Oscar-nominated actor John C. Reilly is also known for his prolific stage work, but broke into film with a small role in Brian DePalma‘s “Casualties of War” and carved out a successful career as a young character actor for years after that. He finally came to the public’s attention in a big way as a lovable porn star in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Boogie Nights” (1997). Since then, Reilly has proceeded to steal films in supporting roles and has even headlined more than a few movies himself.
Reilly received an Oscar nomination in Rob Marshall‘s 2002 Best Picture winner “Chicago” for his performance as the schnook of a husband to Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger). In the course of his career, Reilly has earned four Golden Globe nominations (for “Chicago,” “Stan and Ollie” and two for “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”) and won a Screen Actors Guild Award as part of the ensemble of “Chicago,” as well as three additional SAG nominations. Reilly also received a Grammy nomination for the title song of “Walk Hard” and a Tony Award nomination as Best Actor for the 2000 revival of Sam Shepard‘s “True West,” during which he and his co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman swapped roles every night.
So let’s raise a glass to one of the great character actors of his generation. Tour our photo gallery featuring his 15 greatest screen performances, ranked worst to best.
15. STEP BROTHERS (2008)
Director: Adam McKay. Writers: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay. Starring Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Kathryn Hahn, Adam Scott.
Reilly followed up his successful on-screen partnership with Will Ferrell in 2006’s “Talladega Nights” with this Adam McKay comedy. Widower Robert (Richard Jenkins) and divorcee Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) meet, fall in love, get married and move in under one roof. Unfortunately, both Robert and Nancy each have an immature adult son living with them — Robert’s son Brennan (Farrell) and Nancy’s offspring Dale (Reilly) must also move in together, and they hate each other practically on sight. But when Brennan’s condescending younger brother Derek (Adam Scott) ridicules both Brennan and Dale, the two battling step brothers unite to try to make something of themselves. Although not as critically appreciated as “Talladega Nights,” “Step Brothers” has its own fan base, and in it, Reilly and Ferrell only solidify their place as a great comedy team.
14. CARNAGE (2011)
Director: Roman Polanski. Writers: Yasmina Riza, Roman Polanski, based on her play “God of Carnage.” Starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly.
“Carnage,” Roman Polanski’s film version of the Tony Award-winning Broadway play, offers Reilly the kind of character study that he is rarely allowed to portray onscreen. As Michael Longstreet (the role for which James Gandolfini earned a Tony nomination), Reilly shines as a husband married to Penelope (Jodie Foster), whose son Ethan was assaulted in a fight with Zachary, a classmate. Zachary’s parents, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet) meet to smooth things out with the Longstreets. Matters begin civilly, but one passive-aggressive remark after another soon leads a fight between the two sets of parents, who behave even more childishly than their kids. Despite the film’s mixed reviews, the ensemble cast is strong with Reilly a particular standout.
13. TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY (2006)
Director: Adam McKay. Writers: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay. Starring Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Leslie Bibb.
Arguably the best of Reilly’s sidekick roles with Will Ferrell is in this Adam McKay film as Cal Naughton Jr. who races the Old Spice car in the NASCAR-based comedy. Best friends with NASCAR legend Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) since they were 10 year-olds together, Ricky and Cal are an invincible duo until their racing sponsors hire a new driver, openly gay French Formula One driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), whose skill behind the wheel leaves both drivers in the dust. With his fortunes reversed, Ricky suddenly becomes extremely depressed, particularly when his wife Carley (Leslie Bibb) leaves Ricky to take up with Cal. Ricky and Cal’s friendship has all the familiar ups and downs, and Ferrell and Reilly’s longtime chemistry help to make the whole thing work.
12. CYRUS (2010)
Writers/Directors: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass. Starring John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, Matt Walsh.
Mumblecore icons Jay and Mark Duplass wrote and directed this comedy/drama featuring Reilly as John Kilpatrick, whose depression deepens when he learns that his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) is planning to remarry. He is about to hit rock bottom when he meets Molly Fawcett (Marisa Tomei) to whom he becomes instantly attracted. After they spend the night together, John meets Jamie’s 21 year-old slacker son Cyrus (Jonah Hill) whom John thinks has an unhealthy attachment to his mother. John soon realizes just how strong that attachment is when he sees Cyrus, who is jealous of the affection that his mother is showing toward this interloper John and setting out to do whatever he can to break up the loving couple. Reilly fits right into the ensemble with terrific performances from these indie actors.
11. THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018)
Director: Jacques Audiard. Writers: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain. Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rutger Hauer.
French director Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”) made his English-language film debut with this good old American Western. Reilly stars as Eli Sisters who, along with his brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), works as a gun-for-hire for a mysterious businessman, known simply as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer). The Commodore wants scientist Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) dead, as he claims that Warm cheated him, but before the Sisters brothers can get to him, Warm is apprehended by private detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) who partners up with Warm to cash in on the scientist’s formula for finding gold. Reilly is terrific at expressing the world-weariness of Eli, who wants to hang up his guns after this job so that he can quietly open a store. Events, however, get in the way of Eli’s dream.
10. THE HOURS (2002)
Director: Stephen Daldry. Writer: David Hare, from the novel by Michael Cunningham. Starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, John C. Reilly, Ed Harris.
Reilly took a small role in Stephen Daldry’s triptych of a movie based on the Michael Cunningham novel as Dan Brown, who, in 1951, is married to Laura (Julianne Moore), his young wife who is deeply unhappy in their relationship. Anxious to do something positive, Laura joins their son Richie in making a cake for Dan’s birthday, but the cake is a catastrophe. Despondent, Laura kisses a female neighbor on the lips, but her show of affection is rebuffed. At the end of her rope, Laura checks into a hotel with the intention of committing suicide. Reilly creates a believable portrait of a character stuck in an unhappy marriage who feels trapped into living up to the image of a married man that was expected of guys in the 1950s.
9. MAGNOLIA (1999)
Writer/Director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Tom Cruise, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, Jason Robards, William H. Macy.
In one of the many stories that is woven in an Altman-esque style through Paul Thomas Anderson’s narrative, Reilly plays Jim Kurring, a cop who is investigating the discovery of a body in a San Fernando Valley closet. Following a tip that a neighbor, Claudia Gator (Melora Walters) might be involved, Jim asks her about what she knows, unaware that she is a secret cocaine addict. Jim is nonetheless attracted to her, an attraction that remains despite the many challenges that Jim must cope with, including frogs falling from the sky. As a veteran of the stage, Reilly knows his way around ensembles and once again shines in this one.
8. WRECK-IT-RALPH (2012)
Director: Rich Moore. Writers: Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee. Voices: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk.
Reilly had never been a voice artist in an animated feature until he was cast in Rich Moore’s Oscar-nominated animated film. Ralph (Reilly), a video-game character in the “Fix-It Felix Jr.” machine, is tired of being a villain because he is being socially ostracized by the other video characters who take over the arcade after dark. Determined to do something good, he teams up with diminutive race-car character Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) and helps her try to win a race in her game “Candy Rush.” But as the arcade’s reopening time approaches, his absence from “Fix-It Felix Jr.” threatens to make that game inoperable leading to being unplugged. Wreck-It-Ralph has the body of an overgrown lug, but Reilly beings a childlike innocence to him in his voice work, making him one of the most endearing characters in the recent Disney canon. Reilly returned to voice Ralph in this film’s sequel, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” (2018).
7. THE LOBSTER (2016)
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos. Writers: Efthymis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman.
In Yorgos Lanthimos’ black comedy, Reilly portrays Robert, a lisping man who is single and is taken to a government facility where he is told that he has 45 days to find a mate among the other prisoners, but the couple must have a trait in common or else they will be turned into the animal of their choice. Feeling lost, Robert becomes friends with David (Colin Farrell) in the search for a suitable partner, but as none of the women there speak with a lisp, Robert fears that his days as a human being are numbered. In the dystopian universe in which “The Lobster” takes place, it’s a challenge for an actor to find an acting style that fits the setting, but Reilly plays it smartly, speaking in a very neutral tone with a slight hint of desperation in his voice.
6. A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (2006)
Director: Robert Altman. Writer: Garrison Keillor. Starring Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Garrison Keillor, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly.
Just as he would have to do 12 years later in “Stan & Ollie,” Reilly’s job was to be believable in a performing duo, this time as Lefty who, together with his partner Dusty (Woody Harrelson), sing cowboy songs that they have claimed to have learned on the range on Garrison Keillor’s radio show. Their showstopper is “Bad Jokes,” a new song that consists largely of telling off-color jokes in between sung lyrics, which drives their stage manager (Tim Russell) apoplectic and catches the eye of the new owner’s Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) who must decide whether or not to cancel the long-running radio show. Reilly and Harrelson have such a natural rapport with one another, it feels like they have played Lefty and Dusty for years.
5. THE AVIATOR (2004)
Director: Martin Scorsese. Writer: John Logan. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda.
In his second collaboration with Martin Scorsese (after 2002’s “Gangs of New York”), Reilly portrays the real-life Noah Dietrich, right-hand man to tycoon Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), whom Hughes brings on in 1927 as Chief Executive Officer to run the Hughes empire when Howard leaves to realize his dream of directing Jean Harlow in the film “Hell’s Angels.” Reilly puts on his best business face throughout and is particularly effective in the film’s final act when Hughes, in the midst of his downward mental spiral, calls on Dietrich to help him develop a new jetliner for TWA. As part of the ensemble cast of “The Aviator,” Reilly received his fourth nomination for a Screen Actors Guild Ensemble Award.
4. WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY (2007)
Director: Jake Kasdan. Writers: Judd Apatow, Jake Kasdan. Starring John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer, Tim Meadows, Kristen Wiig.
The musical biography is a film genre that’s just begging to be spoofed, and writers Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan leave no clichés untouched in this hilarious satire of deadly serious biopics as “Walk the Line.” In fact, Reilly’s country-music star Dewey Cox has much in common with Johnny Cash — a hardscrabble beginning leading to his big break, then comes fame, fortune, drugs and prison, all the usual staples of the life of a music star, and Reilly embraces each cliché with gusto. For his performance as Dewey, Reilly received his second Golden Globe nomination, and for writing the film’s nominated title song, he earned his third nod. As the song’s composer, Reilly was also nominated for his first Grammy Award.
3. STAN & OLLIE (2018)
Director: Jon S. Baird. Writer: Jeff Pope. Starring Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson.
Reilly earned his fourth Golden Globe nomination for his performance as screen legend Oliver Hardy in Jon S. Baird’s comic biopic. It’s 1953, and the team of Hardy and Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) has been replaced by Abbott & Costello in the public’s taste. Anxious to get funding for a new film, they embark on tour of England, playing to sparsely-attended houses. Oliver has gained more weight in his later years and begins to worry about the toll is taking on his health. Reilly has an enormous job nailing this role — he has to be funny in the stage comedy, heartbreaking in the more dramatic scenes and believable that Coogan’s Stan and he could be a team. And Reilly nails all three.
2. BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)
Writer/Director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Although he had been a film actor for eight years prior, Reilly first came to the attention of audiences and critics alike in this Paul Thomas Anderson’s look at the San Fernando Valley porn biz in the 1970s. Reilly plays porn star Reed Rothschild who befriends newcomer Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), showing him the ropes of the trade, so to speak. Reilly brings a kind of innocent sweetness to his porn star, as he shares with his new friend his dream of becoming a big music star, and they both leave the porn business to realize that dream in the legit world. As part of the “Boogie Nights” ensemble, Reilly earned his first nomination for a Screen Actors Guild Award.
1. CHICAGO (2002)
Director: Rob Marshall. Writer: Bill Condon. Starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah, Taye Diggs.
Reilly earned his first Oscar nomination for his performance as Amos Hart, the devoted but put-upon husband of scheming murderess Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) in Rob Marshall’s film version of the hit musical, which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2002. Reilly delivers one of the musical’s famous songs, “Mr. Cellophane” in which he is a man whom people “can see right through me, walk right by me and never know I’m there.” It’s a performance that’s both thrilling and heartbreaking. In addition to his Oscar nomination, Reilly won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Ensemble Cast, as well as receiving his first Golden Globe nomination.