Interview: John C. Reilly Talks ‘Carnage,’ Polanski, and ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’

I spoke with John C. Reilly a few months ago for Terri, and now the seemingly always-working actor has two drastically different films coming out for the holiday season. While Terri was a humanistic and empathetic portrayal of naturally flawed people, Roman Polanski‘s Carnage is a cynical and full-blown satire of pretentious, childish adults. It is 79 minutes of characters slowly revealing their dark, immature, and somewhat understandable views.

Reilly’s other film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, a mostly liked but slightly divisive film, is probably one of the most misunderstood movies of the year. Lynne Ramsay‘s film, as Reilly perfectly puts it, is meant to be taken almost as a dream. Very few scenes should be taken literally.

I recently had the chance to discuss both films with Reilly, along with Roman Polanski’s specificity, the responsibilities of an actor, and when tools become human beings.

A few months ago you had Terri, which was pretty humanistic. Now, with Carnage, you’re in a film that’s pretty cynical.

Yeah, it’s more of a satire, isn’t it? It’s a bit about pointing out the hypocrisy of people. It’s a very different tone, the two films. Both pretty imperfect characters, just the way I like ’em!

[Laughs] There’s certainly a lot of shades with Michael [in Carnage]. What grays initially stood out to you? 

There’s a lot of black in Michael [Laughs]. By the time he reveals his true feelings about marriage and family, you’re like, “Wow, that guy’s in a pretty cynical place. I think that scotch may be a daily occurrence…”

He’s still kind of charming, though.

Yeah, definitely. He’s probably the least pretentious of the people — although that’s not saying much, since they’re all pretty pretentious [Laughs]. He’s a fun character because he’s the first person to call out the fact there’s an elephant in the room and they’re all pretending to be something they’re all not. It was fun get to be that guy.

Plus, he’s pretty manly, in an old-fashioned way.

[Laughs] Yeah, although, he’s afraid of hamsters. The play and the movie are both really interesting looks into the masks we not only put on to present to other people, but the masks we believe of ourselves. It’s almost like an inward facing mask, these ideas. When the gloves come off, it’s, “Look, this is the way I am!” I’m not even sure if that’s true, it’s just how he’s coping. It’s just, to him, “This doesn’t matter and that doesn’t matter.” I think it’s one of those stories, where if you spent 90 more minutes in the room, you’d get through more layers of the onion. They’d probably all be fucking each other by the end [Laughs]. It’d be interesting to see what would happen come nightfall in that apartment, if the kids didn’t come home. Maybe they would become better people by the end.

[Laughs] It seems like you’ve put a lot of thought into where they could go.

Well, I spent a lot of time in that apartment with those people.

You mentioned the idea of the masks they’re wearing, and that’s a very human idea. There’s something relatable about that — thinking someone’s a nice guy, but then the more time you spend with them, they become very off-putting.

You know, I find the opposite, for normally what happens to me. I’ll meet someone who’ll be off-putting like, “Oh God, this guy’s a real tool or whatever.” Then you end up spending enough time with them, and you start to see their humanity. I think it’s the other way. We have a lot of judgements and preconceived ideas about the way people are, when we first meet them. I think the more time that you spend with them, it’s, “Whoa, this guy’s a human being. Yeah, he’s kind of messed up in that way. Now that I know him a little bit, I can see how he got that way.” You end up having more compassion for people. Well, I do anyway, the more time I spend with someone.

That happens. I guess I’m used to the opposite experience.

I’m sorry for you, Jack.

[Laughs] I appreciate it. I’m in DC, so you meet a lot of shady people.

Ah yeah, that’s a dirty little town, DC.

[Laughs] It is, yeah. When we spoke for Terri, and you mentioned how suffocating Mr. Polanski would be, when it came to blocking. Did you see that as a more disciplined form of acting?

He was very specific. Did I say he was “suffocating”?

Yeah, you mentioned how, if you moved just a little bit, he’d say it would ruin a shot.

Yeah, it was a little bit constraining, at first, but then you realize how right he is. The guy’s been making movies for 60 years, and he’s pretty good at it [Laughs]. It was just a process of working that way specifically. I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years who come to the set who have no idea what they’re going to do and they just make it up as they go along, and you can get great stuff that way. It ends up putting a lot of responsibility on the actors. You can feel overwhelmed, when they’re trying to reinvent the wheel everyday.

I got used to it after a coupe of days. Roman’s very specific with blocking and stuff, so you start to realize, “Whoa, this is great. I can relax.” You definitely know when he’s happy. When he gets what he wants, he knows. You know when he gets what he’s after. It’s a different experience when someone’s like, “Oh, did we get it? I don’t know…” Some directors you feel like you never please them, because they don’t know exactly what they want until they’re in the editing room.

Do you see that as a bad thing or just a different way of working?

It’s a different way of working. Like I said, you can get great things out of it. You know, I’ve done movies that are almost entirely improvised, at least the dialog’s improvised, and that’s a big responsibility. I like to work both ways, actually.

Why’s that, just to keep things fresh and new?

Yeah, there’s great things about both. Being given a lot of freedom to improvise and experiment while you’re shooting is very empowering, and it gives you a sense of having a voice in the storytelling, which actors aren’t always given. Sometimes working with someone who knows entirely what they want and has very specific ideas can be a big relief, too. It’s, like, “Ah, alright, that responsibility is off my shoulders. Rather than figuring out what we’re going to do today, I just have to perfect what we’re doing.” I like doing them both ways. You have to be adaptable, and I think that’s the job of an actor: you have to adapt to certain circumstances.

There’s been a lot of talk about, when it comes to We Need to Talk About Kevin, who’s to blame: Eva or Kevin. I don’t really see that as the point of the movie, but it’s what some people takeaway from it. Do you view the film in that way of who’s to blame or is that irrelevant? 

Yeah, I think people get a lot wrong with that movie. They take it too literally. It’s almost meant to be this dream story. The events, especially the events that take place in the past, which is most of the movie, are meant to be seen through her memory. It’s not meant to be, like, “This is exactly how it happened! She was this awful with the kid! The father was that oblivious! The kid was this!” It’s all [about] how it felt to her and how she remembers it. In a weird way, it’s kind of a heightened reality kind of story.

I think to try to blame it on the mother or on the kid just misses the point. Tragically, I think that happens when these real massacres happen. A lot of finger pointing happens instead of, “Why is this happening in our world?” The truth is, kids spend a lot of time with their mothers and fathers, but, by the time they’re seven or eight, you’re spending a majority of their time with other people. If there’s anyone who’s responsible, it’s definitely a shared societal responsibility.

Carnage is now in theaters.

All you really need to know about Jack is his favorite movies are: The Last Detail, Rumble Fish, Sunset Boulevard, The Truman Show, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Verdict, Closer, Shadow of a Doubt, The Long Goodbye, Spider-Man 2, Jaws, Adaptation, Get Carter, The Last Days of Disco, Carnal Knowledge, Almost Famous, Ed Wood, Ace in the Hole, Barton Fink, and L.A. Confidential.

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