If only John C. Reilly were my high school guidance counselor. Well, I don’t know how far I would have gotten in life, but at least I would have had a daily supply of malt balls.
In Terri, Reilly stars as Mr. Fitzgerald, the school vice principal who takes Terri (Jacob Wysocki) under his wing. Terri’s got no friends and spends his free time killing mice in his attic, eating beans on toast and taking care of his ailing uncle. When Terri’s sent to Mr. Fitzgerald’s office for his tardiness, rather than receive a punishment, Terri finally makes a friend, Mr. Fitzgerald himself.
While Mr. Fitzgerald’s intentions are noble, he’s got a handful of issues of his own to deal with, but the duo’s unusual and, at times, unstable relationship is part of what makes Terri so unique. In honor of the film’s July 1st release, Reilly and Wysocki sat down for a roundtable interview to discuss the details of the film, Dungeons and Dragons, The Pajama Game, guacamole and more. Check out all of the antics and some genuinely insightful thoughts on Terri in the interview below.
What kind of student were you in high school?
John C. Reilly: I was a solid C+ student.
Did you have any teachers that influenced you in a big way?
Reilly: Yeah, I had a whole bunch of different mentors along the way. I was kind of a play nerd. I also was a founding member of the Dungeons and Dragons club in my high school, which I say with a wince because it’s a little embarrassing. Not really. I’m not embarrassed by that. I was in chorus and swing choir and I did a lot of musicals at my own high school, which was a boy’s catholic high school and I also would travel around to the different girl’s catholic high schools and stud myself out. [Laughs] Between all those plays, I don’t know how I got anything done at school, honestly. I remember the night before I took the SATs was the cast party for the Pajama Game [laughs], and I stayed up really late and the whole time at the party I’m like, ‘I’ve gotta take the SAT tomorrow! I should really probably go.’ And it was just so much fun, I don’t know, dancing to The B-52s. Let’s all take a stroll down memory lane! [Laughs]
Jacob Wysocki: We did Pajama Game at my school.
What were your respective parts in The Pajama Game?
Wysocki: I was not in The Pajama Game when it was at my school, but we did it.
Reilly: I didn’t say Pajama Game because you wear pajamas in the movie, by the way. [Laughs]
That’s what I was segueing into.
Reilly: Ah! I caught ya! [Laughs]
They’re so stylish I was wondering, did you have any say in what particular threads you were wearing?
Wysocki: The only influence I had with the wardrobe is when I auditioned, I wore this shirt that had a monkey on it, and it was, like, posing, and they really liked the shirt and so they contacted the company that made those shirts and in the movie I’m wearing this brontosaurus shirt when I’m going to bed and I think that’s the only influence I had. But as far as the pajamas go, nothing. I just brought that idea of animal shirts.
How was it wearing your pajamas all day? That’s kind of my dream come true!
Wysocki: You know, it was a lot hotter than you’d expect because they’re vintage so they’re like this weird like blend of fabrics, so they really kept heat in, which is like the point of pajamas, to insolate. So I was kind of hot and I sweat on my face a lot, so there’s a lot of being fanned by the wardrobe ladies and always having to be patted down.
Why do you think he was always wearing them?
Wysocki: It’s comfortable. It fits him. It’s elastic.
Reilly: From a literary point of view; like what Patrick DeWitt was thinking when he wrote that, it’s kind of like a physical manifestation of that dream where you go to school without your pants on, you know? That anxiety thing. And then also I think, if you were really being picked on for your appearance, it kind of makes sense to wear the same thing everyday, so, ‘If you’re gonna pick on me, I’m not going to give you anything new to pick on.’
It also seemed like he gave up a little bit.
Wysocki: I don’t know if it’s like, this is it, but I think it’s like, this is good enough; I can accept myself in this and I guess everybody else will have to.
John, since your character in the movie was kind of a leader, did you find that spilling over off camera, especially working with some new actors?
Reilly: I find that when you’re dealing with younger people, if you start acting like the leader or the expert or the elder statesman, ‘well, let me tell you how this is…,’ that’s a great way to alienate young people and make them hate you. I felt more like a peer. We’re all actors in the movie. Even though I’m older than these guys and have more experience than them, we still have to make this scene come to life, so we’re all in it together in that way. I enjoyed getting to know these guys and it’s fun to be around younger people. I’ve been on movies with old people, with creaky bones that complain about the catering all day; it’s kind of boring after a while. [Laughs] It’s much more fun to see someone who’s just totally psyched to be making a movie, you know?
They say it’s a dramedy, drama and comedy, but a lot of the laughs come from the spaces in between, so do you just play it straight and hope the laughs come out of that?
Reilly: Well, some of the funniest stuff that I remember from high school would just not seem funny in the moment, you know? I wasn’t even playing it for a laugh or whatever, but this moment when I say, ‘Do you want a malt ball?’ and we sit there, we each take a malt ball and we sit there and chew it and just staring at each other, it’s like it ends up being kind of funny in the movie, but in the moment, I was just chewing until I could talk without spitting food out of my mouth and it takes a certain amount of time. It’s just those weird little odd interactions that you remember from high school when you were first interacting with adults in an intense way that aren’t your parents or that aren’t your relatives. Yeah, but I think one of the cool things about this movie is that even though there are laughs in it, it’s never mean and it’s not at the expense of the characters; it’s more laughter of like, recognition of how strange life can be or how true some of these interactions are between the characters.
For a lead you have so few spoken lines. Does that make it more difficult for you to convey Terri’s emotions?
Wysocki: For me, I think it’s easier to not talk because I get in my head about like, am I saying this word weird, are they receiving this correctly? But when I can show it on my body or on my face, I think it’s just like – because when you think about it, when you go through a normal day, you don’t say that much. There’s a lot of walking …
Reilly: Unless you’re at a press junket. [Laughs]
Wysocki: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. You talk your butts off.
Reilly: You say so much your voice starts to get hoarse.
Wysocki: So, I mean, like in your day-to-day life, you’re like in the car driving and you’re listening to the radio and you go home and you make your dinner and you’re not talking to yourself, so I think it’s just, if you look at it, not everybody’s always talking.
Can you tell us about the scene when you’re drinking with your friends? It’s this great protracted scene and Terri’s a bit of a train wreck. You know something’s going to go wrong any second here. Can you tell me about how you ended up there? Was there a lot of rehearsal involved?
Wysocki: That scene was saved towards most of the end of filming because we filmed in order pretty much, but we just allotted ourselves a lot of time to do it. We shot it in two days.
Just that one scene?
Wysocki: That one scene and I think that was the only time that we took a big scene and chunked it into two days. So I think it was just really about taking the time to get to where we needed to be and, you know, starting fresh and sober and slowly getting into it and figuring out how we’re being affected by what we’re doing with the drinking and just being in this environment for the first time.
How much time did you have in general to shoot your scenes? Are you under the pressure of only getting a few takes?
Wysocki: I think my nickname turned out to be like eight-take Jake or something like that. [Laughs]
Wysocki: Towards the beginning I remember – we had as much time – I did not feel rushed at all.
Reilly: It was a tight shoot though. It was only, I think, 28 shooting days all together, not including weekends.
John, how was it working with your wife (producer Alison Dickey) on this film? Do you have any advice for actors who work with their spouses?
Reilly: Get divorced before you start shooting. I find it really nice to work with people that I know on films because you just skip all the weird, awkward, getting-to-know you part, you know? I’m surprised so many people have asked me about that today. Almost every male reporter has asked me about it and they usually say, ‘So, you’re working with your wife on this one. Was that a nightmare?’ [Laughs] I think you’re talking about your marriage, not mine.
It was great. It was actually great. It just made things a lot simpler in terms of any questions I might have for the production, she was right there. That said, she wasn’t hovering over the set the entire time. There were a number of producers on the film and there were lots of stuff that everyone had to do, so it’s not like we were locked in a room for four weeks together. That was at home.
When you’re a kid in school, seeing a teacher on the outside is almost like an alien occurrence because you feel like they don’t really have lives beyond school. How did it feel to get to explore a bit of Mr. Fitzgerald’s home life?
Reilly: Well that was one of the most interesting things to me about the whole relationship in the film. It’s a little bit of this risky thing. I went out a couple times with teachers in high school and there’s this official capacity that they’re in, even though they’re out in the world. I went shopping for art supplies one time with a brother that taught art class at my school and it was really fun, actually. And I think we captured some of that spirit when they go out to the diner together. It’s like, ‘I can’t believe I’m sitting in the diner with my guidance character! This is so weird! You’re a human being!’ I think the movie really successfully captures that off feeling of seeing a teacher out of context. It’s liking seeing a superhero without their mask on. Somehow they seem smaller or just more flawed. I think it’s one of the cool things about the film that you see that moment of honesty that ends up happening between them, where the teacher basically admits, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. The world is really messed up and good luck to you, kid, but I hope you make it – I hope I make it.’ It takes a certain amount of vulnerability on both of their parts to have that breakthrough moment and I think it’s one of the things that makes the movie really original.
Where do you see Terri 20 years from now?
Reilly: He’s a guidance counselor at the high school.
Wysocki: Probably. That’s a tough one. I mean, I doubt he’d be wearing his pajamas. He’s probably well off and married to someone super famous. Has like seventeen show ponies. I don’t know, it’s so hard to say. [Laughs]
Wysocki: Yeah, just like a bunch of show ponies and he just tethers them around.
What’s next for each of you?
Wysocki: I’m going to be doing a feature in Seattle directed by Matthew Lillard, coming up in July. It’s called Fat Kid Rules the World. Really excited. It’s gonna be cool.
Reilly: I got a bunch of movies coming out; I’m just selling them now. There’s Terri and then I have this other movie, We Need To Talk About Kevin, with Tilda Swinton that we just premiered at Cannes. It’s a great, very intense dramatic movie. And then I just finished a movie with Roman Polanski called Carnage that’s based on the play God of Carnage. That comes out in the Fall, I think. And I’m in Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, which I don’t know when that’s going to be done, but I’m looking forward to seeing that. Another absurd adventure for the boys. Did I miss anything?
Wysocki: No, that’s it. I feel like I could answer. [Laughs]
Any updates on the future of Step Brothers 2?
Reilly: Yeah, we met a couple times and started thinking about ideas. The studio wants to do it. If we can come up with a good script – that’s a tall order, though. It’s a pretty beloved movie, so we don’t want to screw it up. If it’s worth doing, then we’ll do it.
What happened with The Hunger Games? Woody Harrelson is a great pick, but when word got out that you were up for the role, it seemed like a perfect match.
Reilly: That was a total fake story is what happened! Some person in New York decided, I don’t know, maybe saw my name on a list somewhere or something, but all of a sudden I had to field these questions about a job I wasn’t doing, didn’t get. It was like, ‘Wow, I get the worst of both worlds. I’m not in the movie and I have to answer why I’m not in it.’
What movie have you done that’s gotten the strongest fan feedback?
Reilly: Depends what kind of movies you like, but a lot of people lately talk about Step Brothers because it’s just become this cult – even though it was a big hit movie, it has some weird cult status among people. It’s really grown exponentially on video.
Do you enjoy being at the center of a cult universe like that? People must come up to you and talk about it all the time.
Reilly: It can be great and it can be weird. I remember, I was standing in the airport with my family and I was standing there at this kiosk where water bottles and stuff were, and this girl slowly walks up next to me and I slowly become aware that she’s getting closer and she goes, [whispering] ‘Do you like guacamole?’ What? [Laughs] It was so off-putting. ‘What? No, I mean, yeah, I do,’ and she’s like, ‘No, from the movie.’ I was like, ‘Oh, oh, right. Yeah, you got me!’ It’s just sometimes it’s weird. Or when some dude, like, ‘Boats and hoes!’ Someone will scream boats and hoes. I was like, I don’t think you get the joke in the way we meant it.
By Perri Nemiroff