Reilly, 41, was born in Chicago's tough South Side. He started acting in high school and went on to graduate from DePaul University's Goodman School of Drama. Soon after he landed a minor role in Brian DePalma's Vietnam film Casualties of War (1989), a part that required Reilly to be in Thailand for five months. It was the first time he had been on a plane. It also kick-started a career that's barely come up for air ever since.
Reilly is the consummate character actor, a performer who enriches virtually every film in which he's appeared. He's a throwback to the guys you'd see pop up in '70s cinema: authentic-looking characters that emanate a sense of a life lived.
Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson was an early fan: He wrote his 1996 feature debut Hard Eight (which, for my money, remains Anderson's best, least indulgent film) with the actor in mind. Reilly plays John Finnegan, a down-on-his-luck drifter whose life changes when he meets Sydney (the ever-stellar Philip Baker Hall), a professional gambler who teaches the hapless kid how get by in Reno. Reilly -- in what would be the first of criminally few leading roles -- so convincingly inhabits Finnegan's sad-sack yet endearing self that one has trouble spotting the seams.
A year later he would deliver a hilarious turn as the assured porn actor Reed Rothchild in Anderson's Boogie Nights, a performance that confirmed what we now know: Reilly can do just about anything.
And he's done it for a cavalcade of top-shelf directors, including Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Anderson, DePalma, Terence Malick and Martin Scorsese. His big mainstream moment to date was as Amos Hart in the 2001 film version of Chicago, a role that garnered Reilly his first Oscar nomination.
Now comes Talladega Nights, Reilly's first co-starring opportunity in a high-profile comedy. He plays NASCAR driver Cal Naughton Jr., best buddy and teammate to Will Ferrell's Ricky Bobby, a childhood friend who perpetually puts Naughton in his place -- second place.
Talladega Nights is the latest whacked brainchild from the team that brought Anchorman to the screen: director Adam McKay co-wrote the script with Ferrell. And like Anchorman, it's filled with some hilarious sketches borne of improvisation, an environment in which Reilly thrived.
"It's great for an actor, you feel really independent," Reilly says during a recent round-table interview at Chicago's Four Seasons Hotel. "It's liberating to be able to bring your own ideas to things. But it's also a lot of pressure. It's like screenwriting on your feet. That was one of the most attractive things about this part when Will and Adam called me. They had asked me to do Anchorman, but I was working on another movie and I couldn't do it. I was crushed by that, because I knew that that movie was going to be amazing. And sure enough it's like this classic now."
Classic might be strong, but it certainly plays better via the scene-jumping capability of one's DVD player, much the way the more ambitious but equally sketch-heavy Talladega Nights will in the future.
Sitting at a table with a small group of journalists, Reilly looks dapper in an auburn-colored three-piece suit, his hair much less rambunctious than that of his screen characters. He answers questions with a laid-back nonchalance, as if he's catching up with a group of long-lost friends.
"When they (Ferrell and McKay) called I said, 'Well, that's great, but I've played the best friend a lot -- a lot. Of course I want to work with you guys, I'd love to, but this has to be the ultimate best friend.' "
Ferrell and McKay obliged, valuing Reilly's input throughout the course of filming.
"From that very first phone call, they were soliciting my ideas. And the way that Adam and Will work together, improv is an integral part of the whole thing. It was great. It was a real collaboration. These guys really showed me what a real collaboration could be. I've worked with a lot of great directors, and often times they will listen to your ideas, but I felt like a partner on this one."
Part of that collaboration includes conjuring the physical manifestation of his character, always a key element in Reilly's transformation. Sporting a fu manchu mustache and beefy sideburns, his Naughton looks like Richard Petty's long-lost nephew.
"I looked at a lot of pictures of the drivers, and they all look pretty fit and clean-cut. They look like athletes or engineers or something, like really serious and straightedge. And then I looked at this book of the history of NASCAR. I was looking more at the '60s and '70s, and I was like, 'These are my people.' Yeah, mutton-chop sideburns and crazy facial hair. They looked they were doing a bit of partying off the track and were a little paunchy. I thought, 'Those are the guys I want to base my thing on.' You know, the ones that were running away from the feds and were gonna hide with their stills up in the mountains."
Reilly begins to gesticulate, getting into Cal Naughton Jr. all over again.
"That guy's a shitkicker, you know," he says forcefully. "He's into Southern-fried Country Rock!"
As the conversation winds down, someone asks Reilly if he's ready for his next Ferrell/McKay comedy, both of whom also have Chicago roots.
"Yeah, it's in the works," he says. "Adam and Will both come from an improv theater background, and that's -- I think -- my strongest suit. And the stuff that I studied and the techniques and whatever theater games that I played in improv class were the same as what Will and Adam were doing at Second City and The Groundlings. I felt like, 'Yeah, this is what those fun days in acting class felt like, getting to riff on stuff.'
It was just a joyous thing. I like doing serious movies, too. I don't think I could ever stop doing serious movies and just do comedies or vice versa, but there is something cool about going to work every day and just trying to make your friends laugh. That's good work if you can get it. You know what I mean?" ©