Life of Reilly
A conversation between Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson and his favorite actor, John C. Reilly, reveals what it’s like for Reilly to be starring in Anderson’s new Magnolia, which features a supporting player named Tom Cruise.
John C. Reilly is an unsung hero of American movies. The appealingly grizzled, gruff-looking 34-year-old has given indelible performance in movies like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Dolores Claiborne, Georgia, Boogie Nights, The Thin Red Line and For the Love of the Game without attaining critical-darling status the way a showier actor might have. Reilly’s cult following is made up of those who appreciate an absolute natural. It isn’t so much that you don’t catch him making a false move. It’s more like you don’t catch him acting. Reilly’s biggest Hollywood fan is Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer/director who has used him most astutely to date, first in Hard Eight, then in Boogie Nights, and now in his new film, Magnolia. Anderson has such confidence in Reilly that, even though Tom Cruise is also in the movie, Reilly is the film’s romantic lead. What better person to interview Reilly than the director who sees so much in him?
Paul Thomas Anderson: I first became aware of you when I saw your first movie Casualties of War. Then you worked with Sean Penn again in We’re No Angels and State of Grace and I thought you were almost his sidekick, but also a really good actor.
John C. Reilly: It was like, would you like an entrée of Sean Penn with a side of John C. Reilly? Although I got along well with Sean as an actor, I purposely didn’t spend a lot of personal time with him and I didn’t want people to think that I was getting parts because I was his friend. By the time we did The Thin Red Line together, we were fucking sick and tired of each other and were like, “Oh, you old woman, just leave me alone.”
Q: Your first branch-off from Penn was Days of Thunder, which was with Tom Cruise, and now you’re in Magnolia together.
A: I love Tom and think he’s a great actor, but at the time it was all about working with Robert Duvall. That movie was a bizarre experience. I was coming off serious movies and suddenly there’s Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer in their fucking heyday like Sodom and Gomorrah. It was a fall from grace for me as a young man to see the decadence that movie and Hollywood at its most extreme - $100,000 parties and recruiting girls off the beach to come be extras. It was nuts.
Q: Actually, between Days of Thunder and Magnolia, you starred in the short film Tom directed for Showtime’s series Fallen Angels, “The Frightening Frammis.” Tom told me he was concerned he wouldn’t get you for his movie, and I was concerned I wouldn’t get you for Hard Eight because you were too big a star to do it.
A: Which is so the opposite of my pathetic life. I was told Tom wanted to meet me, but it seemed like he didn’t doubt at all I was gonna do it. He was like, “OK, we’re starting on Wednesday, could you comb your hair down?”
Q: So, how does it feel now to be the star of a Tom Cruise movie?
A: It didn’t cross my mind. I’m glad it didn’t, because it would have been more pressure. I just felt like I was part of this huge jigsaw.
Q: Do you feel excited about being “the character actor who gets the girl” in the movie?
A: The thing is, you seemed to be writing for me before we even knew each other. I felt like we were already on the same wavelength when we met.
Q: How would you describe the differences in shooting Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia?
A: Hard Eight was like we billed somebody’s rich uncle and were getting away with some crazy scheme out in the desert and had to finish before anyone figured out what happened. Gwyneth Paltrow was fairly new in the movie business and it was exciting, all of us giddy with getting to know each other. We knew we were doing a good, original movie. By Boogie Nights, we already had our groove on. This really felt like we were in the big time. One great thing about the three characters I’ve played in your movies is that they’re so committed to the dream of their life, they’re just unshakable. There’s something really poignant and funny about people like that.
Q: What about the vibe on Magnolia?
A: You just took it to the next level and came into your own. There were certain aspects of Boogie Nights that, because of its size, seemed like you were kinda playing it by ear. On Magnolia, it was like, “All right, I don’t have to play it by ear. I know what I like to say and the ways to say it.” It was a very intricate masterwork and you pulled it off.
Q: The character I wrote for you stems from the summer a movie project was taken away from me. In our restlessness, we did video improvs of faux Cops episodes with you and Philip Seymour Hoffman. That’s how the dialogue and characters were created, directly from the improvs – it was a character you’d already lived with for two years.
A: Those improv videos were so great because we were just having a blast. The guy became more grounded in your script.
Q: Remember you once asked me, “Come on, man, can’t you write me a sunrise where I get the fucking girl?” It’s kind of a romantic leading man, right?
A: You did this with a few people in Magnolia – tapped into what’s real not just for the characters, but for the people playing them. In the beginning, it was kind of a joke: “Be careful what you say around Paul, it’ll end up in the movie.” Now, that’s just become a given. But I can’t be “cool John” in front of you. I lay it on the line. I say stupid shit to people. I don’t try to hide my personality at all.
Q: Do you think you’ll get to a point where you just don’t do any publicity?
A: If a project’s success depends on your promoting it, you should promote it. I’m just like an Irish bullshit artist from way back, so I don’t mind. It’s kind of like therapy. puff-piece therapy. There’s this code of silence on a press junket, like you just talk about how great your costars were and how Kevin Costner wasn’t a total prick.
Q: A portion of me thinks that the true appreciation of your work won’t happen until your movies are playing on AMC 40 years from now, a sort of “He was the fucking greatest,” sort of like looking back now on Elisha Cook Jr. or someone.
A: I think I’m appreciated by people who watch movies to the degree that they don’t know who I am from movie to movie. That’s actually a compliment. Some people think I’m just stupid for this, but I try think in long-term goals, to do work that I can be proud of in 10, 20 years, not just disposable crap that made everyone chuckle in the moment.
Q: [Sardonically] And what’s the name of the movie you’re making – The Perfect Storm?
A: Good movie, man. A good character in this movie. Wolfgang Petersen’s directing it. I just want it to be Das Boot, not Air Force One.
Q: Anyway, hopefully this is the last movie we’ll ever make together. I met Oliver Platt today.
A: Hey, I’m just trying to become the Michael Caine/Gene Hackman of my generation.