John C. Reilly talks Creepiness, Awkwardness, and ‘Cyrus’

By  · Published on June 24th, 2010

The one thing many will be surprised about when it comes to Cyrus: the tone. It’s not the absurd comedy that most are probably expecting. It’s a genuinely sweet, awkward, and yes, a pretty damn funny film as well. It first debuted at Sundance and since then it’s been receiving very positive reviews, deservedly so.

To no surprise, John C. Reilly is one of the reasons why it works so incredibly well. Reilly has always been an actor known for his diverse roles and here he continues that trend. We’ve seen Reilly do comedy before, but here it’s a little less broad and the humor we get here is a little more grounded in real life… in other words, it mostly revolves around him reacting to moments of awkwardness.

I had the chance to ask Reilly about the humor to the Duplass brothers shooting style recently in a roundtable interview. Thankfully, Reilly gave thoughtful answers on his acting process and the film itself.

To start off, could you talk a bit about the Duplass brother’s shooting style? It’s a bit different than most directors especially when it comes to how their films aren’t very script based.

Well, they wrote a good script and then they encouraged us not to use it. The script is there as a blueprint for the story. In terms of how each scene was executed from what we said and to how we related to each other, that was pretty much all improvised. We didn’t do any rehearsing. The whole movie is handheld. I remember the studio giving them notes saying, “Would you please put the camera on a tripod for one scene! Or for just one master-shot!” They said no and that’s just not how they shoot movies. Visually, there’s a lot of handheld stuff. They’re really committed to honesty in movies. If there’s any trademark to the Mumblecore movement… that’s kind of a derisive name, I think.

They don’t seem to like that term very much.

No, nobody likes it. I’ve talked to a lot of people [about it] and nobody likes that name. It belittles that group of people. What they all have in common is that they don’t want to make corny, formulaic, and processed stories. They want people to talk to each other the way people really talk. They want their movies to seem emotionally truthful. I think that’s definitely true for this one.

One of things that’s surprising is how grounded the film is. What was the process between you and Jonah when it came to striking the right tone? This easily could’ve been Step Brothers.


Not that that’s a bad thing. I like Step Brothers, but they’re just very different.

No, no. I love Step Brothers. We did a lot of improvising on Step Brothers too. When you’re doing a movie that’s purely a comedy like that, it kind of limits where you can go naturally with the improvisation. You can’t really go to a super dark place, although, sometimes it’s really funny to go to a dark place (laughs). You just can’t go to an emotionally truthful or as truthful of a place as you can if you’re just open to whatever happens.

With those two different types of humor, do you approach the broader moments anymore different than you do the more grounded moments? Or is it just the same to you?

It’s all really the same, to me. It’s not like I try to be funny when we’re doing the broader stuff or be more real with this stuff. I just try to be honest the whole time. If the circumstances are ridiculous then it’s funny. I think that’s true for Jonah as well. People keep saying, “Wow, it’s a dramatic role for him. What a change,” but I don’t really see it as being that different. Jonah’s whole thing as an actor, even in the comedies, is just being someone very truthful. A lot of his comedy comes from calling the stuff the way it is. Like, “Dude, you’re beard looks like a vagina,” you know? That’s kind of his trademark and a lot of people who work with Apatow are that way. The humor comes from a frank recognition of the truth. I think all good actors work that way. You just do what is real. If the situation is silly, then it’s funny.

For John, did you ever worry that during all of this he could come off as creepy? I mean, he does stalk Molly home.

Well, he is creepy. That’s alright. You know, as long as you’re not cutting people up or dumping their bodies in the woods then it’s okay. Jonah’s character is the one in the movie that’s really creepy. It’s just, “Wow, this guy is totally evil.” My thoughts about the character was that he was this guy in a very needy place in his life. His ex-wife is about to get remarried and he’s got this impending date. When that date comes, he wants to have his shit together. He wants to have a new person in his life. He just wants to show everyone at that wedding that he’s not a castoff ex-husband and that he’s a lovable person. That just makes him a little more desperate than you might normally be. I just embraced that. I never try to worry about whether a character is likable or not. I just try to…make them real. With that at least he’ll be interesting.

Have you ever worked on a film like this where it is just about all improv?

I have. The Anniversary Party was similar. On that we didn’t quite improvise as much, but it was shot in order and it was basically all of his in a house for weeks together. Well, I improvised a lot on Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies. The three that we made together.

Those aren’t very script based?

They’re scripted, but he really encouraged us… There’s whole sections of Boogie Nights that were improvised. The whole thing in the recording studio with us trying to get our tapes back was all improvised. Paul would write in the script, “Then they do this,” and we’d have to fill-in-the-blanks. I’ve worked like that before. Different aspects in this movie I’ve done in other movies. This is the first time it all came together this way and there’s definitely more improv here than anything else that I’ve done. We wouldn’t even do one scripted version of the take. At some point you’d fall back onto what was written, because that was the best way to say it. With Will Ferrell, we’d improvise like crazy all day, but we’d always do the scripted version once or twice. Once we felt we had that in a good way we’d open it up. These guys just opened it up right away.

Did you enjoy shooting that way? I’d imagine it put you out of your comfort zone.

Yeah, I like shooting that way. I don’t mind working on strictly written material too. That’s its own challenge and when something is written well then it’s nice not to have the challenge of improvising. I’ve worked with people like Paul Thomas Anderson who is sometimes really open to improv and, at other times, he wants you just to do what was written. He wrote it and he likes it (laughs). There’s other directors like that. Martin Scorsese is like that. When people spend months and months of working on a script they don’t take too kindly to you not sticking to it. I don’t mind that. As an actor, it brings something else out of you. It’s to find your way to that material rather than bringing the material to you. You have to go meet the material and I like doing that. It’s less of a weight on your shoulders, actually. With what’s written, you just have to embody it. That’s opposing to me having to screenwrite this stuff on my feet, right now, and while I’m interacting with somebody.

With the Duplass brothers shooting digitally I’d imagine you did a lot of takes and they had a lot of footage. What scenes or moments do you recall didn’t make it into the film?

I don’t know, man. I barely remember when they’d called cut what I just said. There was a moment where Cyrus goes to a party and actually has a panic attack. I don’t know why they cut it, but I think it had something to do with it being too sad. You needed for him to be a little bit more of a dick. If you actually see him having a real panic attack then he becomes just a poor kid. I think that’s why.

Do you like working with digital? You obviously get the advantage of being able to do more takes.

I prefer film, actually. I’ve done almost fifty movies at this point and a majority of them have been on film. What I like about film is that when it comes time to shoot and they say action, everything stops. You only have, at the most, a few minutes. That film is burning and it’s a commodity. There’s a sense of occasion and the whole set focuses more. When you stop and they have to reload the camera then you have a second to think. It’s not a choice and that time is a given. It slows things down a bit where you can think about what you’re doing. What I found with digital is that the takes go on so long. After ten or fifteen minutes, the crew just starts to get restless. There also becomes less focus on the set and the director starts talking while the camera is rolling. You’re just not given that little space to act in. It becomes everyone’s space. I prefer the way film looks.

Cyrus is now in theaters.

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