INT: John C. Reilly

Though John C. Reilly has earned numerous accolades for his character work (he received an Oscar nomination for his role in CHICAGO), he’s never been properly recognized for his comedic talents. Though he may look unassuming, he’s capable of stealing every scene he’s in. His performance as Reed Rothchild in BOOGIE NIGHTS ranks among my all-time favorites.

This week he steps into the comedy big leagues when he stars alongside Will Ferrell in TALLADEGA NIGHTS. Sporting the sweetest mustache this side of Selleck, Reilly plays Ferrell’s sidekick Cal Naughton, Jr. Check it out.

John C. Reilly

This is actually your second Nascar-themed film. Did you draw on any of your Days of Thunder research?

Yeah. Well, I didn’t get to be a race car driver in Days of Thunder, unfortunately. We also shot that movie in Charlotte , North Carolina . Fifteen years ago it was. So yeah, I felt like I earned my stripes. I did my time in the pit crew in Days of Thunder and I got my chance to drive a car. I guess so. I was familiar with the sport. I did training for pit crew stuff on Days of Thunder and then we did this driving school in Charlotte that was pretty fun. As hard as we tried to get the racing stuff exactly right and technically correct and make the stunts and all that look really great like a serious racing movie, it’s a comedy, you know? It’s not like I had to know every single detail of the ins and outs of the sport. It was the sport and then some that we did in the movie.

What was your rapport like with Will?

Will and I have known each other for about six years now. I met him through my friend Molly Shannon and we just hit it off right away. That friendship bled into the relationship in the movie, I guess. I was almost in Anchorman but I was shooting another movie at the time, so I couldn’t do it. That was a real heartbreak for me because I thought that was the chance to work with Will and Adam. Lo and behold, they put this together and called me. So it worked out good, I thought. I have real genuine affection for Will. We’re really good friends, besides any kind of like professional relationship. Just as guys, we really like each other and we share a sense of humor. You’ll see. He’s a really down-to-earth guy, very real. As successful as he’s gotten, none of that has gone to his head. He’s just like he was when I met him, when he first started off on Saturday Night Live.

What’s it like joining an established group?

Well, they have an established group, but who was in Anchorman besides Will in this movie?  David Koechner. It was more like they established a group for this movie. We all became a community really fast. Adam and Will are both…they both have a background in improv theater. Adam McKay started in Second City and Will at the Groundlings in LA, so they were great. They created the whole kind of vibe that we got going in the movie, with the improv, so it didn’t feel like I was coming into some strange group. It felt like we were forming a strange group. [laughs] 

How much improv was there in this movie?

There was a lot. A lot. I mean, when I say that, sometimes it sounds to me like the director didn’t have as much to do with making the movie. But the fact is, because of Adam’s background in improv, he was guiding all the improv. And Adam and Will wrote the script together, so it wasn’t like we were going to offend the screenwriter by throwing out the script. They wrote it, so it was their voice and they were the authority about what it should be.  And the script was very good.  It was very funny, very tightly written.

So it wasn’t like, “This is a mess. Let’s make something up.” What happens is you get talented people involved and everyone shows up on the day and the script is great and you do that a couple of times and all the sudden it’s like ideas just start popping up. The funny thing that’s in the script reminds me of another funny thing or what’s the next step we could take this idea to and Adam was encouraging us. I was like, “I don’t know; I’m just trying to get my feet here. How far do I go? This is pretty crazy, some of the stuff we’re doing.” He was like, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry.” It was like the wide net theory. You just give as much as you can because we can always take it out. But if you don’t go there we’ve got nowhere to come back from.

So who came up with your catchphrase, “Shake and Bake”?

That was sort of a committee decision, because it was originally thunder and lightning. But then we got word from the Cars people that the cars were named thunder and lightning, so we had to scramble and come up with a different nickname. And that was pretty fun. For about a week we were riffing on nicknames. My idea was, “Tick tick boom.” [laughs] and then you know it was all different ones, from Tango and Cash to rice and beans, or whatever. And somehow shake and bake got in there and it worked out. Like I say in the movie, it’s both verbs, they go good together, they rhyme.

What’s it like seeing the movie when there’s so much improv?

I’ve seen the movie about five times now. I went to all the test screenings as they went along, for that very reason, because I knew there was enough material out there that he could have made three movies with the amount of stuff that we shot, with the blooper reel and all that. We didn’t have dailies on this movie because we were moving too fast to really watch them. Occasionally we would watch stuff at lunch to see where things were going. But I wanted to see what people came up with, and I knew that if I didn’t go to all the test screenings, some of that stuff just might go away forever. Although with DVD, it’s almost like that’s part of the plan, so you can have all the extra stuff for the DVD.

What’s the experience like making a movie “on the run?”

Every movie’s different, you know? It really is. The director sets the tone for the way we’re all gonna work. I just did a movie with Mike White – who is also a writer – and his take was like, “This is what I wrote and this is what we’re gonna do. This is what I figure would be best for this scene.” And that was also a comedy, just a different style. In some ways filmmaking is different from set to set, but it’s also completely different depending on the personality of the director. On one hand, this felt of very unstructured and loose and kind of crazy, like, “Oh my god, what are we doing? This is nuts.”

On the other hand, I felt like I was in really good hands with Adam and Will. They’re such close friends and they have really strong ideas about they think is funny and what makes them laugh. Adam’s thing was like, “Look, it’s just a democracy here and the democracy goes like this: best idea wins. It’s not like because I’m the director, you guys have to accept my idea. If we’re standing around talking and we’re joking around trying to find out what would be funny to do in a certain moment, if someone says something and everyone laughs, that’s it. That’s the idea.” They’re not gonna argue with an honest reaction. But the first couple of weeks it was little like, “Wow, here I am in a big comedy, working every day.” It was different, but I loved it.

Honestly though, it didn’t feel a lot different. The acting part didn’t feel a lot different to me. I think doing comedy and drama is kind of the same, in terms of what you bring to it as an actor. You’re still trying to be as honest as you can be with the character and do the material as straightforward as possible, but in comedy the situation is absurd. It’s almost like the more you commit to it in a serious way, the funnier it gets. That’s definitely Adam and Will’s take on things. They’re not big on [makes drum sound] kind of punch line stuff. It’s more character-based. I always thought that about Will, even when I first saw him on Saturday Night Live. I thought, “That guy’s an actor.” Some of the people on the show are stand-up comics or improv Olympians or whatever you want to call it, but Will’s an actor. He approaches it in the same way that the more serious actors do.

It looked like there was a lot of cracking up on the set of this movie from the outtakes at the end. Did you ever just lose it?

No. Cause that was kind of the game, you know? It was like this competition, like who was gonna go first. When I feel like I’m gonna laugh, I usually just get more committed to what it is you’re doing, more firmly rooted…but you can see it in those outtakes. Will’s just one of those people, like Bill Murray and…well, the first person that comes to mind is Bill Murray. Just looking at the face makes you start laughing. Even when they’re trying to be serious, it just makes you laugh. It makes me laugh, anyway. So yeah, a tough part of working on this was not laughing all the time.

Will seemed to crack up a lot.

Oh yeah. He’s actually kind of an easier mark than me. There’s so much joy in making a comedy, you know? In a dramatic movie, if you couldn’t keep it together and started cracking up in a scene, it’s like, come on. Gotta get the day done. When people start laughing in a comedy, it’s like, good! That’s the spirit we want. And you can even see, I think it’s during the bloopers, when they’re doing the prune candy commercial or whatever, you can see his eyes are already watering from the last scene before. It looks like he’s about to crack up again, but he doesn’t.

Do you have a comedy background? 

I went to school here in Chicago, at the Goodman School of Drama, and we did a lot of improv work there. That’s where I got exposed to improv, in acting school there. It was mostly focused on Viola Spolin. She’s this kind of famous improv teacher. She wrote a book called Games for the Theater. Spolin and a few others are the main people that people like Will and Adam and the Second City people focus on. Del Close was like a big mentor of Adam’s. So I guess that was my exposure to it, although I never did it the way that Will and Adam did it. I never went Second City and I never did just straight up comedy stuff. I feel like I’ve done a lot of comedy work, actually.

More than people realize.

Yeah but I’m not really known for it, because most of the time it’s something funny in a more serious movie. Boogie Nights I thought was a lot of comedy, but those characters were supposed to be very real. It wasn’t a comedy per se. It went to a very dark place by the end of the movie. I did a cameo in Anger Management and I’ve worked with Tenacious D for years, doing their live shows. So it’s something that felt really natural to me. I didn’t feel like a fish out of water or anything. It’s good, though. It’s good that people are surprised. I like to surprise people. That’s what keeps a career alive, you know? As soon as people start to know what to expect, then you’re kind of losing momentum there. 

Why do you think you took to it so quickly?

I think part of it was I had been around those cars and stuff. I knew that if you basically did what you were told, that you wouldn’t die. Having done Days of Thunder…I took a rental car actually around the Daytona 500 track. That was an experience in and of itself. It didn’t feel safe at all. It feels much safer in the race car than in the regular car, because the race cars are set on an angle slightly so that when you go in the turn it feels a little more smooth. Like a regular car, when you’re going into the turn it looks like you’re heading into a wall. It looks like you’re heading into an asphalt wall. 

What was it like actually going to Talladega and being introduced to the crowd?

That was amazing. The sheer size of that event – there were 400,000 people at that event. And I don’t know how many of those fit in the stadium, but there’s like this massive campground around the whole thing. I’d never experienced anything that big before. That many people together in one place, I think it beats Woodstock, if I’m not mistaken. 

But they were all stoned.

Yeah, well there’s a few intoxicants going around at Talladega, too. [laughs] It’s not a Sunday church picnic. In fact, they have their own prison at Talladega. Did you know that? They have their own prison, because the traffic and the number of people get so intense that if they need to get someone out, the police can’t take them to the jail. They have to actually have a jail at the track. That’s pretty amazing distinction. When we were getting our credentials from the Nascar people, I said – and they don’t like us talking about this stuff, but whatever.

I started down the road. I said to the girl who was giving me the track credentials before we went to Talladega, I was like, “You know, I’m thinking, because of traffic and everything, I’m just gonna stay in my trailer in the infield for those three or four days we’re gonna be there.” And she was like, “Hmmm.” I was like, “Is there a more safe or less noisy area?” Because people are partying in the infield. And she was like, “Not really. Let me put it to you this way: as a woman, I am not allowed by Nascar to walk unescorted through the infield of Talladega at any time.” [laughs] And I was like, hmmm, maybe I’ll just have to put up with the traffic and get back to the hotel. It’s very noisy in there, too, so I probably wouldn’t have gotten very good sleep.

Did you do any research to find out what these race car drivers were like?

We had a Nascar representative with us the whole time. He would feed us stories. He was an older guy who’d been with the sport from the time when…he would tell us stories like, “I remember when – John, it was amazing – we were in Gainesville, Florida, I believe it was. And the cars had not shown up. We had no cars for this race. So I went down to the local rent-a-car and I said, ‘I need seven cars.’” And then they took them and painted them with like temporary paint and colors and ran a race with like seven rental cars.

When the cars got banged up, the just quickly fixed them and returned them and ran out of the office. Every day would be another story like that. “I remember when so-and-so stole a police car.” All this crazy stuff. That guy was a wealth of information. We had some books and stuff that had pictures. I’ll say this: facial hair was a lot more popular in the early days of Nascar. I think that’s where I started thinking that I should go back to the old days, because I really wanted that mustache. That was like my first touchstone for that character – that magnificent mustache. 

Special thanks to Kari Tejerian and the rest of the Sony crew.

Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com



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