With his mass of curly hair and doughy face, John C. Reilly looks more like a bartender in a local pub than your typical movie star. Yet, it’s that regular-guy persona that makes Reilly such an endearing, successful character actor. Since his movie debut as a soldier in Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War, Reilly has proven that he can play a diverse array of characters—from Howard Hawks’ right-hand man, Noah Dietrich (The Aviator) to charming con men (Criminal), singing cowboys (A Prairie Home Companion), desperate, self-destructive businessmen (The Promotion) and, of course, lovable lunkheads, which have become his specialty.
In 2002, the ubiquitous Reilly was in three movies that were nominated for Oscars (and, coincidentally, all released in the same month)—Chicago (for which he received a nod for Best Supporting Actor), The Aviator and The Hours—proof that the actor has a truly golden touch when choosing material.
Reilly’s career has recently taken an unexpected turn, as the stage-trained thespian has proven to be surprisingly adept at playing larger-than-life characters in comedies like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and his latest film, Step Brothers.
On the horizon, Reilly has once again switched genres, lending his talents to two high-profile fantasy films: He provides his voice for one of the characters in the animated sci-fi adventure 9, to be released in December, and later this year he’ll play a circus performer who also happens to be a vampire in Cirque du Freak.
In a 2004 cover story interview with MM, Reilly said, “There’s something good about being the underdog. I never want to be the top dog. I want to be the underdog because people are rooting for you.” While Reilly may not be considered an “underdog” by most, he’ll most certainly have audiences rooting for him for the rest of his career.
With his latest sure-to-be-a-comedy-hit, Step Brothers, MM takes a look back at some of Reilly’s most memorable performances.
Boogie Nights (1997)
After almost 10 years of bit parts, Reilly finally got the juicy supporting role he deserved as Reed Rothchild, the slightly dim-witted, delusional porn star/drug addict who dreams of being a magician. Reilly’s funny, poignant performance (much of which was improvised) was his second time working with friend/visionary moviemaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Reilly had a pivotal role in Anderson’s first film, Hard Eight, and joined him again for his third opus, Magnolia, in which, among the ensemble cast of liars and narcissists, he played one of the only truly likable characters: A caring, good-hearted police officer.
The Good Girl (2002)
Playing husband to depressed Retail Rodeo clerk Jennifer Aniston, Reilly turned in another true-to-life performance as a well-meaning oaf in The Good Girl, directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Mike White (The School of Rock). The actor plays lazy house painter Phil, permanently attached to the living room couch and constantly smoking pot with his creepy friend Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). While many could have played the role as a caricature, Reilly wisely keeps Phil grounded in reality, delivering a performance that unexpectedly makes the audience feel empathy for the character’s dead-end life. As Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times said, “Reilly reveals the tenderness, vulnerability and hidden depth that can lurk within a slob.” Five years later, Reilly re-teamed with White for another sharp supporting role in The Year of the Dog.
Reilly’s only Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination was for this hit Broadway musical turned Best Picture winner. Once again, Reilly plays the dutiful husband, this time to Renée Zellweger’s chorus girl-turned-murderer Roxie Hart. As timid Amos, Reilly finally gets his moment to shine with his understated performance of “Mr. Cellophane,” for which his real singing voice was used. The lyrics to the song, which include the refrain “…you can look right through me, walk right by me and never know I’m there,” could also be applied to the actor himself who, for much of his early career, never got his time in the spotlight. Roger Ebert said of the performance, “Reilly brings a kind of pathetic sincere naiveté to the role—the same tone, indeed, he brings to a similar husband in The Hours, where it is also needed.”
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Reilly was a memorable sidekick to Will Ferrell in this NASCAR send-up. The two play race car drivers and best buds who stick together through thick and thin. While one of Reilly’s broadest performances, the hit comedy also gave him the chance to reach a much wider audience and flex his improv muscles. The film proved that even a stage-trained actor like Reilly could bring the funny just as hard as an experienced comic like Will Ferrell. The two were such a popular on-screen duo that they no longer seem such an odd pairing for this week’s release.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
Reilly’s first leading role in a major studio movie came in this gag-a-minute spoof of music biopics like Walk the Line and Ray. Co-written by the ubiquitous Judd Apatow, the film once again features Reilly using his own singing voice for the tongue-in-cheek songs, some of which he also co-wrote. Although it was far from Oscar consideration, Walk Hard proved Reilly had the charisma and comedy chops to bring in audiences with a starring role all his own.
Step Brothers (2008)
Reilly’s latest film re-teams him with his Talladega Nights cohorts, star-writer Will Ferrell and writer-director Adam McKay, for what looks like another sure-fire late summer comedy hit. The high-concept premise finds Reilly and Ferrell (who both receive a “story by” credit along with McKay) becoming competitive step brothers after their single parents get married.