I got a chance to sit down for a round table discussion with Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly, two of the stars of Cyrus, which premiered at the 2010 SXSW festival. Hill plays Cyrus, a 21 year old living with his mother (Catherine Keener) who develops an antagonistic and competitive relationship with his mom’s boyfriend played by Reilly.
So do you think the John C. Reilly era of a romantic lead in a comedy is finally here?
John C. Reilly: I hope so. I’m a very romantic type person. I like doing parts like this, and I think that there are a lot of people out there who are not represented in movies, whose stories don’t get told.
You know what I’m talking about (to a male journalist.) Neither of us look like Brad Pitt, let’s not fool ourselves.
Your characters had some similarities and some differences, you both have a co-dependence thing, did that come into play when you preparing as far as how your characters related to each other?
JCR: We didn’t really talk openly, we didn’t really rehearse, and we didn’t really do too much analytical talking about…what to do.
Jonah Hill: We didn’t intertwine. I think Mark and Jay purposely kept it and we purposely kept it kind of separate, because it felt more interesting to not know what John was thinking about going into a scene, and him not knowing what I was thinking about going into the scene or the movie in general.
It was better to be surprised, better to have your own thing going on. These three people don’t know what is going on with each other, or no one knows what is going on with Cyrus, specifically. He’s putting up a front to each person that’s different from what he is doing or going through.
JCR: And Mark and Jay would sometimes discuss things with everyone there, and other times they would talk to us alone and give us conflicting information so that it would create dynamics.
What about the shoe thing where you hide his shoes during the film? I found it intriguing that a grown man would leave a house without his shoes, knowing he wore them to the house.
JCR: It’s such an effective psychological warfare tactic.
JH: I remember the first time I read the script, without knowing that my character had hidden the shoes yet, I knew immediately where the character was going , and that was the moment I figured out how to play the character, even not knowing really until later that he had hid the shoes.
I remember going, “Oh man, he has 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, his best and possibly only friend.”
You have a character that’s dark and actually trying to destroy something, you’ve done edgy comedies before, but opposed to having a protagonist who’s trying to achieve something, does that open up new doors in comedy for you?
JH: I didn’t really approach this film like a comedy. I definitely approached it more as I don’t want to say drama, but just as strictly real life, all the time never once thinking I’ve got a riff, a joke in this pocket, or this scene’s not funny enough. Never once was I like, this would be a great script to mine for comedy.
This is a great script just to 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 being beautiful to me while reading this script.
What about the keyboard scene? Do you play for real?
JH: I do play, the new age type musician guy was something Mark and Jay had an idea of from the beginning, and I was down with it 100%, except that my big thing was that I don’t want the music to feel jokey.
I never want it to feel like you hear about his music for the first time and it’s some big cartoonish joke. The joke is how uncomfortable it is to play your music for a stranger and looking him in the eyes the whole time as an intimidation tactic.
The Duplass brothers do a lot of improvising in their movies, how far away did you stray from the script?
JCR: Dialogue wise we never really did the script, there’s a few places where we did what was written, but for the most part I thought that was a really ego-less way to direct a movie, especially since they wrote it.
JH: And it was a really good script. It was a great script, one of the best I’ve ever read.
JCR: They’d say, you know what needs to happen here, you don’t have to say this, just say it as honestly as you can to each other, which was a lot of fun, very empowering, but also a big responsibility.
You both have a lot of improv experience. Was that more freeing for you to work in this more naturalistic way, or was it harder?
JCR: Well, I came up doing improv in acting school, in Chicago. At the time I was coming up there were people doing Second City and Upright Citizen’s Brigade-sketch based comedy improv stuff, and I was using similar techniques, but in acting school. Our method was based on this book written by Viola Spolin, which was improvisation as a way to become a better actor, but also to not be a slave to the joke, not chasing the punchline, but as a way to make things real.
I took to it right away when I was in acting school, then when I got out to do movies I always improvised a little bit here and there in dramatic movies. Then I started working with Adam McKay and Judd Apatow and those guys, and I thought “Oh wow, I really get to improvise here.” But I always wanted to improvise without having to worry if the scene was going to be funny at the end of the day.
Let’s just try to be honest. Then this movie came up and it was the perfect holy grail moment.
JH: I loved doing this movie. I’m very proud of it.