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What a Character: The Unlikely Movie Stardom of John C. Reilly

The veteran supporting player—currently appearing in ‘Holmes & Watson’ and ‘Stan & Ollie’—may not be a household name, but he’s definitely a familiar face. Here’s how the ‘Step Brothers’ star combines normalcy and absurdity into acting magic.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What happens to the persona of a character actor when he becomes something of a star? Celebrated for his reliable weird sidekick work and his depictions of touching oddballs, John C. Reilly has slowly but surely become more than just a familiar face. Now aged 53, he’s a special kind of star, but a star nonetheless.

It may surprise those who know Reilly as a near-constant presence in American cinema and mostly recognize him for his comedic turns to learn that his first film role was very dark, as well as a happy accident. After obtaining a day-player part in Brian De Palma’s Vietnam drama Casualties of War, the 23-year-old Reilly got called back because several actors had been fired, and he’d made an impression on the director. Reilly got the bigger role of Private Hatcher, a member of a platoon of soldiers who kidnap and rape a young Vietnamese girl. It wasn’t much screen time, but Reilly made an impression as a goof who goes bad—and worked with an auteur director from day one.

More small parts followed, and Reilly’s lighter side began to show. His scruffy face, curly hair, and nasal and trailing voice made him naturally suited to the nice, normal-guy persona. He fit right into the American dramas-slash-star-vehicles of the 1990s directed by huge filmmakers, playing the floppy counterpart to Tom Cruise’s wonderfully coiffed car racer in Tony Scott’s Days of Thunder (1990), or Johnny Depp’s big-hearted big friend in Lasse Hallström’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993). A little odd in every respect, but tender and self-effacing, too, Reilly was, even at that young age (he jokes that he’s “looked like a 53-year-old man since [he] was 18”), the comforting friend who made the main hot dude look like more of a human being than an angel crossed with a sex robot.

This regular-guy image led Reilly to more straightforward comedy, starting as soon as 1989 with Neil Jordan’s We’re No Angels, for which he was recommended by his Casualties of War costar Sean Penn. As a clueless and naive young monk, he brings life and normalcy to the slightly overextended antics of Penn and Robert De Niro, who play a pair of crooks passing as priests to escape the police. Many years later, Reilly would sort of reprise this part (but go uncredited) in the Adam Sandler film Anger Management (2003), this time turning to Buddhism and adding some headbutting into the mix. Say what you will about that bad film, but it’s not Reilly’s fault if Hollywood loves to compare religious belief to good-hearted foolishness.

But fools, by definition, aren’t just funny—they also make mistakes. After being paired up with Paul Thomas Anderson at the Sundance Institute Directors Lab, Reilly appeared in the filmmaker’s feature debut, Hard Eight. Originally titled Sydney, the film’s complicated production made it a painful learning experience for Anderson, but also marked the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between two gifted artists. As the naive protagonist John, Reilly is a sympathetic young man who manages to get out of his funk, thanks to Good Samaritan and casino expert Sydney (Philip Baker Hall). That is, until his own big heart and lack of tact get him in trouble again—this time with more violent consequences.

Anderson would let Reilly play similarly lovely dumbos again, with ever increasing screen time, in Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Those efforts tapped into his tender nature, as well as the improvisational skills he developed at Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre, to yield naturalistic and hilarious performances in his intense and heightened worlds. Reilly’s Boogie Nights character, Reed Rothchild, is dumb, but no dumber than his friend/costar Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), the young man who finds himself becoming a star of porn cinema in 1970s Los Angeles. The tenderness of Dirk and Reed’s bromance is nowhere more evident than when Reed bashfully shares with Dirk a poem he’s written. As their jacuzzi bubbles, Reed delivers a pathetic but cute ode about bees who don’t sting “because you love me,” which he (and therefore Reilly) seems to have made up on the spot. Neither Reilly nor Wahlberg breaks out of character, and Dirk sincerely congratulates his friend, for he, too, has big creative dreams. It is stolen moments like these that, somewhat paradoxically, become unforgettable and endlessly quotable.

One of the very first scenes in Hard Eight may have planted the seed of the biggest turn in Reilly’s career. In a diner, Sydney offers the younger man his help, freely, but John, suspicious of the old man’s motives, warns him, “I know three types of karate, OK? Jujitsu, aikido, and regular karate.” Twelve years later, Reilly accepted Will Ferrell’s offer to do karate in the garage in Adam McKay’s Step Brothers, channeling a similar type of childish stupidity but making it bigger, louder, and even funnier. Sydney and John eventually become best friends, just like Reilly’s Dale Doback and Ferrell’s Brennan Huff. Following 2006’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, this second collaboration between the two stars and director McKay is the better realized one, because it fully delves into both their ordinariness as character actors and their abilities for absurd, incongruous improv.

By any standards (pre–Step Brothers, anyway), Dale and Brennan never should be the protagonists of any film: They are 40-year-old and 39-year-old men living with their parents, with no prospects or ambitions, and although being stupid and gross can be funny, they are a little too stupid and gross for comfort. Step Brothers leans into this unlikeliness to come out the other side as a unique specimen, a buddy comedy where neither character is subservient to the other, yet each is hilarious on his own, in a story line that does away with coherence in favor of crazed, unfathomable sequences, and ends up being one of the most genuine and moving recent portraits of family life and American suburbia.

Step Brothers made Reilly a key cog in the rise of the American gross-out comedy genre. And even though that film was met with lukewarm reactions upon its release, Reilly had just come off the success of the Walk the Line parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), in which he took center stage. The character actor here doesn’t have a sidekick nor does he fade into a group effort; instead, he plays the hero, his freewheelin’ performance style and unglamorousness highlighted and celebrated for absurdist comedic effect. With his oddness in the spotlight, Reilly indirectly mocks the pretentiousness not only of biopics, but of Hollywood actors in general, and makes the ability to embrace ridiculousness the real mark of an acting talent—and of directorial integrity. In the years since Walk Hard was released, it has become a compass for critics against which to judge any film’s degree of self-seriousness. It’s also an incredible showcase for Reilly’s singing talent, yet another mark of authenticity as the actor doesn’t imitate Johnny Cash as much as make his own beautiful voice iconic in itself. His melodious and soothing tones in the film’s closing number, “Beautiful Ride,” put Bradley Cooper in the shallows.

Reilly’s disturbing recurring role on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! as the talk show host Dr. Steve Brule pushed this reclaiming of absurd ridicule way further—because are you really honest about your fallibility if you’re not also making fun of your honesty? Giving advice on “living on your lonesome” or going to a fertility clinic, Brule is Reilly accentuating his weirdness, using improvisation to always go in the scariest, least politically correct direction, to push his comedy over the edge and into darkness. In a too-absurd-to-be-traumatizing way, Brule shows that the line between funny and disturbing, and also between humor and violence, is one that Reilly can cross easily.

And so he does regularly, weaponizing his goofiness to portray pathetic and upsetting characters. As Amos Hart in the Oscar-winning Chicago (2002), his cluelessness makes him tragic not only because his wife cheats on him, but also because he isn’t smart enough to understand that, before taking the blame for the murder of her lover. It is testament to Reilly’s talent that one of the film’s most memorable and convincing musical numbers is Amos’s song, “Mister Cellophane,” about how invisible he feels. Wearing sad make-up and making pathetic jazz hands, Reilly finally plays a literal clown, a character type for which he’s had a lot of affection all his life (he collects paintings of clowns in his office) and which he refuses to find scary. To him, their layers of personality and their devotion to their characters make those jesters interesting. Behind their carefully crafted masks, one can try to see the real person—just as a John C. Reilly fan like myself could observe him playing all his strange and eclectic roles, and still somehow recognize the actor behind each of them.

In Gangs of New York (2002), Reilly’s simplicity and sadness are more brutal and vicious. It was Reilly’s first collaboration with Martin Scorsese (they reunited two years later for The Aviator), which for any American actor would represent some sort of peak auteur cinema achievement—even for someone who, like Reilly, had already worked with the ur-auteur of American filmmakers, Terrence Malick, in 1998’s The Thin Red Line. But he is always searching out great and/or independent filmmakers: In 2011, he appeared in Lynne Ramsay’s controversial film We Need to Talk About Kevin as well as in Roman Polanski’s Carnage, bringing to each of these rather heavy films some natural levity. His appearance in Yorgos Lanthimos’s first American film, The Lobster, in 2015 may have been his most artsy turn yet. Although only a supporting character, the conflation of the typically stilted acting style of Lanthimos’s films and Reilly’s naturalism makes him truly Bressonian, at once minimalistic and yet still compellingly human.

Reilly’s combination of realness and fun—and now, maturity—also makes him a surprisingly logical addition to more mainstream and modern film genres, starting with the animated children’s film. In 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, he became the leading man precisely because his video game character, Ralph, couldn’t be one: He was a big, ugly villain, and therefore disliked by his virtual companions. Through his generosity and his courage, he proved to be lovable, and now, in the film’s sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, his bona fide heroism makes him responsible for the rescue of his universe. Reilly’s unique voice encapsulates all his traits as a performer: It is as strange, gentle, and hilarious as he is, and brings liveness to every film. He recently appeared on The New York TimesModern Love podcast, reading an essay about a divorced father struggling to remain present for his son; his seemingly uncontrolled intonation and untheatrical delivery contrasts with the typical dramatic readings of those “stories of love, loss, and redemption,” and makes for an unusual experience, as though you were listening to the guy you know well from your local coffee shop sincerely telling his life story.

Evolving with the times but remaining true to his kind and comedic self, Reilly has also appeared in the most recent version of superhero movies—specifically the more lighthearted and genuine ones, far from the bleakness of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and closer, in spirit if not always in visual style and narrative, to the straightforward action films of the past. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) used him as a loyal and slightly silly family man, but Kong: Skull Island (2017) elevated his wacky act to make it the emotional heart of the story. As Hank Marlow, a castaway who has made the best of his situation while also going a little mad, Reilly humbles this self-serious film: “John’s performance, instead of taking you out of the moment, somehow makes it more real, more human,” said director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. The film opens and closes with Reilly’s character, who, unlike stars Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson, is neither athletic nor sexy nor young, but keeps this outrageous remake on track.

The amazing run that Reilly is having right now, starring in no fewer than four films between September and New Year’s Eve, feels like the culmination of all his tendencies. Ever the favorite of auteur filmmakers, he appeared alongside Joaquin Phoenix (another Lynne Ramsay alumnus) in French director Jacques Audiard’s first American film, The Sisters Brothers, a comedy Western about brotherly bonds and the perennial pressures of capitalism. This film doubles as a buddy movie, yet one in which Reilly plays the more reasonable acolyte to his crazier and more obviously funny companion Phoenix—an interesting reversal of expectations and one that pays off. Reilly’s Eli has had to put his ambitions (romantic and otherwise) aside in order to take care of his troubled brother, Charlie, which has atrophied Eli’s joviality into a level-headedness and sadness that he occasionally manages to shed throughout the film. Now older, Reilly has found new ways to play with his natural puerility to make his characters more melancholy and touching, but also more amusing.

It is therefore no surprise that next week, Reilly will appear on American screens as two legends of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, respectively, in Holmes & Watson and Stan & Ollie. Historical movies, with their claims to at least some degree of authenticity, need actors of Reilly’s down-to-earth nature, but the fact that those films, like The Sisters Brothers, are also buddy comedies, elevates him from good ensemble material to co-frontman once again. With Ferrell reuniting with Reilly to play the Holmes to his Watson, one can expect their anachronistic man-child shtick to clash with the stiff-upper-lip of the English, and parody the overblown, unrealistic intellectual capabilities of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s hero.

As the Hardy to Steve Coogan’s Laurel in Stan & Ollie, however, Reilly again employs his comedy chops for pathos, diving into the clown genre one more time, but from the perspective of an older man. The film follows the legendary duo on their last theater tour of Great Britain, trying to revive public interest in their fading act and finding their friendship tested. Reilly dons a costume to match Hardy’s heavy figure, but remains recognizable, which may be the main reason I cried just watching the film’s trailer: I refuse to see anyone disrespect the sweet and funny John C. Reilly. He’ll fuck you up if you fuck with him. He knows three types of karate, OK?