Big Hollywood Interview: 'Terri' Star John C. Reilly

Over the course of 53 films in just over a quarter-century, John C. Reilly has established himself as one of Hollywood’s greatest Everyman actors. Whether playing lovable shlubs in films like “Cyrus” and “Magnolia,” portraying wacky characters in “Talladega Nights” and “Stepbrothers,” or showing his musical side in his Oscar-nominated role in Chicago” or his starring turn in “Walk Hard,” Reilly is always ready to please.

In his latest film, “Terri,” Reilly steps into a micro-budget indie flick that has him playing the juicy role of Mr. Fizgerald, a vice principal and guidance counselor who takes a troubled, obese teenage boy named Terri under his wing and helps draw him out of his shell. The film itself is slow in a lot of places and drifts helplessly in its final half-hour, but Reilly makes his moments shine and takes the film to another level.

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Speaking by phone recently, Reilly discussed the appeal of the film for him, as well as the ways in which he manages to have a great career as well as a healthy personal life.

BH: You worked with your wife, producer Alison Dickey, on this film. How was that different than your other collaborations?

JCR: Alison and I worked together before, but not to this degree. It was pretty great working with her, I felt really taken care of, and it’s just simpler rather than having to get to know somebody as things need to be worked out.

I think about 70 percent of it was shot in Altadena, and some in Monrovia and Sierra Madre. I’ve shot a couple times up there, and I like that when you shoot up here, you’re left alone. I’ve shot a lot around Los Angeles and a lot of neighborhoods are burnt out on movies and see you as an annoyance, but people in Altadena are super friendly and curious about what you’re doing. I like the pace of life up here more than in LA in general because there’s less traffic and it’s so beautiful.

BH: This film has a very small budget, so how did it come to you and your wife’s attention?

JCR: It’s a great piece of writing, by a writer named Patrick DeWitt, who wrote it as a novel then asked his friend, our director Azazel Jacobs, for feedback on it. And Azazel told him right away it should be a movie. I liked his prior film “Mamma’s Man,” so that got me interested as well.

And it’s a great character. To get to be a guidance counselor was interesting and I’ve had people like that in my life and I’ve always identified with younger people for some reason. I like the way the character goes somewhere as it progresses – you start thinking of him as one thing and then realize he’s somewhat of a flawed mentor.

The older I get the more interesting those mentor kinds of parts are because I think I’m older and it’s time to give back. He’s a good human being but I don’t know how much success he has as a counselor. At this school he’s also vice principal in charge of discipline so you go to him if you need counseling or if you’re in trouble. I’m pretty direct, a no-nonsense get to the point sort of person, and that ‘no bull’ motto of his appealed to me.

BH: Having done 53 films, what would you say is your decision-making process?

JCR: To try to keep changing it up and surprising people. But I think that being able to be grounded in Hollywood and be able to play average men comes from how you’re raised, and I come from a humble past in Chicago, from working-class people. I suppose the slow growth of my career has helped me stay grounded as well. I think what’s tough is when you come from nowhere at age 18 and have everyone offering to do whatever you ask for. That can be tough to process. I didn’t do really well out of the gate, it wasn’t like I was being followed by photographers at 19 years old.

BH: How do you find your balance between blockbuster broad comedies and highly personal films like this?

JCR: I make the calls pretty much on what I do and what I’m interested in. I made two movies with Will Ferrell and 51 others. If there’s a project where people think I’ve done it before or know what to expect that’s less appealing. Some actors are good at playing the same character and for some reason I envy them because they can find roles for their pocket but this keeps it interesting.

BH: Do you have a favorite film or films that you’ve done?

JCR: All the movies I made with Paul Anderson are pretty great, I knew everyone so well on the films. It was some of the first times I was getting to do something more in terms of bigger roles and bigger part of the story . I was much more involved in the development of those projects. Picking a favorite is hard because they’re all like children to you, even with roles that weren’t so great you find personal things that appealed.

BH: So what’s next for you?

JCR: I have a film with Roman Polanski out this fall. I also have the film “We Need to Talk About Kevin” this summer, just got back from Cannes, we did really well with competition there. It’s based on a book of the same name, I play the father of the kid who has a really difficult relationship with his mother from the time he was born. It’s about a family struggling to connect, the kid does a horrible thing – kills a bunch of people – and the family disintegrates from there. It’s based on a book, not so much Columbine. This is about the relationship of the family.

BH: And you’re really not going to start getting a Hollywood head-trip, are you?

JCR: Not after all this time. We shot “Terri” at a high school on Allen Street, and we didn’t have trailers on the movie because it’s one of the lowest budgets I’ve ever had even though it doesn’t look like it. We would eat and change in the classrooms in high school. My room was the chemistry lab, and we didn’t have a couch – just hard desks and a huge chemistry table. I was tired and had some time off one day. I lay down on the chemistry table and fully fell asleep. That might be funny because the kids there now can think, ‘John C. Reilly slept here.'”

“Terri” opens in New York and LA on July 1, and expands nationwide over the next several weeks.

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