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'Sometimes you just have to get it done'

John C. Reilly's quiet confidence helps him succeed

By Lynda Gorov
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2011

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LOS ANGELES - Character actor John C. Reilly, as comfortable in gross-out comedies as indie dramas, has a little game he likes to play in airports.

As Reilly tells it, a stranger approaches. He or she says something along the lines of “Oh man, I’m a huge fan of yours’’ or “Wait, don’t I know you?’’ To which the unfailingly polite Reilly responds, “Well, I’m an actor.’’ And that typically elicits an “Ooh, yeah, yeah, what movie were you in?’’

Here is where the game begins for Reilly, whose new film, “Terri,’’ opens Friday. Competing against himself, he has to guess. He has to tell the fan which movie he or she is thinking of. He’s not boasting when he says that eight times out of 10 he gets it right.

“I can tell by the way a person is dressed, their age, their general disposition, which of my movies they’ve seen,’’ Reilly says. “These days, especially if ‘Step Brothers’ is on cable TV that week, that’s it. There are lots of people who love ‘Step Brothers,’ ’’ the 2008 comedy costarring Will Ferrell.

With credits dating back to his 1989 film debut, “Casualties of War,’’ there is a wide and diverse body of work to guess from: among them, “Chicago,’’ where Reilly proved himself quite the song-and-dance man, “Boogie Nights,’’ and “Talladega Nights,’’ the latter being responsible for the line Reilly says is most often shouted at him, “Shake and bake.’’

“But hopefully they shout ‘I love you!’ ’’ he says, only semi-kidding.

Although Reilly, 46, has played his share of losers, mopes, and men in pursuit of the impossible - often for laughs, sometimes not - he is neither sad sack nor oddball in person. Sure, he’s got the same hangdog eyes, squashed button nose, and curly mop, but he’s also got a quiet confidence that many of his characters lack.

Reilly’s latest role, as a vice principal who befriends an overweight outcast teenager, the Terri of the title, has humor but no spew-the-soda laughs. The ode to high school misfits has too much pain between the sweet spots. A Sundance favorite, it’s also classic Reilly, who owns every scene he’s in.

“There were no rehearsals, we just came and did it,’’ is how Creed Bratton, who plays a fictional version of himself on “The Office’’ and Terri’s ill uncle in the film, describes the production. A former member of the band the Grass Roots, Bratton says he and Reilly would play Appalachian folk music on their guitars until Alison Dickey, Reilly’s wife and a producer on “Terri,’’ would order Bratton back to work.

Dickey brought the project to Reilly, who committed before newcomer Jacob Wysocki (the ABC Family series “Huge’’) was cast as a large, lumbering teenager who wears pajamas to school. Now 21, Wysocki says he dropped out of college after two years to become an improv comic, but “No, never’’ imagined having onscreen chemistry with someone of Reilly’s caliber. “I think after the first day we jelled,’’ Wysocki says, which was essential given the film’s tight budget and shooting schedule.

“Sometimes you just have to get it done,’’ Reilly says.

Reilly, who often plays regular guys and has a regular-guy reputation in Hollywood, says this while seated in a poolside cabana at an LA hotel. Wearing a black suit and cream-colored shirt, he looks both comfortable and cool.

Reilly grew up in a rough Chicago neighborhood, where being a quirky theater kid from elementary school onward wasn’t always easy. He stood up for himself when he could, and says when he couldn’t he benefited from having older brothers with bad reputations. “The last name Reilly in my neighborhood meant something as far as toughness,’’ he recalls.

What he doesn’t recall doing was joking his way out of difficult situations. He was funny, sure. But he wasn’t the class clown, a memory that makes him pause.

“Though if you look at my report cards, I did have a lot of checks next to lack of self-control,’’ he says. “No matter how good my grades were, they would always say ‘lack of self-control’ and I turned that into my living.’’

Reilly trained at DePaul University’s Goodman School of Drama before joining the city’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre company. He’s still a theater guy, and over the years has wowed Broadway audiences. “True West’’ earned him a Tony nomination. He’s also done film shorts, TV and, every so often, Web-based videos. In one, on funnyordie.com, he plays an animated monkey with John C. Reilly’s face who is eaten and evacuated again and again by a lion with Will Ferrell’s face.

“I just try to have fun,’’ Reilly says. “Honestly, I prefer being employed to being unemployed. So whatever stuff comes my way . . . I try not to do one type of the same thing. I try to switch it up as much as possible, because it’s worked so far. It’s one way to have longevity as an actor.’’

There are other things Reilly likes about the Internet: the quick turnaround, the chance to be subversive without being in thrall to a studio marketing department, and the opportunity to ad-lib. The monkey-butt video, for instance, took all of an hour of joking around with Ferrell in front of a special effects screen.

That’s not to say Reilly doesn’t appreciate a great movie script as much as the next actor. But there’s also the thrill that comes from riffing on words the way a jazz musician does notes.

“It’s a big responsibility when you ad-lib,’’ he says. “It’s screenwriting on your feet and requires a couple parts of your brain to operate at once. But it also feels great when you get home at the end of the day and you’re like, ‘I came up with all that stuff.’ ’’

Ad-libbing and other acting skills aside, Reilly says he’s still not someone who can get a movie approved based on his name alone. That doesn’t mean he’s chasing projects - although he’ll do that, too, if something sparks his interest. He says it means that he gets brought on, sometimes early, to round out a project or partner with a more marquee-friendly name. Right now he’s got “Carnage,’’ with Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster, in the can and another upcoming comedy with Ferrell, as well as Zach Galifianakis (“Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie’’).

With a sigh he says, “I’m not the kind of person who can just point the royal finger and get a project green-lit. I’m someone directors really like and people who appreciate acting notice and remember.’’ Those, he says, are the people who bring him aboard “as opposed to people who are looking to make a bunch of money.’’

But Reilly says he doesn’t mind. Really. In the last 22 years, he’s been around enough to know what it takes to stick around.

Lynda Gorov can be reached at LGorov@aol.com.

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