As an actor immediately recognizable for the kind of average Joe looks that have allowed him to seamlessly slip into dozens of remarkable roles on the screen and stage, it’s little surprise that John C. Reilly did a musical version of Marty even before beating out an Oscar-nominated routine in Chicago. If you’re looking to find the new Ernest Borgnine (who got the statuette for playing the film butcher from the Bronx), Reilly is this century’s king of the everyman and oddball, able to swing from slapstick comedy to hardcore drama and all ranges in between with complete naturalness. Since his scarring debut as an uncomprehending G.I. rapist in 1989’s Casualties of War, John C. Reilly’s formidable physical presence has stood out as a goofball man-child in Step Brothers, Magnolia’s angst-ridden cop, Hard Eight’s obsessed gambler, a sasquatch in Tenacious D., an undead king showing The Vampire’s Assistant some bloodsucker fu, the famed rocker Dewey Cox in Walk Hard, and a middle-aged train wreck going head-to-head with his new girlfriend’s son in Cyrus.
Trying to be Terri’s best adult friend, whether Terri likes it or not, is Mr. Fitzgerald. At first acting as the kind of with-it teacher that’d make any special needs kid squirm, Reilly’s absurd approach to counseling ultimately reveals a guy with just as many problems as his student, but an adult who also packs a self-help truckload of indefatigable optimism. In a genre where teacher / administrator equals sarcastic cliché, John C. Reilly’s performance is as believable as it is off-kilter -- the embodiment of Terri’s high wire act between arch humor and the anguish of high school.
Daniel Schweiger: Were you bullied in high school like Terri?
John C. Reilly: Not really. There were a couple of people who tried to pick on me. I was skinny, but I was tall, and had a fierceness that let me stand up for myself. Like most bullies, when you stand up to them, they tend to crumble pretty fast.
DS: Was there any principle, or teacher you turned to for help?
JC: I had a guidance counselor in high school that I was friendly with. I grew up Catholic, where you're supposed to go in and confess your sins to the priest. But you never confess the worst of your sins or really tell the priest what's going on because you're just too embarrassed. It was the same way with the guidance counselor. I never got into the stuff that was really bugging me, but it made me feel so good to have someone who was there. I knew if I ever really got in deep and couldn't figure my way out, there'd be this guy out there who wasn't going to judge me, who wasn't my parents, who would just hear what I had to say and help me.
DS: I imagine you drew on him for Mr. Fitzgerald...
JC: Definitely. He and other people who were mentors to me along the way in my life and helped me out when I was younger.
DS: Did you have the same mentoring relationship with Jacob Wysocki as Mr. Fitzgerald has with Terri?
JC: I suppose I mentored Jacob by example, but I didn't sit him down and say, "Here's what works." We had a few conversations when he'd tell me what was going on in his life, and I gave him my two cents. But Jacob is a really capable guy who's 20 years old, so he's not a babe in the woods. We treated each other with the respect of peers, even though I'm 25 years older than him. And younger people respond more to that than when you wag your finger and tell them what they should do. They appreciate it when you give them the respect of honesty, treating them like another human being, and leveling the playing field. That's what I tried to do with Jacob.
DS: There’s a level of intensity to Terri that you don’t expect from what seems to be a high school comedy at first...
JC: I think that's a testament to the originality of the film. There's a scene in a shed when Terri is getting drunk with his best friend and the girl he likes. You feel like things go can go really wrong, or weird. And that's how life feels, when you suddenly have these moments when you're unsupervised with other kids and stuff gets risky. Our director, Azazel Jacobs, really captured that sense of uncertainty.
DS: With a movie that walks a very finely between humor and seriousness, how difficult was it to keep your performance “real?”
JC: The funny stuff inTerri is not all that broad, so it never struck me as being a challenge to keep it real. I just wanted to play Mr. Fitzgerald as honestly as possible. If anything, his straightforwardness made it easier for me to be serious with the character.
DS: Terri and another film you're in, called We Need To Talk About Kevin, are part of a rising wave of movies that take a brutally honest look at high school bullying and the psychological damage it brings. Why do you think more movies are acknowledging what’s always been going in schools, let alone the lives of kids?
JC: I think we're living in an age when people are finally realizing what the consequences of bullying can be if you let it go on. I also think our culture in general has become a little meaner. I think the lack of accountability on the Internet might have something to do with that. People are meaner to each other because they won't be called out for it. People who don't have the nerve to be a bully face-to-face now find it much easier to do it online. It's what people are feeling right now, so movies are reflecting that, I guess.
DS: Do you think there's a common thread that runs through your characters in Terri, Cyrus, and Cedar Rapids as being guys who mask their sadness with bravado?
JC: I think it's true with those movies you mentioned. We all have our share of sadness in life, so if you're going to be honest about the way life really is, that's going to be part of your portrayal.
DS: You’ve done particularly great work in independent movies, some of which deserve more exposure, particularly 2008’s The Promotion. It really captured the dog-eat-dog business world we've sunk into now in how it shows two super market employees sabotaging each other for a top spot...
JC: In some ways, I think The Promotion came out two years before its time. If it came out after the economic collapse, I think it would resonate more now. I'm very proud of that movie, especially with Steve Conrad's writing and direction. He also scripted The Pursuit of Happyness and The Weather Man. Steve has an amazing and original voice. He's writing scripts for other people right now, but hopefully he'll direct again.
DS: When you played the gentle giant Gershon Gruen in The Extra Man, you truly nailed the voice of High-Pitched Eric from The Howard Stern Show. Was that intentional?
JC: Congratulations! You are the first person to notice! I became obsessed with that guy from listening to the Stern Show. I thought it was a physical manifestation of a psychological state, where a guy can't make his voice stop doing that. As originally written in The Extra Man, Gershon was supposed to talk very quietly and very slowly. But I knew those were the two things that don't work well in a movie. Number one: you've got to be able to hear him. Number two: long pauses don't work in a movie over a long period of time. So I told the directors, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, "This is what I was thinking of for Gershon, that his voice is another form of a weird physical manifestation of his psychological state.” They said, "That's perfect!" So congratulations on getting that!
DS: You have God of Carnage coming out, which Roman Polanski has adapted from the stage for the screen. Did you see the play before you did the movie?
JC: I didn't see the play, though I was offered it a couple of times in New York and LA. However, it didn't seem like the right thing to do at the moment. I'm glad I waited for the movie to come along. I think it'll be slightly different in terms of how it adapts Yasmina Reza’s dialogue, but I think the movie will also remain very true to the play in its spirit.
DS: I imagine Polanksi opened it up...
JC: Very little. It's pretty much 90 minutes in real time, in one location.
DS: One of my favorite comedies you've done is Step Brothers, which you also helped come up with the story for, along with your co-star, Will Ferrell, and the director, Adam McKay. I heard there are rumors of a sequel...
JC: The studio is very keen on it. That movie is really beloved among fans. Practically every day someone comes up to me and says something about it. Adam, Will, and I have met a couple of times recently to see if the sequel is something we want to do, and there seems to be interest. We're in the idea stage right now, so we'll see.
DS: You have an amazing range as a character actor, and it's because you've managed to not be typecast into playing thugs or goofy comic foils. What's the trick to that?
JC: The trick is a two-letter word called N-O. When you're offered something that seems like it's going to be the same thing you just did or that the people are only clearly seeing you for a part you've done before, you just have to say "no" and have the patience and the strength to wait for the next right thing or real challenge to come along. That's how you make variety in your work. You just have to be able to throw the fish back that don't seem exactly right, and do things for the right reasons.
ATO Pictures' 'Terri' opens on July 1, 2011.