John C. Reilly On Getting To Know Joaquin Phoenix And His Very Busy 2018 [Interview]

It's practically undeniable that Chicago-born actor John C. Reilly is one of the most beloved actors on the face of the earth, from his frequent character work in the early films of Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) to his more dramatic takes in The Hours and We Need To Talk About Kevin to his frequent pairings with Will Farrell, including Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, and the upcoming Holmes & Watson. Reilly is a utilitarian performer, who is impossible to typecast because he can do it all. Before the end of 2018, in addition to playing Dr. Watson, we'll hear him as the voice of video game character Ralph in Ralph Breaks the Internet and take on one half of another great team, playing Oliver Hardy to Steve Coogan's Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie.

But Reilly begins his 2018 run playing Eli Sister, in his first-ever Western, The Sisters Brothers (in theaters now), co-starring Joaquin Phoenix as Reilly's brother Charlie, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed, directed by the great French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone, A Prophet, Dheepan) and based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt. The film tells the story of a pair of brothers who have lived the lives of hired assassins for as long as they could aim a gun, and for the first time in their careers, they're beginning to question whether they're always on the right side of the good/evil equation. Much like the book, the movie takes great pains to be historically accurate and wonder what it would have been like living in the period, trying out modern conveniences for the first time, as well as how painfully slow gunfights would be if you had to load the gunpowder and bullet for every shot you took. The film captures the pace of the time and the ways in which people living such lives would have thought, talked and behaved.

/Film spoke to Reilly about his finding and purchasing the rights to the book, spending time with Phoenix to develop a brotherly bond, and why a Frenchman who didn't grow up with the American West on the brain might be the perfect outsider choice to helm a movie about such that time and place. We also talk briefly about Stan & Ollie, but we begin with well-deserved thank you to Reilly for playing one of the most iconic Chicago characters in recent memory.

skull island john c reilly

Can I just say before we jump into The Sisters Brothers, thank you for the character you played in Kong: Skull Island. Having seen the film a couple of times with a Chicago audience, your character makes the room explode, especially when he talked about the Cubs.

John: Oh, wow. Thank you very much. I'm really proud of that movie and put a lot of myself into it and had a great time doing it. Holy cow, what an adventure that movie was. And I can't believe was Jordan [Vogt-Roberts, director] accomplished with that movie, man. Going from Kings of Summer to Kong: Skull Island, that was quite a leap.

With The Sisters Brothers, it's one thing to respond to a screenplay or book, but you responded to such a degree that you bought the rights to Patrick DeWitt's book. So what was it about this version of a Western that made you feel the need to own a part of it?

John: It was so much the Western of it. The truth is, my wife [Alison Dickey, producer on the film] is the one who found the book. She was working with the author on another film, and she asked him if he had anything else, and she got the unpublished manuscript for Patrick. She read it and flipped out for it. The character of Eli was a really obvious one for me to play to anyone who read the book. And then I read it and I agreed too, although it wasn't so much "We have to do a Western," it was more like "Look at this amazing story about these brothers and this relationship and how emotionally vulnerable these guys are and how period-specific this story is and these details that Patrick picked out about the whole Gold Rush era." Things like brushing your teeth for the first time—little details like that.

A lot of Westerns these days are based on other Westerns, and this book and film is based on the historical record of the time—who was there, what were they interested in, what were some of the firsts, and the things they were dealing with for real and not some mythic vision of America. It's a startlingly original look at the time period. That was made the book appealing, and the fact was, I was already looking for work I could develop. So much of an actor's life—I've made almost 80 movies at this point—is hooking up with other people's projects, grabbing onto their momentum. So I've been actively looking for something. As I get older, people are either going to magically drop new opportunities in my lap or I'm going to develop some things, so I'm generating the material myself. That was the impulse, and it's the only time I've ever done it. The truth is I might quit while I'm ahead [laughs] because this has worked out really well. It took a long time, but I can't imagine a better scenario with the cast and the director and how the film turned out, and the critical response has been astounding.

How did Jacques Audiard get involved in this? I'm a huge admirer of his previous films, but I can't imagine how you thought of him for this.

John: Again, it goes back to my wife. She was a huge fan of Jacques. She grew up for a little while in France, so she an affinity for all things French. But you don't have to be a francophile to get why Jacques's movies are amazing. He really is one of the most talented guys working right now and he's got a perfect track record. In that way, it was a real obvious choice. We told Patrick we would try to get the best people we could to make his book into a movie, and Jacques is definitely one of the best in the world. We also knew by asking him Jacques that we'd be marrying into this whole filmmaking family. He has this community of people that he works with in France, so we wouldn't have to be building the machine from the ground up. We knew that if he said yes and he was into it, we'd be in good hands.

Even though it might seen counter-intuitive to ask a Frenchman to direct a Western, I was stunned to learn it was the first time that a Frenchman has made a Western in English ever. If you think about how beloved film is in France, you'd think it would have happened by now, but it hasn't. It's an audacious thing that Jacques did with us. If you know the period and you know what was going on in San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest, you know that it was a very multi-cultural place, with all of these different people coming from all over the world, speaking different languages, smashing together all of these different cultures. In that way, a European is the perfect person to tell this story without the bogus nostalgia that we have about ourselves as Americans in the west. We knew if we worked with Jacques, he would be able to look at it like a period piece as opposed to a Western.

The film ultimately turns into a story about escaping your nature. In the case of the brothers, that nature is violent. The hope is that you can become a better person. Did that aspect of the story intrigue you?

John: A lot of people are noticing that about the movie. "Wow, it's a movie about transforming yourself, no matter where you come from, and becoming a more civilized person and turning away from the old ways and embracing new ways and thinking about a sustainable way to move toward the future." But I have to say, when I was reading the book and making the movie, I wasn't really thinking about those things. My concerns were much more immediate—my relationship with my horse, with Joaquin and that brotherly bond—and the practicalities. It was a difficult movie to make. We were traveling all over the place—it's kind of a road movie for long stretches of time. But now, when I sit back and watch the movie, I'm like "It really is about all those things." The truth is, film is not an actors' medium; it's a directors' medium. So when Jacques put the finishing touches on it and went through and balanced it and edited it, he's the one who makes those revelations happen when you're watching it. His point of view shapes the story.

We're at a tipping point in our world right now, certainly in this country, about "What do we want to be? Who are we? This is who we say we are, this is what we've done in the past. If we expect to survive, we have to change our ways." I think that's a universal feeling in the world right now. Even though the plot of the movie is about these guys, these larger questions definitely come up. A lot of questions have been coming up about masculinity too and this moment we're in with women's empowerment. People are talking about the fact that these men are at four different stages of enlightenment and moving toward a different way to be a man. At the tail end, there's Charlie [Phoenix's character], who's stuck in the old ways. My character Eli is starting to lean toward the future and thinking "We can't keep doing this." Jack Gyllenhaal's character has made the full-on choice to move toward another way of being, and Riz Ahmed's character is a prophet—he's the one who sees the future and know exactly where we need to go.

I wish I could say I was thinking about all of these big philosophical questions that the movie presents, but it wasn't until I became a viewer of it that I really started to think some of those things. I have to say, it's been a really gratifying part of talking about the movie. Most movie interviews are question and answers like "What's George Clooney like?"—just more familiar movie questions. And this one has really opened up a can of worms in people's consciousness.

One of the more practical things it captures is what it's like to be a killer in that period—it's like watching slow-motion murder.

John: You make a good point. It's another one of those historical details of the period that Patrick focused on in the book and Jacques doubled down on in the movie, which is the idea that these guns had to be loaded by hand, each cylinder. You had to pour the powder in, put the slug in, put some wadding in, then you actually used horse grease to seal the top of it, so one cylinder wouldn't light the other cylinder as you shot. We didn't use horse grease; we used Vaseline [laughs]. And what that does to the rate of fire is it slows down these moments of violence. Every bullet has to count because it takes so long to reload the guns. And while you are reloading the gun, you have a chance to think about what it is you're going to do next.

Somewhere right after this time, around 1954-55, the cartridge bullet was invented and started going into wide use, and the rate of fire in the west went up dramatically when that happened. Suddenly, any idiot with a gun could reload really fast and spray the place with bullets, so that was a real sea change in the way the world was thinking about how this was going to work. This place was settled in brutality and violence and the law of the gun—the strong overcoming the weak—suddenly people were like "Wait a second, I have a farm now" or "We just built this town. You can't just shoot the place up." It was a turn toward law and order or at least a more civilized, just society based on a the rule of law rather than just violence. I can't help but think we're in a similar tipping point with guns today in America.

the sisters brothers review

Wait, are you trying to say that guns make a difference in the cultural shifts of America? No way.

John: [laughs] Yeah, man. And the amount of bullets a gun can fire makes a big difference in what you can do with that gun. Then there's this idea of being a killer. Our characters make an interesting transformation because their lives are borne of murder. When their boys, they have this traumatic event where they kill their father, and they're pressed into service as murderers. For the most part when you read the book, you get the idea that they're killing people who really deserve it. There were a lot of bad people out there, a lot of murderers, and they worked for a crime boss and they killed criminals. Then they start to realize, maybe they aren't all criminals, these people they're being told to kill. Then there's the collateral damage, other people are being killed while they're looking for people. The business of murder is a heavy one, and it starts to weight on them. That was an amazing thing to play, especially for my character, someone who, at the beginning of the story, is so shut down and living a really unrealized life, protecting his brother and killing and moving through it and not really thinking. To see that cocoon he's in start to crack open and this other person start to emerge was a really fun thing to do.

His realizations about the fact that animals are also sentient beings and his relationship with his horse and his sensitivity shift. In the beginning, he treats the animal like a look, like a thing he just uses like a car or a hammer, and then as he gets into a relationship with the horse, it starts to change him. And there there is the relationship with these new people they meet. When Charlie and Eli catch up to Warm and Morris at the river, those are some of the first friendships they ever have, some of the first times they ever have conversations of any kind of intimacy with anyone other than each other. Charlie and Eli have spend every waking minute with each other since they were little boys. There are a lot of interesting firsts in the movie, which lead to moments of realizations that are fun to play. That's what you're looking for as an actor.

You and Joaquin both worked with Paul Thomas Anderson at different points in his development as an artist. Did you two get a chance to discuss that at all or spend any kind of time together before shooting to make that brotherly relationship more believable?

John: I met Joaquin a couple of time through Paul, but really just briefly. I'll never forget the first time I met him, the screensaver on his phone was an photo from Step Brothers, and I was like "Oh cool. You probably like me, then." But we didn't really spend any time together then. Joaquin is a pretty shy person actually. It takes a second to get to know him. By the time we got to Spain, I realized that even though I was really excited and stoked to be working with him, I realized I didn't really know this guy at all. In the beginning, it was hard for us to make eye contact because he's so intense, and I'm intense in my own way. We were both freaked out by what we had to do and how close we had to get, so we just started hanging out together, walking around, spending long afternoons walking through these towns in Spain, not really talking, just soaking each other up through osmosis, riding horses together, learning to shoot those guns.

And lo and behold over time, we started to get really close. We started to live together, cooking for each other every night—when I say "cooking for each other," I mean Joaquin cooking for me; he's a much better cook than I am. That was an intense thing, getting to know him and finding a relationship that was anywhere close to the one our characters had. But by god, we did it! I really love that guy and I think I will for the rest of my life. It's one of the beautiful things about being an actor. It's different than being a plumber or something. You make these relationships that are short term but they're really intense, and you end up learning a lot about yourself and becoming a deeper person as a result of some of these relationships.

stan and ollie first look

This film is the first of many we will see and hear you in over the next couple of months. The trailer for Stan & Ollie really moved me. I don't even think I knew that was being made...

John: Yeah, we kind of snuck that one in under the radar. We shot it in England, so a lot of people weren't aware of it here.

So what is you take on their story?

John: It's a look at the twilight of their lives. Stan and Ollie were some of the biggest movie stars in the world for about five years in the 1930s. And they were totally connected and in sync, but they were very different people and they weren't really friends. They didn't spend a lot of social time together in the hey day. And then when they couldn't get movie work anymore, they started doing these theatrical tours to make money. Basically, they went back to doing Vaudeville, and that's when they became really, really close. When they're spending every single train ride and hotel room and backstage together, they realized how much they loved each other as people and not just as performers. So our story takes place in 1953 on the last theatrical tour they every did. Oliver Hardy died shortly after that tour. It's this amazing look at a theatrical marriage and what it takes to be a partner with somebody and what it takes to a loving friend and creative collaborator. Their lives were very public, but his is a glimpse at what it was like behind the scenes for these two guys. Bring your hankies, buddy, because it's a pretty emotional one!

John, best of luck with this and all of the other things you have coming down the road. Thanks for talking.

John: Thanks a lot, man. I appreciate it.