Profile: John C. Reilly

John C. Reilly has surprised me for years. His range is astounding, and watching him effortlessly go from dramatic roles to silly comedies has been a treat. Yet his talent doesn’t stop with acting. He also has a singing career, with his band John C. Reilly and Friends.

When I saw Reilly‘s voice performance in the Disney film Wreck-It Ralph, I knew he had the talent to embody characters across mediums. This role made me appreciate him more than I ever had before, and inspired me to look back at his filmography with more attention and respect. I know it’s odd that the film to make me see how much of a fan I am was one where we don’t even see him, but he was able to embody the humor and sadness of this character, giving me a glimpse at the range I would soon discover in all of his roles.


John C. Reilly grew up in Chicago, Illinois, where he was one of six children. He has told stories about being mischievous in his childhood, including a time where he and his friends robbed a freight train of 500 boxes of Sugar Corn Pops cereal.

In his film debut, Casualties of War, Brian De Palma was so impressed with Reilly‘s performance, he expanded the role well beyond the size in the initial script. His early career was filled with supporting roles in films such as Days of Thunder, Hoffa, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

Paul Thomas Anderson

Reilly started his string of collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson in Hard Eight. The film follows Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), a gambler who discovers John (Reilly), who is trying to raise money for his mother’s burial. Sydney offers to teach John how to make some money, by taking him to Las Vegas.

After making the money he initially needed, John has become Sydney’s protege. The stakes in this film keep raising, as John becomes more connected to the Las Vegas world. Reilly shines as a down-on-his-luck man, changing his life completely from one encounter.

The next collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson was Boogie Nights, which stars Mark Wahlberg as the main character, a porn star with the stage name Dirk Diggler. John C. Reilly co-stars as Reed Rothchild, a fellow porn star. This film works as a testament to Reilly‘s dramatic and comedic talents. Boogie Nights has its fair share of comedic moments, but the heart of the film is the drama encountered in the porn industry.

Profile: John C. Reilly
Boogie Nights (1997) – source: New Line Cinema

I always hear people say that John C. Reilly‘s performances were always comedic relief, even when he worked in more dramatic films, but I don’t think we should discredit his ability to flirt between genres with such ease.

Reilly and Paul Thomas Anderson collaborated once again on Magnolia. Reilly was involved with the development of his character for this film. He developed his character years previously, when he grew a mustache for fun and shot some short films with Anderson, inspired by the show COPS. As the development went on, he told Anderson he wanted to do something different than his previous roles, which resulted in Reilly being cast as more of a romantic lead than before.

In addition to being a frequent collaborator, Anderson considers Reilly one of his good friends, which works to their advantage. Anderson is always able to get a fantastic performance out of Reilly, no matter the character.

Magnolia shows Reilly‘s range, as he is cast against his previous roles, and still gives a wonderful performance. His performance caught the eyes of many people in the industry, resulting in him being cast in three films in 2002, all of which were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

In addition to this, he was cast in the 1998 Terrence Malick film The Thin Red Line. This film was also nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, giving Reilly a fairly good track record with his acting choices. This film came in-between Reilly‘s performances in Paul Thomas Anderson films, showing he was catching the eye of prominent filmmakers even from his first collaboration with the director.

Three Best Picture Nominees

2002 was a very big year for John C. Reilly. After the success of Magnolia, he was beginning to be recognized as a talented actor with incredible range. This year, he was cast in a musical, a cross-generational drama, and a mid-19th century period drama. All of these films were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

In Chicago, Reilly portrayed Amos Hart, where he earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, as well as the Golden Globes. Chicago also gave audiences a glimpse at Reilly‘s singing ability, since he performed the song “Mr. Cellophane” for his role in this film.

Profile: John C. Reilly
Gangs of New York (2002) – source: Miramax Films

In the same year, Reilly portrayed Happy Jack Mulraney in the film Gangs of New York. This gave him more experience working for an important director, Martin Scorsese, and equally prominent actors, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis. It made people realize that he could hold his own, and even stand out, among a cast filled with people of such high regard. Reilly‘s performance in this film led him to star in another Scorsese film, The Aviator, in 2004. This film was also nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

This carried on to Reilly‘s performance in The Hours. He expertly acted against Julianne Moore, another frequent collaborator of Paul Thomas Anderson. Reilly portrays Dan Brown, husband to Laura Brown. Her story deals heavily with the emotions surrounding being a wife and mother. We see a high level of contentedness from his character, something Laura is struggling with because she cannot understand how he can be content in their life. These two actors work well together, and create an emotional dynamic within the story.

Comedy Career

After having such a prominent career in more dramatic roles, John C. Reilly went on to star in multiple comedy films, starting a new stage in his career and earning him more fans. His acting in these roles is so good that he thus became known as purely a comedian. This can be a positive thing, because we see his range, but it also can make people disregard his past dramatic roles. This way of thinking underestimates the skill needed for comedic and dramatic acting. John C. Reilly is a master at both, and he should be regarded as such, without putting more worth in one over the other.

One of the most popular of Reilly‘s comedy films is Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Adam McKay‘s 2006 comedy following NASCAR drivers and best friends, Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) and Cal Naughton Jr. (Reilly) as they make their way through life. This film started a friendship and collaboration between Reilly and Ferrell, which would continue on in the film Step Brothers, and possibly will continue in future films.

Profile: John C. Reilly
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) – source: Columbia Pictures

My personal favorite performance of Reilly‘s was in the underappreciated comedy film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Reilly‘s performance in this film is the perfect blend of his dramatic and comedic acting talents. He was able to accurately portray the typical musician biopic, while also being able to immerse himself in a fully realized parody of the music industry.

His performance as Dewey Cox also opened my eyes to Reilly‘s singing talents, even more so than his performance in Chicago. The soundtrack to Walk Hard features John C. Reilly performing many different types of songs, since the film follows Dewey Cox throughout his career, which changes with the times. The film is not only a parody of Johnny Cash and the biopic Walk the Line, but of musicians in general. The character embodies different musicians throughout his career, including: Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, and of course, Johnny Cash.

After Walk Hard came the second collaboration with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, Step Brothers. Years previously, John C. Reilly told Paul Thomas Anderson he wanted something different in Magnolia, as he no longer wanted to be cast as a childish man. In Step Brothers, Reilly returned to that character type, but this time in a film where he could more easily show the childishness and humor of a character like that. This return to working with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay was a great continuation of John C. Reilly‘s comedy career. The film also includes unforgettable performances from Adam Scott and Kathryn Hahn, who portrayed an unhappily married couple, who took singing with their kids to an uncomfortable extreme.

Expanding His Career

After Reilly made a name for himself in the comedy world, he went on to star in more films across genres. In 2011, he was in Cedar Rapids, Carnage, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. All of these featured strong performances from Reilly against a cast of equally talented actors. Cedar Rapids is a more straightforward comedy, Carnage a darker comedy, while We Need to Talk About Kevin is an intense and beautiful drama.

Carnage was based on a play, which comes across in its bottle setting, and increasingly drastic performances as the film goes along. It is comedic in a darker way than past films, where Reilly has been cast. Reilly performed alongside Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and Jodie Foster in this simple, yet captivating film. The plot follows two couples discussing an altercation between their children. As the film goes on, the conversation becomes more animalistic, until the characters seem as if they could break and never recover.

In We Need to Talk About Kevin, John C. Reilly and Tilda Swinton play the parents of Ezra Miller‘s title character, Kevin. This film is a unique, beautiful, and nonlinear adaptation of a novel. The performances build on each other to create an explosive film of emotions and family relationships.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is highly regarded because it took a popular novel many felt could not be adapted and created a wonderfully complex film based on this original work. Cinematography sets this film apart from many other adaptations of novels about disturbed youth. This film will overall be remembered for its performances, visuals, and unique way of addressing storytelling.

Profile: John C. Reilly
Wreck-It Ralph (2012) – source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The next year, Reilly starred in the Disney film, Wreck-It Ralph. He was able to portray the humor and sadness of a video game villain wanting to be a good guy. Rich Moore‘s film takes a simple concept of video game characters having their own lives, and uses it to explore the complex ideas of identity and self worth. Sarah Silverman and John C. Reilly had such good chemistry as the voices of Ralph and Vanellope, which helped this film succeed in a grand way.

The film is a wonderful representation of the magic of friendship and finding ways to appreciate yourself, even during those times you feel alone in a crowded world. As I said earlier, this film made me appreciate John C. Reilly more than I ever did before. I am so grateful for Wreck-It Ralph, since it helped me trust in myself and my friends, while also helping me to discover my favorite actor.

Recent Films

John C. Reilly had the part of Lisping Man in the recent Yorgos Lanthimos film, The Lobster. The film was a very unique take on our current dating atmosphere. Set in the near future, it is something odd, yet not all too unlikely. In the film, single people are sent to a resort where they must fall in love in 45 days, or they will be turned into an animal.

The film takes a close look at our society’s obsession with pairing off. The rebellious group of people who escaped the resort do not believe in love. This difference shows how extremes on any side of a situation are not healthy.

The Lobster is a romantic comedy with a dark, satirical heart. The performances show how strange this situation is, while also maintaining the characters’ humanity, and showing how close we are to a society like the one presented here.

Profile: John C. Reilly
The Lobster (2015) – source: Picturehouse Entertainment

Reilly had a supporting role in the film Entertainment, which was directed by Rick AlversonAlverson previously directed The Comedy, a film that was not very funny, but explored the depression of men experiencing arrested development. The film cast Tim Heidecker as the lead, in a performance I never expected to see from him, but one which ended up feeling like a completely natural progression.

While watching The Comedy, I wondered why Reilly was not in the film. His work with Tim & Eric and his experience with dramatic acting made him seem like a natural choice. When he was cast in Entertainment, my interest in the film rose. I knew it would be similar to The Comedy, and I knew John C. Reilly, no matter how small a role, would work wonderfully in this cinematic world.

Entertainment follows an entertainer, who is less entertaining than he is sad, lonely, and delusional. Both of these films are strange, off-putting, but they also expressed something so real about the world of comedy.

Another recent film John C. Reilly starred in was Tale of Tales (Il racconto dei racconti), a beautifully morbid Italian fairytale anthology directed by Matteo Garrone. John C. Reilly played alongside Selma Hayek as king and queen. The film is inspired by the fairytales of Giambattista Basile. It is beautifully dark, with amazing directing, cinematography, and music to accompany the performances from the talented cast.


John C. Reilly is still getting plenty of chances to show his talent across the field of cinema. He will be seen in the film Kong: Skull Island in 2017, and also lending his voice to the animated film Sing. In addition to Kong: Skull Island, Reilly will portray Oliver Hardy in the biopic Stan and Ollie, also starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel. A sequel to Wreck-It Ralph is in the works, hopefully with a 2018 release.

Do you agree that John C. Reilly is a talented actor across dramatic and comedic roles? What performances of his are your favorites? Let us know in the comments. 

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