By Pam Grady
John C. Reilly’s storied career as one of the great actors of the 21st century might not exist were it not for a fellow Chicagoan, Kevin J. O’Connor. Reilly discovered acting through an extracurricular program at a local park. He did it all: plays, musicals, and improv, and absolutely loved it. But he was the fifth of six children in a tight-knit, middle-class Roman Catholic family. Acting was all well and good, but his parents wanted to know what young John—whose first job as a 12-year-old was washing dishes at a restaurant—intended to do to make a living. Reilly resigned himself to the idea that he would have to find a “real” job someday. Then O’Connor, a friend from his South Side neighborhood who was a couple of years older, was cast in a small role in an Al Franken movie, One More Saturday Night (1986).
“I thought, ‘Huh! Someone from my neighborhood can be in a movie?’ That was a real revelation,” Reilly recalled in a recent interview.
“It just seemed like a pipe dream before that. Actors in movies seemed so removed from my reality that I didn’t dare to dream that. Then when Kevin got that part, I thought, ‘Maybe this could be the job. Wouldn’t that be great?’”
Reilly’s own first break came soon after his 1987 graduation from DePaul University’s Theater School. There were a number of firsts involved with his role in Brian De Palma’s Vietnam War drama Casualties of War (1989) about a group of soldiers who kidnap, rape, and murder a young woman. It was his first job in a movie. He took his first airplane ride to De Palma’s Thailand location. It was also his first experience in realizing just how fast things could change on a film set as De Palma decided Stephen Baldwin wasn’t right for the major supporting role of dim-bulb conspirator PFC Herbert Hatcher and Reilly, hired as a day player, quickly got a promotion.
“On Casualties of War I ended up changing roles twice because of that rearranging, so it gave me a sense of ‘nothing is set in stone’ because anything can change at any moment,” Reilly told GamesRadar.com. “Even to this day… I just feel like ‘Don’t take this for granted, they can change their minds tomorrow.’”
That the film industry was not going to change its mind about Reilly was evident in the first blossoming of his career as he could count among his first directors Neil Jordan (We’re No Angels, 1989), Tony Scott (Days of Thunder, 1990), Woody Allen (Shadows and Fog, 1991), and Lasse Hallström (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, 1993). Among his first costars were Sean Penn (Casualties of War, We’re No Angels, and State of Grace, 1990), Jack Nicholson (Hoffa, 1992), and Kathy Bates (Dolores Claiborne, 1995).
In 1996, Reilly began one of his most fruitful collaborations when he starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature Hard Eight, playing a man who needs money to bury his mother who comes under the tutelage of a professional gambler played by Philip Baker Hall. Critic Richard T. Jameson writing in Film Comment called Reilly’s performance, “Superb at catching the precise blend of naïveté and fecklessness in [his] character.”
From that auspicious beginning, Reilly would work with Anderson twice more, as a porn actor in Boogie Nights (1997) and then as a cop—a character with roots in drives that the director and Reilly took together while Boogie Nights was still in pre-production where the actor pretended to be police while Anderson videotaped him—in the panoramic Magnolia (1999). The latter was a character and a performance that Peter Travers singled out in Rolling Stone, “Reilly is the heart of the film; you don’t just feel him ache to make a human connection, you ache with him.”
As the century turned, Reilly’s career was beginning to take shape. On Broadway, he and Philip Seymour Hoffman alternated in the lead roles of dysfunctional brothers Hollywood screenwriter Austin and larcenous Lee in a 2000 revival of Sam Shepard’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winner True West, and captured a Tony nomination. In the movies, Reilly was a reliable presence in big-budget commercial fare like The Perfect Storm (2000), where he played a doomed sailor, and Chicago (2002), where his performance as Roxie Hart’s humiliated husband and his show-stopping rendition of the Kander-Ebb song “Mr. Cellophane” earned him a Best Supporting Oscar nomination.
At the same time, Reilly continued to find opportunities to work with some of filmdom’s most storied directors, part of the ensemble of soldiers in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), playing a corrupt 19th-century cop for Martin Scorsese in Gangs of New York (2002) and Howard Hughes’ right-hand man Noah Dietrich for the director in The Aviator (2004), and seizing another chance to display his musical gifts as a singing cowboy on a radio show in Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion (2006).
Those were big films, but Reilly has found some of his greatest success in independent cinema. He has been nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards, for playing a film director in Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s The Anniversary Party (2001), Jennifer Aniston’s pothead husband in The Good Girl (2002), a man frustrated by his new girlfriend’s possessive adult son in Cyrus (2010), and an insurance agent in Cedar Rapids (2011). Among his other indie film appearances are as the cousin of a flailing stand-up comic in Rick Alverson’s discomfiting comedy Entertainment (2015) and as a lisping man desperate to find a mate before he is turned into an animal in Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist black comedy The Lobster (2015).
Perhaps what is most striking about Reilly’s career is that after establishing himself as a serious dramatic actor, he took a left turn into wild slapstick comedy. His role as a dimwit NASCAR driver in the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) forged a new path in his career.
“[Reilly’s] been funny before, I’ve never hurt laughing at him as I did here,” Wesley Morris wrote of his performance in the Boston Globe.
The actor continued to mine the wilder side of movie comedy in such films as Adam McKay’s Step Brothers (2008) and Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), a musical mockumentary that starred Reilly as the titular character, a thick-headed but talented rock ‘n’ roll star. The character’s many changes as he morphs from a Johnny Cash-like figure to a Dylanesque troubadour to a Beatle-like icon, and a soundtrack that allowed the musically gifted Reilly (who fronts his own band, John Reilly & Friends, as a side gig) to sample a variety of styles, provided a showcase for the actor’s colossal talent.
“[The movie] is richly blessed by the presence of John C. Reilly in the title role. There’s an almost pre-moral innocence about his soft and squishy mug, a heedless exuberance in his playing. He’s happy to play dumb — allowing Dewey to live profitably within the unexamined premises, the mythic fatuity, of his media-driven myth,” raved Richard Schickel in Time.
Thirty years after his debut in Casualties of War, Reilly’s decision to go all in with this acting thing continues to pay huge dividends as he remains an actor in high demand. In 2018 alone, he starred in four films, including Stan & Ollie, for which his big-hearted and precise performance as his childhood idol, comic legend Oliver Hardy, earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
Also among Reilly’s 2018 projects was Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, the film SFFILM is screening as part of his tribute. It is Reilly’s first Western and it marks his debut as a feature-film producer. It is also a film that continued to burnish Reilly’s reputation as an actor’s actor in playing Eli Sisters, the softer, gentler half of a pair of assassin siblings, who is growing weary of his unpredictable brother Charlie’s (Joaquin Phoenix) antics.
Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter singled out the actor’s performance, “Reilly has the most expansive character here and he makes it his own, breathing deep stores of boisterous life into him.”
RogerEbert.com’s Glenn Kenny was even more effusive with a comment that ends with what could serve as a summation of Reilly’s career, “This is really Reilly’s show; in this role he showcases genial goofiness but also genuinely stalwart heart. I never say this or even think this, but I’ll break precedent: give the man his Oscar already.”
Pam Grady is a San Francisco freelance film writer.