When I was in Austin for Fantastic Fest, one of the big screenings was for “The Vampire’s Assistant,” which Universal hopes will jumpstart a “Cirque Du Freak” series for them based on the books by Darren Shan. Like John Dies At The End, which I reviewed yesterday, the main character in the books is also the author, and in this case, Darren Shan is the one who meets a vampire and ends up becoming his assistant.
And the vampire? John C. Reilly.
Reilly’s been a hard-working character actor for the last 20 years, since his fantastic debut in Brian De Palma’s “Casualties Of War.” In some ways, “The Vampire’s Assistant” marks new ground for him as an actor, but I think over the course of his career, he’s managed to reinvent himself repeatedly, and he seems like the kind of guy you can’t really put in a simple box. That’s the secret to his longevity, and it keeps each new performance interesting.
Of course, since I’ve wanted to meet him and chat with him for a while, when I finally did, I was in no shape to be talking to anyone. Midway through the screening of “The Vampire’s Assistant,” I could feel a headache coming on. And not just a headache, either. I started to get chills, and my temperature started to climb. By the time the movie ended, I could barely see. I took off my hat and it was like someone poured a cup of water on me, I was sweating so badly. I ran to a drugstore down the street from the Paramount, bought some Advil and some diet-flavored caffeine, and then walked back to the Intercontinental Hotel, where I was supposed to talk to the actor. Over the next half-hour, it was sort of touch and go, and then finally, still feeling fairly wretched, I decided to just deal with it and do the interview when Reilly showed up.
I was going to forego the handshake, just so I didn’t give him the Swine Flu or whatever it was I was grappling with, but as you’ll see, he chose to flirt with doom:
Drew: Hi, John, nice to meet you.
JCR: You, too.
Drew: I”m a little under the weather so I don”t want to…
JCR: That”s all right. Come on. I”m not afraid.
Drew: There you go, sir.
JCR: Drinking that Mountain Dew. That”s good to keep you going.
Drew: Festival schedules are crazy, man. You get into that “2001” tunnel of light after a few days.
JCR: Have you seen a lot of movies?
Drew: I did. And I did Toronto right before this.
JCR: Oh wow.
Drew: So this is like back-to-back.
JCR: Yeah, that”ll make you sick.
Drew: Yeah. Yeah. I”ve got to tell you… it”s nice to finally meet you, man. I”ve been a fan for a lot of years since “Casualties”.
JCR: Oh! Thanks.
Drew: That was the…
JCR: That”d be the first one, yeah.
Drew: And one of the things that”s been interesting about the guys you”ve played a lot over your career, and it happens I think with a lot of actors… there”s something that directors see in you that they respond to, and you play guys who are vulnerable a lot of times.
Drew: And it”s kind of like, whether it be in “Boogie Nights,” you play guys who kind of have this one layer that they play on top and then you see that a lot of it is bravado, this thing they put on.
JCR: Right, yeah.
Drew: This guy you play in this movie is pretty radically different. He seems to be a guy who”s very in control. And there are things he has to do that he doesn”t necessarily want to. It”s a stronger role. Somebody behind me commented, “I don”t think I”ve ever seen John C. Reilly in a fight scene before.”
JCR: (laughs) Well I have done a few, but, yeah… not like that.
Drew: So it”s….
JCR: He”s like a cynical kind of world-weary character and, you know, making movies for 20 years will do that to you. I”m a different person now than I was when I made “Casualties of War”, but yeah, I agree. For some reason… I don”t know quite what that is. It”s just… I think it”s just certain intrinsic things about your personality and your energy. I”ve played a lot of dreamers, you know? But yeah, this guy was definitely different. It was a lot of fun to play because of the change of pace but also it was heavy. He was a very dark guy and he”s very cynical. He”s kind of having an extistential crisis at the time that the movie starts.
Drew: Yeah. One of the things I liked about the tone of the film is that it does play dark. It doesn”t shy away from it. It doesn”t back off of it. And considering that this is being sold to a younger market, the stakes are fairly high in the film.
Drew: Was that something that you guys were conscious of? You”re playing this, and it”s got lighter moments, but you”re playing something that”s intrinsically kind of dark and you never want to tip it. How do you set a tone on something like this?
JCR: It was really the director”s call in terms of the overall setting of the tone of the movie. I just attacked it like this is the character, someone who has an early 1800″s kind of mentality because that”s where he comes from. He”s picked up certain things along the way but essentially, you know, he”s like a 40-year old guy who”s been alive for 250 years. And I just approached it like that, you know? I never thought like, oh, I”d better make this nicer so it”s more appealing to younger kids. I just said well, this is the character. This is what the book says this character is. This is what the script says this character is. And now he breaks this kid”s neck, or, you know, he gives him this potion or he tells the kid, you know, life is meaningless, you know? I didn”t… it wasn”t my concern about keeping it kid-friendly. I just… I think one of the cool things about the books and the movie is that that character, that mentor character, is someone who”s like look, I”m not your Mommy and Daddy. If you want to hurt yourself by doing something stupid, go ahead. Like, if you want my advice I”ll tell you don”t do that stupid thing because you”ll get hurt. But if you want to go get hurt, go ahead.
Drew: Well, both kids end up with those mentor figures.
Drew: In very different directions.
Drew: And that”s something… because you did get into this business when you were relatively young. I mean “Casualties”…that was a young cast. You guys were all…
JCR: I was 22, yeah.
Drew: Were there guys that you looked up to as mentors as you really got your legs under you in the business?
JCR: Yeah. Well, not so much in the business. I mean, Sean I looked up to… it wasn”t like a mentor kind of role, but I just watched people whose work I respected and I tried to conduct myself with the same kind of integrity. I know Sean has a ton of integrity. My first three movies were with him. But throughout my life I”ve been someone who”s, like… even as a younger person I”ve had older friends. Even now my best friend is in his 60″s, you know? Like it”s just been always a part of me. I”ve never really been in the age that I am. I”m always kind of like…I don”t know, a little bit more objective about things, you know? Not so caught up in youthful mistakes or whatever.
Drew: Right. I love the fact that you kind of had a rebirth in terms of the way people thought about casting you when you broke in with the McKay/Ferrell group… because like with “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights”… I loved your work in “Talladega Nights.” I loved the give and take between you and Will. You really set something off in each other. There”s a great chemistry that happens, and I think Will needs that sounding board to really shine and the best movies that he”s done are the ones are the ones where he”s got strong guys playing opposite him.
Drew: Did you want to get into that kind of comedy or was it a thing where you met them and it clicked and you just went oh, this feels so natural?
JCR: Well, I come from a background that”s very similar to Adam McKay”s and Will”s, you know? Adam came up in Second City in Chicago doing improv at the same time I was going to acting school at the Goodman School of Drama there, studying more kind of actorly improv, you know? He was doing more comedy improv and I was doing improv by this woman, Viola Spolin. She wasn”t my teacher but she wrote this book that”s using improv for dramatic exploration, you know? Like often times it”s very funny, other times you”re just chasing down the reality of a scene on your feet. And then Will was in L.A. doing the Groundlings, so I met Will through Molly Shannon actually. She and I did a movie together and then I met Will and immediately like we really hit it off. We”re like, wow, like it”s almost like we”re destined to play brothers of some kind because our sense of humor is really similar and just our family backgrounds seemed to be similar and I don”t know, we definitely had a kinship. And so I thought, man, I”d like to work with that guy someday, and then I was just off doing whatever and those guys really liked my acting and then they asked me to do “Anchorman” and I couldn”t do it because I was shooting another movie at the time and I thought, “Ahh I blew it.” Because I did a table read of “Anchorman” and it was just riotously funny.
Drew: I remember reading it when it was in turn-around and I wrote a piece at the time. I was like how can you not make this?
Drew: This is so great.
JCR: There was another movie called “August Blowout” that was really funny, a car salesman movie, but yeah, so I thought I can”t believe I blew that opportunity but what am I going to do? I was doing a Scorsese movie at the time, so then “Talladega Nights” came around. They called me up and said do you want to come do it and we just… all three of us got on like a house on fire and really inspired each other and…yeah.
Drew: I think what I love about the improv is that it doesn”t seem like they”re going for punch lines. I seems like it is about character.
Drew: All of the improv and 99% of what I love about their humor is it”s very character. The conversation about the Baby Jesus and the definition of which Jesus you pray to…
JCR: Yeah, yeah.
Drew: That”s not a joke conversation.
JCR: That”s what a great improviser does. Like you don”t just look for what”s the funny line? What”s the funny line? Like what”s the punch line? It”s more like all right if you”re going to say that the reality is while you were out of the house for 4 hours I took your wife and children… if you”re going to accept that to be the reality… then what happens then? How do you rationalize that to your best friend? How do you like talk your way out of it in a real way, not just in a punch line way? But so yeah, those guys, I mean that”s always the funniest stuff when… those are the biggest laughs I think in comedy in general… laughs of recognition like oh my God that seems like how it would really go down but the circumstances are ridiculous. For me, everyone made a lot of hay out of this fact that I started doing comedy or whatever and whoa, he”s abandoning his serious acting… and to me it”s the same thing. I”m just doing the same thing. The circumstances just got ridiculous, you know?
Drew: I think it speaks well of them that the guys that they go to and the guys that have become sort of part of the growing ensemble, I think they”re all actors. I don”t think anybody is just somebody that I think of as a comedian. I think everybody has chops. Like everybody has depth to them. That”s what makes it funnier I think. I mean, Carrel has great soul and that”s what makes it hilarious.
JCR: Yeah. He”s good in “Anchorman”. Good Lord, he”s funny in that movie.
Drew: We talked about sort of mentor relationship, and when you”re working with guys as young as Josh and Chris on this movie, they”ve got some experience under their belt but obviously you and Defoe and Selma Hyak and actors of substance are on-set, so are they… what”s the relationship with them as you”re sort of rehearsing and putting this together?
JCR: Well, Chris was… this was pretty much his first thing. I think he”d done one other film but this was his first big shot. So I tried to just set a good example, you know, but working hard and coming on time and doing the kind of script work and taking it seriously. Not just reading my lines and you know… like this movie, where you”re dealing with more fantastical elements, you have to be diligent about like what makes sense scene-wise and make sure you”re doing the right thing. And hopefully I just set a good example and I like hanging out with younger people because their enthusiasm is really contagious, so it was fun hanging out with those guys and it makes you feel like you”re 250 years old, to be dealing with 15 and 16 year olds. You”re like alright, yeah. I can”t imagine what it was like for them to tell you the truth because at 15 and 16 I was really shy. I was doing plays… I”ve been doing plays my whole childhood but to be put on the spot like that and to be carrying such a big responsibility, I marvel at it actually.
Drew: If Paul called and there was another one ready, would this be something you”d be interested in coming back and doing more of?
JCR: Yeah. I”m contractually interested. We”re signed up for a couple… I think all of us signed up for a couple more if this goes well, but yeah. In fact, a lot of the really exciting action parts of the movie are yet to come, you know? There”s a lot of books so if you”re read them…
Drew: It really reaches a place… I”m not familiar with the books but when this was first announced I read just what was being adapted for this. And yeah, it leaves you in a place where you feel like all the chess pieces have just moved into position and now you”re ready to start.
Drew: So in a lot of ways this is the build-up.
JCR: Yeah. Yeah, and there are some really cool scenarios. It”s kind of one long road movie. They”re kind of on the move a lot throughout the books and my favorite was book three, which we touched on a little bit in this but I think there could be a really great move just out of book three itself.
Drew: So have you met fans yet of the… like rabid book fans of the series who have seen this now? Have you guys shown this to specifically like fan audiences yet?
JCR: They”ve had test-screenings but I didn”t go to those. They seem to be responding really well. Darren Shan, the author, really loved the movie and kids… hopefully… when I was getting ready to do the movie I talked with some friends of mine who had kids who were that age, and I said well, here”s a sketch of… because they sent me sketches of what the sets were going to look like and stuff. I was like this is going to be the main tent and they”re like oh it shouldn”t have this on the…some little detail like which I didn”t even notice in the picture. I”m like oh, it is there on that table… that one… and they”re like he wouldn”t have that because da-da-da-da and in book 7… like oh, okay. And you realize like younger kids are very literal about the books, you know? They have incredible memories for details of what”s in the book and they”re very literal, so I mean hopefully this movie they can kind of experience it the way Darren Shan experienced it, which is it”s an adaptation. You know? It”s not a recreation of the books. It is something inspired by the books with a lot of the characters and the milieu and the kind of tone of it, but the plot is not exactly the same.
Drew: Well, it”s always interesting because you”re dealing with fans who have their things that they”re connected with and you are never exactly sure what the fans… it can be the strangest things that they”re attached to. But I think the spirit of the thing is ultimately what matters. If you get the spirit….
JCR: You”re not a kid, so, like, did you find the movie entertaining? Like did you want to know how it ended and stuff?
Drew: I did. What I actually liked, because I saw “Under the Mountain” right before thisand it”s aimed at the same age group. It”s also…like, if you want something scary but you aren”t quite old enough for genuinely holy shit scary, this is the right line. And I like those. I think in the ’80″s those were really prevalent, like there were a lot of movies aimed at that group and I think kids like to be scared just a little bit. They like to be pushed just that little bit extra and I like seeing that because I think that it treats them with respect. I think when you treat a younger audience respectfully they respond better. It”s when you talk down to them when you totally take the teeth of out something that I think they can”t hang. You guys played with darkness in this.
JCR: A few moments, we were like that”s bullshit, I tell them. It”s kind of like having this sort of tough older brother or something. It was like, yeah whatever Mom and Dad were telling you, some of that was total bullshit. Here”s how it really works.
Drew: I”ve got to assume Dafoe gets a bigger role as the series continues.
JCR: Well that character, yeah, definitely plays a large part in the story, yeah.
Drew: Because it”s great to see him and you just get a taste of him and he”s so strange and the appearance is so outrageous. It almost looks like he”s wearing like bronzer on top of the pale.
JCR: Yeah. It”s like the real skin color is his neck and then he puts makeup on his face so he doesn”t look like a vampire.
Drew: (laughs) It”s a very deranged look. Like once you notice that, it starts to get really crazy.
Drew: Well, listen, I really enjoyed it, man, and I hope it does well.
JCR: I hope so too.
Drew: I would certainly like to see what else is in the series.
JCR: Yeah. If you look at the first “Harry Potter” movie, and the level of sophistication and what they tailored that movie to and where that series has gotten now, you know? There”s room to grow with making this more intense as the readers and the viewers get older, so I don”t know, hopefully people will see it in that way, like you know things have to start out in one place in order to, you know, grow. You”re not going to be like…
Drew: You can”t build a whole world in one movie.
Drew: The fact that you guys let it breathe actually…
JCR: Yeah, it”s just setting it up, I mean with 12 books, there”s a lot of ground to cover, so...
Drew: Like I said man, I”ve enjoyed you for a lot of years and it”s nice to finally meet you.
JCR: Thanks a lot.
My thanks to Lindsey and Shana over at Universal for their help in putting us together with Mr. Reilly, and of course, “The Vampire’s Assistant” is in theaters starting today.
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