John C. Reilly is one of cinema’s most versatile actors. From dramatic turns in A Prairie Home Companion, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and Magnolia, to the manic mugging of Stepbrothers and Talladega Nights, Reilly puts his unique spin on every part he plays. His new movie, Cyrus, finds him in an unusual love triangle, a battle of wills with his girlfriend’s manipulative son.
MNMO: You filmed A Prairie Home Companion here. Are you digging being back in Minnesota?
JCR: I love it up here, man. It’s a cool town, St. Paul, such a magical place for us when we did A Prairie Home. When we premiered the movie at the Fitzgerald Theater, they put us in horse-drawn carriages and there was this spontaneous parade on the streets of St. Paul, like six to ten people deep for blocks and blocks. I couldn’t believe it, it was so touching. Such a genuine expression of love from everyone in St. Paul. You don’t see that a lot these days.
MNMO: Cyrus is a funny movie, featuring plenty of improv, but also very real. What’s it like doing dramatic improvisation and the kind of slapstick improv of movies like Stepbrothers and Talladega Nights?
JCR: With comedy you have this objective…keep it real, but push the reality envelope until it becomes laughable. Improvising in a dramatic work is more of an exploration of the emotions in the scene or the character’s interior life, the back-story of why people are doing certain things. I really like improvising—it’s kind of like doing theatre, you feel really free. I like doing scripted work, too, don’t get me wrong, letting what gets said in the movie fall on someone else’s shoulders. Improv is a way to custom-shape your own dialogue, but it’s a lot of pressure. There’s nothing worse than bad improv.
MNMO: Cyrus involves one of the stranger love triangles maybe in the history of film: this adult son who’s competing with you for the affections of his mother. How did you approach this unusual conflict?
JCR: I guess it’s bizarre. Yet it’s fairly common, you know? There was this 28-year-old guy who was driving us around when the movie premiered at Sundance, and I was very curious to hear what he thought. He said, “Wow, I could really relate to that movie. I think a lot of people my age are going to relate to that movie. A lot of us have parents that are separated, and like, I lived with my mom, you know, and it was always a weird thing, no matter how comfortable you try to make it that some dude you don’t know is at your house and they’re having sex. And you’re not a kid anymore, you’re an adult. There’s just no way around it, it’s weird.” Also, you’re not sure if this guy is going to stick around, is he going to be a part of your mom’s life, do you even want to ask her that? Is it any of your business? There’s just all these weird things to deal with, and I really related to it. And by the same token, older people, in their forties or whatever, who have gone through divorces, relate to it because they can see from a parent’s point of view, or they’ve been put in that situation with someone they’re dating.
MNMO: What was it like working with the Duplass brothers on Cyrus?
JCR: They’re great. They work in a very unusual style, very improvisational in terms of dialogue, and everything is hand-held. I would hear these notes every once and awhile from the studio, begging them, “Please, put the camera on the tripod for one shot! Can’t you do one master on the tripod?” And they’d say, “No, we’re not doing a master on a tripod, that’s not how we want the movie to look. We’re not doing it.” So they pushed back, they stuck to their guns, and they treated the movie as if they were making The Puffy Chair, which cost them like 10 grand or something. [Cyrus] cost millions of dollars and had a big crew and was shot in L.A. with the backing of a major studio.
MNMO: What did they spend that bigger budget on?
JCR: They were very clever in the way they used the resources of the studio system. They took that money and spent it on things like shooting at real locations and shooting the movie in order, so that it would grow in an organic way. They would do things like shooting long takes—30 to 40 minutes—and then they’d go walk off the set and talk it over with each other, talk about where they wanted to go from there. And that takes guts, to show up on a set every day and not really know how the day’s going to unfold.
MNMO: Did you have any idea what the final film would look like before you saw it?
JCR: There were many days when I thought to myself, do we have a movie here? What the hell did we just do? How are they going to cut that scene? But no matter how I felt about that stuff, at the back of my mind was always: but it’s gonna seem real. Whatever it is, however it ends up shaping up, it’s going to sound like real people talking to each other. Because it is. It’s just me, on the first take, trying to broach a situation with somebody. You can’t get any more real than that.