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The Untold Truth Of John C. Reilly

When John C. Reilly appeared in "Gangs of New York," "The Hours," and "Chicago" in 2002, he became one of the very few actors to have performed in three films which were nominated for the Academy Award for best picture in the same year. It was the first time that it happened since 1943 and has only been achieved by one other actor since (Michael Stuhlbarg in 2017). 

Of course, these are all dramatic films and Reilly has had a much more balanced career since then, appearing in blockbusters ("Kong: Skull Island"), comedies ("The Dictator"), dramas ("We Need to Talk About Kevin"), and comedy/dramas ("Cyrus") with equal success. This tonal shift from drama to comedy is the opposite of the usual Hollywood career trajectory, but Reilly has found remarkable success in both fields. So let's take a look at how he got there in this look back over his varied career.

He once stole 500 boxes of cereal from a freight train

When you hear that John C. Reilly got into some criminal mischief while growing up on the South Side of Chicago, you're probably picturing something very different from what actually happened. While he did commit some misdemeanors at a young age, it was all in the name of stealing roughly 500 boxes of Sugar Corn Pops.

Telling the story on "Conan," he revealed that he and his friends once went onto a stalled freight train and smashed the lock of a door to get in. Once they got in, they saw big stacks of cereal, which was the greatest discovery that a group of 12-year-olds could have made. Naturally, they unloaded all of those boxes and hid them in one of their basements for a cereal party.

It sounds like harmless fun, but as Conan O'Brien points out, it was an unsolved crime that Reilly confessed to. It's fun to picture a hard-boiled detective played by Reilly's "Hard Eight" co-star Phillip Baker Hall finally getting a break in the case that's haunted him for so long.

He met his wife on the set of Casualties of War

You can't always rely on IMDb to be accurate. Case in point, it says that Reilly's first movie role was for an uncredited appearance as "Thug in Bar" in Steven Seagal's 1988 movie "Above the Law." However, if you watch the scene that he's supposedly in, it's very clearly his future "Guardians of the Galaxy" co-star Michael Rooker (who received an official credit as "Man in Bar") and not Reilly.

It's remarkable then, that Reilly's true film debut (as confirmed by Vulture) came in Brian De Palma's harrowing 1989 film "Casualties of War" since he was one of the film's main characters. He was originally hired for a bit part, as most debuting actors usually are, but co-star Sean Penn believed in him so much that Reilly received a big promotion. And he owes Penn a lot more than his career since it was on this film set that Reilly met his future wife Alison Dickey, who was working as Penn's assistant at the time. Dickey is a producer now and Reilly gives her full credit for putting together "The Sisters Brothers" for Reilly to star in. 

His role in The Thin Red Line was drastically cut down

It's well known that Adrien Brody was supposed to be the main character in Terence Malick's "The Thin Red Line," and that he didn't find out how much his role was reduced until the film's premiere. It's not just Brody who has been affected by Malick's process though as Reilly also had his role severely cut down.

At least Reilly got a phone call to inform him of this news though, as he recalled for Variety, "[Malick] had this great line: 'John, I just wanted to give you a heads up. I felt that some parts of the picture were like ice floes that separated from the main, and so some of your scenes, well, John, they just floated off.'" He has no hard feelings toward the director though, explaining in his view that he "is more of a philosopher than a filmmaker in a lot of ways." Malick's actors are aware of his editing tendencies by now, but they still get paychecks even if they might prefer that more of their work got to be seen in the films themselves.

Paul Thomas Anderson wrote a part just for him

Some of Reilly's most acclaimed dramatic performances have been in Paul Thomas Anderson films, including "Hard Eight" and "Boogie Nights." Twenty-two years prior to his latest collaboration with Anderson in "Licorice Pizza," Reilly had one of his most substantial roles in "Magnolia," which came about because he specifically asked Anderson for a romantic role.

There was a bit of a misunderstanding though as he explained to Vulture. "Paul saw I was capable of doing more than character work, that I was someone who could carry a story," the actor recalled. "Actually, what I said to him was, 'Hey, you've got to write me my 'Sunrise.' What I meant was a movie called 'Sunrise' from the 1920s. ... Paul didn't realize I was referring to that movie, so he wrote the scene at the end of 'Magnolia' in the morning when the sun is coming up. He thought I literally was like, 'Write me a sunrise.' He and I have actually never talked about that." It's a funny story that led to a lovely moment.

Working with Daniel Day-Lewis was difficult

As talented as Daniel Day-Lewis is, his process of never breaking character while making a movie (an aspect of method acting) has come under fire recently from actors such as Mads Mikkelsen and David Harbour, who have denounced the technique. And when Day-Lewis plays a character as horrible as Bill the Butcher, he's not going to be very nice in his off time. To make up for his off-screen meanness, he praised his co-star Reilly in his SAG acceptance speech.

Reilly explained why he was singled out to Vulture. "When we were making 'Gangs of New York,' he and I hung out a little on the weekends. I remember coming in on a Monday after having a playdate with our children. ... and I made the mistake of saying, 'Hey, thanks for the great weekend.' Then he said, in the dialect of his character, 'F**k off, Jack.'" It's nice that Reilly was able to get an apology of sorts, even if Day-Lewis' behavior was completely unnecessary.

He wanted to parody Days of Thunder in Talladega Nights

"Talladega Nights" was the movie that turned Reilly into a comedic star, but it wasn't his first movie about NASCAR. One of his very first roles was in 1990's "Days of Thunder," Tom Cruise and director Tony Scott's inferior follow-up to "Top Gun." Despite the shared subject matter and star, "Talladega" is not a spoof of "Thunder," but Reilly wanted to make it one for just one scene.

As he told ESPN, "The one scene from "Days of Thunder" that I wanted to recreate in "Talladega Nights" was when Robert Duvall is alone with the car and talking to it at night like it's a person. It gets almost inappropriate. 'I'm gonna buff you out and pump you full of high octane, baby.' We were going to shoot a scene where I was talking and rubbing and then getting way too intimate with the car, but it didn't make it. That was probably for the best." It sounds like something that wouldn't have been out of place in "Titane," but maybe audiences just weren't ready for that yet.

Walk Hard had six months of rehearsals

Reilly is a reliable supporting actor who is usually more of a co-lead when he gets to play a main character. His first opportunity to be the real lead of a film came with "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," which was a spoof of recent musical biopics like "Ray" and "Walk the Line." Unfortunately, the film flopped but has since become a cult classic. Coming so soon after those acclaimed films, it was a little too ahead of its time, before there was more of a glut of musical biopics that play straight some of the tropes that "Walk Hard" satirized. 

To make it work, the creators of the film strove to make as much authentic sounding music as possible and Reilly detailed that to NPR. "Normally on a movie you get maybe a week rehearsal," the actor said. "On this one, we had essentially six months of rehearsal, because every time we made a decision about what the character would be singing, we were making a decision about what his frame of mind was at the time." It's a shame that such hard work wound up being a money loser, but it found its audience eventually.

He knew Step Brothers would be a classic right away

You might not think a film where Will Ferrell rubs his testicles on a drum set would be something that your mother would enjoy. But despite this, Reilly knew the film would become a classic when he found out the film had some surprising fans.

As he explained to Vulture, "I could tell even at the premiere. Will's mom was there with a bunch of her friends, so all of these older ladies were coming up to me like, 'Oh, I just loved the movie so much.' I was like, 'You did? Why?' I was worried it would be too crude for them. They said, 'Oh, we just want to grow you two up.' I realized our characters were sweet enough that people could have maternal feelings toward them. And then 11- or 12-year-olds can also relate because our characters are pretty much kids."

At the time, "Step Brothers" was a domestic hit, (even though it was released against the second weekend of "The Dark Knight"), but received mixed reviews including a scathing one from Roger Ebert. But its reevaluation came quickly and is viewed much more favorably today.

He refuses to admit that Dr. Steve Brule is fictional

Dr. Steve Brule just might be one of the weirdest characters ever played by an Academy Award nominee. Played with full commitment by John C. Reilly on "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job" and its spinoff series "Check it Out! With Dr. Steve Brule," his awkwardness has proven to be endearingly memorable. Explaining the character would probably take away from his mystique though. When promoting "Bagboy," a failed half-hour sitcom pilot created by and starring Brule, Reilly gave a series of interviews where he pretended that he was merely an executive producer who was trying to get people to see the work of Brule.

In one such interview with Vanity Fair, he said, "Steve is a very talented guy, he's an original voice and this show is as good as anything else out there. It seems like people are looking for something more honest, more original, more sincere, or more weird, and this is definitely all those things." When it comes to Brule, saying anything more would probably be ill advised.

He drew from his own life for Wreck-it Ralph

A video game bad guy who longs to be good, "Wreck-it Ralph" has a decidedly fantastical premise. That doesn't mean that the movie had to be completely divorced from reality though and Reilly worked to make the character more human. Ralph was originally supposed to resemble Donkey Kong in appearance, but Reilly worked with the director to make him more relatable. Before he officially signed up, he was in talks with the filmmakers and said that it was a challenge to figure out what kind of creature he is.

Reilly spoke of his inspiration to NPR, "I thought about all of these friends of my dad's in Chicago. I come from a big Irish Catholic family, so all through my childhood I would come upon these guys at family parties, with enormous hands and big guts, and you'd see them getting up from a chair, and it would be like a nine-step process." The movie probably could have still worked if Ralph appeared more monstrous, but the humanity Reilly brought helps make the character more sympathetic.

He views the characters in The Lobster as childlike

Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Lobster" has a killer premise. In a bleak future, single people are given 45 days to find a mate or they'll be transformed into whatever animal they choose. It fits in well with Lanthimos' filmography, which is so strange that something like "The Favourite" seems normal in comparison.

It's an unusual situation to be in and the characters react in appropriately unusual ways. Reilly shared his interpretation of them with Collider, "They're grown people, but they're not in charge of their own destiny, so they come off childlike. For the most part, with kids, it's all fun and games, but sometimes, they're put in a position where they can be dangerous. ...These people are all co-habitating, and yet, they're fighting for survival and in competition with each other. ...Depending on how much you want to succeed, you might do things that are not nice." The people in the film certainly do things that are not nice, acting as selfishly as possible in order to ensure that they live to see another day as humans.

He only had a week to prepare for Winning Time

Playing a real-life character usually takes a long time to prepare for, depending on how dedicated an actor is. Daniel Day-Lewis, for example, spent a year researching Abraham Lincoln before he would go on to play the role in the Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln." Unfortunately, Michael Shannon, the original choice to play Jerry Buss in "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty," dropped out and Reilly didn't have nearly as much time to get ready.

Luckily, he had a trusty collaborator to work with who knew he would deliver. "I had to just go with my instincts, but I knew with Adam McKay that I'd be in good hands," he told The Radio Times. "I knew that improvisation and going with your gut would be the perfect thing to do with Adam. And once I saw my hairstyle (that's my own hair by the way, it's a real combover, it's not a wig) and once I grew the moustache, I thought, okay, I look like him now. Now what does it mean? What does it feel like to be him?" It's a gamble that paid off though, since all the reviews for "Winning Time," from the positive to the negative, have praised Reilly's performance.

He hates watching his own movies

John C. Reilly has been in a number of great films over the years, but unfortunately, he doesn't get to enjoy them the way that audiences do. He finds it hard to disassociate the act of watching something from all the work that was put into it behind the scenes.

In an interview with Esquire, Reilly admits that he can't just watch something of his that pops up on cable. "I always get a headache the first time I watch a movie I'm in," the actor said, "because you're staring at the screen so hard, your brain is doing all this work trying to put things in context of what the day-to-day experience of making it was. And the timeline that's in your head of when it was made, and on what day, how you felt. And then you're also trying to grasp what it's been edited into." It's a shame that Reilly can't sit back and relax, but it's a sign that he takes his work very seriously.