Growing up, actor John C. Reilly remembers watching the comedy of slapstick duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and feeling very touched. It wasn't just that the two made him laugh, Reilly says, there was something more.
"The brilliant thing about their work when you watch it, it seems so nonchalant," he says. "It seems like they're doing it for the first time."
Then Reilly got a role playing Oliver Hardy in the new film Stan & Ollie and he realized just how much planning and precision went into those seemingly effortless physical comedy routines.
"It requires this diligence with the timing," he says. "It's almost like a ballet or a piece of music that you're playing when you're doing it."
The film explores Hardy's relationship with his partner Stan Laurel (played by Steve Coogan) in the early 1950s, when the men were trying to revive their sagging careers with a stage-show tour in Britain. Reilly notes that the two comedians were very different temperamentally, and in their heyday, didn't spend that much time socializing outside of work. But at this later time in their lives, during this theatrical tour, they were together in every train car, hotel room and theater backstage.
"They didn't have the luxury of going off and having two different lives," he says. "They've both said that is when they learned to love the other man as a person, as a human being, as opposed to a component in the act."
On the heavy prosthetic makeup he wore for Stan & Ollie
I thought of myself as looking very different than Oliver when I started this process, and that was one of the things that I was really nervous about. I thought I don't want it to be some bad makeup job. ... I really want this movie to feel very, very human and real and not theatrical in a way. ...
They do these computer-generated kind of mock-ups of what the makeup will look like before they actually do it. And when I saw the first mock-up from Mark Coulier, who's an award-winning prosthetic makeup designer, when I first saw those pictures I thought, "Wow, maybe I can do this. Maybe I can, because I will look like the guy. I know that now."
So then I thought, "Now I just have to find out 'What is the inside of this human being like? Why was he the way he was? What was his heart?' "
On the bodysuit he wore to play Hardy, who was overweight
I had to wear this cooling suit underneath it, which was a T-shirt filled with plastic tubes, and then you plug those tubes into a cooler with a pump in it that has ice water in it, and it cycles ice water all around your body and the inside of the suit.
Look, I've never done hard drugs, but I have a feeling that it feels a little bit like that cooling suit coming on. After you've done that "Way Out West" dance a few times in that fat suit, in that makeup, you plug that thing in, it was like, "Ahh." It was literally keeping me alive, because if you work that hard and you're that covered up, your body will get heatstroke and you'll just shut down.
On the full-body transformation
Every morning, when I would have that makeup put on, because I was wearing brown contact lenses also, and a wig, and this whole thing was applied to me every day, and it's almost like by the end of that process, I didn't have a choice whether to be myself. I was this other person. I had a little party for the crew at my house at the end of the shooting, and I kept having all these weird conversations with people on the crew at this party, and finally I turned to someone, like, "Why is everyone acting kind of strange with me? I know these people! I've been working with them for three months!" And finally the director said, "John, you got to understand, most of these people have never seen you outside of the makeup and all that. They've never seen you with blue eyes! They've never seen you with that hundred pounds off of you."
On becoming close to Joaquin Phoenix on the set of The Sisters Brothers
I think it's one of the beautiful things about being an actor. When you make these short, intense, intimate relationships happen in order to do a film or a play, oftentimes they last. Some of the closest relationships in my life, some of my best friends of my whole life, are people that I met through work. And, as a result of The Sisters Brothers, I think I'll love Joaquin for the rest of my life in a real way, not just as someone who is an appreciative fellow actor, but as a human being, like I really got to know working very well on that film. ...
[Phoenix] has a very intense reputation as an instinctual actor, and for good reason. I think that he is peerless among actors, myself included. ... Film is such a prepared art form — so much rehearsal and discussion and setup and lights and camera, all of it, and then they say "action" and you're supposed to act like you've never done it before, you know? And it's very hard to do, to be spontaneous after all that preparation, and Joaquin is just amazing in that way.
You can't tell what Joaquin is going to do next when you're watching him on film. I describe it jokingly almost as like watching a raccoon go through the garbage cans. You're like, "What? It's climbing on top? What is he ... ?" Watching Joaquin on film is like watching a wild animal.
On giving directing a try
After doing almost 80 movies and working with some of the greatest directors in the world, I should know something about how to put a movie together at this point. So I've directed a lot of plays, and I think I might do that next, and if a movie comes along that it seems like I'm the only person who could direct it then maybe that. ... I'm hoping to at least to develop more things for myself and produce more things, and I mean, look, the truth is, I want to do everything I can do in this life. I want to give everything I can. I don't want to die thinking like, "Oh, I should have done that, or I should have done this." I want to leave it all on the stage, and maybe directing will be one of those things that comes my way.
Lauren Krenzel and Mooj Zadie produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest today, John C. Reilly, earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a musical or comedy for his performance in the new film "Stan & Ollie" about the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. Last year, Reilly earned critical acclaim for his role with Joaquin Phoenix in the western "The Sisters Brothers." Reilly's appeared in more than 70 films, including "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," "Chicago," "Talladega Nights," "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" and "Step Brothers."
For "Stan & Ollie," Reilly had to wear heavy prosthetics to play the 280-pound Oliver Hardy. The film explores Hardy's relationship with his partner Stan Laurel in their older years as Laurel and Hardy try to revive their sagging career with a stage show tour in England. Here's a scene from late in the film when they've finally had a successful performance in London. They're backstage after the show, with people waiting for them downstairs at a party. But they start working on ideas for a scene for their next movie. Steve Coogan plays Stan Laurel. John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAN & OLLIE")
JOHN C. REILLY: (As Oliver) The line that Robin Hood has about stealing from the rich and giving to the poor - there's a gag there somewhere, isn't there?
STEVE COOGAN: (As Stan) Babe, the girls are going to be waiting for us downstairs. Delfont wants us to meet these people from his charity.
REILLY: (As Oliver) Oh, never mind about them. They're not going anywhere. We just need to work through this just a little bit more. Hey, when is Muffin coming to see the show?
COOGAN: (As Stan) He didn't say.
REILLY: (As Oliver) He should have been here tonight - went big tonight. That was a crackerjack, wasn't it? (Laughter).
COOGAN: (As Stan) It was.
REILLY: (As Oliver) All right. How about this? How about we tell Robin Hood, you've got it all wrong? You ought to steal from the poor and give...
COOGAN: (As Stan) No, no. That's not...
REILLY: (As Oliver) ...Each other riches - something like that.
COOGAN: (As Stan) That's not right. No, it's...
REILLY: (As Oliver) Well, what is it?
COOGAN: (As Stan) Well, all right. OK.
COOGAN: (As Oliver) Oh, you got something. Imagine that.
COOGAN: (As Stan) How about this? OK. I tap you on the shoulder. And I say, Ollie, I got an idea. How about we give to the poor stealing from the poor, that way we cut out the middleman?
REILLY: (As Oliver) That's it. (Laughter) That's it.
COOGAN: (As Stan) All right.
REILLY: (As Oliver) Stealing from the rich to give to the poor - whoever heard of such a ridiculous idea?
REILLY: (As Stan) Well, it's communism.
DAVIES: Well, John C. Reilly, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the film and your Golden Globe nomination.
REILLY: Thank you very much, good to be back.
DAVIES: You know, I watched Laurel and Hardy movies as a kid on television. This is a kind of a physical comedy that, I guess, is a holdover in part from the silent era, which their careers overlapped with. It's not...
DAVIES: ...You know, slapstick exactly. But it struck me that watching you and Coogan doing their - some of their routines, that it required an awful lot of careful timing. I mean, like, there's, you know, a bit with two doors, where you're trying to find each other at a train station and manage to miss each other. Talk a little bit...
DAVIES: ...About getting that kind of comedy to work.
REILLY: That is the really interesting part of the story of Laurel and Hardy is that they started as silent comedians in the silent era. And when the movie business transitioned into the sound era, it left a lot of people behind. And Stan and Laurel, actually, specifically talked about this transition. He said, you know, a lot of performers who were silent performers, when they got the chance to speak on film, you know, a lot of those filmmakers would fill the movies with dialogue from beginning to end because everyone was so excited about being able to talk on film. And Stan and Laurel thought - very wisely thought, you know what? We're doing this silent stuff very well. Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Let's try to keep doing what we do really well. And where dialogue will enhance what we're doing, let's have dialogue.
And so they were kind of stingy with their dialogue even when they moved into the sound era, which really - it helped them a lot because it made them keep doing what they were doing so well already. The brilliant thing about their work - when you watch it, it seems so nonchalant. It seems like they're doing it for the first time. And you know that some of these routines, like the double door routine you mentioned in our movie where we keep missing each other, going out one door, coming out - it was two, like - a waiting room in a railway station is the way we did it on stage.
And in order to get that comedy to look right so it just looks like we're just accidentally missing each other 15 times in a row (laughter) - in order to do that, it requires this diligence with the timing. And it's almost like a ballet or a piece of music that you're playing when you're doing it because what looks like very nonchalant just kind of like normal human behavior from the outside, inside is Steve and I going, five, four, three, two, turn. Wait - two, three, turn - right? So it's almost like this choreographed thing in our mind.
DAVIES: Did you guys know each other beforehand? - because, you know, just as, you know, Stan and Ollie kind of worked together all those years, you really must have developed a close relationship on this thing.
REILLY: We were in a similar position as Stan and Ollie when we started. Like, we were accomplished performers in our own right. We knew each other a little bit. And we were told by a producer, come on, boys. Come up with an act, you know? We had the luxury of copying or being inspired by the actual work of Laurel and Hardy. But it was really interesting. That part of it was very interesting - what it takes to create chemistry with someone, what it takes to create an act and what it takes to find a shared sense of humor about things. You really get to know someone very well when you're like, well, if I repeat that one more time, is that funny? Or do I wait a beat and then say it again? Is that funny? You know, when you go back and forth with each other about these little details is when you really discover like, oh, this is what makes him laugh or, you know - you get to know each other.
And that's the kind of beautiful backstory of the time period that we set our film in - in 1953 was the last the actual tour that these guys did because they couldn't get money in Hollywood anymore. They weren't getting any work in the movie business. So they started doing these theatrical tours just in order to connect with audiences and make some cash. And they both said that in their heyday, when they were making all their films, when they were the most popular film stars in the world for about five years there, they didn't really know each other so well as people because they were very different personalities.
Stan was like a workaholic who loved to just write, write, write, write, and edit and edit and constantly think about the act and how to refine it. And Oliver worked very hard when he was at work. But as soon as the work was over, he would be off golfing or going to great restaurants with friends or whatever. You know, wine, women and song was kind of Oliver's life - or the race track. You know, he loved to gamble.
So they didn't spend a lot of personal time together when they were in their heyday. But when they were old men and when they were looking back on their lives and they were trying to, like, still make it, they did these theatrical tours where they were in every train car, every hotel room, every backstage, together all the time. And they've both said, like, that is when they learned to love the other man, you know, as a person, as a human being, as opposed to a component in the act.
DAVIES: You had to be a fat guy (laughter) in this movie. I mean, you had to go through a lot to get the physical look of Oliver Hardy. And I got to say it's pretty remarkable because you don't look like a guy wearing a fat suit. You really look like a fat guy. I mean, you know, your hands are beefy. And what was the physical transformation? What did it consist of?
REILLY: You know, the truth is I thought of myself as looking very different than Oliver when I started this process. And that was one of the things that I was really nervous about. I thought, I don't want it to be some bad makeup job or, like you said, look like some guy in a fat suit. Like, I really want this movie to feel very, very human and real. So that transformation - yeah. That was one of the first things that was like - it was almost like a door being opened for me. When I saw the mockups of the computer - you know, they do these computer-generated kind of mockups of what the makeup will look like...
REILLY: ...Before they actually do it. And when I saw the first mockup from Mark Coulier, who's, like, an award-winning prosthetic makeup designer - when I first saw those pictures, I thought, wow. Maybe I can do this. Maybe I can because I will look like the guy. I know that now.
DAVIES: And did it restrict your movements, your - either your facial movements - I mean, you have to...
REILLY: No, I...
DAVIES: ...Dance in this thing, right? I mean...
REILLY: Yeah. I had to wear this cooling suit underneath it, which was like a T-shirt filled with plastic tubes. And then you plug those tubes into, like, a cooler with a pump in it that has ice water (laughter) in it. And it cycles ice water all around your...
REILLY: ...Body and the inside of the suit. Look. I've never done hard drugs, but I have a feeling that it feels a little bit like that cooling suit coming on, you know?
REILLY: Because after you've done that "Way Out West" dance a few times in that fat suit and that makeup, you'd plug that thing in and it was like, ah. And it was literally keeping me alive because, you know, if you work that hard and you're that covered up, your body will get heatstroke. And you'll just shut down. So that cooling suit really saved my life. But no, it didn't restrict my movements at all, actually. In fact, I had them add weight to the inside of that foam suit that I was in so that I would always have an awareness of what I was carrying, you know?
DAVIES: You know, I will just say that - I mean, I looked at a little bit of the old Laurel and Hardy film "Way Out West." And I'm looking at Oliver Hardy. And I looked at his face and said, man, that guy really does look like John C. Reilly.
DAVIES: So I don't know if...
REILLY: Isn't that a funny turnabout?
DAVIES: Yeah. No, you really do nail it. There's also the voice. You know, it's interesting that Steve Coogan, who plays Stan Laurel, actually has a very naturally deep voice. I mean, he's sort of an impressionist by trade, in part. He's an actor and a comedian.
REILLY: Yeah, Steve is a virtuosic...
DAVIES: He's terrific at it. And I'm wondering - and he manages to hit that higher register that Stan Laurel had in his dialogue. Did you have to work on Oliver Hardy's voice?
REILLY: Yeah. Oliver had a very interesting voice. It's funny because the two of them - you know, Stan Laurel is from Ulverston, England, the north of England, and Oliver was from Georgia, here in America. So it's almost like Stan's English accent rubbed off on Oliver, and Oliver's American accent rubbed off on Stan 'cause Stan had lived in America for a long time. Yeah, Oliver's accent was really an interesting one for that reason. You know, he would say (in accent) girls, you know, for girls. You know, he said (in accent) girls - this kind of Southern gentleman kind of a thing 'cause that's the way he was raised.
But then he went up to New York when he started his career and then eventually out in Hollywood. And he had this sort of - it was interesting, his voice, because in a way it's part of the act. You know, in a way, Oliver Hardy was - his character's M.O. was - he was always aspiring to a station higher than himself, right? At first glance, it looks like he's dressed in these formal clothes. And then when you look at the clothes up close, you're like, wait. There's a patch on the pants, and the jacket is missing a button.
And you realize, like, that was part of the essential quality of their act - was Oliver being very proper and formal - and please forgive my friend. And Stanley was the one always making mistakes. I don't know. It's kind of a worldview led me to the accent because Oliver's worldview was that of a romantic. You know, when things would go wrong, it was always in reaction to what he - the way he wanted things to be. (In accent) Why don't you do something to help me? You know, he would get frustrated when the world wasn't this romantic ideal that he was aspiring to, you know. And here he is saddled with this idiotic best friend.
DAVIES: John C. Reilly stars with Steve Coogan in the new film "Stan & Ollie." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEAU HUNKS' "IF IT WERE ONLY TRUE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with actor John C. Reilly. He stars with Steve Coogan in the new film "Stan & Ollie" about the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. I wonder if we should play the scene where there's the real confrontation between the two of you. Oliver did a film without Stan because their contracts didn't expire at the same time with the studio, and there was some ongoing resentment. Maybe we should listen to that. You want to set this up? This was at a reception in England, right?
REILLY: Yeah. So it's funny because, you know, in a friendship - sometimes, you know, you can see a conflict coming in a friendship. And sometimes it comes at the best of times, right? Oliver and Stan have just done, you know, all this work to get their tour going. They finally get a big show put together in London. They have one of the most successful nights of the entire tour. And afterwards, this betrayal from the past is brought up in conversation. And it's when Stan and Ollie both realized like, wait a minute. We do have some unfinished business here. And they really let each other have it in a way that they haven't done before.
DAVIES: So let's listen to this. This is Steve Coogan and our guest John C. Reilly in the film "Stan & Ollie." And this is Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy arguing. It begins with Stan bringing up the fact that Oliver Hardy had done a film without him years before and how much it hurt him. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAN & OLLIE")
COOGAN: (As Stan Laurel) I couldn't sleep for days when they told me what you did.
REILLY: (As Oliver Hardy) And I couldn't sleep when I did it.
COOGAN: (As Stan Laurel) But you still did it. You betrayed me, betrayed our friendship.
REILLY: (As Oliver Hardy) Friendship? We're friends because Hal Roach put us together. And the only reason we stayed together was because the audience wanted it. I have real friends. And, yes, we play golf. And we go to ballgames. And we have sauerkraut on our bratwurst.
COOGAN: (As Stan Laurel) People will remember our movies long after you've finished your hot dog. You know something? You're just a lazy ass who got lucky because you met me.
REILLY: (As Oliver Hardy) Lucky - to spend my life with a hollow man who hides behind his typewriter? You're not real, Stan. You're hollow. You're empty.
COOGAN: (As Stan Laurel) I loved us.
REILLY: (As Oliver Hardy) You loved Laurel and Hardy, but you never loved me.
COOGAN: (As Stan Laurel) So what?
DAVIES: That Steve Coogan and our guest John C. Reilly from their new film "Stan & Ollie." You know, it's striking listening to that. And I'm hearing your voice as we're having this conversation, and I hear the voice of you as Oliver Hardy. And, boy, you can really hear the transformation.
REILLY: Well, partly it's because I'm fighting a cold today, Dave. So my voice probably sounds a lot different than a lot of my performances. But, yeah, I appreciate your noticing the transformation there. In a way, it was like every morning when I would have that makeup put on - because I was wearing brown contact lenses also and a wig - and like this whole thing was applied to me every day. And it's almost like by the end of that process, I didn't have a choice whether to be myself. I was this other person.
I had a little party for the crew at my house at the end of the shooting and had all these - I kept having all these weird conversations with people on the crew at this party. And finally I turned to someone like, why is everyone acting kind of like strange with me? Like, I know these people. I've been working with them for three months. And finally the director said, John, you got to understand. Most of these people have never seen you outside of the makeup and all that. They've never seen you with blue eyes. They've never seen you with that hundred pounds off of you. It's a little weird, you know.
DAVIES: It was freaking them out, yeah.
REILLY: They're meeting you for the first time after working with you for three months. That was interesting. The transformation - you know, it was like working inside of a mask that your whole body was in, in a way.
DAVIES: Wow. I want to hear a lighter moment in the film where you're on stage, and the two of you sing a song. You want to just tell us a little bit? This is part of the stage show that you're doing - again, you and Stan Laurel travelling around England doing these shows in half-filled theaters. Just tell us a little bit about the songs. Set this up for us.
REILLY: Well, that's the thing. A lot of the show that we do in the film - their stage show - there is no film of it. There's no real record other than some scripts and personal accounts of people who'd seen it. So a lot of that stuff, we had to kind of create from the ground up, you know. And then there are things that we lift right out of their movies. The "Way Out West" dance is how we begin the film. We do this famous dance that they did. And we did that almost with like a forensic attention to detail because we wanted to get it exactly right. Now, one of the things that we do on the stage show that's also from their actual work is the song "Lonesome Pine," which ironically became a No. 1 hit in the 1970s in England at one point.
But anyway, it's from that same movie, "Way Out West." And once they get into the bar after that famous dance, they start - Oliver gets inspired by the singing cowboys around him, and he begins to sing this song. Join in - and then Stan joins him in harmony. And then all of a sudden, Stan goes off the rails and starts doing this, like, very low comedic voice kind of ruining the song. And Oliver gets frustrated and hits him on the head with a mallet that he gets from the bartender. So yeah, we recreate that scene onstage. And it was a great little moment to get to show a side of Oliver that he was very proud of, which was his singing voice. He could have - he was actually, at one point, aspiring to be a singer. And he had a beautiful high tenor voice. It's a real shame that there aren't more recordings of him outside of their films. But one of the most famous songs that they ever did was this song, "Lonesome Pine."
DAVIES: Yeah, let's listen to it. This is from the film "Stan & Ollie." Our guest John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAN & OLLIE")
JOHN C REILLY AND STEVE COOGAN: (As Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel, singing) In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia on the trail of the lonesome pine. In the pale moon shine, our hearts entwine, where she carved her name and I carved mine. Oh, June, just like the mountains, I'm blue. Like the pine, I am lonesome for you.
JOHN C REILLY AND STEVE COOGAN: (As Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel, singing) In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia on the trail of the lonesome pine.
COOGAN: (As Stan Laurel, singing) In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia on the trail of the lonesome pine. In the pale moon shine, our hearts entwine, where she carved her name and I carved mine. Oh, June, just like the mountains, I'm blue. Like the pine, I am lonesome for you.
COOGAN: (As Stan Laurel, singing) In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia on the trail of the lonesome pine.
DAVIES: And that was our guest John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan singing on the "Trail Of The Lonesome Pine" from the new film "Stan & Ollie."
REILLY: As you can see there, like, after he does that low voice and I hit him with the hammer, it turns into this high soprano voice, which then, you know...
REILLY: ...He collapses onto the floor after that. But anyway, that's a classic bit of Laurel and Hardy.
DAVIES: John C. Reilly stars in the new film "Stan & Ollie" about the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. After a break, Reilly will talk about playing a contract killer in the Old West with Joaquin Phoenix in the film "The Sisters Brothers," and Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel "Ghost Wall" by Sarah Moss. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RONNIE HAZELHURST AND HIS ORCHESTRA'S "SMILE WHEN THE RAINDROPS FALL")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with actor John C. Reilly who plays Oliver Hardy in the new film "Stan & Ollie" about the iconic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. Reilly's appeared in more than 70 films, including "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," "Chicago," "Talladega Nights," "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," "Step Brothers" and last year in the Western "The Sisters Brothers."
You also had a film out this year, "The Sisters Brothers," about two contract killers in the 1850s - guys who carried guns in the Pacific Northwest. It's based on a novel by Patrick deWitt, and I guess this was really kind of your project. You and your wife fell in love with the novel and got the film going a long time ago, right? What appeal...
DAVIES: What appealed to you about this story?
REILLY: Well, it's a brilliant book. I mean, it takes place in the West, but it's not about cowboys and Indians. And it's not about the good guys in the white hats. It's about all these morally ambivalent characters and these men trying to find a new way to be a human being and the dawn of civilization or at least the next chapter of American civilization. There's all kinds of refreshing, really original ideas in there that I had never seen in that genre before. So it was a no-brainer in terms of trying to make it into a film. It took a while to do it. But...
DAVIES: Right, right.
REILLY: But eventually, we hooked up with the great Jacques Audiard, who is one of the best filmmakers in the world. And...
REILLY: And then we were off to the races.
DAVIES: Your character Eli Sisters is - I mean, they're both contract killers. They work for a guy who goes by the Commodore. And he gives them jobs. They carry them out, but Eli is less committed to the business of killing than his brother, Charlie. Maybe you could just describe Eli and kind of how you got into the mindset of being a guy who could do this kind of work.
REILLY: Yeah, Eli Sisters and Charlie Sisters are these two boys who had a very traumatic childhood. And they had to kill their father, who was an abusive alcoholic. And then this guy, the Commodore, discovered these two little ragamuffin boys who were very good at killing (laughter). And he took them under his wing. And he became their sort of father figure and hired them to go - to kill people and to, you know, settle scores. And Eli - it's an interesting dynamic, the two of them. You know, Charlie, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a much more willing killer. He's got a very short temper. And he's - he almost revels in the violence. Eli is in it - at least the way he describes it to himself, Eli is in it to protect Charlie. And in a year where I played a lot of - I played in a lot of duos, it was a really intense duo to be locked in that relationship with Joaquin. He and I spent a lot of time together...
REILLY: ...There in Spain and Romania where we shot the film. So...
DAVIES: Yeah, well..
REILLY: Eli was someone that was kind of close to my heart. I've been in a lot of those brotherly relationships in my life. And I know what it's like to be hitched to another person for better or worse.
DAVIES: Let's hear a scene from "The Sisters Brothers." This is after an evening in which your brother Charlie, played by Joaquin Phoenix, has had a rough night drinking. And you had an argument the night before, and he slapped you. He's clearly the more volatile of the two, tends to drink a lot more. And you're seeing each other the next morning right after this nasty argument. And Charlie recognizes that you're kind of sullen and distant, and he speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SISTERS BROTHERS")
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Charlie) What is wrong with you?
REILLY: (As Eli) Remember what happened last night?
PHOENIX: (As Charlie) Yes. And...
REILLY: (As Eli) You remember that you hit me?
PHOENIX: (As Charlie) I hit you? I hit you?
REILLY: (As Eli) Stop pretending, and spare me the I don't remember routine. You hit me in public, Charlie. So as sure as you're looking at me right now, I'm leaving.
PHOENIX: (As Charlie) No, wait. Wait, wait, wait. All right. What do you want? This is about slapping each other in public. All right, so I slap you. You slap me back. We're even. So go ahead, hit me. Hit me.
What is your damn problem? I slapped you. I didn't whack you in the head with a shovel.
REILLY: (As Eli) See; you do remember.
DAVIES: That's John C. Reilly, our guest, with Joaquin Phoenix in the film "The Sisters Brothers." Yeah, tell me a little bit about the relationship between you and Joaquin Phoenix. I mean, this - the relationship between the brothers is intense. And he's sort of known as an actor who - you know, a very intuitive - you never get the same performance twice when you reshoot a scene. Just tell me a little bit about the relationship.
REILLY: Yeah. So Joaquin - yeah, yeah. He has a very intense reputation as an instinctual actor and for good reason. I think Joaquin is peerless among actors, myself included. You know, watching him on film - like, for instance, in the film "The Master," I - you know, there's not many people in the whole world that can do that and that can perform in such a way. You know, film is such a prepared art form - so much rehearsal and discussion and setup and lights and camera, all of it. And then they say, action. And you're supposed to act like you've never done it before, you know? And it's very hard to do - to be spontaneous after all that preparation. And Joaquin is just amazing in that way. You can't tell what Joaquin is going to do next when you're watching him on film. I describe it, you know, jokingly, almost as like watching a raccoon go through the garbage cans. You're like...
REILLY: What - what is it - what? It's climbing on top. What is he - you know, it's like - you know, watching Joaquin on film is like watching a wild animal. I mean, that says a lot right there, that statement.
DAVIES: Watching him on film, that's one thing. Is it like that being on the set with him? You don't know what's going - what's coming next.
REILLY: Yeah, that's how he lives his life. And I really - I have a lot of admiration for Joaquin in that way. He takes things moment by moment. He doesn't like to overanalyze things or discuss about the future or reminisce about the past. He's very much living in the - you know, he finds the groove. And he's living in the moment. And I think that's a really great way to live. I mean, I don't think it's an easy road for him all the time because the rest of the world is not living in the moment a lot of the time. But for an actor, I don't think there's a better quality than that. And...
DAVIES: Can you give...
REILLY: It was difficult for us at first because we didn't know each other. We knew each other a little bit, just briefly, socially. But here we were supposed to play two guys who were symbiotically connected - you know, these brothers who've spent every sunrise and sunset together from the time they can remember. And here we were two actors. We were suddenly in Spain together, you know, practicing riding horses and shooting guns and thought, wow. We have a steep mountain to climb in order to find the intimacy that these two brothers are supposed to have. And the way I did it - once - you know, I'm pretty good at adapting to people. That's one of the reasons, I think, I keep doing duos over and over because I work well with other people. And I can tell when I need to adapt and when I need to be the beta as opposed to the alpha, you know? I'm good at kind of like being adaptive to people.
So what I realized with Joaquin was I just have to listen - not talk, just listen. And if there's nothing - if he doesn't want to say anything, then that's OK. And be OK with the silence. So we would take these, you know, three-hour-long hikes together or horseback rides together or car rides together. We were living together for periods of the film. We were cooking dinner for each other. We would just be in each other's presence. And that's how we found the relationship. I would just try to get my shoulder as close to his shoulder every day (laughter) for as long as I could. And we'd be - whether we're napping on a boulder together or we're driving home after the end of a shooting day or we're cooking dinner together, that's how we found that relationship.
DAVIES: And can you think of a time you were shooting a scene and Joaquin did something really unexpected that - and you had to react to it, and it worked or gave you something really creative?
REILLY: That was a daily occurrence (laughter). You know, film is a very high-pressure thing for actors. There's a - you're supposed to be very confident and act like you don't care. And that ease kind of is good on camera. But the fact is you're really under the gun. You're on the hot seat every single day. And the tendency is to kind of want to talk about things beforehand to make sure you're in a good spot. And, you know, I did that a couple times with Joaquin, where I said, hey. You know, when you say this, I'm thinking this, right? And he's like, why are you doing that? What are you doing? (Laughter) I was like, you know, I just want - I'm just talking about the scene. He's like, man, we don't need to talk about that. It should just happen on film. What are you doing? You're killing it. You're killing the moment. And I made the mistake of doing it just maybe once or twice with him, and it was such a great lesson. You know, like you said, I'm a veteran actor. I've been doing this for a long time.
There's not - you know, there's not many people I meet that teach me lessons at this point about acting. But I was so grateful for that lesson from Joaquin. I thought, you know what? You're exactly right. And the only reason I'm talking about this before we shoot it is 'cause I'm nervous. I should just be OK with being nervous and let us discover something on film. 'Cause that's really what film is all about - catching lightning in a bottle. You know? It's not about, like, executing well what you thought would be good here. You know? It's about discovering something on camera. That's what - I mean, if you can do that, audiences find that very, very engaging.
So I'm really grateful for those lessons that Joaquin taught me about staying in the moment. It's something I already knew, being an actor who loves to improvise. You know, improvisation, the heart of improvisation is be here now. Be in this moment. Not the next one or the one that just happened, but right now. So that was a really - it was a good strengthening thing for me as an actor, working with Joaquin. It reminded me of what all the important stuff was.
DAVIES: There are a couple of details I wanted to ask you about. One is the scene where you're lying down to sleep. You sleep outside. And a spider, tarantula, crawls into your mouth. And I guess you swallow it. That looks so real. How did you shoot that?
REILLY: Well, I had to hold very still. The spider that we used is actually not a venomous spider. It looks really scary, but it's not a trained spider. It was a spider wrangler. I would just sort of lay there and then close my mouth. And then as soon as they cut the camera, open my mouth and they'd get the spider out of my mouth.
DAVIES: So that was a real spider crawling into your mouth?
REILLY: No. Of course, it wasn't. It was CGI. But isn't it interesting, Dave...
REILLY: ...That we are now having this conversation? That you are watching a special effect in the movie and you can't tell - in other words, if I tell you it's a real spider, you believe that it's a real spider. That's - it's almost like the robots have won. You know? We're now at a place with special effects where you literally just have to know the behind-the-scenes truth in order to detect it. And I think that's a really exciting moment in filmmaking when the illusion becomes so complete that we can no longer tell what is illusion and what is real, and that in a way that is like movies coming into their own.
In the past with these kind of things, you would kind of go, wow, that's a computer effect. Or that's a rubber spider. Of course. They couldn't get a real spider to do that. Now we've gotten to a place in film where the effects are so good that, you know...
DAVIES: OK. It's...
REILLY: ...The illusion is complete. There was no real spider (laughter).
REILLY: Let me be clear.
DAVIES: It looks real.
REILLY: I was pulling your leg before to make a point.
REILLY: There was no real spider.
DAVIES: All right.
REILLY: No spiders were harmed in the making of "The Sisters Brothers."
DAVIES: John C. Reilly stars with Steve Coogan in the new film, "Stan And Ollie." He also appears with Joaquin Phoenix in the film, "The Sisters Brothers." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with actor John C. Reilly. He starts with Steve Coogan in the new film, "Stan And Ollie."
You've had a lot of great work lately. You're nominated for a Golden Globe. Anything you haven't done you want to do?
REILLY: Well, (laughter), is this when I say direct? (Laughter). Because it is. That's sort of the elephant in the room after doing almost 80 movies and working with some of the greatest directors in the world. I should know something about how to put a movie together at this point. So I've directed a lot of plays, and I think I might do that next. And if a movie comes along that it seems like I'm the only person who could direct it then maybe that. Yeah.
DAVIES: Do you - I mean, you've obviously worked with a lot of different directors who have all different kinds of approaches. Do you have a vision for, like, this is what I want to do on a set?
REILLY: Well, that's the tricky thing. And that's why I haven't directed yet, is because I think I've been directed by actors before, and sometimes they do really well with it because they really understand what it means to be an actor so they can get a lot out of you. And other times, it can be difficult for actors to direct because you have to be ready to cede the spotlight, you know, to give over, give the floor to an actor. And directing is a different discipline than acting. And I think that's a really big leap to make, to be ready to say, OK, I'm not going to be the one telling the story. I'm going to be the one guiding it from behind.
And I think that's a really important leap to make, and I'm almost there. But acting has to seem less fun than that in order for that to happen. You know what I mean? And I just keep getting amazing offers, one after the other, as an actor, you know, from Oliver Hardy to Eli Sisters. Like, those are not parts that you should pass up. So we'll see.
DAVIES: We'll see what unfolds. Yeah.
REILLY: I've done - I've directed a lot of kids plays so far, and that's been very rewarding and it's been a great way to learn how to work with people who are trying to come into their own as actors. So yeah, I've done a lot of kids' plays in my children's schools. And I'm hoping that those will be a great training ground for, (laughter), for working with adults one day.
DAVIES: You've directed kids' plays at your children's schools?
REILLY: Yeah. Yeah.
DAVIES: What do you think you've learned from directing kids?
REILLY: I've learned - well, it gives you an appreciation for what it means to be a director. It gives you an appreciation for the responsibilities and the role, you know, as a leader. I've been someone who's always been more comfortable not being the leader than someone who's like - I'm a very loyal soldier, but I don't like being the general. I haven't liked the responsibility of saying, no, this is what we should do, I know I'm right. You know? I've always been someone who's much more collaborative and adaptive to situations. But directing plays has taught me, you know, you have a really important role as a leader here. And even if you're scared or even if you feel like, oh, my God, this is not going well, you cannot show that to them. You have to be this - you know, you have to be the fearless leader - the one who's saying, like, don't worry; you can do it, even when inside you're thinking, like, I'm not quite sure they can do it.
REILLY: You have to be the one saying, don't worry; you can do it. And yeah, I'm not quite there yet in terms of fully embracing that leadership kind of mentality. But I do - the older I get, I look around me and think, like, well, I still feel like a 12-year-old kid; but I guess I'm the adult in the room now.
REILLY: You know, I go onto a movie set, Dave, these days, and I'm the oldest person on the set by far - not just the other actors but the entire crew. You know, filmmaking's kind of a young person's game in terms of the behind-the-scenes - you know, the work that needs to be done. So the older I get, the more I'm kind of, like, settling into this place of like, well, you know, maybe you do have something worth saying; maybe you do have some earned authority at this point. But the confidence it takes to be a director and to be a leader and to be responsible for other people's paths is not one that I take lightly. So yeah, that's something, I think, you have to be ready to do because once you do say you're going to do it, there are a lot of people really depending on you for that leadership. And you can't let them down. Yeah, we'll see. We'll see. I'm hoping to - at least to develop more things for myself and produce more things. And I mean, look, the truth is I want to do everything I can do in this life. I want to give everything I can. I don't want to die thinking, like, oh, I should've done that or I should've done this. I want to leave it all on the stage. And maybe directing will be one of those things that comes my way.
DAVIES: John C. Reilly, it's great to have you back. Thanks so much.
REILLY: My pleasure, Dave. Thank you.
DAVIES: John C. Reilly co-stars with Steve Coogan in the new film "Stan & Ollie." Coming up, Maureen Coogan (ph) - Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel "Ghost Wall" by Sarah Moss. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "A GRAND NITE FOR SWINGING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.