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Monday 16 September 2019

'There's still a latent racism in England regarding Irish people' - John C Reilly

Actor John C Reilly spoke to Donal Lynch about dealing with Hollywood egos and how having a 'potato face' is a help

As with so many of his greatest movies, there can be no denying that today, in this gorgeously high-ceilinged drawing room of the Merrion Hotel, John C Reilly looks the part.

He is dressed almost regally, in an old-time-y three-piece tweed suit complete with a green felt trilby, which he carefully lays on the table beside his afternoon tea service. "It's all very civilised here, I thought I needed a look that worked in this town," he tells me as he pours me a cup of PG Tips. "I wanted to go with this grand room."

The rig-out is undeniably impressive but of course with Reilly it's the face, more than the clothes, that maketh the man. His splendidly characterful countenance is somehow craggy and soft at the same time, and in an industry of tediously symmetrical and beautiful people, it has been his calling card.

He is perhaps the ultimate scene-stealer, an actor who made his name playing stand-out supporting roles that eclipsed the performances of bigger co-stars and lived in the memory. In 2003, he achieved a first in Oscar history by featuring in three of the five films (The Hours, Gangs of New York, and Mr Cellophane) which were nominated for Best Picture.

Throughout his career he has also mined a rich seam of comedy, from Step Brothers with Will Ferrell, which still gets almost weekly repeats on Comedy Central to his current offering, Ralph Breaks the Internet, a cleverly wry animated feature, which satirises the worst excesses of the internet.

Throughout it all there has been a wonderment, particularly it would seem among British critics, that a man who looks so comfortingly average could have scaled such heights in a visually superficial medium.

"Well, there is still a certain latent racism in England toward Irish people," Reilly begins, alluding to his Irish heritage on his father's side. "So when I see a piece by some English writer that begins 'I sat down with potato-faced John C Reilly', I think to myself 'Oh, really?' I could make racial comparisons about people's appearance but I wouldn't do that.

"Because it's to do with something Irish, it's couched in this sort of friendly twee way but, in fact, it is racism. I mean, even the whole ginger thing being a negative. That's just another way of criticising Irish people. But hey, listen, we are all just hustlers out here, trying to sell our stories.

"Some English guy leading off with a description of how I look is just trying to get someone to notice the article. What some anonymous writer says about me actually doesn't matter."

Fittingly, the most memorable moment of Reilly's voice performance in Ralph Breaks the Internet comes when the titular character, a renegade from an old arcade game who makes a leap into the online world, comes face to face with the black heart of the internet. "Oh I forgot to say," his best friend Vanellope (voiced to whimsical perfection by Sarah Silverman) tells Ralph. "Whatever you do: Don't read the comments section."

"There's so much truth about the world we live in contained in that scene," Reilly tells me. "There is a great line 'what other people think of me is none of my business'.

"I'm sure there are trolls out there that would like to think that the stuff they say affects me but honestly I just ignore them. I look at reviews of movies I'm in because I need to know how is the world reacting to the work I make, but that's it really. I don't read reviews when I'm in plays because I don't want other people's views to change what I'm doing."

Reilly grew up in a tough neighbourhood on the south side of Chicago. He was the fifth of six children born to a Lithuanian mother and an Irish-Catholic father. He says he didn't aspire to become an actor simply because he had no idea how to break into the industry.

"It was something that I loved to do but I didn't know anybody who actually made money doing it. I was a wrestler for a short time, because growing up on the south side of Chicago, the mantra was 'get a job'.

"I started out as a dishwasher when I was 12 years old, but I never dreamed acting was a way to make a living. Turns out it is."

If Chicago seemed light years from Hollywood, it proved to be a great training ground for Reilly to sharpen his nascent skills. He found himself at the DePaul University acting course, just as the city was beginning to earn a reputation as America's 'other' theatre capital.

David Mamet came out of that scene and the Steppenwolf group of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise - both contemporaries of Reilly - was quickly becoming the stuff of theatre legend.

Reilly's first major role was in Casualties of War when the initially much smaller part was expanded in the script by director Brian De Palma when he saw how mesmerising Reilly was on the screen. Suddenly Reilly could feel the gears of his life shifting.

For union reasons he needed to add the 'C' to his name - he tells me he is relieved now that he didn't opt for some preposterous moniker instead.

It was on the set of that first movie that Reilly also met his future wife, Alison Dickey. She was assistant to his co-star Sean Penn and went on to produce the black comedy The Sisters Brothers. She and Reilly have two children together.

As a character actor, he was the perfect foil to several of the biggest stars of our time. He played opposite George Clooney in The Perfect Storm and Kevin Costner in the baseball picture For Love of the Game. He shared a boat with Meryl Streep in The River Wild and starred with Leonardo DiCaprio three times, starting in the underrated What's Eating Gilbert Grape through the box office behemoth of Gangs of New York and then The Aviator, another Martin Scorsese production.

As well as his talent, it's possible that Reilly's singularly amenable personality helped him navigate a world of huge Hollywood egos: Scorsese himself once said that Reilly was the politest actor he had ever met.

"That's very nice to hear he had said, but I'd also say that people with huge egos can be very polite too - look at the Queen for instance," he begins, winkingly. "When you work with people as talented as Scorsese, or some of the actors I've worked with, they do deserve a certain amount of respect, so that's how I deal with them.

"I think also growing up Irish-Catholic in America, being polite is part of the culture. There's this common misconception about actors that we're these vain, narcissistic monsters who boss everyone around. That, in my experience, is not the case.

"Maybe these new Instagram celebrities or true divas, like opera singers, can be a bit like that - but from my perspective actors are very collaborative people with a lot of empathy. If you want to do this you have to be able to understand the human experience in a more nuanced way than, say, an accountant."

Fame made him more wary, he says. Besides the excesses of the internet, another of the themes of Ralph Breaks the Internet is how we deal with the shifting nature of friendships and how we cope with neediness in other people, and ourselves.

"Needing a friend can be a good thing and needing them too much can be a bad thing. I can relate to that. I've dealt with friendships that have evolved in ways neither myself nor the friend could predict," he says.

"When I became famous I had to develop an instinct right away about new people coming into my life. And while the whole evolution of the modern world seems to be about ways to become more public my life has been about ways to become more private. Most people want to show 'I exist, I went to a thing, I ate a cheeseburger' whereas so much of my life and my image is out there that the struggles to try and keep a little back for myself."

And yet, ironically, Reilly seems more open, more relatable, more personally warm than countless other stars who carefully curate their fame. With characteristic self-insight, he says it's his so-called flaws that have been the paradoxical keys to his long and storied career.

"David Byrne once said 'people don't believe a singer that sounds too perfect', and I think the same think applies to what I do. You're looking for things that set you apart as an actor. For better or worse, nobody else in the business has got this face and, for better or worse, that gives me a great advantage."

Ralph Breaks the Internet is in cinemas nationwide now

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