John C. Reilly On 'The Sisters Brothers' Actor John C. Reilly talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about his new film The Sisters Brothers. He plays one of an infamous duo of assassins who journey through the gold rush land of California.

John C. Reilly On 'The Sisters Brothers'

John C. Reilly On 'The Sisters Brothers'

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Actor John C. Reilly talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about his new film The Sisters Brothers. He plays one of an infamous duo of assassins who journey through the gold rush land of California.


You'd recognize John C. Reilly. You may not know from where and you may not be able to easily conjure up his name, but you'd know his face. He has played the leading man, but more often than not, he's the best friend, the sidekick, one of two partners in a story. And in some ways, the new film "The Sisters Brothers" is the same. Joaquin Phoenix plays the younger brother, Charlie Sisters, and Riley plays the older brother, Eli.

JOHN C. REILLY: Well, Charlie's kind of doubling down on the law of the land as it is in 1851 as he sees it. Like, it's kill or be killed. And it's exhausting them both. But Eli's the first one to say in their story, like, hey, man, what's our exit plan here? Because we've got a lot of people chasing us right now. Like, this is not a sustainable future for us, you know?

MARTIN: But this time, John C. Reilly is playing the man at the center. It's the 1800s in the American West. The laws are loose, and people are desperate for gold. Eli Sisters is the moral fulcrum around which this entire story bends.


REILLY: (As Eli Sisters) Charlie.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Charlie Sisters) Huh.

REILLY: (As Eli Sisters) We've had a good, long run. We need to get out. We could open a store together.

PHOENIX: (As Charlie Sisters) A store? What is this nonsense? You're walking in the front door and finish the job.

MARTIN: The movie also stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed, and it's based on a book of the same name by Patrick deWitt. After reading it, John C. Reilly bought the rights to turn it into a movie - something he had never done before. But he loved this story. He loved it because it wasn't like other Westerns.

REILLY: You know, we're used to the Western genre of being this sort of opaque macho good guys and bad guys who you're never quite sure what they're thinking or what they're feeling. And my character in the film, Eli, sort of the narrator of the book - and you get all these really amazing insights into what it's like to be alive in 1851 and what it's like to kill people for a living. And there's just sort of a real emotional availability and vulnerability to all the characters, which is really striking for a Western kind of story.

MARTIN: The story is about these two hired guns who realize that the more damage they do in the world, the further away they have to run.

REILLY: They're such interesting characters because even though they're murderous and they kill for a living, in some ways, you have sympathy for them because they come into this violent life as children. There's this traumatic event that bonds them when they're little kids, and then they go off into this murderous life together. But I don't know. It's a complicated movie in that way. There's a lot of gray.

MARTIN: It's true because I walked away from this film thinking a lot of different things but also that it is this bigger meditation on masculinity. And our culture is so full of films and representations of what it meant to be a man back then in the American West and renegades and machismo dripping from everyone. And as you say, Eli is so different. Maybe he's not. Maybe he's the same. It's just we're getting a deeper look at all the complexities of male identity.

REILLY: Yeah. I think that, you know, that is a very relevant part of the movie because we're at this moment with #MeToo and a lot of issues with women coming to the forefront and women finding their voice about things. But all the work is not to be done by women. A lot of this work is to be done by men also, all of us looking at this. But you're not the first woman who said to me, like, wow, there's some really sensitive men in this movie. It's amazing. Like, vulnerable men - who would have thought? But, I mean, I think that's one of the things that men have to say right now, which is that all men are vulnerable. Sometimes even the most macho, posturing, puffed-up men are some of the most sensitive men if you get to know them. If you say the wrong thing to them, you really, you know, so...

MARTIN: But that's not what's represented, as you know, in the popular consciousness, in film and TV and movie.

REILLY: Right, which is why we need more films like this that tell the truth about men and women. You know, we're all human beings. There's not - we shouldn't be forcing women into cultural stereotypes, and we shouldn't be forcing men into them either because, to me, the real imbalance in the whole world is that balance between gender and us accepting the fact that all of us are male and female - all of us - to different degrees and different percentages, sure, but no one is all male or all female. We've got to - we've got to figure out a way to balance male and female energy if we're going to survive. I'm sorry to philosophize on your show...

MARTIN: No, but that's what I - that is...

REILLY: But that is one of the things I thought of when I watched the film, you know?

MARTIN: And that these two brothers, Charlie and Eli, are two halves of the whole - right? - that they are representing different elements of masculinity of an identity together.

REILLY: Yeah. Well, I think that's part of their genius. You know, one of them is very thoughtful and forward-thinking and looking at the whole picture. The other one is excellent in the moment. And people underestimate them a lot, which is something I also relate to in the character. You know, I look a certain way, and people know me from my work or from characters that I've played. But you don't really know me, you know? And both these guys feel that - the same way, these brothers in this film. They look like dirty, uneducated brutes, and they're often one step ahead of everyone because people are judging them based on their appearance.

MARTIN: I read that you and Joaquin Phoenix prepared for the film by spending a lot of time together in the silent spaces.

REILLY: Yeah. I'm a pretty adaptable person, and I think that's one of the reasons I play best friends and (laughter) partners. And I quickly realized with Joaquin - he's a beautiful person in this way - he's someone that sees the truth about things without having to overtalk it.


REILLY: So I realized I just need to be with this person. That's what these boys have done from the time they are little. The rest of the world is a foreign country. Everyone else is a potential enemy. And all they've had is each other - every single night, every meal, every horse ride, every day, every sunset, every sunrise. So I just realized, like, that's what we have to do. We just have to be together all the time. So we went on these long, long walks, and we rode horses together for hours and hours, and we shot guns, and we ate meals and cooked for each other and lived together. And it's one of the beautiful things about being an actor, I have to say. You get these six-month periods together where you really reveal your whole heart to them. I don't know. I have a deep love for Joaquin now, and I think I'll have that with me for the rest of my life. And that's a big benefit to being an actor, you know? It really does enrich your life.

MARTIN: The movie is called "The Sisters Brothers." John C. Reilly stars as Eli Sisters. John, thanks so much for talking with us.

REILLY: Thank you very much, Rachel.


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