In Disney’s fun and entertaining animated adventure, “Wreck-It Ralph,” which opens in theaters on November 2nd, acclaimed actor John C. Reilly provides the voice of Ralph, the bad guy in an old 1980s arcade game who’s been overshadowed for decades by Fix-It Felix Jr., the good-guy star of their game who always gets to save the day. Tired of playing the role of a bad guy, Ralph takes matters into his own massive hands and sets off on a journey across the arcade through multiple generations of video games to prove he’s got what it takes to be a hero.
At the film’s press day, Reilly talked about the collaborative process of making “Wreck-It Ralph,” why he’s excited to play the lead character in a Disney movie, and why he feels people of all ages will respond to the film. He discussed what it was like becoming the character and seeing the character become him, the challenges of setting the right tone for Ralph, working with director Rich Moore, and performing opposite actress Sarah Silverman. He also revealed his favorite movies growing up, the enduring impact of “Walk Hard,” and how the hero’s journey of Dewey Cox compares to that of Ralph.
Question: What came first? Was it the sketch or did you already have a voice down when they pitched you this idea?
John C. Reilly: No. I was surprised to learn the way these animation movies work a lot of times is it’s really fluid in the beginning. So I came in and Rich (director Rich Moore) had the idea. There was a script that was slightly different from what the story ended up being and actually was pretty different. And then, the animators make all these crazy sketches like stream of consciousness. At one point, I was like a monster with a single horn coming out of my head with orange skin. It just had to be a bad guy in a video game. At one point, it was that same horned monster with my hair photo-shopped on top of it. I’m like, oh, that looks weird. But the process of making the movie was really collaborative. Rich brought me in a lot of times for story meetings which is unheard of for an actor. It was sort of a process of me becoming the character and the character becoming me. More and more of my own expressions seeped into the character, and then my own facial gestures because they’re filming you when you’re doing it. So it’s this kind of synthesis that happens over time.
Q: Were there any special challenges in terms of setting the right tone for your character?
Reilly: Well, it was a challenge in the beginning for how wrong-headed he is. Because knowing and really feeling for the character and playing the character myself, I felt like alright, but he means well. He’s got a big heart. So doing things like smashing the cake at the party, even though it’s an accident, I don’t know. He starts out in somewhat of a self-pitying, negative, the world owes me kind of attitude and that was hard to play. But, to his credit, Jim Reardon, the story editor, was like “No, you’ve gotta start out in a place that’s a little bit dysfunctional in order to find the path of the hero later on in the movie.” So yeah, that was a challenge. And, the other challenge when you’re doing animation, which you overcome quickly when you’re doing live action, is you don’t really have to memorize anything when you’re doing voiceover. There’s always the challenge of making it sound like you’re really speaking instead of reading. Then you do the live action movie and that just goes away once you memorize the dialogue. There were a couple of challenges there, but in general, it was like a dream job and actually the longest job I’ve ever had of my whole life. Yeah, the longest term of employment I’ve ever had and I got really used to it. I was like “Can’t I have an office here? I’ll come and give acting advice to actors or something. You could study my movements.”
Q: How long did it take?
Reilly: It was a little under two years that I was involved. They had been working for four years altogether, I think.
Q: How much improv did you get to do in this film?
Reilly: We did a lot. We used the Will Ferrell model, let’s say. It’s like the way Will and I worked together on “Talladega Nights” and “Step Brothers” which was sort of a comedy democracy. The funniest idea in the moment wins. You do the written material a few times until you feel like alright, we did that. It’s starting to feel flat. Now we have some time left. Let’s just throw everything out the window and see what happens. Yeah, we did that. And then, how much of that ended up in the movie? I don’t know. A certain amount of it did, I know for a fact. When you do that, it also ends up giving you a sense of ownership about the material that you didn’t come up with. If you feel the freedom to change things however you want in the moment, you feel less constrained when you’re doing the material that was written for you.
Q: What were your favorite kids’ movies growing up or even now looking back?
Reilly: Animated movies?
Q: They don’t have to be.
Reilly: I would say the big three when I was a kid were “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” the original “Planet of the Apes,” and “The Great Escape” which is a really awesome movie if you’re into G.I. Joes.
Q: Are those still your favorites now or do you have a more expanded list?
Reilly: I still love all three of those movies. I think they stand the test of time. And then, animated movies, it’s like maybe younger people now don’t realize how limited the world of kids’ entertainment was when I was a kid. I grew up in the late…well, I don’t want to give it away. Let’s say I was a child of the 70s and around then there was no home video. There were no computers. There was no internet. So anything that you saw was either first run in the movie theater. Although later in my childhood, the second run phenomena started to happen at the movie theaters. But, for the most part, it was first run in movie theaters, or maybe once a year, like “Wizard of Oz” would be on TV around Thanksgiving or something, and you made damn sure you were sitting in front of the TV at that time. So the movies that really affected me as a kid were experienced in a movie theater, or the Disney movies when they would deign to release them, those were much more rare occasions, so movies like “Dumbo” and “Snow White.” When you can’t watch it four times a week, you’re paying attention in a different way. You’re really soaking it up in such an intense way. I can’t believe that I’m the lead character in a Disney movie. If you think about it, all those dreamy nights of sitting in front of a TV and watching Tinker Bell go over the castle, not even animated movies but different Disney shows and stuff that would be on TV, I think all of us were so shaped by that. And then, I found out that I was standing in the same room when we were recording the voice for this as when they did “The Jungle Book.” Ralph starts to remind me a little bit of the bear character in “Jungle Book.” [imitating the bear] “Hey, hey, Babaloo.” I think the bear’s name is Baloo. I was like I’m getting kind of a Baloo vibe from Ralph today. The engineer who knows the history of the building was like “Actually that guy recorded right where you are standing, the same spot.” “Whoa!” And then, they had this TV display showing archive photos and stuff and sure enough there was the actor who did it whose name I should know by now. It’s a little early in the morning.
Q: Phil Harris.
Reilly: Thank you. You’re saving me the annoying thing of looking it up on my phone.
Q: You and Sarah (Silverman) are both known for having a more adult sense of humor. When you were working together and doing some of the improv, was there anything that definitely couldn’t make the cut?
Reilly: Uh yeah, but you’ll never hear it. Never, ever. It’s gone into the Disney vault deep underground. Yes, I mean, I would say for Sarah, for sure. She’s pretty R-rated in her stand-up. Me? I don’t know. Am I known for R-rated? I don’t know. I feel like I’m a little more harmlessly goofy than that in the comedy stuff that I’ve done. Now I’m thinking of a few things. Maybe you’re right. You know what’s funny, what surprised me about Sarah’s work in this was how sweet and sentimental she is really as a person. She’s into musical theater. She really channeled that little girl so easily, and then the dramatic scenes that we did, I was really impressed. I was like “Wow! You should do this more often, Sarah. It turns out you do have a heart.” Just a smart aleck.
Q: “Walk Hard” is my favorite movie of the last ten years. Do you find you get a lot more love for that now?
Reilly: Oh, thanks. Oh yeah, a friend of mine who worked on that with me was like “Look, John, you can either have a blockbuster or a cult movie. You can’t have both at the same time.” And if I had to pick one, I’m pretty happy that we have a cult movie. Musicians, especially, come up to me. They think of that movie as a documentary. I was at a Lakers game and not Don Henley…the other fellow from the Eagles…
Q: Glenn Frey?
Reilly: No, it was Don Henley or one of them. Bonnie Raitt, Robert Plant, like all these different musicians come up to me, [deep voice] “Walk hard, man.” And I think as big as we were trying to be and as satirical as we were trying to be, the true life of a rock star is even more ridiculous than that movie.
Q: That’s what takes it to the next level. You talked about the hero’s journey with Ralph. That was the ultimate American hero’s journey, too.
Reilly: I guess so. Bio-pics, that’s kind of what we were making fun of, how every musician is a hero.
Q: Have you had that same experience with porn stars saying “Boogie Nights, man”?
Reilly: Don’t rub elbows, or anything else, with porn stars very often. But yeah, that’s a beloved movie for a lot of reasons, not just in the porn world. That movie is set in the porn world, but it’s really a movie about a family. The truth is it’s family entertainment. That’s my story and I’m sticking by it.
Q: With this movie, I’m curious, do you find that Ralph’s crisis is one that a lot of actors can go through — actors who are cast only as the bad guy, only as the funny guy?
Reilly: Yes. I was definitely attracted to the part for that reason. This guy’s having a mid-life crisis. How awesome. So am I. Not that I have to do the same character over and over, but doing the same job. I’ve been in movies now for about 30 years. You just get to be a certain age, and I’m not going to reveal what that is, although a quick check on your phone will tell you. You get into your forties and you just start to think “Is that it? Is that all there is to life?” When you’re younger, you’re used to feeling like “Well the book of my life is unwritten. Here I am. Chapter 2.” And then, you get into your forties and you get deep into a career or whatever, like everyone has to do something for a living, and you get to be even a little further down the line and you start to think like “Is that all there is? Wait! The book of my life only has a couple more chapters. Is this it?! I thought maybe I had a shot at being an astronaut or a doctor. I guess there’s no way I’ll be able to remember all that information now.” So yeah, that’s definitely something I think actors, and anyone who does a job for 30 years, goes through, and I think that’s one of the reasons that not just young audiences but… The movie is like a marketer’s dream because all different age groups are responding to the movie, and I think older people are responding to it for that reason. What does it feel like to have put in all this time and then just be staring down a short road in front of you?
Q: What would you have done had you not become an actor?
Reilly: Gosh, I don’t know.
Q: Was there a plan B?
Reilly: I was thinking maybe about being a lawyer. I realized I was interested in becoming a priest at one point. I was just interested in stuff where I could do something I really believed in. And then, I realized if I become an actor, I don’t have to choose. I get to do everything. It’s worked out so far. But what I really want to do is direct.
Q: Did you ever go through a video game period where you had an addiction?
Reilly: Yeah. I was the test audience for Space Invaders. I was of the age when those games came out. My quarters were the ones they wanted. I will never forget when Space Invaders landed in the bowling alley where I used to hang out. I went from pinball machines to that. What? You can manipulate the TV! We’re so used to computers and being able to interact with media in the way that we do now. People forget at that time that was outrageous to be able to and even to control that sound effect – ping, ping – it was like getting to be in “Star Wars” which also came out around the same time. I went through all those games. I can’t say I played a lot of them now. There’s just not enough hours in the day.
Q: What has been the most surprising part of being in this movie?
Reilly: Lately, the most surprising thing is having little kids recognize me just by my voice. [kid’s voice] “You’re Ralph!” And then, they start quoting lines from the trailer. It’s bizarre how aware kids are and I’m talking even little kids. They have the trailer memorized. I open my mouth and they’re like “Ralph!! Say it like you do in the movie.” I go “I’m gonna wreck it!” “No, no, no. Do it like you do in the movie.” “I’m trying! Gimme a break!”