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rare female film critic | by maryann johanson

John C. Reilly does Cox

Why aren’t you people going to see Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story? Man, it’s a riot, and I hate to see it not doing so well at the box office. So do me a favor: instead of going to see One Missed Call this weekend, get yourself some Cox instead.

I and a small group of other entertainment journos spoke to John C. Reilly about Walk Hard recently. Here’s what he shared with us about his experience making the film:
So did you listen to every Dewey Cox record before you started work on this film?
I did. I did exhaustive Dewey Cox research. I met with his family and his estate, went through his archives. Yeah. I got to wear some of his clothes in the movie. That diaper, that sumo diaper, is actually his. It fit perfectly, believe it or not.

Did he see the movie before he died?
He was on the set. He caused a lot of trouble on the set. He’s not the easiest guy to get along with.

Did he give you any pointers?
He just said, “Tell it like it is, kid,” and then he said, “What’s your name again?” “It’s John Reilly, I’m playing you.” He said, “Okay, well you’re not as good looking as me, but good luck to you.”

Did he tell you to walk hard?
Yeah, he said that over and over.We got sick of hearing that by the time he passed away. Like, All right dude, we get it. We heard the song, we get it.

How involved were you in writing the songs?
I did a little bit of writing on almost every song. I’m not credited on every song, but we rejiggered the lyrics a little bit to make them funnier, or changed the wording of something to make it sound more like the character was saying it. Then there were many different ways that I collaborated with the songwriters. Sometimes I would just pitch them an idea.

I remember driving to work one day thinking, “Oh man, it’d be great if he got into the women’s liberation movement, you know, the feminist thing, but his thing was that all he wanted was for women to take their bras off. That’s the most important thing to him, the bra burning part.” So I thought, “What would it be called? ‘Ladies First.’” So I pitched it to them. Then they would go away to a hotel room for a couple hours and write a song and come back and we’d record later that day.

What is about Judd Apatow that fits in with your sensibility?
I think the secret to Judd’s success and the reason that, you know, actors as well as audiences really like him is that he’s so honest. Just saying, “I don’t care if it’s a taboo subject, I don’t care if it makes me look stupid or it’s embarrassing to me personally, to my personal life, if I admit to thinking a certain way about certain things.” He tells the truth, and he tells it in a really frank way. And he lets the actors improvise in a way that’s just totally truthful because its coming off the top of their heads. Today, with the media being so carefully controlled and vetted by lawyers and designed not to offend, it turns out that being honest is a really radical thing to do. And people really responded to it. That’s why I like Judd.

He’s a great collaborator too. He’s very similar to Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, in that you’re just standing around pitching gags to each other, coming up with funny ideas for a scene. It’s not like, “Oh, it’s Judd’s idea so we have to do it.” It’s whatever makes everybody laugh. The best joke wins. It doesn’t matter who said it.

Male nudity is so shocking in this movie, because we usually never see it. How did that come about?
I think Jake actually took credit for that idea. Jake claims he saw some biopic about the Rolling Stones where some guy was standing there with like nothing on for like a half hour doing a whole scene or something in the movie. And he just thought that was so funny, how this nudity had just become so gratuitous. And it wasn’t sexualized in any way, it was just there. He decided to add it to the movie. Judd immediately loved the idea too. I don’t think it’s such a big idea. It’s funny that it’s scandalizing people so much. Women have been baring it all for how long in movies, in sexual and in non-sexual ways. Julianne Moore did a whole scene in Short Cuts where she has no pants on. I guess it made kind of a stir when they did that. But at the end of the day, look, it’s just a human body. The joke of that scene is not that the guy is naked, but that I have no reaction. That I’ve become so debauched after one night of smoking marijuana that I immediately get into a whole orgy-type situation. To me that’s just normal. Pretending to my wife that I’m just the same old Dewey when in fact I’ve become this caricature of a hedonist.

Speaking of baring it all, you spent a lot of time doing some nudity in the film. Was that something that was new for you?
Oh yeah. I’d barely kissed anybody in a movie before. There were lots of moments that were like personal boundary moments for me. But here’s the thing, with comedy — and I learned this from Will Ferrell — you can’t be ashamed. If you’re doing comedy you have to fully commit to the joke. Shame is not part of it. If you act shy or uncomfortable about your body, that makes the audience shy and uncomfortable. And in a comedy you just want them to loosen up and laugh. I really learned that from Will, to just be brave and damn the torpedoes, and if you’ve gotta be in your underwear, so be it. If it’s funny, then you should do it. If it works for the gag, then who cares what your body look like or whether people think you’re sexy looking or not. That’s not the point in a comedy.

How did Jake get everyone on the same page, to end up with such a consistently styled film?
To be honest, a lot of the feel of this movie was decided during the recording process, in the six months leading up to it. Every time we made a decision about what a song should sound like, and the music it should emulate, or what my character as a songwriter was saying in a given period in his life, we were making decisions about what the movie would be. It’s funny that you ask about the consistency, because at first, when we first started putting the movie together, the consistency was actually hurting us a little bit, I think. We were so concerned with having the movie look like a real biopic, and not stepping out or doing anything that was anachronistic to the time period, or having anything that looked wrong for the time period. We wanted it to be like a virtual biopic experience when you see the movie, with the cinematography and the costumes, the music, everything. We realized when showing the movie to audiences, trying to make the movie the comedy that it needed to be, that those moments when I turned to someone and said, “What the fuck did he just say?”, when we break away from the consistency, is what really gets people energized. The audience, when they’re lulled into the sense that they’re watching a Ray or a Walk the Line and then all of a sudden someone’s in a sumo diaper, cawing like a dinosaur. It was those moments when we deliberately break the consistency of the movie that give it its freshness and surprise and originality.

That was the ridiculous exercise of this movie, and why I think my entire career has been leading up to me being able to play this part. Just because I’m speaking Yiddish in a scene doesn’t mean I’m not really pleading for my freedom in jail. Here I am sitting across from one of the icons of comedy, somebody who I have revered my whole life — Harold Ramis — and I’ve got to speak Yiddish to him and beg him to get me out of prison. And things like dealing with someone who’s been cut in half in the movie, and they can still talk to me. There were many moments in the movie where I had to say, “Okay, these circumstances in the movie, they’re beyond absurd. Like some of these things I’m even saying, the words I’m even saying are ridiculous.” But the only way I know how to do it is to do it as real as possible. I don’t know how to be like a Bill Murray or a Will Ferrell, these guys who know how to make a line funny just by, I don’t know, some extrasensory perception. I only know character and emotion and real acting; that’s all I know how to do. I would say that to Jake, like, “I hope this is funny, because I’m just going to commit to it as fully as I can.” He’s like, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. The more honest you are and the more you commit to it, the funnier it is. It’s not like we’re winking at all this stuff. You allow us to experience what this guy is going through, because it seems like you’re really going through it.” So, if I have any rules about comedy, that’s it. Decide what the character believes and stick to your guns.

Were you thinking about guys like Johnny Cash and Elvis in your head, and who were some of your favorites?
A lot of the people we reference in the film are my musical influences, from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash to Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Don McLean, Brian Wilson. I’m a fan of every single kind of music that we reference in this movie. Yeah, we were definitely thinking of the musical styles of these people as we were going through the time periods. They were the emblematic people of these different time periods. We weren’t deliberately trying to, you know, poke Johnny Cash in the eye or something. We weren’t trying to make fun of musicians’ actual lives. What we were trying to do was make fun of the way that ordinary, or sometimes extraordinary people are mythologized by movies and by audiences and this whole kind of cycle of mythmaking that happens. Especially with musicians, more so than with actors. With actors, at the end of the day people are like, “Well, he’s an actor. That’s not who he really is.” But musicians, they really expect Johnny Cash to be the Man in Black, or Elvis to be the King. I’ll say this: Even though we were really going out of our way to sound–we were going out of our way to evoke the music of these people, I was not trying to do an impression of Johnny Cash or Elvis or Buddy Holly or Bob Dylan. In Dewey’s mind, he’s the fountainhead of all of them. Dewey thinks he was Elvis before Elvis was Elvis. Dewey thinks he was Dylan before Dylan was Dylan. From his point of view, it’s all about him.

Do you like doing comedies more than dramas now?
I like working. I wish I could say I made a deliberate choice to comedy, but it’s just what came my way. It’s what the studios wanted to make. Some of my friends were doing it, like Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, and they offered me Talladega Nights. It’s just nice work if you can get it. It’s a joyful day at work, making your friends laugh. I look forward to a lot of different things in my life. I hope it lasts a while, and I hope I keep working. If people want to see me in comedies, that’s fine with me.

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