He may not be a classic matinee idol, but John C. Reilly looks rather dashing when I meet him the day after the premiere of Kong: Skull Island in London.
He's dressed in an eye-catching three-piece tweed suit, and combined with his tall stature and haywire, corkscrew curls he looks as eccentric as a Roald Dahl character - Willy Wonka meets the BFG.
Reilly is living proof that to get the best out of a Hollywood career, it makes sense not to be a headline star. He has built a career of incredible range and quality, has been nominated for an Oscar and is loved by critics and respected by audiences (you'll know his face, even if you can't quite place the name). And all without having to worry about the tiresome business of extreme fame. Outside of work, he lives what appears to be a low-key life in East LA (deliberately at a distance from Beverly Hills) with his wife, the producer Alison Dickey, and their two young sons.
Kong: Skull Island is his first big-budget, CGI monster movie. He built his reputation working on artistically credible projects with legendary directors such as Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma but is no stranger to the multiplex either - with an unerring instinct it seems for choosing popcorn movies that storm the box office. "I'm really proud that it's this one," he says of Kong: Skull Island.
The film is, in a sense, a prequel to the 'giant monkey takes New York' story that audiences worldwide know and love. It fleshes out the Kong origin myth, taking the audience to a mysterious island in South East Asia, never before explored by human beings.
The film is set at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and follows a team of scientists, led by Bill Panda (John Goodman) which, protected by a military detail fresh from Saigon, breaks through the island's violent weather systems to explore what mysteries exist there. What they find is much bigger and more terrifying than they could have anticipated - a world full of hostile behemoths who have never encountered humans, and treat them as prey.
Reilly plays Hank Marlow a soldier whose plane came down on Skull Island during World War II and who has been stranded for 28 years. "I was crying all the time when I was playing this guy because he's sort of at his wits' end, and he's lived 28 years in terror and, whatever, he's got PTSD in a bad way. So I knew my character was a very emotional character. But to see how emotionally connected I ended up being with Kong by the end of the movie - I was like, wow.
"It's such a rich character," he says, explaining why he had a good feeling about this one on reading the script. "Someone from the 1940s who hasn't experienced the 28 years after that, someone who went from literally being a soldier in a war to becoming a pacifist... he's half crazy by the time they find him. It was a really rich character to dive into.
"He's so crazy after spending all this time alone, that he's also unreliable," he continues. "So it makes the movie even more tense. You're not sure if the advice he's giving is good advice or he has just lost his mind. I can't imagine what it would be like to spend that much time stranded away from the world. I would imagine you go through many different ebbs and flows of despair and hope and I don't even know."
Reilly's nonplussed about the challenges of acting opposite a giant ape. "People have been making a bit of hay about how difficult it is to deal with a CGI character who's not there, but I just remember when I was a kid all my play was like that. So it's not so difficult. It's just you have to go back to that place of suspension of belief. That kind of make-believe stuff of your childhood."
Reilly grew up on Chicago's gritty south side. The fifth of six children, his father was Irish-American, his mother of Lithuanian descent. The family were blue-collar stock, and he stumbled across performance by accident. "When I was about eight years old I made friends with the local kid in the neighbourhood who knew about this drama class in the local park. And he said, 'you should come with me, it's going to be fun. We do skits and stuff like that'. And I went there and immediately realised, 'Oh, these are my people - weirdos like me'. And I just really took to it... and then I just kept doing it because I enjoyed doing it."
He then studied at an acting conservatory in Chicago. "It really wasn't until I was almost done there that I decided I would try to be an actor as a profession. A friend of mine got cast in a Francis Ford Coppola movie and I was like, 'wow, OK, so this can be your job!' I kept thinking, I gotta get a job. It just seemed like this impossible thing that was far away and some sort of dream world."
His success came almost overnight when at the age of 22, he was picked by Brian De Palma to play in Casualties of War. His family, he said, were kind of "tickled" by his entry into Hollywood. "I was this anomaly in my neighbourhood. There weren't a lot of people doing what I was doing and it was a pretty tough neighbourhood - it still is a pretty tough neighbourhood. So pursuing the arts in any way was kind of an odd thing compared to what everyone else was doing."
But even after such a significant breakthrough, John himself remained unconvinced of his prospects. "I remember after I'd done my first movie, I was visiting my dad and the movie was over... and I suddenly realised, 'Wow, there was all this build up, and I got the part and I was so excited and I'm off in Thailand doing the movie - everyone's over the moon for me. And then it's over.' And then I thought, 'Now what am I going to do?' I got so lucky getting that part. I didn't have an agent. And I suddenly thought, 'I don't know if I'm going to be cut out for the emotional roller coaster of this life. Like, I don't like being unemployed. I don't like this feeling'. I'd been doing a lot of carpentry and stuff like that before it happened. And I'll never forget, my dad was not a man of many words, when he said things he really meant them. I said, 'Dad, I don't know if I'm cut out for this life. It's just too extreme, the ups and downs. I might go back to doing carpentry'. And he stopped and turned and looked at me and said, 'We have enough carpenters in this family. Stick with what you're doing'. I was like, 'Right, OK, got it', I got it."
Kong: Skull Island, is now showing nationwide
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