense specificity of Roman Polanski.

Was [director] Azazel Jacobs’ sensitivity to the story and how he treated Terri something that appealed to you?

Yeah, I think that’s kind of the point of the movie; he’s a bit of an odd kid, so it’s easy for people to make fun of [him]. I’m just not into that type of mean, where the joke is on some character. What appealed to me was the writing and the director, Azazel Jacobs; he did a great job on Momma’s Man. I like the fact that the character I play is this very flawed mentor. He starts off very confident, formal, and as this voice of authority, but then you realize he has troubles inside of him halfway through the movie. I thought that was pretty cool.

Do you have to put a lot of trust into a director to not make fun of the characters?

Yeah. I think if you meet Azazel, it’s pretty clear right away that he’s passionate and directs the kinds of movies he wants to make.

I actually talked to Azazel yesterday, and he was very laid-back. Is he the type of director that gives you a lot of space?

He gave me a lot of space. I think, in terms of a more traditional sense, he focused on the younger kids. For some of them this was their first film, so they needed a little more shepherding through the process. Azazel really trusted me and let me go for it. We had discussions about what the character’s point of view was, but in terms of finding moments within a scene, he gave me a lot of leeway.

As you mentioned, Mr. Fitzgerald is a flawed guy, but I’d say he comes off well-intentioned. Was having that type of goodness to him important for you?

Like I said, he’s a flawed mentor and a little bit of a loose cannon. You think he’s the guy that’s going to have all the answers. I think it’s a really beautiful moment where he says to Terri that he messed up and that he’s probably going to mess up again, because that’s just the way things are; you make mistakes. A few people have pointed out to me that they’re really surprised by that reaction in the film. You think he’s going to give some excuse or some valid reason why he did what he did, but the fact is, he respects the kid enough to tell him the truth. I love how he says the wrong things just as much as he says the right things [Laughs].

[Laughs] Is that a type of challenge you like, finding humility in characters that may not be the greatest people?

Well, I don’t know. I always try to play people as real as I can; anyone you meet is going to have flaws and shortcomings. To me, I don’t play characters black and white. I try to find as many shades of gray or flaws. That’s just what I think life is like.

Even when it comes to the characters like in Step Brothers, who are kind of terrible people, do you still try to portray them in some type of gray area?

I don’t think they’re terrible people; I just think that they’re spoiled and ignorant. They do stupid things, which I’m sure they’ll regret. A lot of people do misguided things because they mean well.

Fair point. There’s a very honest monologue, as you mentioned, you give. Was that type of realism established in the script?

Yeah, that’s the moment where I had to tell the truth to the kid, and I think that’s the moment that drew me in. My wife was friends with Azazel before the film and she was the one that sent me the script. Despite that, it was a script I was ready to pass on because I didn’t feel a connection to the material, but I did [end up feeling a connection]. I think the reason was because Patrick Dewitt, the writer, is very insightful about the way people are.

His script really is about outsiders and the rejects. Did you connect to it on that level at all?

Yeah, definitely. I feel like a lot of people think they don’t fit in, as if there’s this mythical group of cool people that fit in. That’s the framework of society. I think a vast majority of people walk around feeling like they don’t fit in, even if they seem to be one of the cool people. You know, that was probably a part of my experience of growing up. I was an actor at a young age, and where I grew up, that was somewhat of an odd thing to be interested in. Luckily, when you’re in theater, it’s not like you’re a loner. There’s always a group of people there that are weird like you.

I felt like an outsider and a misfit, but I had my own little group of outsiders and misfits that kept me company. If you ever end up being an actor, it’s a pretty fun group to hang out with. Those are the guys that are always getting into the most trouble [Laughs]. Whenever we were having a party for some musical or play, there was always the trumpet player bringing the peppermint schnapps who hid it outside in the bushes.

That sounds like a good party [Laughs]. One thing you said while promoting Cyrus I found interesting was that, “I’m not going to bring the material to me, I’m going to bring myself to it.” Is that out of respect to the writers, or to fit the director’s vision?

Actors have to adapt themselves to the situation, and not force it into a direction to fit you perfectly the way that you are. That’s just how I am, too. I don’t really have a lot of self-awareness for what I’m actually like from an objective point of view, so I don’t know. I see acting as fitting the challenge and illuminating what you were given, as opposed to trying to make something fit your own personality.

So you respect the belief that film is a director’s medium first and foremost?

Absolutely. When all the big decisions are being made, all the actors are long gone. When a director is editing and choosing the footage, he or she is the one in charge.

You’ve worked in a lot of different directing environments, like with Scorsese being very detailed to Altman giving you a lot of freedom. Is there a type of style that you find more comfortable to work in?

Well, I like feedback; on a certain amount of films, it’s like a give and take. You need enough freedom to actually get inspired and to come up with something to surprise the director with, but you also need enough direction for that. Scorsese actually gives you a lot freedom, in terms of how you do the acting. He’s one of those guys that’s really fascinated by actors; he seems mystified by how we do something. I said “bringing yourself to the material,” because each director is different. It’s like one person to the next, you know? People are just different. Each situation you get on a film requires you to really see what’s going to work best. You can’t do something the way that you saw somebody do it before, because everyone’s different.

How do you work in a director’s environment that maybe isn’t the easiest or the most open to get inspired?

Well, you use it. You got a job to do, so you can’t let yourself be distracted if someone wants to work in a way that’s different than what you’re comfortable with. I just made a film with Roman Polanski, and he’s very specific, especially about blocking. He gives you a lot of freedom during rehearsal, but once you start shooting he’s like, “No, no. You have to stand here. If you move two-inches over to the right, then the shot is no good, so stop. Don’t miss your mark.”

When I was making that movie, there was a lot of pressure, in terms of the precision of the blocking. At first, I was like, “Oh my God, you’re suffocating me. You’re not giving me freedom to move around a bit,” but you still have to do it, so you force yourself to do it. You find your freedom within that. There’s something to be said for someone really knowing what they want, and that gives you the confidence that you’re in good hands.

Terri opens in theaters on July 1st.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.