27 September 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network

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“It was such an unlikely path,” John C. Reilly discusses career and craft at IFTA Masterclass
09 Jun 2023 : Luke Shanahan
John C. Reilly
The Irish Film & Television Academy presented an IFTA Masterclass with John C. Reilly in the IFI last night, June 8th.

“It was such an unlikely path,” John said at the beginning of the evening, addressing the theater of IFTA members, actors, and acting students. “The main thing I want to touch on tonight is the audacity in believing in yourself! It took me a very long time to get there and say ‘I’m gonna be an actor!’. I had no reference points, nobody in my family even knew an actor!”.

Fresh from his role as Jury President of Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard, Oscar-nominated actor John C. Reilly (Chicago, Magnolia, Step Brothers, The Lobster) discussed his wide-ranging career in film and television, and collaborations with iconic filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, and Paul Thomas Anderson, among many others. 

John spoke about his approach to screen acting, his most beloved performances from a career spanning almost five decades, his starring role on HBO's hit series Winning Time and his special relationship with the Irish film industry. He also answered questions from attendees.

“We’re thrilled to have John here to do this IFTA Masterclass, and to talk about his diverse career,” said Áine Moriarty, CEO of IFTA, welcoming John to the stage. “I think it goes without saying he’s an extraordinary actor. He’s worked with the best actors and the best directors in the world. He’s really left his mark."

The Masterclass began with John discussing his upbringing in the southside of Chicago as part of a large Irish catholic family, acting in high school musicals in the area, and then following his passion by joining the acting conservatory at DePaul University, during which time his father thought he was studying business.

He reflected on some of his earliest film roles, such as his first screen credit, Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War in which he was bumped up from a smaller role to supporting character in the rehearsals leading up to the film’s production. The audience got to see John’s musical chops in action, watching a clip of his performance in the 2002 film adaptation of Chicago. When the film was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 2003, he was in three of the five nominations in the category, starring in both Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York, and Stephen Daldry’s The Hours.

John was 12 films into his career when he met Paul Thomas Anderson, perhaps one of the most important creative partnerships of his career. He had carved out a niche for himself as a striking character actor, but had not yet played a leading man.

“Paul was the first person to say ‘This guy has more to offer’, and that led me on a path to believing in myself even more. He made me believe I could carry a whole story.”

PTA had seen all his films when they met at a Sundance Workshop, and was determined to have John lead his first feature Hard Eight. 

Reflecting on his experiences of being the lead in a film as well as his years of experience as a character actor, John had this to say: “Being a character actor is very hard. It’s actually harder, I think, than playing one of the leads in the movie. When you play a lead you’ve got weeks and weeks to fill the character. If you’re lousy in one scene, you make it up the next few days, and by the end of this long arc you’ve created something. Character actors are like the special forces, you hit the beach running!”

Having a background in improvisation, John was able to shed some light on how this element of the actor's craft contributes to a project: "I think improvisation is writing. And if you've ever watched a writer write, they're just improvising. I think it's time to respect that part of the craft. Writing on your feet while the cameras are on is a lot more pressure than sitting at a typewriter."

John continued to discuss more recent roles such as Stan & Ollie, The Sisters Brothers, and his HBO series Winning Time, which he explains he has only seen the pilot of, in order to maintain the self-assuredness of his performance as owner of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team Jerry Buss.

“I haven’t seen it because I realised at a certain point I’m going to have to keep doing this character, and I don’t want to be self-conscious”, John explained. “He’s supposed to be this swaggering and sexy, so I knew if I started watching it and judging the way I looked, et cetera, I wouldn’t be able to continue to do it.”

“When it’s all said and done, and they say we’re not making anymore, I’m gonna watch ‘em all! I promise!”

The Masterclass concluded with questions from the audience. One member of the audience asked what it was like to lead the cult comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a satire of the music biopic genre, given that he often leads comedies as part of a pair, such as with Will Ferrell in Step Brothers and Talladega Nights.

“I found the pressure immense. At the time it came out there was a writer’s strike so you couldn’t go on chat shows to explain what the movie was, so the movie didn’t do so well and I just felt gutted.”

“But luckily we made a great movie and it’s beloved now. I probably worked harder on that movie than any other film that I ever done. We recorded 35 original songs that we all wrote together six months before shooting, and I also worked every single day on that shoot.”

The evening was full of expert insights and laughter. John wrapped up the masterclass by expressing his special relationship with Ireland:

“It’s been a real pleasure to be here. I think sometimes people in Ireland are a little mystified why I come here so much, but I’m loved here! That’s why I come here!”

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