A Labor of Love: John C. Reilly on The Sisters Brothers

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To paraphrase the late and great Dewey Cox, John C. Reilly has lived a lifetime full of days as an actor. Across 70-something film projects, he’s lent his Chicago-born talents to directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, Rob Marshall, Adam McKay and many others, usually playing an essential supporting role and/or acting as part of a duo. 

But “The Sisters Brothers” marks Reilly’s first time as a producer, helping shepherd Patrick DeWitt’s Western novel to the silver screen for a new film by “Dheepan” director, Jacques Audiard, as co-written by Audiard with Thomas Bidegain, director of the recent “Searchers”-esque film “Les Cowboys.” Reilly stars in this movie alongside Joaquin Phoenix as two very close brothers and assassins seeking an elusive man named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who himself is being trailed by a detective (Jake Gyllenhaal). A darkly comic tale that challenges Western norms with its narrative focus, a jazzy score by Alexandre Desplat, and its unpredictable atmosphere, “The Sisters Brothers” is nonetheless another major role for Reilly’s work as an equally gentle and very funny presence. 

The project is a type of unofficial start to Reilly season featuring more duo roles: he’ll be returning to the the Wreck-It-Ralph character for the upcoming “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” alongside Sarah Silverman; he’ll reunite with “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby” co-star Will Ferrell for “Holmes and Watson”; and Reilly will be playing the Oliver Hardy to Steve Coogan’s Stan Laurel in the upcoming “Stan & Ollie.” 

RogerEbert.com spoke with Reilly about his first time working as a producer, the specific influence Chicago’s theater scene has on the way he approaches acting, the comic improvisation talents of Joaquin Phoenix, and more. 

This is your first movie as a producer. After having done so many films with so many filmmakers. Why this project? 

Exactly, what was I waiting for? Producing is where the money’s at! No, the truth is that I was realizing seven years ago when we bought the rights to this book, that I was gonna need to start to develop projects myself if I was going to do work that I found really interesting and challenging. The stuff wasn’t just going to fall out of the sky for me, I was just going to have to develop myself. That’s a really obvious thing to most actors who are successful, but it took me … I’ve been really lucky and working non-stop pretty much my whole life, so I didn’t need to think this way. But as I get older, I start to think, well, I really want some interesting opportunities and I’m going to have to look for some of that stuff myself before they are scripts. 

So, my wife Allison Dickey was working on a movie called “Terri,” and she asked if [“Terri” screenwriter Patrick DeWitt] had any other writing, and he offered her the unpublished manuscript of “The Sisters Brothers” for us to read. She ripped through it and gave it to me, and she says “There’s this part in here that’s you, you won’t believe it! It’s like he was reading your mind!” And sure enough I read it and it really blew me away. The reason that this happened is that the book demanded it, you’re like, holy crap this needs to be a film. It’s so visual when you are reading the book, there’s so many images and characters that just jump out of you. It’s the expression that some people are born great and some people have greatness thrust upon them, this is definitely the case of greatness being thrust upon me. I couldn’t believe we found it. And then when Jacques Audiard, one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, said yes to the film, we knew we were on to something good. It took a long time, six or seven years to pull it all together, but man, it’s so gratifying the way it came together. 

Does it make you want to produce again? 

Well, you know, it worked out so well that part of me was like, maybe I should quit while I’m ahead. [laughs] I don’t know if I’ll ever find a book as great as “The Sisters Brothers” again, but who knows! I have got my eyes open now, knowing how great these things work out. 

I’m curious about the connection with Thomas Bidegain, who co-wrote this adaptation with Audiard but whose film “Les Cowboys” you had a supporting role in, back in 2015. 

Yeah, Thomas Bidegain is this screenwriter who works with Jacques, and so I met Tom when I met Jacques, when I went to Jacques’ office with this book. So we’re already in process of getting “The Sisters Brothers” made, but we were taking so long and Jacques was doing another movie and I was doing other movies. And then Tom decided he wanted to direct and offered me the part, and with Jacques’ blessing we went off and did that one. I suppose in some ways it was like an audition, Jacques could ask Tom, they’re very close, “Is he a pain in the ass? Or easy to work with?” I must have passed the test. 

Talking about a role that you wanted to have for yourself, does this mean you naturally gravitate to duo roles? Especially considering the other films you have coming out this year?

Yeah, I think so. If you look at my resume, there are quite a few of them. Everything I’ve done with Will, “Boogie Nights.” But yeah, I’m not sure why that is. I think part of that is growing up in Chicago and doing theater, and I just identified more with a collective purpose instead of trying to be a star, you know? Like when you do plays in Chicago, you’re not going to become a star overnight for doing a play. If your play does well and they move it to New York, or they make it into a movie or something, then maybe, like LA and NY you can get pretty well known pretty fast. But in Chicago, one of the great things about it is that you’re part of a team, you’re part of a community. I learned early on, through improvisation work at DePaul there and working at Steppenwolf, I learned early on that your performance depends on your relationship with the other actors. If they’re good, you’re good. I learned that there’s no way to do it unless everyone is connected and everyone is succeeding together. Chicago has that mentality. You don’t think you’re better than anybody else, you’re not pretentious. Being too narcissistic in Chicago is like, the worst thing you can do. [laughs] 

So I just grew up with that humility or modesty, and I actually think it can be pretty lonely when you’re acting by yourself, and you’re playing the lead role. I’ve done it a few times, and it’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of pressure, and you have to generate all the moves yourself kind of, you know? When you’re working with someone, you have someone to bounce off of, so it’s very fertile that way. You can come up with a lot of stuff you might not have thought of on your own, by just being in a relationship with somebody else. But you look at the people I’ve worked with, like these four movies I have coming out now, I have four amazing partners: Joaquin Phoenix, Steve Coogan, Sarah Silverman and Will Ferrell in the “Holmes and Watson” movie. Those people are going to up your game if you work with someone like that, so that’s another reason to do it. All of that said, it’s not really my choice a lot of the time, it’s just what comes your way, you know? 

How did you know when you clicked with Joaquin? 

We’d met a couple times but I didn’t really know him, and it was kind of hard to make eye contact when we first started working together. We rehearsed for about three weeks, riding horses, shooting guns and just being in each other’s company. I’m not quite sure when I realized Joaquin liked me, I think it was just one of those things where when you’re working on a movie, the pressure is so intense, and this one was very intense for me because it had been seven years that we had been developing the project and finally the moment came to start shooting, and the pressure of that moment was almost overwhelming. And when you go through a few intense scenes like that, and one of the first scenes we shot was Mayfield, when we have that shootout, and that was crazy. It was dangerous, those horses in a confined space, we’re shooting guns. It was nuts. And when you come out the other side of something intense like that, it tends to bond you to people, it’s almost like a wartime kind of thing. You go through a couple of tense moments like that and you realize “I can trust this person, he stuck with me.” And I ended up really love Joaquin, like deeply. I really do think of him like a family member now. I hope he feels the same way. I don’t know. He’s off doing another character now! I know when he comes out of that we’re gonna get together again. 

How do you feel you guys complement each other? He comes from a very different school, and yet you work naturally together here. 

Yeah, Joaquin kind of came to acting I think, I don’t know his whole history, but I think he came to it from an instinctual place, he didn’t study acting. I don’t know, maybe he did work with acting teachers along the way. But he’s definitely a self-made man in that way? I’m a little more formally trained, having gone to DePaul there in Chicago. That said, he’s a great improviser. In life, he’s a great improviser, not just on camera. He’s someone who really pays attention to the moment, what’s happening right now, where are we right now. He finds the groove, he’s almost like living his life like a jazz musician would play a song. What needs to happen now? Where are we? What’s the next move? And it’s really thrilling to be around someone like that, someone who is that instinctual and willing to go in with you at a moment’s notice. I can’t really speak too eloquently about what kind of actor I am on a movie set, but I know that this dynamic of me caring for Joaquin and making sure that he was taken care of, and making sure that he was happy and had the things that he needed, really dovetailed perfectly into our actual relationship. My responsibilities as a producer on this movie, and our roles as brothers. This kind of amazing symbiotic thing that happened all at once. 

As we’re talking about going forward and you realizing what roles you want for yourself, what kind of periods or characters excite you? 

Well, at this point, I’ve done almost, I don’t know, 70-something movies. I’ve worked with a lot of amazing directors, and I’ve worked with a lot of amazing actors. I’ve done a lot of work and I’ve had a lot of satisfying transformational experiences. So what that means then to me now, [laughs], is that I don’t really work unless I really believe in it. I have the luxury of that right now, I have the money saved and stuff that comes my way I can pick and choose for the most part. So, I try to do things that I believe in completely, so I can completely invest in it with my whole heart. So I’m looking for stuff that’s different than I’ve done before, I’m looking for directors who are inspiring, who have a point of view, who know what they’re doing, regardless of their experience, whether they’re a first-time director or a genius like Jacques Audiard. 

And I’m looking to just grow as a person, so you look for stuff that challenges you, like physically or intellectually, or emotionally. And this was, ticked all of those boxes. It took everything I had every day to get through this movie. It really challenged me on so many different levels. I remember getting home almost every night and thinking, I am completely exhausted. [laughs] Mentally, physically, emotionally. And the next thought I would have almost every time was, “And that’s perfect.” That’s what you want to feel at the end of a day at work. You don’t want to feel like, “I’m tired and that was meaningless,” or “I’m tired and that was just grunt work,” or “I’m tired and that made some money.” You want to feel like, “I gave everything I had today, of my whole human spirit, I put everything towards what I was doing today.” It’s tiring, but damn that’s the definition of a labor of love, you know? 

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