John C. Reilly for “Criminal”

John C. Reilly is one of Hollywood’s most diverse actors. An Oscar nominee for Chicago, Reilly has often been cast as sympathetic characters, so audiences will see a new side to him, as he stars as a seasoned con man in Criminal, a remake of the Argentinean hit thriller Nine Queens. Though he’s still to be seen in The Aviator, Reilly refuses to talk about anything else but the film he’s promoting, as Paul Fischer discovered when he spoke to the actor in a Los Angeles hotel room.

Question: Are you a fan of con movies?

Answer: Yeah, I am. I think it has to do with the fact that I love games. I love card games and I’ve always loved board games and stuff like that as a kid. I think it’s that part of your brain that’s engaged in con movies. It’s like this who’s outsmarting whom? But I think what sets this movie apart from other con movies is it gets this family dimension, this emotional thing that happens once I get mixed up with my sister. It takes it to another place that most con movies don’t go to.

Question: What was the back-story you brought to the family relationship?

Answer: I always thought of Richard as the guy, sort of an underachiever and an overachiever at the same time. He would fail at school but he would be the guy who was selling tickets to the concert. The guy who was working – seemingly failing at everything but also getting by really well and taking advantage of situations. And in terms of the back-story between me and Valerie, the character Maggie Gyllenhaal plays, hopefully you can really feel it in our scenes together. I just always imagined that part of the anger that she has for me in the movie is the fact that I’ve been taking advantage of her since she was a little kid. You can see Richard just flicking the back of her ear in the back of the car when they were little kids and stealing her lunch money and hiding her toys. Having that dominant position as the older brother. And she’s just had it. By the time the movie starts, she’s just had it. I show up at her work and she’s invited me to come there and she says, “Get out as soon as you’re done. I don’t want to see you.” Like I was saying, I think that really adds a lot to the movie that it’s not- – the thing about a lot of con movies is like almost all the relationships are false relationships. And what’s really cool about this one is that no, they are. They are really brother and sister and they’re really angry at each other, and they’re fighting over their mother’s estate. That happens in every family, or a lot of families anyway, when a mother or father passes away and money suddenly becomes an issue. If there are any problems in the relationship, they really rise to the surface.

Question: Do you see this as a likeable character?

Answer: Well, it’s funny. Most people say that they do end up rooting for him. And yeah, he does things that are not likeable. Taking advantage of old ladies, no matter how you cut it, is not a nice thing to do. But at the same time, anyone who struggles for a living, who is an independent kind of small businessman, I think can relate to Richard’s plight. It’s like him against the world. I gotta make that next buck. And even though he’s chosen really despicable ways to get by, the fact that he’s on that journey, you can relate to. You kind of don’t want him to fail even though he’s doing terrible things.

Question: Have you been conned by anybody?

Answer: Not in the way that Richard cons people. I think growing up as an actor and coming from Chicago and having a good sort of B.S. detector for phony stories has helped me from really getting taken. But emotionally maybe. Those are the more dangerous cons, when you take someone into your confidence as a lover or as a friend and then they do something that you didn’t expect them to do. Those are the ones where you really get burned and that’s- – to me, those are the cruelest cons in the movie. Yeah, it’s not nice to take advantage of an old lady, but it’s really cruel to take someone’s most precious relationship, like my relationship with my younger brother in the movie and use it and shatter it irretrievably. I think that’s one of the cruelest cons in the movie. And Richard would do the same thing. If he could use it to his advantage. He would do the same thing. So you can’t have too much sympathy for him, but the name Criminal- – at first, I was like that’s a weird title for the movie. Kind of gives it away. Then I thought no, it’s perfect because it could describe any one of the characters as a noun, but as an adjective, it could describe a lot of their behavior too.

Question: Was P.B Hall’s character in Hard Eight a direct influence on your character in this?

Answer: I honestly didn’t think too much about Hard Eight while I was making it. Only when I read the script and I saw the dynamic of the two, but then Diego’s very different than I was as a younger guy and that movie was very different. Those people were not trying to trick people for money. They were just trying to stay ahead of the casino system. They were almost making an honest living in a way, using games of chance to stay afloat. Getting a free prime rib dinner on the house at a casino is different than faking like you’ve been hit by a car in a gas station for gas money. There is a difference. So I had a lot to do with this movie, a lot to think about, so I wasn’t really thinking about any other movies. I was just thinking about staying in the moment.

Question: Do you have a favorite con movie?

Answer: I love all of Mamet’s movies. I love House of Games. That was really the first con movie that really got me. Hopefully we accomplished some of the same surprises as I did in that movie. I love ’em all. I love The Grifters and I’m flattered when people compare this movie to- – if not for those movies, Nine Queens probably wouldn’t have existed and this certainly wouldn’t have existed.

Question: Did you see the original?

Answer: I saw it after I was done with this. I deliberately waited to kind of like – I felt lucky that I hadn’t seen it because then I could just take my own point of view about the character and just play it as it was written and not through the lens of another.

Question: How similar is the character in each version?

Answer: Well, it’s tough to say, because it’s speaking another language. It’s very much set in the culture of Argentina. You should see it. I recommend you see it. … I was more struck by the similarities in the plot and the motivations of the characters. I don’t know. This is a very different movie. You can’t even really call it a remake because it really feels like a very personal movie for Greg and Steven in a way. They took this- – it was a real hat trick to pull off to take an original work and turn it into a personal work for you. I don’t know how they did it.

Question: Was it difficult to tap into his unlikeability?

Answer: No. It wasn’t hard at all. It was like I’d kind of had it with the cuddly stuff by the time the Oscars rolled around with Chicago. I’m really proud of that movie and that is a big part of who I am too. I would like to think that I’m a lot like Amos Hart. He’s a really noble guy.

Question: Or like Magnolia?

Answer: Yeah, but like any actor, you want to do something different. As soon as you start to feel the window narrowing about what people think you can do, your first instinct is to start elbowing at the corners. So that was a big confidence builder for me as an actor, the fact that Greg Jacobs and Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney saw me as an actor first. They saw me as someone with ability, instead of the sum of my previous roles. That’s sort of the lazy tendency. A lot of people that make films, like okay, we need this kind of character. Who’s done it before? Get them to do it again. And that is exactly what actors are pushing against. It’s kind of a cliché thing to talk about being stereotyped in that way, but it happens.

Question: Isn’t he noble in this movie?

Answer: Well, as deceitful as he is, because his work is deceitful, but it’s like a guy who loves his children but every day he’s a hostile takeover corporate lawyer or whatever. It’s like is he noble or not? Well, he is noble to his family when he goes home, but when he’s at work, that’s not exactly noble what he does. So it’s a complicated thing. I think as for as deceitful as Richard is in this movie, he’s in fact a very up front honest person with the people that he takes into his world. If you’re in the car with him, he says to Diego right from the beginning. “I don’t want to be your friend. I don’t care about you. All I want to know about you is what I need to know to make money, okay? So don’t be surprised if it goes by and if I try to trick you.” And then I say later in the movie, “What’s with the raped virgin look? You know what I do for a living. I told you what I do for a living. What are you acting surprised now? I was honest with you. Don’t judge me now. I told you what I’m about. If you didn’t like what I was about, you shouldn’t have come with me.”

Question: Can you talk about the Dark Water remake?

Answer: I play this- – that’s one that I haven’t seen. I haven’t seen the original Dark Water. I probably should now before it comes out so I can answer questions like that. But that’s a movie I did with Jennifer Connelly, comes out later this winter and I’ll be out talking about that for sure. But now we need people to show up on opening weekend for Criminal.

Question: Are you working on anything else?

Answer: No, just promoting this and getting ready to do more of the same for Dark Water. And I’m in The Aviator, Martin Scorsese’s new film.

Question: How was that experience?

Answer: It was great and I’ll talk to you about it in December at the press junket.

Question: How long did it take you to nail the speech pattern of this guy?

Answer: It was tough. There was one session in particular, where it was like I had two pages of dialogue without a cut. Right before the briefcase gets taken from me. We’re walking, it’s a long lens and it’s pulling us down the sidewalk, telling you about my time in prison. That was a challenge. All of a sudden it was like, what? No cuts? We’re not going to break this up into little – you know, the speech patterns, I guess I don’t think about it in a real literal way. I just- – I’m just trying to immerse myself in the way the guy talks. If something was not tripping off the tongue, I would ask Greg, like, “You know, I’ll say the same thing, but couldn’t we change these two words around or take out this one adjective?” It was a process and Greg was really open to that collaboration, like allowing me to bring some of what I felt about the character into it and really he tailor made this suit for me. And then we did small little bits after to really fine tune it.

Question: Have you experienced any culture crossover?

Answer: I live on the east side of LA. I don’t think I could live in LA if I didn’t live on the east side because that to me is- – I want to live in a place that’s an accurate reflection of the world. I want to see people of all races and economic backgrounds. I think it’s one of the problems with Hollywood actors is that they fortify themselves in these castles on the west side. I don’t know how you can really be a truthful actor if you’re not out learning about the human experience and getting to know all different people. So I feel really lucky that I have that in the neighborhood that I live in.

Question: Maybe you know guys like Diego’s character?

Answer: Oh yeah, absolutely. You know, I was actually- – even though Diego’s Mexican, I was the one showing him around my neighborhood on the east side. I was like, “Yeah, this is my barrio, man, this is it. This is the cool place to go for tacos and this, and this.” And he was like, “This is cool, man. It’s unbelievable that you live over here.” That’s my world over there.

Question: Working with a first timer vs. Scorsese?

Answer: You know, people ask like what’s the difference between working with an independent director and like a studio director. To me, you can work with someone who’s on an independent movie who’s not independent at all because the money people are like, “No, you gotta cast this person, you gotta do this. This has to mean something in foreign sales or we’re not getting this movie made.” That’s not independent. That’s doing what you’re told. In the same way, like working on something like The Perfect Storm, Wolfgang Petersen is an independent director. No one’s telling him how to set up a shot or when he needs to be finished by. Like working with Cecile B. DeMille or something, who’s like the ultimate independent director. Independence and your will and your spirit and yeah, your mind and what you’re willing – the fact that you’re uncompromising in your artistic vision. And that comes in many different packages. It has nothing to do with the budget of a movie. It has to do with people’s belief in the director and allowing directors to – you know, film is a director’s medium and it works best when it’s a pyramid in that way. The director’s at the top of the pyramid. Not the producer, not the studio, not the financier or whatever.

Question: How hard is it to leave a character like this behind and go home to a family?

Answer: It was interesting to shift gears, but it is a pretty dark life. As likeable and funny as Richard can be, he’s a very solitary, lonely man and he’s separated himself from virtually every relationship in his whole life. Even his relationship with his younger brother is a very narrowly defined, protected not very real relationship. So that was a lonely place to be every day, in that same grey suit, the weight of the world on his shoulders, that sense of the guys he owes the money to are calling him all day and that sense of desperation. That’s tough to do every day just emotionally. But it’s funny, you’ve got to remember going home at the end of the day, like “Okay, you’ve got to stop at the red light. You can’t just steal the change off a table that was meant for the waiter’s tip.” You spend your whole day 12 hours like feeling like nothing applies to me, yeah, yeah, yeah, screw you, and give me a cigarette. And you remind yourself, “No, okay, back into the law abiding world now.” It was interesting, but that’s why I became an actor, to be able to go to those places and it’s not always fun to be an actor. It’s fun that you get to be doing what you love, but feeling upset is feeling upset whether you’re pretending or not. Like Magnolia, there were a lot of very tough, emotional scenes. It’s something about human nature where you’re like, “This is not right. Why are you going to work to make yourself sad?” Normally, a human instinct is to stay away from that stuff, but you’re like diving into it. Diving into this lonely place of this guy’s world was- – I was glad when it was over, honestly. And it was easy to let this guy go because it was a tough road he was on and it wasn’t getting any better.

Question: Do you want to work with Paul Thomas Anderson again?

Answer: Yeah.

Question: Do you have a desire to return to the theater?

Answer: Yeah, I think I’m going to do two plays in New York next year.

Question: What?

Answer: Hopefully one of them will be a musical adaptation of Marty.

Question: Will Borgnine be there?

Answer: I hope so, I invited him. He said he wants to come to opening night.

Question: The other one?

Answer: The other one’s a secret still.

Question: Classic or modern?

Answer: It’s a classic, one of the most classic.

Question: American?

Answer: You’re clever. That’s all I’m saying. You’ll hear about it. You’ll definitely hear about it. It’s not going to be low profile.

Question: With an ensemble cast?

Answer: [LAUGHTER] I wasn’t born yesterday. I’ll be happy to talk about once it’s official. I’m superstitious.

Question: When will you know?

Answer: Probably by the end of the summer. By the next junket.