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Listen: John C. Reilly on ‘Sisters Brothers,’ Working for Terrence Malick and Owing His Career to Sean Penn

PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.

John C. Reilly has a busy few months ahead. He’ll be appearing in four releases between now and the end of the year: western “The Sisters Brothers,” Disney sequel “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” Laurel and Hardy biopic “Stan & Ollie” and Sherlock Holmes comedy “Holmes and Watson.” Since early beginnings as a struggling theater actor in Chicago who got his movie break thanks to actor Sean Penn and director Brian De Palma on the 1989 Vietnam drama “Casualties of War,” he’s navigated a varied and unpredictable career.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

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“You’re trying to not get in your way and put preconceptions on things, so you have to follow your instincts,” Reilly says of his approach to the work. “My instincts are look for inspired people you think are funny or challenging. I met Will Ferrell through Molly Shannon and Will and I had, just right away, this kind of simpatico feeling toward each other. There’s this great quote I think about, which is, ‘What other people think of you is none of your business.’ So this idea of, ‘Well, I’m a dramatic actor, or a comedic actor,’ just nevermind about what people are saying about you. Don’t let some perceived box keep you from exploring artistic avenues for yourself.”

He looks back fondly at that early start working with major filmmakers like De Palma, Neil Jordan (“We’re No Angels”) and Tony Scott (“Days of Thunder”). He says he owes a huge debt to Penn for believing in him and going to bat for him.

“I had never been in a movie before so for a big movie, that’s a considerable risk to take,” Reilly says. “Sean and I have never actually talked about it, but I know behind the scenes he must have said to Brian, ‘Don’t worry, this kid can do it.’ I really do owe my life in movies to him, Brian and Art Linson. Those were the three people who just threw caution to the wind and gave me that shot … I realized early on that all this kind of deference to famous people and treating directors like these legends or screen titans, there was no future in that. That’s not what they wanted and it’s not what was going to help me accomplish what I needed to do every day. I needed to just look at the people I was working with as partners and as peers and people I was working together in collaboration with, not these people I was lucky to be around.”

One of Reilly’s most defining collaborations has been with director Paul Thomas Anderson on the films “Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” Shockingly, it’s been nearly two decades since they last worked together.

“We’ve both been very busy,” Reilly says. “I’m still very close friends with Paul. We see each other all the time. But that was always sort of our agreement. We did three movies together in a row. After the first one I said to him, ‘Listen, only put me in a movie if you see there’s a role for me. Don’t do it because you’re my friend. I don’t want these opportunities if they’re favors.’ I guess he took me up on that after our last one!”

The discussion also veers into Terrence Malick waters, as Reilly was part of the vast cast assembled for the director’s big 1998 return “The Thin Red Line.” Like a number of the other actors, Reilly saw his role significantly whittled down.

“I was doing a play in Chicago, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ when I auditioned for that movie,” he recalls. “I was such a fan of ‘Badlands’ and ‘Days of Heaven,’ I was like, ‘I want this guy to know that I exist. I just want him to see an audition of mine.’ That was as much as I was hoping for. So I made this audition tape for him, for a few different parts in the movie. I quickly realized once I got there that Terry, in my mind, is more of a philosopher than a filmmaker in a lot of ways. He doesn’t have a lot of the same concerns on a set as a lot of the directors I’ve worked with. Terry was someone just looking for the truth every day, and if he could find that truth in a bird flying by or in the drops of dew on a piece of grass or on an extra, that’s what he was going to film that day.”

He then breaks into a flawless impression of the filmmaker when describing Malick’s conciliatory phone call explaining that Reilly’s role had been diminished in the editing.

“He had this great line: ‘John, I just wanted to give you a heads up. I felt that some parts of the picture were like ice floes that separated from the main, and so some of your scenes, well, John, they just floated off.'”

As for his current projects, Reilly developed Patrick deWitt’s novel “The Sisters Brothers” into a film with his wife, who he credits with suggesting French auteur Jacques Audiard. So it’s a very personal project for him. He says he’s never worked so hard on a film in his career.

“I thought Patrick had just an amazingly original take on the genre,” Reilly says. “Unlike most movie cowboys, the characters had this emotional availability, as opposed to like a Clint Eastwood movie where it’s almost this opaque quality to the character. It’s wonderful to watch because you’re wondering, ‘What is he thinking? How does he feel about this?’ But when you read the book ‘The Sisters Brothers,’ you are right there with what it feels like to kill somebody, to be trapped in this symbiotic relationship with your brother, to look at a toothbrush and not know what it is … The film reflects the reality of the west at that time, which was that there were Chinese people and French people and Hungarians and Russians and all these people coming from all over the world in this mad search for a freer life.”

For more, including thoughts on Reilly’s other 2018 projects and an impromptu review of Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

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John C. Reilly photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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