Always the odd man in

Special to The Times

From the time John C. Reilly was 8 years old, he was the official song and dance man in his family. Thanks to the musicals staged by a local theater club in a nearby park's fieldhouse, young John could be found regularly belting out standards from "Hello, Dolly!" and "Peter Pan."

Was he regarded as his block's very own budding Gene Kelly? "I was more like this weird oddity," says Reilly, who grew up the fifth of six children in the tough Irish district of Chicago's Marquette Park. "It wasn't like, 'Hey! It's the great actor kid!' They were just kind of amused by me. It was like, 'We probably should be picking on you but you have two huge older brothers, so we're not going to.' I definitely related to 'Billy Elliot.' It wasn't exactly a neighborhood for an aesthete."

As it turned out, though, 37-year-old Reilly has achieved acclaim in his film career not for his hoofing and warbling abilities, but by bringing humanity to a series of awkward Everymen. Whether he's playing a depressed store clerk's reefer-loving housepainter husband in the darkly comic indie hit "The Good Girl" or a doomed Gloucester fisherman in "The Perfect Storm," Reilly always seems perfectly suited for the part. Although other characters usually have more dialogue or screen time, Reilly's support performances are memorable because they're so naturalistic.

"You forget he's acting," says director Rob Marshall, who cast Reilly in the film version of the Broadway musical "Chicago" and provided him with his first real opportunity to show off his pure Irish tenor on screen. "When you think about all the great actors that fit into his world -- Karl Malden, Gene Hackman or Ernest Borgnine -- they make it seem so effortless."

In "Chicago," Reilly's Amos is a mournful garage mechanic coldly exploited by his fame-hungry murderess wife (Renee Zellweger) and her slippery lawyer (Richard Gere). About halfway through "Chicago," Reilly shows up attired in a roomy clown suit and greasepaint and shuffles unhappily through a tune called "Mister Cellophane," about the pain of being treated as if you don't exist. Since the film was released in December, critics and audiences have singled out "Mister Cellophane" as a genuinely touching scene in a film brimming with flashing lights, high kicks and lots of razzmatazz. The reaction, says Marshall, has something to do with Amos being the lone innocent in a world of brazen connivers. But it's also because audiences don't expect the 6-foot-1 curly-haired guy with the high, permanently furrowed forehead and the slow, heartfelt delivery to be the one who gets a spotlight solo.

"When you think of musical theater actors, you think of them having a glossy sort of sheen. But John doesn't have that gloss; he's gritty, real. That's why the character touches you," says Marshall, who decided Reilly was right for the role after viewing his "audition" -- a homemade videotape of the actor in a bow tie and suit jacket performing various interpretations of the song. "He sang it all the way through, then, because he's such a perfectionist, he said, 'Or I could go this way ...' and then sang it all over again."

He's on a hot streak

Last Sunday, at the Golden Globes, Joan Rivers might have called him "James C. Reilly" during their red carpet interview, but at least she acknowledged that besides being a best supporting actor nominee for "Chicago" (the prize went to "Adaptation's" Chris Cooper) Reilly is experiencing a hot streak. Along with "Chicago," he appears in two other Oscar hopefuls released during Christmas -- in "Gangs of New York" he plays Happy Jack, a corrupt cop, and in "The Hours" he has a brief bit as a World War II veteran too upbeat to notice that his dutiful homemaker wife (Julianne Moore) is suicidally depressed. How did he score this actor's equivalent of a hat trick? "I had nothing to do with it," Reilly says. "It just worked out that way."

During part of the interview, while he was facing a window sitting in a red tuck-and-roll leather booth at a Hollywood Hills restaurant near his home in Los Feliz, pedestrians on the street would walk past, then, seconds later, comically reappear, checking to see if the man working on an iced tea and a fried chicken salad lunch was, indeed, the guy they saw Saturday night at the multiplex. "Look, it's going to happen again," he says expectantly as a woman passes by. Suddenly, it was as if the sidewalk had emptied. "Hmmm. Not coming back," he wisecracks after several uncomfortable minutes of silent waiting. He adds, mock-pitifully, "The story of my life.... "

It was a perfectly timed funny-sad moment. If Reilly's mother had been in the booth she would have reminded her son of her long-standing professional advice. "She's always calling to say, 'John! You're funny! Why don't you do comedy? Like that movie, 'Big' -- you should have done that movie,' " says Reilly, whose mom has seen all 29 of his films as well as every one of his numerous stage performances, including his Tony-nominated role in a Broadway production of Sam Shepherd's "True West." "And I'll be like, 'Darn, Mom! Didn't think of that! I just let Tom Hanks take one of my roles again.' "

Reilly's come a long way since 1989, when he flew 17 hours to get to the Thailand location to make his screen debut in Brian De Palma's Vietnam drama "Casualties of War," starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn. At the time, he'd never left the Midwest or traveled in an airplane. But during that film's rigorous rehearsal phase, the 22-year-old Reilly's naivete worked in his favor. When De Palma found himself without actors to read for as-yet-uncast fringe characters, the director relied on Reilly to fill in. "Like, he'd say, 'John Reilly! You're the 80-year-old Vietnamese man.' "

"OK, focus, man," Reilly would tell himself and solemnly try to access what he learned during his tenure at Chicago's respected theater school at DePaul University. Then, to the amusement of the more seasoned ensemble, he'd give his best rendition of a shrieking elderly villager. "I wasn't trying to be funny, but Sean would be sitting there just cracking up. I think they were tickled that I was so committed."

When shooting finally commenced, De Palma promoted his utility player from a bit part to fourth lead as an American soldier who helps kidnap and rape a peasant girl. "I felt like my life was just exploding into a million fragments," says Reilly, who'd also begun hanging out with Penn's assistant, Alison Dickey, who would later become his wife and the mother of his two children. "It was one of those heady times of life. My life just changed gears so rapidly."

P.T. Anderson favorite

Some things stayed the same, though. Martin Scorsese recalls how on the set of "Gangs of New York," he couldn't persuade an overly polite Reilly to address him informally. "I'd say, 'John, it's all right. Call me Marty,' " says the director. "Everyone else was yelling at me, 'Hey, you! Get over here!' and here was John calling me Mr. Scorsese."

Scorsese says he got the idea for putting Reilly in the epic "Gangs" during one of his cineaste binges watching all of director Paul Thomas Anderson's movies on DVD. It was Anderson, who met Reilly in 1995 at a Sundance filmmakers' lab, who featured Reilly in 1997's "Hard Eight" and "Boogie Nights" and in 1999's "Magnolia."

It's hard to decide which of Anderson's films contains the best example of Reilly getting unexpected laughs. In "Hard Eight," when an older man offers his insolvent loser character a ride, Reilly warns him against making sexual advances with, "I know three types of karate: jujitsu, aikido and regular karate."

"Boogie Nights," on the other hand, has Reilly's second-tier porn star dancing a little too emphatically in a sound studio and soaking in a hot tub scene while thoughtfully reciting his own dreadful poetry. "John Reilly is a king," says Anderson, who incorporates Reilly's off-screen riffs into his scripts and often encourages him to improvise. "He's the funniest man I know, by leaps and bounds."

Last November, Reilly could be found singing in the starring role as a lonesome butcher in a Boston workshop of Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty." Although reaction to the production was decidedly mixed, the critics found Reilly "charming" and "consistently lovable." They did not, however, equate his lumpen-prole part with his expressive character-actor face. Reilly's compiled a mental thesaurus, in fact, of euphemisms for his appearance.

"I could give you a whole list of adjectives. I've heard 'working-class hero' and 'a mug that only a mother could love,' " Reilly says, adding that there's one descriptor that inflames his wife. "She gets really angry about 'his pugnacious looks.' She's like, 'You're really sexy! I married you! You're handsome! Why do they even say that?' "

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