John C. Reilly
Photo by Nicolas Guerin

John C. Reilly: “We all owe a debt”

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Short Profile

Name: John Christopher Reilly
DOB: 24 May 1965
Place of birth: Chicago, Illinois, United States
Occupation: Actor, comedian

Mr. Reilly, which comedians made you laugh as a kid?

At the Golden Globes this year, I got to meet Dick Van Dyke, and that is someone who was very, very important to me as a child. I was also just weeping watching their Carol Burnett tribute and it made me realize that, “Wow, that was a big influence on me.” Another influence would be Gene Wilder, who came up when I was a kid in the seventies, when it was a very macho world for men, especially in movies, it was guys like Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando.

Robert Redford, Harrison Ford, Richard Roundtree…

Right, this kind of uber macho protagonist. Gene Wilder was someone who said it’s okay to be sensitive, it’s okay to have a feminine quality to yourself as a man. That’s not some terrible thing, that’s just a recognition of what it’s like to be a human being. I really latched onto him at an early age, because I thought, “That’s how I feel! I am a sensitive person, I am not up to the task of being as macho as Gene Hackman!” I understood what it felt like to be someone like Gene Wilder. I understood the empathy that he expressed, the care and the humanism.

“The world has gone mad and this is so upsetting that maybe people just need to laugh right now.”

What about more recently? Who makes you laugh these days?

Of course, Steve Coogan is amazing with what he has done with Alan Partridge throughout all these years. Key and Peele are two of my favorites, Nick Kroll and John Mulaney have done some amazing stuff. In terms of who really makes me laugh these days though, Will Ferrell I think is peerless, no one can make me crack up as much as Will. But I do think we are at a strange time because… When I first started doing movies with Will Ferrell, it was during the George W. Bush era when we were getting into Iraq and Afghanistan, and I thought, “Well, the world has gone mad and this is so upsetting that maybe people just need to laugh right now.”

Richard Gere said that the chaotic state of the world means that there are more important things than to have an artist leader come forward right now. Is comedy the answer, perhaps?

I don’t think the comedy is the answer to what is going on in the world right now, actually. The world is so distressing and cruel right now, especially with what our leaders are saying, it’s almost like comedy and joy is like a flower that needs to be cared for, and it needs to be in a peaceful garden where someone is watering it and taking care of it. I think the answer is empathy, getting people to recognize what binds all human beings together, regardless of their economic stances or their race or where they have come from or where they are going, empathy is what is going to get us out of the mess that we are currently in.

So what is comedy’s role in the world today?

Comedy’s main job is to address our time and help people to make sense of it and to help people make fun of it, to have a laugh about the current situation as it is in the world. I think what happens in any age is people become fascinated and obsessed with the contemporary acts, because they are talking about Donald Trump or Angela Merkel or whoever. But that is not the comedy that lasts. What lasts, what continues from generation to generation is things that are free of the bonds of time or of contemporary references.

Can you give me an example?

Well, think about Laurel and Hardy. I studied them a lot when I did the film Stan & Ollie, and they didn’t traffic in contemporary references like who was the President, or references that you would only get if you were alive in 1935 or something. They kept their work to really eternal subjects and quandaries like: how do we get this house cleaned up or this box up these stairs? And someone in Cairo or Buenos Aires could relate to it and it didn’t matter about your national identity or your culture or your religion, they unified people all around the world.

But is that kind of physical comedy really as popular as it used to be?

That is just one of those things that people like to say, but I don’t think it’s actually true. “Oh, time has moved on and physical comedy is no longer relevant, getting hit on the head with a board is not as funny as it used to be.” Yes, it is! It still happens, there is still physical comedy in humor all the time! There’s this one routine where Laurel and Hardy were in a lumber mill, and they keep walking into this board. They turn and walk into it again, and just when you think well they can’t walk into that board again, they walk into the board five more times. They really mastered the comedy of escalation, of repetition; they really did. That is what I mean when I talk about things that last, that kind of thing is still funny.

“Perhaps I will be timeless. But there’s no telling it now.”

I agree — but as timeless as they are, they are not as well-known to a younger generation these days.

That’s true, but you could have said the same thing in 1950! Even these days, I see their heritage everywhere. When we did Wreck-It-Ralph, we talked about Oliver Hardy all the time. There would be no Homer Simpson without him. If you look at something like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, it is a play about Laurel and Hardy. It’s not spoken of, it’s not said it’s Laurel and Hardy, but they wear bowler hats and they are two kind of like eternal clown characters. Samuel Beckett, one of the greatest playwrights of all time, his greatest play was about Laurel and Hardy. All comedy duos today, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, Setve Coogan and Rob Brydon, myself and Will Ferrell, we all owe a debt to those guys. They kept the secrets of clowning alive.

Were you into clowning as a young actor?

Well, I never set out to be a comedian, I never thought I would even be a funny actor, I was just trying to be an actor. I grew up doing theater and musicals. When I really started to study comedy was when I was in acting school in the eighties and films became available on videotape for the first time. You could go back and rewind and slow things down. When I was younger, you would watch comedy shows on television and you would have to catch every detail as they went by. But in the eighties, you could suddenly stop it, rewind it, and examine the timing of things, how do they do that and why do they do that and go back — you could study it almost forensically.

Is that how you hope your films are watched by future generations of comedians?

Whether generations in the future will find my work relevant… I don’t know. If they do, then perhaps I will be timeless. But there’s no telling it now.