John C. Reilly on long silent walks with Joaquin Phoenix, a tearful farewell to a horse, and almost losing the part he wanted in 'The Sisters Brothers'

Emma McIntyre/GettyJohn C. Reilly.
  • John C. Reilly’s new movie, “The Sisters Brothers,” marks the first time that he’s produced a feature film.
  • Along with hiring its director, Jacques Audiard, Reilly also agreed to give Audiard full creative control of the movie.
  • But that choice almost backfired on the actor when Audiard nearly didn’t let Reilly have the role he’d wanted to play ever since Reilly had read the book.

With over 75 movie parts under his belt, John C. Reilly is starting to think beyond acting. His latest movie, “The Sisters Brothers” – which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in theatres September 21 – is a clear indication of that.

The project is an important one for Reilly as it’s the first time he’s had a producer credit on a feature film. Based on the book by Patrick DeWitt, the story follows two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are infamous assassins out West during the gold rush of the 1850s. Reilly optioned the book rights with his wife, producer Alison Dickey, after falling in love with the Eli character and wanting to play him. They brought on French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (“The Prophet”) to direct.

Along with Reilly playing Eli, Joaquin Phoenix plays Charlie (Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed also star), but that wasn’t always how it was planned.

Reilly talked to Business Insider about how by allowing Audiard full creative control of the movie, Reilly almost didn’t get to play Eli. He also talked about how long walks with Phoenix led to a close friendship they have to this day, and if he has any ambition to one day direct a film.

Jason Guerrasio: Why produce a movie at this point in your career?

John C. Reilly: It’s the only time I’ve ever done it. It was just this moment. I read the manuscript and bought the rights. My wife, Alison Dickey, is the one who had the idea of reading the manuscript. She gave it to me. It was her idea to approach Jacques about directing it. She’s the woman behind the curtain on this. But the reason it seemed like the right thing to do is the character. I read that book, and I really related to a lot of the things Eli was saying.

The sisters brothers 2 annapurnaAnnapurnaReilly in ‘The Sisters Brothers.’

Guerrasio: So you always wanted to play Eli.

Reilly: Yes, but when we eventually started working with Jacques, his one precondition was that he had to have complete and total freedom. That’s the way he’s always done his movies. That’s the way it is in France – directors have final say.

Guerrasio: In some ways, did you have to audition for Eli?

Reilly: Not audition, but at a certain point in the development of the script Jacques said, “Well, I’m not sure what part you’re going to play.” And then he suggested another part. He said, “I see you as this other part.”

Guerrasio: It wasn’t one of the brothers?

Reilly: I won’t say what part, but he was, like, “I see you as this other part,” and I thought my brain was going to explode. I had no idea that was coming. I thought we were getting together to discuss the script, and he just presents this idea and I was, like, “S—.” I mean, I optioned this thing to play this role, but I did promise this guy that he would have total freedom, so I thought for a second: “You could either blow the movie up with this guy right now or go with it.”

I felt either this is a test on his part – which he has claimed that it was not – but I felt this is either a test to see if he’s really getting the freedom he wants or this is just a really good idea that I’m having a hard time with right now. I’m very adaptable; I can personally see myself play anything. So I just said, “OK.” And he continued to develop the script and he came around [to my playing Eli] when it came to cast.

Guerrasio: And in that time, are you planting little seeds to turn him around?

Reilly: There’s no planting seeds with Jacques.[laughs] During those trying times I just felt I had to trust the guy. Look at his work; it speaks for itself. And that’s why we asked him to do this.

Guerrasio: Well, I was going to ask if you would consider yourself a hands-on producer, but I guess the answer is no.

Reilly: Very hands-on while we developed the movie. My wife was the real person putting in the hours. I’m very good at contacting other actors, and, believe it or not, I’m very good at negotiating contracts. Giving notes on the script. But when it came time to act, that’s not a burden I wanted to carry during production. She and Jacques’ producers took it from there.

Guerrasio: Did you give your thoughts on who should play Charlie?

Reilly: Joaquin is who I wanted from the beginning, but I couldn’t say that. I needed Jacques to make the decision himself. I just had this feeling that if I suggested too strongly I thought he might go another way. But they had one phone call and Jacques offered him the role in that call.

Guerrasio: You and Joaquin work great together. Is that just two actors figuring it out, or did you two know each other going in?

Reilly: It essentially did just happen. I had met him a couple of times. We have a mutual friend, Paul Thomas Anderson, so I had been to events and hung out with him. But I couldn’t say I knew him, and now that I do know him I look back and certainly didn’t know him back then. He’s a complex person, a lot is going on.

The sisters brothers 1 annapurnaAnnapurnaJoaquin Phoenix in ‘The Sisters Brothers.’

Guerrasio: So on set, between takes, did you two just split off and do your own things?

Reilly: No: the complete opposite. We were linked all the time. We lived together for a lot of the shooting. Travelled to and from set together. Spent our weekends together, because everyone else on set was either French or Spanish.[laughs] We were the only Americans. I don’t really speak Spanish well enough – Joaquin can pretty well. But we just spent all this time together.

In the beginning it was difficult to even make eye contact because we’re both intense people. There was so much on the line, and we both saw this as a challenging project, so in the beginning we would go on these long walks in Spain together. Walk two hours without saying anything. It would be, like, “Meet you down stairs in 10 minutes?” “OK, see ya down there.” And we’d meet: “Where should we go? “I don’t know. We can climb that hill?” “OK.” And then that’s it for the rest of the walk. No more talking. And I’m totally comfortable with that. I like spending time with people who are quiet. Believe it or not, I’m pretty quiet myself.

Guerrasio: When did Jake Gyllenhaal show off to you guys the voice he would use in the movie? That seems to be a thing with him of late, interesting voices to his characters. Change it up.

Reilly: Well, that’s what most actors are trying to do. Some actors are good at just being the same basic personality and they make a whole career out of being that guy and other people like to transform, and Jake is certainly one of those people. Right when I heard his accent I loved it. It’s a tricky thing what he was trying to do. It’s the 1850s, he’s educated from Boston but he’s been spending his time with all these thugs out in the West, I loved it. In these kind of situations they are perfect to create something new because no one knows how someone talked back then. I think it works beautifully for his character.

Guerrasio: Was there something about the role – the gun, costume, horse, setting – that made you just excited to work every day?

Reilly: Of course every boy wants to be a cowboy. I definitely did. So all that stuff. Shooting that gun was really fun, I’m not going to lie. They were these hand-loaded revolvers that had black powder come out. When you fired those things, the fire that came out was not an effect. I developed a deep, deep bond with my horse. At the end of the movie, I thought, it’s going to be so emotional to say goodbye to the people, but the only time I cried was when I said goodbye to the horse.

Guerrasio: So will we ever see you direct? Having produced this, is that one step closer to taking the helm of an entire movie?

Reilly: I am interested in directing. I’ve done something like 75 movies at this point, so I have definitely thought about directing. But I’ve been directed by actors before, and I think you have to be ready, you have to be ready to enjoy someone else doing the part. I’m not totally sure that I’d be able to fully not want to get up there myself. When I get to that place I’ll be ready to direct. I’m thinking about writing and developing more stories for myself, like with this, because as difficult as it was it turned out really well. When you have more skin in the game like this it just pays off that much more as opposed to being just a hired gun – no pun intended.[laughs]

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