John C Reilly: The art of the con

John C Reilly's low profile makes him a more convincing actor, the star of Criminal tells Tiffany Rose
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The Independent Culture

The character actor John C Reilly has the kind of face that could belong to your local butcher: despite chalking up more than 30 film credits in half as many years ­ not to mention an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Chicago ­ he still needs to don a name tag if he wants to be recognised.

Reilly heaves a huge sigh ­ perhaps because this point of view has been put to him too many times. "It's funny," he offers patiently. "People stop me to say: 'How do I know you, man?' And every time I tell them: 'I don't think I do know you.' But they insist we're old friends. Even when I tell them I'm an actor, they're adamant that that's not it!"

The 39-year-old Reilly, who is fast becoming known as
the Gene Hackman of his
generation, possesses a chameleon-like flair for morphing into the people he plays. "You believe that John is his character so much," remarks Martin Scorsese, who has directed Reilly in Gangs of New York and The Aviator. "It's almost hard to give him an identity. It's like you don't want to think he's an actor."

Reilly, the fifth of six children from a working-class Irish Catholic family in Chicago, found his calling in adolescence. One day, after helping out at his father's linen-supply company, he followed a friend to the park where a group of kids were putting on plays. "I think what attracted me to it was a sense of community," he says. "There were other people like me doing it, which I valued more than the admiration of an audience. It made me feel like I was normal. I never felt that way in sports and academic settings."

We meet at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, where he's come to discuss Criminal, an English-language remake of the Argentine con caper Nine Queens, produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh. Reilly is exactly as you'd imagine ­ a burly 6ft 2in tall, with an Irish mug that seems fashioned from putty, framed by wispy curls. Just like many of the men he plays, he is homely, approachable, cheerful and somewhat comforting, like an old pair of slippers.

In 2002, Reilly appeared in four widely varying parts: as a mutton-chopped 19th-century constable on the wrong side of the law in Gangs of New York; a weed-smoking house painter married to Jennifer Aniston in the critically acclaimed The Good Girl; a 1950s husband oblivious to his wife's (Julianne Moore) depressed state in The Hours; and as an all-dancing, all-singing chump married to the murderous Renée Zellweger in Chicago.

How he made it onto the Hollywood map sounds like a story leaked by his publicity machine ­ if Reilly were the sort to have a publicity machine. After performing in local theatrical productions in his home-town, Reilly sent a videotape of himself to the director Brian De Palma, who was casting the Vietnam saga Casualties of War. "They cast me from that tape as a tiny part in the film. I was this guy who gets injured in the first battle scene of the movie," Reilly explains. "Then, during the course of rehearsals, they decided to change the cast around and they gave me one of the lead roles." He beams. "I was really a stage actor who didn't even see a future in movies. That seemed like too much to ask. Then Hollywood came knocking and one thing led to another."

Marriage ­ to Alison Dickey, Sean Penn's assistant on the set of Casualties of War ­ and a slew of other parts followed: Johnny Depp's best friend in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?; Drew Barrymore's editor in Never Been Kissed; George Clooney's crew-mate in The Perfect Storm. In the late Nineties, Reilly also made three movies with his close friend Paul Thomas Anderson: Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and the towering Magnolia.

In Criminal, he finally takes the lead as a seasoned con man mentoring a young hustler, Diego Luna ( Y Tu Mama Tambien). Shot in a gruelling 28 days by the first-time director Gregory Jacobs, the film follows a day in the life of two small-time con artists who stumble upon an extremely lucrative and seemingly foolproof scam.

Reilly's criteria for selecting roles are primarily to do with the range. "The first thing I look for is something different to do. The guy in Criminal was certainly different from a lot of the people I've played before. For whatever reason, every part I've played seems to have a golden heart ­ well, this guy's golden heart is pretty tarnished. But it was nice to play a lead and to spend more time on the set than in the trailer," he guffaws.

Rubbing his brow, he concludes: "The life of a con man is not that different from the life of an actor. In a way, you're like a small independent businessman who's trying to make a living working with various people. An actor also cons people, but I let you know that I'm conning you before you come to the theatre, and you pay to be jipped!"

'The Aviator' is out
now; 'Criminal' opens
on 18 February