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He’s living the life of Reilly

There's so much to like about John Christopher Reilly. There's the sterling work, of course, Reilly making such special early outings as What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993), Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) all the more special.

Reilly also took pretty decent offerings -- 2002's The Good Girl, Chicago, The Hours and Gangs Of New York; 2004's Criminal and The Aviator; 2006's A Prairie Home Companion -- and made them pretty near special, too.

It was when this critically acclaimed dramatic character turned his hand to balls-out-on-the-cymbal comedy, though, that Reilly really began to register with the great unwashed. His loyal companion, Cal Naughton Jr, to Will Ferrell's racing chump in Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby (2006). His thinly veiled Johnny Cash turn in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007). His childish stepbrother to Ferrell's childish stepbrother in, eh, Step Brothers (2008). The man knows how to do funny. He just has to look like he's not sure what his next line is.

"That is my technique, right there," laughs the Chicago-born Reilly (45). "It's all in the face. After all my years of training, of doing my time in theatre, in support slots in movie after movie, I finally figured how to get my face on the poster -- look as dumb as possible."

Having a face so Irish that it would make John Hinde swoon helps, too, of course. Reilly puts it to good use in Cyrus, playing sweet-natured John, the would-be suitor to hot mama Marisa Tomei's Molly. The comedy comes in the shape of Molly's son, Cyrus, who isn't too crazy about having another man around the house.

PAUL BYRNE: In some ways, you're in Step Brothers territory again, with a cuckoo not wanted in the family nest. Only this time, it's a stepson giving you hassle.

JOHN C REILLY: There are similarities, I guess, but the role is pretty different. I don't play such an idiot this time out, I'm glad to say, and the rivalry has a different dynamic. There's a lot of comic potential in this kind of conflict, and once you've got a love-hate thing going on, it can build and build into something you can really have some fun with. I laughed out loud when I read the script, and that's pretty much my one true test when it comes to making comedies.

PB: I'm guessing the romantic element is helped by having Marisa Tomei as your love interest.

JCR: Yowsa, yowsa. And what a great actress. You know it's going to be pretty easy to pretend to love this woman because, you know, you do . . . instantly. Marisa knows how to deliver, and it spurs you on. A real joy; acting is all about the other person.

PB: The brains behind Cyrus, Mark and Jay Duplass, wrote your character for you and encouraged improvisation. Was it easy to bring John C Reilly to the set?

JCR: Very easy. Once I didn't think about it too hard. Comedy has a lot of improvisation anyway, and it's a very natural way of finding the truth in a moment. You can relax your mind and float downstream, so to speak. And it's not like you don't have a map at all -- Mark and Jay wrote a beautiful script. Shooting the movie pretty much in order helped feed that organic process and the fact that they left the dialogue blank for us was pretty inspiring.

PB: You still do drama roles, such as Larten in last year's Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, but has comedy got a hold of your heart right now?

JCR: It does. A lot of that has to do with Will [Ferrell]. The other person in these situations. The guy just makes me laugh, and somehow, I manage to make him laugh, too. It's pretty irresistible, getting to make a movie with that guy. It's like we're mitching off from making real movies, you know what I mean?

PB: It's the little details that get me -- cutting to Cal and Ricky in a bar, and Cal's just dancing by himself as Ricky sits idly by in Talladega Nights.

JCR: It's hard to keep a straight face when you get into that sort of silliness. Again, it's just doing all the stuff that you would normally do if you were goofing around, waiting for the cameras to roll. That's where the magic lies. It's the spontaneity of this kind of comedy that gets me. We'll always let the cameras keep rolling as we riff on whatever comes into our heads. The main thing is, try not to laugh. Which is Catch-22, of course.

PB: You started out in musical theatre. Was your heart set on being an all-round entertainer?

JCR: It was more that I just wanted to perform, and whether that was through a drama, a comedy, a musical -- it was all good to me. When I first started getting work in film, I was hooked by the whole process right from the start. I love the fact that it's out there forever. That makes me try that bit harder to do a good job; I don't want to look back and see myself being lazy.

PB: The rise from character actor to the guy on the poster -- all good, or a tad difficult?

JCR: I couldn't say it's difficult, because the success means I get to make more of the movies I want to make. And I'm not such a face that I get all that much hassle on the streets. And when I do, it's all positive. I don't think I've made a movie yet where people felt their lives had been ruined, or that their nights had been wasted. So, yeah, no complaints here. Not yet, anyway.

PB: What about those Irish roots -- the fifth of six children, born to an Irish-American father and a Lithuanian-American mother in Chicago, May 24, 1965. You've said you'd really like to play a priest. What went wrong?

JCR: Nothing drastic -- just the lure of showbiz. Which, when I come to think of it, is primarily the devil's work, so, yeah, I think Father Ted and that crowd wouldn't be too impressed. I do find the idea of playing a priest fascinating though. Maybe one from the old country. I was over in Ireland, and had a ball. Feels like home, you know, but then, being a Reilly growing up in Chicago is like growing up in an Ireland theme park.

PB: Finally, I'm a big fan of Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour, a show you pop up on with surprisingly regularity. You and Bob close then?

JCR: Hey, man, we're like brothers. In fact, I taught the guy everything he knows. We're like Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Lennon and McCartney. Just don't tell anyone. Especially anyone who might actually be able to get word to Bob, or any of his lawyers.

Cyrus hits cinemas tomorrow