BACK STAGE WEST
January 07, 1999
Unencumbered by fame, busy film actor John C. Reilly chooses projects for their challenges. His next: Ionesco's "Exit the King."
by Rob Kendt
Among the main duties of film critics and casting directors is to notice and champion great character actors like John C. Reilly, who has managed to stay outside the celebrity radar despite superlative lead or supporting work in such films as State of Grace, Days of Thunder, Hoffa, The River Wild, What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, Georgia, Hard Eight, and Boogie Nights.
Reilly is not some acquired taste or snob fashion, mind you; he typically plays the kind of unprepossessing, un-brilliant but sympathetic lug once played by the likes of Karl Malden or John Cazale, but with an understated, solid, unforced naturalism that perhaps accounts for his personal low profile. Or perhaps it's his scruffy, blockheaded looks that have kept him relatively anonymous.
Or maybe it's simply because, as he described in a recent interview, Reilly prefers to be "faceless": It's allowed him to build a body of respected roles, not to mention a family and a comparatively sane actor's life, without the glare of fame or the raised expectations of wide acclaim.
A Chicago native who studied at the Goodman School of Theatre and cut his teeth on that town's storied theatre scene, Reilly landed his first film role, a day player spot in Casualties of War, in 1988--and was upgraded by director Brian De Palma to a major supporting role. That's impressive in itself, but perhaps the signature fact about that happy story is that Reilly had never been on a plane or outside the Midwest before flying to the Philippines to shoot the film. Another signature fact about Reilly: Most of his friends, apart from Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, aren't part of the industry.
Not that a lot aren't actors: Among his circle of acquaintances are many members of L.A.'s irrepressible Actors' Gang, that intensely collective, chops-heavy theatre troupe given to presentational, commedia-style work, at whose Hollywood theatre space this weekend Reilly will open in a new production of Ionesco's Exit the King, directed by Goodman theatre professor Patrick Murphy. He's sandwiching this stage gig between just-completed shooting on For the Love of the Game, Kevin Costner's new baseball pic, and early work on Paul Anderson's next film, Magnolia.
Back Stage West: The story about your first film role shows that you seem to do well on film sets--and, your resum shows, with all different kinds of films and genres.
Reilly: Yeah, I'm a very adaptable person. I mean, a lot of people don't really know the scope of my work; they don't put together all the different things that I've done. Most people know me from one movie or two movies, depending on the kind of audience member they are. Mechanics always recognize me from Days of Thunder--which is real embarrassing, going into a gas station with a flat tire after playing this hotshot mechanic in the movie.
But to my credit or my fault, I try to stay focused on the work. When I choose roles, the first priority is finding a part that is going to challenge me in some way, that will be different. One of the reasons I did this baseball movie with Costner--I don't really have much of an interest in baseball, in sports in general, really, but I knew that playing a baseball player was gonna be an enormous challenge.
BSW: A physical challenge?
Reilly: Yeah. Everyone else in the movie except for me and Costner were professional baseball players, so we'd be filming in real games, and I'm playing the catcher, which is arguably the hardest position on a team.
It was similar to when I did Georgia, a movie where I played the drums. I didn't know how to play the drums until I did that movie. The music was all recorded live on the set; that was the intention of the director [Ulu Grosbard] all along, so he only wanted to see me if I was a drummer, a real drummer. Jennifer Jason Leigh and I worked on Dolores Claiborne, and that's when she brought it up to me: "Look, he only wants to see drummers, but you're perfect for this part and I want you to do this movie. Just say that you're a drummer, make something up, and come in and you'll figure it out." So I went in and lied, said, "Oh yeah, I play the drums, I was in this band."
I trained myself to play the drums in a span of about two months. It was a huge challenge, and I told myself, If you can do this, you can do anything. And I did, I pulled it off. I don't think I fooled any of the other musicians in the movie, but it's perfect for the part, 'cause the guy's supposed to be kind of a fuck-up anyway, high all the time, so it didn't have to be virtuoso playing.
BSW: Laila Robins, who played Blanche to your Mitch in the Steppenwolf Theatre's A Streetcar Named Desire, told me that when she rehearsed with you, she was worried that sometimes you were almost doing "nothing," but when she got onstage in front of an audience she realized your tone was just right. She wondered if your low-key approach might have been because of your film work.
Reilly: I remember having discussions with Laila about that--and Laila, by the way, is probably one of the top five people I've ever worked with; she's so amazingly consistent onstage, so powerful, I was awed by her. But she I and discussed how a lot of actors who work primarily in theatre say, "Well, you know, film and theatre are two very different animals, and the acting required is very different, a whole different set of skills." That's not true for me. I feel that as an actor your suspension of disbelief is the same, whether it's in a theatre or on film, and the internal work that I'm doing is really the same. It's just that what you learn over time as an actor is to play to the space that you're in: If the camera's right in front of you and there are other actors right in front of you and you don't have to project your voice, then you don't, but if you're playing to a thousand people, make sure they can all hear you. That's just kind of an automatic thing that I do; I don't figure it as a separate skill, or that in theatre you really have to "sell" this or that. I think if you're connected to what you're doing and you have the technique of acting down, it's a no-brainer. You do what's required of you in the moment as it happens. I think that's a stumbling block for a lot of actors.
The most important thing about film acting, the first essential ingredient of film acting, is confidence. The camera picks up so many nuances that if you don't have confidence in what you're doing, it's apparent. You can read it if somebody's nervous--not playing nervous, but is really nervous, not confident. It comes through and makes the audience uncomfortable.
BSW: I've heard actors say they actually use that nervous
Reilly: You can use it, yeah, if you turn it into something else. But you have to be confident. So I try to always talk theatre actors out of that kind of film-vs.-theatre thinking, because it just keeps people down and undermines your confidence on film. It's like, just do what you always do, do what feels right. I don't feel that stage acting should be any less honest than film acting; you just have to make sure that you're not hiding yourself from the audience--your voice or your body or anything else.
BSW: The image I remember most from Georgia was of you sitting in a chair opposite Jennifer Jason Leigh, staring blankly and trying in vain to form a sentence. It's like you were saying and doing nothing on screen for what seemed like a long time, but it was heartbreaking.
Reilly: That was the scene where my character is fired from the band. When I'm acting, if I'm doing nothing, I'm doing something wrong. My whole thing is really just to enlist yourself in the reality of the situation--to delude yourself for as long as you can into believing that this stuff is really happening.
You hear a lot of actors say stuff like, "Use it," but it's true. You can afford to do that more in film because of the multiple takes: If I'm feeling uncomfortable, rather than trying to separate that from the scene, you just think, This'll be a take where this line comes out uncomfortably. A lot of the best work comes that way, when subconsciously you're letting your relationship with the other actor infuse what you're doing. Like in Boogie Nights: Mark Wahlberg is a really competitive kind of guy, he likes to be top dog and loves to do well, so he's incredibly hard-working, and I really respect him for that. So he and I, you know, would jockey back and forth, and that worked really well with our characters, and I let it go--I let it be there.
That's one difference between the theatre mind and the film mind. Theatre people tend to think there's a certain obligation for the actor to be true to the words of the writer, to discover the character that's here on the page already, but a lot of times in film, you're making that character live for the first time, so you might as well invest as much of yourself in the moment as you can, because you're creating the reality in a way. Yeah, there are things written in the script for Boogie Nights, but a lot of that character's voice evolved over time. In retrospect, you look at the movie and see, That's who that character is, but I didn't set out to play that character; it just evolved. It was open to whatever was gonna happen on the day-to-day basis.
I try not to set too many things ahead of time; I try to get a general feel for what is gonna be vital for the character, and do as much research as I feel will be helpful. I try not to get involved down to too much technical detail, because I feel that in addition to reflecting a realistic portrayal of somebody, in some way you've got to illuminate that, too, and that illumination comes from your own imagination, from you, not from reading manuals about heroin addiction. You just have to find it, that little splinter of yourself, and then amplify it to where it becomes your whole self.
BSW: How do apply that approach to the absurdist Ionesco?
Reilly: It's funny, 'cause at first read Ionesco comes across as absurd, outlandish. It's difficult to find a reality; where's the real people? But as you read it, certain sections of dialogue start to come to you that seem completely conversational, and the deeper you get into it, and the more different ways you try to come at different monologues, you realize it's all like that. It can all be played really grounded in yourself.
BSW: But you can't really play it naturalistically, per se, can you? It has to be a little bigger than life.
Reilly: Yeah, it's big, but only in terms of--I mean, Ionesco sets some pretty high hurdles to go through. What's happening to the main character in Exit the King is very real; the pace it's happening at, and the degree it's happening at, is what's absurd. So to get to those places in the period of time that you have, the contrasts tend to be somewhat big. But if you approach it from the outside, it tends to fall flat, and suddenly it's not funny, and you wonder, Why isn't this funny? Why isn't this scene real ? The only time it really sings and really works is when it's completely rooted in reality, in a realistic approach.
BSW: How did this production come about?
Reilly: I'd always wanted to work with Pat Murphy, who teaches at the Goodman, where I studied, and he came here last year and directed this play, Xenogenesis, during his Christmas break from school. And I said, "Hell, Murphy, if you're coming out here to do that, we ought to do something. Next year at this time you and I are gonna do something." And when I got the Costner movie I thought of it again. I realized I had enough money myself to produce it, so I put together a cast real quickly--I didn't audition anybody.
BSW: You cast people you know from the Actors' Gang?
Reilly: Yeah, and the space opened up at the last minute, and the cast held together, and Murphy could make it. I've been juggling all these other projects, but so far it hasn't infringed at all. I just sort of willed this to happen.
BSW: How did you fall in with the Gang?
Reilly: Through Jack Black and Bob White--at Sundance, ironically, by way of Rebecca Hughes, who wrote Plastica Fantastica. And I started to go see all the Gang shows. It's really exciting; it's probably the only theatre here that has that kind of feeling of stuff back in Chicago, where it's really about the work, an actor's theatre, similar to Steppenwolf in some ways--a little more guerrilla, a little more presentational. I just stumbled upon this colony of actors, and it was really inspiring; I felt really lucky. Because this can be a very alienating city. Film work itself can be very alienating; it takes you away from your life for periods of time. I felt like I kind of joined the circus when I met all these guys at the Actors' Gang.
BSW: Do you have a career strategy or plan?
Reilly: I don't do industry kinds of things. I don't go to premieres unless I really wanna see the movie or I know someone really well in the movie. I don't see the point of going to something to get your picture taken. I just don't have an agenda like that. My agenda is to keep acting, to do as much work as I can, and keep getting paid to do it. Occasionally I'll do publicity stuff, only to serve that end; always to serve the work. I like it when people say, "I really loved you in that movie," but I don't think I would like it too much if it was always happening to me. I don't really envy people who are immediately recognizable. I think you lose a lot.
I think I've carved out kind of a nice little spot for myself: I have the respect of my peers, I get to do what I wanna do, I'm paid fairly for it. You know, it would be nice to have a little more stability, but I've been doing this my whole life, and I'm kinda used to the ebb and flow of the whole thing.
BSW: Famous or not, do you feel you've been typecast at all?
Reilly: To a certain degree, that's hard to avoid; they only see you as what you've already been. I'm lucky to have people like Paul Anderson, and to do theatre, and get new opportunities for people to see me in other ways. I've played a pretty wide array of people. It's good that I haven't too been overly publicized, because what it allows directors to do is to feel that they're discovering me--that they've found this guy who's perfect for their part, and people are gonna believe that he's this part, as opposed to if you're this known commodity, like, "Whoa, we gotta get John C. Reilly," and you come in with all this baggage, these kind of presumed character traits. I'd much rather just be kind of faceless.
Like, I don't like to go to meetings on projects where they just want to talk and want to know who I am. I'd rather they didn't really know who I am; I'd rather just show them who I am as the character.
BSW: You've played a lot of different professions and walks of life, but would you say there's a certain kind of character that you play? I would say the characters I've seen you play tend to be sweet, a little bit slow. . .
Reilly: Usually naive, optimistic to a fault, sometimes deluded. I think that's a feature of good acting--not to toot my horn, but if you're able to convince yourself at any given moment that you're in a different reality than the reality you're actually in, you might come off as being deluded, but you're also doing a good job as an actor; you're transporting yourself. I think people see that.
And I try to be always like that Zen thing, where you always feel that you're a beginner; you never become an expert, you're always a beginner. That comes into play with the type of characters I play; I like to think on my feet, and the camera seems to like it, too--going moment to moment, taking information in and reacting to it honestly. To me that's more interesting than some sort of planned-out concept for a part, or a relentless point of view. I'd much rather see discoveries happen. I think most people do, too.