John C. Reilly on Terri, Confounding Expectations, and Step Brothers 2

terri-630.jpg"It's like Whac-A-Mole." That's how John C. Reilly described his eclectic career a couple of weeks ago at a swank Park Avenue hotel in Manhattan. From prestige films like Gangs of New York and Chicago, to broad comedies like Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, to indies like Cyrus and Terri (out Friday), Reilly has made a living toying with audience expectations. "If you start to do the same thing, it just gets boring on a personal level."

In the Azazel Jacobs-directed Terri, Reilly stars as Mr. Fitzgerald, a blustery vice principal who takes a shine to the film's titular teenager, an overweight misfit who wears pajamas to school every day. It's a perfect role for Reilly -- broadly funny, but with an underlying sense of real humanity -- which isn't all that surprising since his wife, Terri producer Alison Dickey, was the one who suggested he take a look at the material in the first place.

The Oscar nominee spoke to Movieline about the new film, the pros and cons of young co-stars, and what fans can expect from two highly anticipated upcoming projects: Roman Polanski's adaptation of God of Carnage and the potentially happening Step Brothers 2.

Your wife Alison Dickey produced Terri. How did she approach you about appearing in the film?

She got the manuscript that [author] Patrick deWitt wrote originally -- way early on, before it had even become a script -- because Patrick was going to write a book based on these characters, and then Azazel Jacobs and he turned it into a script. I trust my wife, she's got great taste! It's so funny -- so many journalists have asked, "So you worked with your wife -- was that a nightmare?" Mostly guys! It's like, "Wait a minute, I think you're talking about your marriage, not mine." It was great working with my wife. She's got really great taste -- she reads a lot, she was an English major in college -- so I trust her. So when she says, "You got to really read this; this is a great piece of material," I definitely listened. And I agreed, once I saw Fitzgerald on the page.

Mr. Fitzgerald is so kind and well-meaning, he really reminded me a lot of the role you played in Magnolia.

You're the second person who said that. It hadn't occurred to me while making it, but looking back I have to admit, yeah, that's true. That person who's trying to make it through life, and understand it all, but trying to be as direct and as honest as can be. Yeah.

So, was the script changed at all to suit your particular strengths once you signed on?

It was there. It was there. We did a little bit of editing, me and Aza, on the day. "This speech I give to the kid is four pages long." I mean, literally: there were a couple of speeches -- seven pages, all at once, in one take. "Maybe this is repetitive here, maybe we can drop this." But I didn't really improvise. I think I only improvised one line in the whole movie. So for the most part it was just great writing by Patrick deWitt, and then you just surrender yourself to the character.

One of the things that really surprised me about Terri was its honesty and heart. When you have a tremendously overweight teen who wears pajamas to school, it seems like a recipe for cheap jokes and easy laughs. Was there a concerted effort during production to shy away from the obvious?

I think that's a reflection on Aza, as a filmmaker. He's not a mean-spirited person at all. He's extremely compassionate; he has a lot of empathy. He has a real commitment to honesty and storytelling and truth, in terms of the way the characters were portrayed. He wasn't trying to push some agenda that he had; he was trying to be patient and listen to what these characters needed. It's a real testament to him. I was just trying to do the best I could to make the guy as honest as I could. When I was doing it, I thought it was a lot broader than it ended up playing. Because some of that stuff he says is pretty odd, but then it just seems of a piece in the movie, and he really does seem like a real person in the film. It was nice to see that come through.

You obviously share most of your scenes with Jacob Wysocki. On the whole, do you enjoy working with young actors?

When they're good, I like working with new actors. Luckily, Jacob was really good. I auditioned a bunch of people for the film with Aza, and I was a big fan of Jacob's from the moment I met him; I like that quiet confidence he has. The fact that he had a background in improvisation really helped a lot because he was someone who could give and take in a scene, and would be really reacting to what's going on. Some younger actors practice their little thing at home, and then they come in and [stilted, sing-song-y] they do what they practiced. And you can go, "[SCREAMS]," and they keep doing their scene. it was great having Jacob there. Jacob, literally, from moment to moment would react with his eyes to what was really going on.

I liked him. Young people can be annoying, let's face it. But they can also be really refreshing to be around and full of enthusiasm. There's nothing worse than a bunch of old people complaining about how uncomfortable they are on set. And kids come in, and they're like, "We get to make a movie, man! Oh my God, what scene are we doing today!" It's kinda cool. It's contagious.

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