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The (Mostly) Unseen Onscreen History of John C. Reilly

Major fans of the actor may not realize just how many movies he’d done before making it big in the ’90s

Before most actors and actresses become stars, they spend years or even decades hustling for gigs, appearing in local commercials, indie movies, soaps or any police procedural that needs a victim, suspect or perp. This series looks back at the jobs some of our biggest celebrities took before they became household names — and how those roles shaped the performers they are now.

This holiday season, fans of John C. Reilly received the greatest gift of all: two new motion pictures, the detective comedy Holmes & Watson and the Laurel and Hardy biopic Stan & Ollie. Reilly’s two “ampersand movies” come on the heels of his excellent performance earlier this fall in the offbeat Jacques Audiard western The Sisters Brothers (which he also co-produced, with his wife, Alison Dickey). Right now he can also be heard as the voice of the insecure video game character Wreck-It Ralph in the Disney smash Ralph Breaks the Internet.

This kind of output — prolific, and mostly high-profile — isn’t unusual for Reilly, who’s been in-demand as both a leading man and a supporting performer in both art-films and big studio pictures ever since writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson cast him in his first three feature films, Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia, between 1996 and 1999. Anderson’s early work helped establish Reilly as a one-of-a-kind presence, mixing soulfulness, goofiness and an intensity that often leads his well-meaning characters into danger.

But even fans of the actor may not realize just how many movies he’d done before Hard Eight — and mostly working with some A-list actors and directors, no less. Here are some early John C. Reilly performances you may not remember…

Casualties of War (1989)

In an interview with The A.V. Club in 2004, Reilly described the many ways that working on Brian De Palma’s ferociously cynical Vietnam movie changed his life: He met his wife on the set; he befriended Sean Penn, who immediately encouraged other filmmakers to hire him; and he so impressed the director with his energy and attitude that what was originally supposed to be a cameo appearance was expanded into the kind of showcase any unknown actor fresh out of college would kill to land.

Reilly doesn’t have a lot of lines, but he’s in the picture quite a bit, as part of the band of fresh-faced disciples who stand behind Penn’s amoral army sergeant. He was 24 years old when Casualties of War came out. In no way did he look or act like a newcomer.

We’re No Angels (1989)

Sean Penn helped bring his new pal Reilly on-board for a very loose remake of a classic 1955 crime comedy, about a couple of lunkheaded escaped convicts (played by Penn and Robert De Niro) who get mistaken for priests, and hide out in a monastery. Written by David Mamet and directed by Neil Jordan, this We’re No Angels is a somewhat overly self-conscious throwback to an old-fashioned Hollywood production, overemphasizing the dimwittedness of the two anti-heroes. But Reilly has a memorable small part as a novice monk who’s easily duped. It’s the first real “John C. Reilly role” — at once sweetly naive and over-eager.

State of Grace (1990)

The last of what could be called Reilly’s “Sean Penn trilogy” is this flavorful mob drama, with Penn playing an undercover cop assigned to take down the Irish gangsters he grew up with in Hell’s Kitchen. Once again, Reilly’s part is minuscule, but he’s no glorified extra. As the hero’s doomed buddy, he makes an impression, with his bruiser’s body and boyish spirit. He tries to be a player like his fellow gangsters, but he’s way over-matched, and headed for a fall.

It was movies like these — where Reilly was on-screen just long enough for audiences to say, “Wait, who was that?” — that eventually led to the attentive film buff Paul Thomas Anderson to fight for the actor to star in Hard Eight.

Days of Thunder (1990)

Sixteen years before he played Cal Naughton Jr. in the NASCAR spoof Talladega Nights, Reilly played Buck Bretherton, part of the pit crew in the Tom Cruise racing movie Days of Thunder. In a movie filled with larger-than-life character actors like Michael Rooker, Randy Quaid, Cary Elwes, and Fred Dalton Thompson (not to mention stars Cruise, Nicole Kidman, and Robert Duvall), Reilly doesn’t really steal scenes, the way he did in We’re No Angels and State of Grace. But he doesn’t seem out of place either. Barely a year into his movie career, he comes across like someone who’s always been on the big screen.

Hoffa (1992)

As a native Chicagoan, Reilly could’ve easily had the kind of career that so many other actors from the area have had: spending a decade or so of his youth doing groundbreaking regional theater, or originating roles in David Mamet plays. But because he found steady work in the cinema from an early age, Reilly got his Mamet apprenticeship via the films We’re No Angels and Hoffa, tackling the playwright’s punchy dialogue in short, sharp movie scenes.

In Hoffa, Reilly plays a rat, looking terrified and squirrelly as he testifies about Jimmy Hoffa’s plans to use his position with the Teamsters to line his pockets. Early in the story, his character just hangs out with the crowd, part of the gang of dapper union thugs backing Jack Nicholson’s shrewd Hoffa. But the whole time he’s mentally taking notes, figuring out a way to save his own skin when the law closes in.

Out on a Limb (1992)

For the first few years of his career, directors were already drawn to Reilly for his “just a big doofus” quality, but it wasn’t until the French farceur Francis Veber cast him in the slapstick-heavy Out on a Limb that anyone thought to stick him in a broad comedy. Alongside Michael Monks, Reilly plays one of two drunken yahoo brothers — both named Jim — who gives the harried yuppie protagonist (Matthew Broderick) a ride when he’s stranded in the middle of nowhere with no money and no clothes.

Though not as weird or inspired as some of Reilly’s later comic performances (like his long run as the wide-eyed, frizzy-haired Dr. Steven Brule on various Adult Swim series), his turn in Out on a Limb showed a side of his screen presence that would later be put to good use by his buddies Will Ferrell and Adam McKay in Step Brothers and the like. Few actors have ever been smarter about playing dumb.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

In Reilly’s first seven movies, released between 1989 and 1993, he worked with world-class directors Brian De Palma, Neil Jordan, Tony Scott and Woody Allen (the latter in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in Shadows and Fog), and alongside actors Sean Penn, Jack Nicholson, Matthew Broderick and Tom Cruise. In his eighth film, he played one of the residents of a quirky Iowa small town; and though he’s not in the picture much, he does share the screen with Johnny Depp as the stressed-out Gilbert Grape, and with an Oscar-nominated Leonardo DiCaprio as Gilbert’s mentally challenged brother Artie.

Directed by Swedish arthouse favorite Lasse Hallström from a script by Peter Hedges (now a director himself, most recently in theaters with Ben Is Back), What’s Eating Gilbert is a touching, very American drama, populated by actors who’d soon be Hollywood royalty… Reilly included. Already, filmmakers understood how he adds color and shading to a scene, even when he’s just standing silently in a group.

The River Wild (1994) / Dolores Claiborne (1995) / Georgia (1995)

When Paul Thomas Anderson was invited to the Sundance filmmakers’ laboratory in 1994 to start expanding his short film “Cigarettes & Coffee” into what would become Hard Eight, the writer-director asked Reilly (whose early screen performances he’d greatly admired) to help him workshop the script. Thus began what became a three-year journey toward the actor’s breakthrough part, during which Anderson held fast with multiple studios and producers, insisting he wouldn’t make this picture without Reilly as the co-lead with Philip Baker Hall.

In the meantime, Reilly kept working, both in small parts (like as a police constable in the Stephen King adaptation Dolores Claiborne) and at least one much meatier role (as one of a pair of dangerous criminals in the white-knuckle whitewater rafting thriller The River Wild). In the aforementioned interview with The A.V. ClubReilly explained his approach to those kinds of jobs, talking about his gig as a drugged-out drummer in the Jennifer Jason Leigh-starring rock melodrama Georgia: “To me, the movie was about this drummer in this band… and I’m like, ‘Yeah, cool, I made a movie about this band!’ Then I go see the movie, and I’m like, ‘This is about two sisters!’”

Anyone looking for the secret to Reilly’s success should start with that comment about Georgia. He’s always looked like he’d belonged — in every movie, playing different kinds of characters, from his early 20s to now — because no matter how much screen-time he gets, he lives every second of it, completely.