When I met John C. Reilly here at the Toronto International Film Festival, the first thing I thought to myself was, Man, this guy can rock a cool hat. He really can. It’s pretty remarkable. I met Reilly on a chilly September morning in Toronto; in person, he is simultaneously imposing and sweet, which serves him well in his new film, The Sisters Brothers, which is already having a pretty dazzling festival run. Reilly plays Eli Sisters, one half of the brother team (Charlie Sisters is played by Joaquin Phoenix) chasing down a chemist (Riz Ahmad) who has discovered a new way to strike it rich during the California gold rush.
Reilly started his career as a dramatic actor. His first film was Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War, which kicked off a string of successes that includes Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Then came the mid-2000s, where films like Talladega Nights and Step Brothers turned him into a comedy star. When Step Brothers is brought up, it’s weird, because it’s obvious that Reilly still adores that movie, but it’s also pretty apparent that he doesn’t want to be remembered for just that. He’s an actor with a pretty eclectic filmography and The Sisters Brothers goes a long way to cement that eclecticism.
John C. Reilly: My wife, who is one of the producers, wanted me to tell you that she really enjoyed what you said about the movie. You wrote that review about (how it makes one go) “huh.” She was like, “That’s exactly right, that is the effect of the movie.” It takes a second afterward — what did I just see?
It really does. And the trailer leans into the comedy and that’s not the movie.
Well, like you know, marketing is a whole other animal.
First of all, this is unrelated, but you have the best hats. Do you have a hat guy?
Well, I’ve been collecting them for a while.
Not everyone can pull that off, they’re great.
When I was a little kid and I couldn’t have them for whatever reason.
Who didn’t let you have a hat?
Well, it’s like a fedora hat for a little kid is an expense most parents are not going to do, at least not in the 1970s. So when I could afford it… Humphrey Bogart was pretty cool to me.
And then in the ’80s Indiana Jones made them cool again.
Almost like his own style of hat, the Indy hat.
You also produced The Sisters Brothers. I can tell when that’s not just a throwaway producer title when someone’s involved because they’re actually out there stumping their ass off for the movie.
I do that for everything I do though. I do see that as my responsibility regardless of how I feel about the movie. My agreement was that I would do it and I would try to get people to see it and I take that responsibility pretty seriously. But yeah, this one took a little over seven years, that’s the longest job I’ve ever held in my whole life for any reason.
That’s how long this took?
Yeah, we’re going on seven years now since we got the rights to the book. All those pieces that are put together to make it what it is now took a long time to get put together. (Director/screenwriter) Jacques Audiard was doing other things. That’s the main thing, a director’s usually booked out a year or two at least in advance and Jacques already had some things on the stove when we offered him this.
That’s an inspired choice for director, by the way.
We didn’t want the director to feel like an employee. And I think Jacques really appreciated that too because that allowed him the full freedom and license that he’s used to as a director to make a film exactly in his comfort zone. That said, it’s kind of out of his comfort zone, some of the aspects of the film. But in terms of the actual physical production of the film with his crew and shooting in Europe, all that kind of thing, it allowed him to make a movie the way he knows how to make a movie.
This is a crazy comparison, but it’s kind of like hiring Irvin Kershner to direct The Empire Strikes Back — he was not a sci-fi person.
Yeah, that’s actually kind of a good example. I certainly love that movie. It might be my favorite Star Wars movie of all. It’s an appropriate example because you’re taking something that is a certain genre and then the person’s like, well, I don’t really care about the genre. I tell stories and the background is the genre and the story is the thing. That was definitely Jacques’s point of view on this.
The Sisters Brothers doesn’t have the same tone as Unforgiven, but it’s in the same spirit as Unforgiven, in that it upends the traditional Western a bit.
Well, I’m sure Clint Eastwood by the time he made Unforgiven was like, “Alright, I gotta change it up, I’ve made quite a few Westerns.” For some people it’s about relationships between brothers. To some people it’s about the legacy of fathers. I think because of this intense moment we’re at in the world right now, kind of this tipping point in time, people are looking at sustainability in the world, and we came from a path of violence and brutality, but that’s not going to sustain us into the future. What kind of world do we want, you know? And the characters are literally asking themselves that: what kind of world do we want? What kind of future do we want? So it’s really relevant for that reason.
It’s a movie I like more and more every day.
Yeah, it sneaks up on you. But then you’re right, it has this extending quality afterward. And I really crave that. I watch so many movies. I think I watched three movies on the way over here on the airplane from France.
What did you watch?
I don’t want to say, but two of them, I literally couldn’t tell you what the plot of the movie was after I finished it. They weren’t bad movies, but I’m really craving stuff that has a deeper meaning or relevance now.
Speaking of more relevance, you’re never going to admit to this, but it felt like you were making a statement in this movie. I looked and 26 of your first 27 movies were dramas.
That never occurred to me. When my wife read me that part of that review, I was like, “Wow, that’s amazing. I should start using that line: Well, I made 26 before I did any comedies!”
I feel like you’re on screen going, look, I can carry a drama Western, how about that?
You know, the truth is, I don’t really have to remind people. My work has a lot of variety to it and the last few things I’ve done haven’t been comedy. And even though, like you say, the first 26 movies I did were not necessarily thought of as comedies, but I was often a funnier character. Even my first movie, Casualties of War, he’s a funny character within a very serious movie.
That was on TV the other day and I was shocked when you showed up in it.
Yeah, it was the first time I was on an airplane! The first time I left the country. It was a surreal time.
Your first director was Brian De Palma.
I know, Sean Penn and all these people. The thing is, I would never lecture an audience (over not being remembered for dramatic work).
It would be funny if you did. “Look, people…”
“You forgot!” No, because the truth is, I actually feel really grateful to audiences. Because actors often get stereotyped into things and it’s not their fault. It’s often because an audience wants people to be a certain way. They find you really appealing when you play this kind of role and they want that over and over again. And I feel really lucky and grateful that, over the years, the audiences allowed me to be all these different things. So even though certain kinds of moviegoers might know me for comedy, it just depends what you’re into. At this point, I’ve made almost 80 movies or something. So the chance is that I’ve made some kind of movie that you like at some point in my life.
A friend of mine interviewed you a few weeks ago and after you told him, “Thanks for not bringing up Step Brothers.”
No, I’m really proud of that movie. We just had our ten-year anniversary so people just couldn’t resist — it was in the air. But I don’t mind, I love talking about that movie. It’s a really subversive, weird movie that I put a lot of my heart into. To me, there’s a similar amount of commitment required and personal investment in it, you know? Not all my roles do I put that much persona. I’m not always allowed to put that much personal input into the story. Sometimes I’m just given a role that’s written and it is what it is. But Step Brothers, and this one, and Stan and Ollie, that’s coming out soon…
Congratulations on that one, by the way, I just saw the news.
Yeah, we sold it to Sony Classics.
Did you ever listen to the time Dick Van Dyke was on Marc Maron’s podcast?
No, but I know the story.
Dick Van Dyke looked up Stan Laurel in the phone book and he just went over to his house.
I do want to hear that, yeah. Because he lived in Santa Monica and, you know, Oliver died in 57, and Stan spent the rest of his life writing sketches for the two of them but never working again. He would answer fan mail and write sketches for him and Ollie, that’s what he spent his final years doing. But yeah, Dick Van Dyke just cold-called him as a kid. He just stayed on the phone, oh yeah, come in, very nice to meet you.
Could you imagine doing that? I love that story so much.
Sometimes someone will get my phone number through whatever, this way or that way, whether it’s through a Little League call sheet or something. I kept it for the longest time, this voicemail, this little squeaky voice, “Hello, John C. Reilly, I very much like your work in Wreck-It Ralph and I wanted to say thank you for making Wreck-It Ralph. Okay, goodbye.”
Oh, that’s nice.
Yeah. I thought, “Oh, it’s going to be a prank call” and it was this tiny little thing. Like a kid saying thank you for Wreck-It Ralph. It was awesome. I wish I knew who it was.
Maybe that kid will read this and go “Oh, he got my message!”
I saved it on my phone for like two years or something. I’d play it for people, “Listen to this sweet message.” Oh, we’ve got the sequel coming out. I’m really excited about it. In some ways I was more excited even than the first one because we’ve got the kind of landscape of the characters down. And I engaged early on with the guys about the story.
Oh really, so you got deep into this one?
I put a lot of my heart into both of those movies.
You never know with voice roles, because sometimes you’ll talk to actors and they’re like, “I just showed up that day and did a voice.”
Well, that’s the way a lot of them are made. But Wreck-It Ralph, I think because we decided before we made that first one that we were going to be in the room together. I can understand why people feel a little more disconnected, but not on Wreck-It Ralph, man. Yeah, it’s really cool. And we say some kind of cool things about the internet and the culture of the internet and people’s craving for anonymous affirmation, you know, that kind of thing. Craving hearts, this thing that people do on the internet. Which there are some really meaningful things. And for girls there’s some very cool stuff in the movie. I don’t want to spoil it but there’s some very cool, empowering things for female audience members.
One of the best descriptions of the internet I’ve read was when Frank Oz joined Twitter right after The Last Jedi came out. And one night there was this random tweet where he’s like “I can’t stop tweeting, it’s like playing a slot machine. How many retweets and likes can I get on anything I say?”
Exactly. Literally, like gambling or fishing. Throwing something out there and hoping to get something back. I have studiously avoided that entirely.
Now everyone’s trying to get off of it.
That’s the new trend.
I’m ahead of my time, I never joined.
‘The Sisters Brothers’ opens September 21st. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.