John C. Reilly: “Jack White is the last rock star”

John Reilly tells TOM MANN how Dewey Cox and Jack White helped spark a new career in bluegrass.

John C. Reilly has made a career out of confounding expectations. As he reminded us – and his down trodden friends Will Ferrell and Jack Black – at the Oscars in 2008: “Just look at my career. You can have your cake and eat it too; I chose to be in both Boogie and Talladega Nights.”

The latest sidestep for the actor, Oscar, Golden Globe, Tony and Grammy nominee is a career as a bluegrass singer, releasing a couple of singles through Jack White’s Third Man Records. While it’s certainly a handy friendship to call on if you’re keen to release a few records, the connection between Reilly and White goes back much further than that Elvis cameo in Walk Hard. The pair first met backstage at a White Stripes gig over ten years ago, brought together through a mutual connection to the show tune ‘Mr. Cellophane’; Reilly was nominated for an Oscar for singing it in the 2002 film version of Chicago and the song became part of the White Stripes set list soon after.

The word “bluegrass” can conjure up images of duelling banjos, but John Reilly (he’s forced to use that “C” due to the rules of the Screen Actors Guild) prefers to think of it as “Appalachian soul music” and he’s keen to use his fame to help draw people to the charms of the ol’ timey sounds. While in Australia this week to promote his new movie, a Disney animation called Wreck-It Ralph, Reilly will also be playing intimate gigs in Sydney and Melbourne with his friends Becky Stark and Tom Brosseau.

You’ve sung in movies before, was it intimidating to step out and perform as yourself rather than as a character?

Well yeah, it was. It took a little bit of bravery on my part, because as an actor you come with a lot of baggage when you step onto the stage. Depending on what movie people have seen, they have a lot of expectations, but it’s been really amazing how audiences have responded to what we bring with our band here. I think a lot times people show up and they don’t know quite what the hell to expect, but they always walk away with a lot of nice thing to say about all of us. [We] try to have a sense of humour while we do the show and definitely talk to the audience a lot, but also try to deliver the goods music wise with some really great old folk music and country music and bluegrass music.

When we first started it could be a little bit disorienting for people. “Wait, what is this? Like John Reilly the actor?” but we’ve played a lot of shows at this point. There are usually a couple of people shouting out “Boats ‘N Hoes” but then everyone settles down and they just enjoy the music. I’m not doing these shows because I want to become a famous musician or because I want to make a tonne of money as a musician. I’m doing it because we love this old music and the shows end up being special experiences if you’re really open to it.

“There are usually a couple of people shouting out ‘Boats ‘N Hoes’”

Your film choices switch between very serious ambitious stuff like Magnolia or The Hours, and then all the sorts of things you’ve done with Will Ferrell or Dr. Steve Brule. Where does your music career sit on that scale?

I don’t really plan these things, I just try to do things I find inspiring and interesting and get involved with people that are fun to work with. Music has been a big part of my life always, from the time I was a little kid. So even though it’s surprising for some people to see me up there singing this kind of music, if you’ve known me for a while it makes perfect sense.

I don’t need to be any more famous or anything – I’m doing it because I love the music, but mostly because I also want to share these other artists that are in the band with me that people might not have heard of if they weren’t using my name. Like a fisherman uses chum in the ocean; you just draw them in with the John Reilly name and then I expose them to Becky Stark or Tom Brosseau, or Willie Watson or Dan Bern. These people that are in my band. I am really lucky to work with some incredible musicians, when you hear Tom and Becky, if you’re able to make it to the how, I think you’re going to be really blown away, a couple of really special voices.

I guess for a lot of people it will seem as if your music career has come off the back of the Dewey Cox stuff…

Well, that was definitely a big moment, I’d say a seminal moment but that sounds weird. Walk Hard was kind of a collision of all of the things I was learning in music over the years – it all kind of collided on that movie and it took everything I had to pull it off. Actually I met Dan Bern who sings with us when we do the larger set with the band, Dan is in the band, and he wrote a bunch of the songs for Walk Hard.

That experience, not only doing the movie but doing an eight city concert tour in character as Dewey Cox, kind of gave me the nerve to get up in front of an audience and perform as a musician. Of course doing it as Dewey Cox and not as myself is yet another step towards exposing myself as I got to hide behind the character when I was doing the Walk Hard thing, but with this it’s like a step towards the audience to say “I hope you’ll accept this from me” and it’s been really positive so far.

You were booked to play on the Railroad Revival Tour with Willie Nelson and Band of Horses that got cancelled; was that going to be your first proper gig as an on the road touring musician?

No, we’ve done some tours up and down the California coast, we played a big festival. We’ve done a Northwest tour up here and played the Southwest festival, and Vancouver and Portland. SXSW as I recall it was a little bit of an odd scene. It was noisy and in the middle of a bar with three other shows going on simultaneously so it was hard for the audience to focus, but I got a lot of great feedback from the show.

We’ve toured around a bit, but [the Railroad Revival Tour] would’ve been one of the more high profile things, being on a bill with Willie Nelson … traveling on the vintage train with Willie Nelson. We were all really excited for that to happen, it almost seemed to be too good to be true, and then it was too good to be true.

It must’ve been incredibly difficult to schedule in the first place.

Yep it was a very, very ambitious undertaking for that guy, but I think he has hopes to put it back together at some point and I hope he does because the first tour was incredible, what he was able to pull off. I saw a couple [of shows on the last tour]. My friend Willie Watson who’s in my band was in the Old Crow Medicine Show at the time and they were on that tour.

I wanted to ask about the songs you covered on the Third Man releases, the covers of Ray Price, Delmore Brothers, and the Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner duet. Did you make those choices with Jack?

Those are songs we were already doing, and we just walked in the studio and Jack’s like “hey play a few songs, what do you want to do?” He was very open to what we brought. The way the songs come to us, you just trawl through old music and are just listening for something that hits you. Or if you hear a song one time and the melody sticks with you and there seems to be some kind of eternal quality to the music, then those are the songs you memorise. Really those songs picked us more than we picked the songs.

Jack seems to have a fairly open door policy down there, inviting the likes of Insane Clown Posse and Conan down. What’s it like to work at Third Man Studios?

He does have an open door policy, but he also knows what he likes. I don’t know what it was like for the Insane Clown Posse, but Jack played that track while we were down there for the recording and I just thought it was brilliant. I actually like the song a lot. The production on it is just incredible. Listening to that in Jack’s car with the speakers turned all the way up was an awesome experience.

“Listening to ICP in Jack White’s car with the speakers turned up was an awesome experience.”

To me he’s the last rock star. He’s an incredibly hard working, ambitious guy with creativity just pouring off him. I felt really lucky to be down there [at Third Man]. We got to stay at his house and recorded out the back in his incredible analog studio. There’s not a computer in the whole place, which really puts you on your toes. You have to give a whole performance rather than a series of edits you have to do it all at once.

You managed to get Jack to play Elvis in Walk Hard; do you think we’ll see more of Jack on screen?

I can’t believe I pulled that one off. We were asking “who should play Elvis in this movie? Who is the greatest rock star in the world right now?” So Jack was the natural choice for that. He’s very funny; he’s got a natural ability. But he’s got a pretty sweet day job so I don’t know [laughs]. If he does decide to get more into the acting game I’m sure it’ll be as great as everything else he does.

Do you think that with Walk Hard you managed to kill off the rock biopic?

We thought that for a second but it’s showing signs of life again. It’s coming back like a zombie. We were just pointing out the elephant in the room in terms of the ridiculous conventions that have built up. Biopics have become almost like biopics of other biopics. There’s like a biopic story outline app. The reason those films are so similar is that musicians lives are so similar. I’m not for destroying any type of story telling. There’s a reason that certain characters and archetypes keep repeating themselves; people relate to it, it brings out a certain human experience. It was as much a homage to the music world as a satire.

You’ve had many musical roles in films – singing in Chicago and Prairie Home Companion, playing a Beastie Boy, karaoke in Cyrus, drumming in Step Brothers – which role was the most difficult?

Probably playing Mike in the Beastie Boys video because he was standing right off camera looking at me. He’s an old friend of mine so I decided to go with the “sprite” rather than doing an actual impression of Mike. I feel really lucky anytime that I get to sing or play music in my work. There’s just something really joyful about making music.

I have to ask – did you really play that drum solo in Step Brothers?

Yes, of course it did! I learned to play the drums for another movie called Georgia but I did have a brother who had a drum set when I was growing up.

So there’s some reality to that fight scene?

Well, somewhat but the fights never got quite as epic as the fight between Will [Ferrell] and I. I grew up in a really musical household. I had guitars, a piano, there was a drum set in the basement. There was always some kind of music going on. Drums is too much labour though; I don’t think I would tour as a drummer. They tend to spontaneously combust – that’s the hazard with being a drummer.

The opening line of your press release refers you as an Oscar, Golden Globe and Tony nominee… Will you be looking to add a Grammy nomination to that list?

Oh dear… obviously that wasn’t written by me. Actually I’ve already been nominated for a Grammy. We were nominated for Walk Hard. I’ve got the medallion to prove it sitting right here. I’m not sure what you get if you win, but I was given a medallion and a ribbon just for being nominated. Maybe I should wear it around to give myself credibility.

John Reilly & Friends shows:

Monday, December 3 – The Factory, Sydney

Thursday, December 6 – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne