'As an actor you’re not at the top of the food chain in the film world'

John C Reilly, actor, singer-songwriter

John C Reilly.

John C Reilly.

“The man who was Wreck-it Ralph just phoned and he’ll ring back in 10 minutes” hollered my excited daughter through the living room window that she had expressly opened for hollering purposes.

I was returning from the shop, and, typical of life’s quirks and annoyances, John C Reilly had happened to call at the very moment I had popped out. Gentleman that he is, John did call back after the designated 10 minutes and commented on the polite "little person" who had fielded his first call. I remarked how she was a huge fan of Wreck-it Ralph and how she wanted me to tell him he ought to make a sequel. “We are making a sequel, that’s happening,” he replies, thereby ensuring one happy daughter in the McBride household. “I enjoyed doing that movie, Wreck-it Ralph was a dream. The great thing about doing a voice-over movie is that you don’t have to change your clothes or put make-up on or anything like that!”

John C Reilly comes to Galway this weekend as an honoured guest of the Galway Film Fleadh. The fleadh is screening his deliciously funny musical biopic comedy Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story. Reilly is also doing an afternoon chat in the Town Hall and performing two gigs in St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church with his roots/Americana ensemble John Reilly & Friends.

'I was listening to a lot of Irish trad'

The John Reilly & Friends’ repertoire showcases old-timey classic American folk, country and bluegrass songs. I ask John how he discovered this material. “I grew up in Chicago and I was listening to a lot of traditional Irish music actually, that was what my dad was into,” he replies. “My mom was into old Tin Pan Alley kind of stuff. It wasn’t a hotbed of bluegrass where I lived. The few times I did come in contact with it, it really struck a chord with me and stayed with me and I searched it out. The Beverly Hillbillies was probably the first time I heard bluegrass! Then I remember I picked up a cassette in a convenience store called Bluegrass Greatest Hits. I heard the Stanley Brothers for the first time on that and with those groups, the Delmore Brothers, the Louvins and so on, you start with one and you peel back the layers of the onion, and the next thing you know you’re into a really rich history and eventually you are back in Ireland.”

Reilly was born in Chicago, the fifth of six children. His dad, who ran a linen industry business, was a huge fan of the Clancy Brothers and they informed John’s own musical development.

“The Clancy Brothers were a huge influence from a very early age,” he tells me. “I think that’s one of the reasons I got into bluegrass music actually because the roots of bluegrass are so intertwined with Irish and English traditional music so I think maybe the Clancys laid that groundwork. That’s what a lot of the songs of the Clancys did, in the 1960s they were not just doing Irish songs, they were collecting folk music from all over the world – they made Australian traditional music popular, they kept alive certain American songs that people here had forgotten about.”

The gospel according to Wikipedia declares Reilly is of Scottish and Irish roots, he clarifies his origins thus; “My father’s mother was a McLean that is where the Scottish side is. I haven’t done a proper genealogical exploration of my origins, all I have is the hearsay of many great storytellers in my family.”

'I try to pick something that inspires me'

Reilly began acting onstage as a child, often in musicals – he has declared that he would love to play Nathan Detroit in any possible revival of Guys and Dolls. He went on to act with Steppenwolf Theatre Company before making his screen debut in Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War in 1989. Although his role was written as a small one, De Palma liked Reilly's performance so much that the role was significantly expanded. It has been a hallmark of Reilly’s film career that he always stamps his presence in a movie, whether he is a supporting actor or lead. What he brings to all his roles is integrity allied to his immense acting skill. He looks like the kind of guy you would cast as a cop or GI, and he has played both those roles yet he has the special gift of making all his characters intensely interesting. He also has a down to earth affability as an interviewee, more in keeping with his rootsy Chicago upbringing than his current guise as a Hollywood star.

He shares his reflections on Dewey Cox in Walk Hard; “It’s funny because that movie was in some ways the catalyst for forming the band that we have now. I had met all these amazing singers and songwriters and people from the music world in Los Angeles as a result of doing Walk Hard, and I started performing with different people and at some point I realised that rather than having four rehearsals with four different people throughout the week why don’t we all just join forces and make kind of a revue out of it and that’s where we are.

"We wrote 35 original songs for Walk Hard in six months which is more than many artists do for their entire career. I had a lot of help and a lot of inspired people working on that. The movie is a satire and obviously has very broad comedy but we put a lot of love and care into that film and in terms of the quality of the film-making it’s as good as or better than the biopics that we are making fun of. We certainly didn’t skimp on making it all seem real and we took the music dead seriously. Even though we were writing these crazy lyrics we put a lot of care and attention into the music.”

I ask John what guides his choices in selecting which movie to do, especially as his success up to now must mean he has a degree of latitude in picking what films he commits to.

“As an actor you’re really not at the top of the food chain in the film world” he replies with a wry chuckle. “You’re just trying to hitch your wagon to someone else’s ongoing momentum or project. I try not to be too hard or fast with rules about what I’ll choose or won’t choose, but the kind of guiding principles is picking something as good or better than the last thing you did. At this point I have done some great projects and been involved with some very talented people so the bar is very high. I try to keep it simple and pick something that inspires me, and is a challenge to me and to work with people that care about doing good work as much as I do – that can take many different shapes and forms for better or worse, my career has been marked by variety and I don’t imagine that is going to change at any stage.”

Reilly has indeed worked with some of the elite names in the film business, appearing in more than 70 movies, and working with such feted directors as Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Paul Thomas Anderson. With Anderson he twice worked with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and he and Hoffman co-starred in a Broadway run of Sam Shepard’s fiercely funny play of sibling rivalry, True West. Reilly and Hoffman alternated roles as the two brothers from one night to the next and they were both nominated for Tony awards for their work on the production. I ask John about his memories of working with Philip and a pause ensues before he replies;

“Uhh, I haven’t really talked too much about this publicly, it’s pretty private and I don’t want to get too much into it. I will say it was an incredible loss for the whole world not just for the people that knew him personally like I did. He was a great loss to the world artistically, Phil was a peerless performer. I haven’t even quite processed that loss yet.”

John’s latest movie was shot in Ireland, The Lobster, by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, which featured in Cannes to great reviews.

“It’s kind of a high concept movie but very humanly executed,” Reilly says. “The only thing I can really compare it to film-making wise is Stanley Kubrick, it works formally with a very dark sense of humour behind it all. We shot it in the Ring of Kerry over a few months, and I fell in love with the place. I realised I wanted to get back to Ireland as soon as possible so when I got the invite to the Film Fleadh I thought ‘perfect!’ And performing with the band in Galway will be a couple of special nights for us.”

An Afternoon with John C Reilly takes place in the Town Hall Theatre this Sunday at 3pm and will feature a public interview and screening of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. For tickets contact 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie

John Reilly & Friends play St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church Church this Saturday and Sunday at 8pm. The concerts are a 'Galway Film Fleadh and Róisín Dubh presents...' event. For tickets see www.roisindubh.net

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