John C. Reilly Moves Beyond Dope To Romantic Lead

John C. Reilly i

John C. Reilly's career was launched by director Brian De Palma when he appeared in the 1989 film Casualties Of War. Since then, he has been nominated for both an Oscar (for Chicago) and a Grammy (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). Matt Carr/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Carr/Getty Images
John C. Reilly

John C. Reilly's career was launched by director Brian De Palma when he appeared in the 1989 film Casualties Of War. Since then, he has been nominated for both an Oscar (for Chicago) and a Grammy (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story).

Matt Carr/Getty Images

John C. Reilly has played character parts in dozens of films, from heavy-hitting dramas to goofball comedies. But in his latest movie, Cyrus, he plays a slightly different role — the romantic lead opposite Oscar-winning actress Marisa Tomei.

And as he tells NPR's Melissa Block, the role was a big change for other reasons, too: For one thing, almost all the dialogue in the film was improvised.

"They gave us a lot of freedom," says Reilly, who noted that filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass tend to shoot their films documentary-style, filming scenes in the order that they appear in the film. That's not usually how a Hollywood shoot works — it's less efficient and more expensive — but there are some practical payoffs, Reilly says.

"If anything needs to change, or the story evolves in a different direction than what they'd anticipated in the script, they can accommodate it," Reilly says.

And there's another upside, he argues: a heightened emotional realism.

"I almost think of [Cyrus] as like an emotional horror movie, where it's like 'Don't go in that door, there's a dysfunctional relationship in there!'" Reilly says. "I think the reason that the movie is tense — and the tension increases in it — is because the relationships seem really real. You know, they're very relatable people."

'The Air Gets Carbonated'

One of the biggest challenges of improvisational filmmaking — especially in comedies — is not laughing at your own jokes. Reilly says he's "pretty good about not cracking up," but admits that being on the verge often leads to the best material.

John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill i

In Cyrus, John C. Reilly (left) goes head to head with Jonah Hill, who plays the troublesome son of his new girlfriend. Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures
John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill

In Cyrus, John C. Reilly (left) goes head to head with Jonah Hill, who plays the troublesome son of his new girlfriend.

Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures

"A lot of times in comedies, you're trying to get right to that brink, because the air kind of gets carbonated when people are about to crack up. ... That's when things get funny, for some reason."

An early scene in Cyrus has Reilly delivering a cringe-worthy rendition of "Don't You Want Me," but the actor actually got his start in musical theater, and he has sung — very well — in films such as Chicago and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

"I started doing musicals at the local park near my house," he explains. "I wasn't doing musicals because I had some love of musicals; I was doing musicals because I was interested in acting, and that's the only thing that anyone did in my neighborhood. There weren't any children's production of Ibsen or Shakespeare, you know. So Free to Be ...You and Me and Brigadoon and Jesus Christ Superstar and - oh, the list goes on."


Interview Highlights

On filming nude scenes

That, I'm really much too modest for. I really — hats off to people that have to do that in every movie, because I think the assumption is from audience members is like, 'Wow, that must have been really sexy.' Except ... except it's not. It's like all the uncomfortableness of a new sexual encounter without any of the pleasure.

On having to sing badly in Cyrus

For someone who has spent his life trying to become a better singer — and, you know, I've done a lot of music work over the years — it was really humiliating to be standing in front of this group of extras at this party, none of whom I knew. So it was a very flop-sweat-inducing moment for me.

On cracking up while the camera's rolling

Basically, the take is ruined if you laugh, you know? It's this strange oppositional force. You're trying to be there in the moment, and at the same time you tend to pull yourself out of the moment so you don't start laughing. And you know, the impulses for creation and destruction are pulling at each other in those moments.

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