John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill on ‘Cyrus’, Improvising and More!

John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill star in the new film, Cyrus. Check out my my interview with them as they talk about improvising, their characters and more!

John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill, two of the best comedic actors around right now, are currently starring in the new film, Cyrus.

Cyrus is a bit of a departure for both actors (although you can’t tell from the trailer). Reilly plays more of a grown up then he has recently and Hill plays it serious but it’s still an incredibly funny movie. The film, one of the highlights from SXSW, was mostly improvised and solidifies just how talented these two guys really are.

So do you think the era of the John C. Riley, leading man romantic comedy is finally here?

John:  Yes (laughter).  I don’t know.  Is there an era right now?  I hope so.  I’m a very romantic person.  I like doing parts like this.  And I think there’s lots of people out there that are not represented in movies that have romantic feelings whose stories don’t get told.


John:  You know what I’m talking about (laughter).  Neither of us look like Brad Pitt.  Let’s not fool ourselves.  I’m with you brother.

Yeah, I’m happy to see you do this genre and bring a reality to it that’s missing, an emotional reality.

John:  Yeah we try to be truthful in our emotions in this movie.

Did you think of yourself kind of as the straight man in this, if you’re gonna call it a romantic comedy?

John:  No, you know, the “straight man” is Marisa’s [Tomei] character because she doesn’t know what’s going on.  We’ve got this whole secret battle happening standing in front of her like it’s not going on. Because I’m a very foolish character in this movie, too, I make a lot of mistakes and bad choices and yeah.

But with a little more maturity though I think.  I like the maturity of your character.

John:  Yeah, that’s one thing I really did enjoy playing in this movie, you know I’m not a kid anymore.  I often play or have played man-child kind of characters before.  It was really great to be able to just sit in a scene and be as mature as I am in life.  And I think that’s some of the best moments of awkwardness between Jonah and I when he’s like, ‘Seriously dude don’t fuck my mom’ (laughter), and my comeback, you improvised that line, and my comeback was, ‘Well, I’m not going to lie to you.  Your mom and I did have sex.’  It’s just one of those moments where you’re being truthful.  Alright, if this is the situation, regardless of what the script says, this is how I would deal with it, if I was sitting across from a 21-year-old like, Mommy and I are –

Jonah:  Special friends (laughter).

Your characters had some similarities and some differences.  Like you both had some co-dependencies.  Did that come into play when you were preparing as far how they related to each other?

John:  We didn’t really talk openly.  We didn’t really rehearse and we didn’t really do too much analytical talking about –

Jonah:  We didn’t really intertwine, I think Mark and Jay [Duplass – the directors] and I think we purposefully kept it separate.  Because I think it felt more interesting to not know what John was thinking about going into the scene and him not know what I was thinking about going into the scene or the movie in general.  Because it was better being surprised and better just having your thing going on.  And these three people don’t know what’s going on really with each other, you know.  Or especially no one knows what’s going on with Cyrus specifically because he’s putting on a front to each person that’s different than what he’s actually doing or going through emotionally.

John:  And Mark and Jay would sometimes give, discuss things with everyone there and other times they would say we want to talk to Jonah alone now and we want to talk to you and sometimes give us conflicting information that create dynamics on the set.

Can you give an example of that?

John:  Um… Well.  No (laughter).

Jonah:  I can’t give you a specific example but something we would always say about –

John:  Like that scene when I woke up in the morning you know like so, what are you guys doing today, you know like I’m obviously trying to like become part of their day and they’re just like kind of ignoring me.  I could tell Mark or Jay must have said just shut him down.

Jonah:  Don’t even explain to him like this is something we do by ourselves.  Just kind of… there’s no way it’s even a possibility that he would come along for something like that.  It wouldn’t even occur to us to say, ‘Hey I’m sure that this is strange because you slept over but we actually just do this on our own.  This is our kind of special thing’, but it doesn’t occur to Molly or Cyrus to even have to explain that because they only are around each other.  They don’t even get that it’s awkward to John.

What about the shoe thing?  I really found that to be intriguing and a man would actually leave a house without his shoes knowing that he’d gone to the house with them (laughter).

John:  What could I do though?  I couldn’t find them.  That’s why it’s such an effective psychological warfare tactic.  What’s somebody going to do?  They’re both like, we have to leave now.  I’m sorry you can’t find your shoes, but there’s the door.

Jonah:  The first time I read the script, I immediately… that was the action without knowing that my character had hid the shoes, because it’s not at that point, I just went ‘Oh shit’, like I knew immediately where the character was going.  And that was the moment I think I figured out how to play the character even not knowing really till later that he had hid the shoes.  I just put it together when I was reading the script, and it was that point in the script where I didn’t know how to play the character while reading it until I got to that part in the script, I was like ‘oh man, he’s planned a lot of this out.’ He’s a very manipulative person who’s not going to show his cards to anyone, including his mom, who’s his best and possibly only friend.

When you have a character who is dark and actually trying to destroy something, you’ve done edgy comedies before, but that as opposed to having a protagonist who is trying to achieve something, does that open up new doors for comedy for you?

Jonah: I mean, I didn’t really approach this film like a comedy.  I definitely approached it more, I don’t want to say as a drama, but just as strictly real life, all the time, never once thinking I got to riff a joke in this pocket, this scene’s not funny enough.  Like a lot of times in other movies you would know me from… if you knew at all, that a lot of times, you would think, ‘Gosh we need a button for this scene’ or we need three more jokes because this scene is playing very flat.  But in this film it was just about riffing on emotions and how emotions come out, more than one emotion would come out in a conversation in real life.  A conversation can be funny and dark and sad and humiliating and uncomfortable all in the same conversation.  There are tough conversations in life and never once was I like, ‘Oh this would be a great script to mine for comedy.’  I just looked at it as this is a great script to just tell a real story that never once feels like you’re going for something that wouldn’t happen in real life.  I thought that was what stood out as beautiful to me while reading it.

Is that something you might then bring into your future movies?

Jonah:  Well, the thing is that a movie like Superbad I think was very real.  My character and Michael’s character was very real or else you wouldn’t have liked that movie, probably.  Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him To The Greek and these movies that I love doing, I do approach them as being as real as possible, and you have to be a real human being to watch a movie like from start to finish.  But the thing is, is that it’s a bigger, broader comedy and you do have to make the audience really laugh a lot in every scene or they’re not getting their money’s worth.  So it’s even trickier to do something like that than to do something like this because you’re having to be real and a real person that they’d buy as a human being and care about their journey as well as lacing in five jokes per scene that work, you know?  Does that make sense at all?

What about the keyboard scene?  Do you play for real?  And how did that all –

Jonah:  I do play, um… the new age type musician, world musician guy was something Mark and Jay had the idea from spot on from the beginning and I was down with it 100% except my big thing was I don’t want the music to feel joke-y and I never want it to feel like you hear his music for the first time and it’s some big cartoon-ish joke.  The joke is how uncomfortable it is to play your music for a stranger and look at him in the eyes the whole time (laughter) and the weird intimidation tactic.  And Michael Andrews, who did the music, beautiful music for the film, I thought.  Especially in the scenes where John and Marisa are dating, those pieces to me were so beautiful.  He and Jay and Mark just figured out a tone for Cyrus’ music, and I gave input, but really Mike Andrews is the genius and Jay and Mark being the great filmmakers that they are would never step out of their own tone, so I trust them obviously.  They did not make a joke, but my only think was don’t make his music joke-y.  Make it good world music, or good new age music, and I think that’s why that scene is effective.  Because he’s not like a bad musician or anything.  I’m not a fan of that genre of music, but it’s very good.  He’s talented, you know?  But that was an interesting thing.  He would be good at whatever he was doing.

You guys did a lot of – I know that the Duplass Brothers do a lot of improvising in their movies.  How much did you guys stray away from the script?

John:  Dialogue-wise we never really did the script.  There were a few places where we did what was written, but for the most part I mean, I thought that was a really kind of egoless way to direct a movie especially since they wrote it.

Jonah:  And it was a really good script. It was a great script. It was actually one of the better scripts I’ve ever read.

John:  Yeah, you know what needs to happen here.  We don’t have to say this. Just say it as honestly as you can to each other.  It was a lot of fun, very empowering, but also a big responsibility.

Did you ever worry that you were ever going to just like – were there a lot of scenes where it just didn’t work because you didn’t end up in the right place?

Jonah: Only one scene that I think….

John:  A couple places where scenes were…. what we found on the day didn’t exactly jive with what the structure of the movie needed to be in the editing room, so in those places I think they did those more creative voiceover things.  You heard dialogue while people are not saying dialogue.  Where they kind of layered, which I thought – it’s not what they intentionally set out to do.  It’s not that they filmed those scenes so they could do that, it’s that we improvised our way through a scene and they turned it into that.  It’s one of those cool moments where necessity is the mother of invention.  They created this new interested way to move the story along because they needed to because the scene that they shot was different than that.

Kind of going along with that, you both have had a lot of improv experience, but like you said, it’s driving more at finding the punch line, and a lot of it is very clearly marked as humor, whereas in Cyrus, it had this very natural flowing tendency where the jokes just kind of came out.  Was that more freeing for you to work in this more naturalistic way, was it harder?

John:  I came up doing improv in acting school, in Chicago, and at the time that I was coming up, there were people doing Second City and Improv Olympic and Upright Citizens Brigade, all those guys, and Adam McKay was in Chicago at Second City doing that kind of improv, Will Ferrell was in LA doing the Groundlings.  That kind of sketch based improve stuff. And I was using similar techniques, but in acting school based on this book this woman wrote named Viola Spolin, which was like improvisation as a way to just become a better actor but also to just not as a slave to the joke, not to chasing the punchline.  The whole object of it was to just make things real, so I always thought like, and I took to it right away when I was in acting school, and then when I got out and started to do movies, I would always improvise a little bit here in there even in dramatic movies, and I started to work with Adam McKay and Judd Apatow and those guys, and I was like oh wow, you really get to improvise here.  But I always wanted to just like, well, it would be cool to be able to improvise and just not have to worry whether the scene was going to be funny at the end of the day.  Let’s just try to be honest.  And then this movie came up.  It was just the perfect holy grail moment.  This is when we get to do that.

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