Freak or no freak, John C. Reilly is an actor with character

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The sight, strolling into the Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant corner of Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights, was enough to give John C. Reilly a start.

"It is SO weird walking into this place and seeing someone dressed as Crepsley, my character in the movie," he says. "I mean, I thought I got that job."

He did. But only for the movie. Reilly was in town to plug the film and to rally the Horror Nights troops so that they might help Cirque du Freak open to big crowds next Oct. 23.

The actor often described as "one of the leading character actors of his generation" (The Guardian newspaper), a performer often compared to the likes of Gene Hackman and Karl Malden is also "a real character, which you may not realize," says his sometime co-star Woody Harrelson. "He shows up on set for A Prairie Home Companion and doesn't tell anybody that he's brought a fart machine with him. We find out on the first take, which they ended up using in the film. That's John."

That side of Reilly, 44, shows during an interview at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal. Fans come up, interrupt and beg for pictures. Some 50 films into his career, he is recognized, though not by everyone. A woman sitting near us hisses "Who IS he?" No, she never saw Chicago, The Hours, Talladega Nights, Boogie Nights or Step Brothers. Ten minutes later, she has pulled out her camera and said "I don't know who the hell you are, but my daughter does. She's been through a divorce and a fire this year. Can I get a picture?"

"John Reilly," he says, shaking hands. And when she repeats the "don't know who you are," using even stronger language, he laughs, rolls his eyes and poses for a picture, waiting for her to throw "divorce and fire" at him again, when he cracks "Well, good luck with both of those."

Twenty years into his career, Reilly doesn't mind being recognized, or not being recognized. As distinct as his appearance might be, he loves disappearing into roles and mixing up the sorts of parts he plays.

"The key to being allowed to do anything is to keep changing so you don't get defined as one thing," he says. "After I started doing comedies, I got lots of offers to do comedies. But that's the time to go out and try to do something different."

That's why he zeroed in on Cirque du Freak. He plays a 200-year-old vampire, part of a traveling "freak show," who takes on a teenage assistant (Chris Massoglia).

"I like thinking about and trying to play what it would do to your state of mind to have lived through everything that Crepsley has lived through — wars and technology and discovery. Would that make you a wise person, or would it make you a cynic?"

He thought of his best friend, a much older man.

"How much of 'the new' would you take on and how much would you keep as a part of yourself from a much earlier time? You think about the older people you know, by your 80s and 90s. You get set in your ways. You know what you like to do, what you like to eat, what you're comfortable wearing. That's what Crepsley's done — found what works for him."

Reilly loves "subverting expectations," but in casting him as the seen-it-all vampire, producers ensured this blood-sucker would have a lighter touch. Sure, he has played villains and serious characters. But being a dad, he recognized the niche Darren Shan's books (the basis for the movie) were going for.

"It doesn't have the romantic angle, it isn't as serious as the Twilight movies," he says. "It's not that Twilight allegory for budding teen-girl sexuality and romance. This movie is the boy's version of that. It's not about romance. It's about becoming a man, puberty and adolescence changing you. The books are very thinly veiled examinations of the issues young guys are going through — the metamorphosis of your body, relationships with parents, friends and girls."

Now that he has added vampire to his resume, Reilly (who is signed to do sequels, should The Vampire's Assistant hit), it's on to more character roles — comic and dark, damaged and mean.

"When I was a teenager, I worried, 'What should I be? I should pick a career.' At some point, in college, I figured out that the only people who get to try their hand at everything — cops, crooks, singers, race car drivers, vampires — are actors.

"You spend six months doing the most exciting parts of whatever occupation it is you're playing. And then you move on. I turned the fun part of my life into my work."

And if not everybody recognizes him?

"That just means I'm doing my job."

Roger Moore can be reached at rmoore@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5369.

Coming FridayRead Roger Moore's review of Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant Friday in Calendar, or get a sneak peek Wednesday at noon at OrlandoSentinel.com/movies

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