John C. Reilly on making The Sisters Brothers and how to properly fit a men’s hat

John C. Reilly is one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood. Equally valuable as a comedic or dramatic actor, he can lead a cast, flesh out a memorable supporting character, sing, dance, and generally do most anything. He’s been nominated for a Tony, a Grammy, three Golden Globes, and an Oscar, and he’s turned in unforgettable performances in roles ranging from Roxie Hart’s put-upon husband in 2003’s Chicago to Dewey Cox in 2007’s Walk Hard to the title character in 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, a role he will reprise this fall in the film’s sequel.

Reilly’s latest project sees him star alongside Joaquin Phoenix in The Sisters Brothers, a darkly comedic Western based on Patrick deWitt’s 2011 novel of the same name and helmed by French director Jacques Audiard. It’s Audiard’s first English-language film (his previous works include the lauded A Prophet and The Beat That My Heart Skipped), and it’s a gruff, messy, funny movie that doesn’t quite conform to stereotypes of Westerns.


Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers.
Annapurna Pictures

Reilly and Phoenix play brothers named Eli and Charlie Sisters who work as assassins in the Wild West after a violent childhood. They’re set on the trail of a thieving prospector in 1851, in a story that’s as much about family as it is about the Gold Rush. Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal also star as prospectors named Morris and Warm, with whom the Sisters brothers cross paths and form an uneasy alliance.

Reilly and his wife, movie producer Alison Dickey, optioned the novel and brought it to Audiard’s attention in the first place, and Reilly’s portrayal of Eli is the film’s warm, human center. I recently sat down with Reilly in Manhattan, ahead of the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, to talk about the movie, Westerns, acting in pairs, and how to properly fit a men’s hat — an important skill in the old West.

This interview has been edited and slightly condensed for clarity.


Alissa Wilkinson

[I enter the room to find that, along with suspenders and a neck bandana, Reilly is wearing a very fetching straw hat.]

My husband keeps trying to buy a hat like that, and keeps failing to find one that he likes.

John C. Reilly

It’s a very simple science. You have to go to a good hat store, first of all. Hats are all about the geometry of your face.

Alissa Wilkinson

Okay.

John C. Reilly

Do you see how my face goes like this? [Reilly points at his right temple and traces the side of his face down to his chin, then back up the other side to his left temple.]

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah.

John C. Reilly

Then if you were to continue making that oval, the crown is exactly that, right?

Alissa Wilkinson

Ha! You’re right. Yes.

John C. Reilly

That’s the first thing.

Alissa Wilkinson

Okay.

John C. Reilly

Then the other thing is the distance from here to here [Reilly indicates the width of the hat’s brim] and the distance from here to here [Reilly indicates the width of his face]. Just even micro adjustments from the width of the brim completely changes the look of the hat.

Alissa Wilkinson

Huh.

John C. Reilly

If you have a big wide face, and you have a very narrow brim, it looks comical and weird. If you have a very small face, and a big wide brim, it’s the same thing.

Anyway. Just go to a good hat store, you’ll find it.

Alissa Wilkinson

Did you learn that on the job?

John C. Reilly

I collect hats, and I’ve been wearing them for years.

Alissa Wilkinson

I feel like it’s a thing that women learn — to notice the proportions of your own face. But I guess being an actor could require that, too.

John C. Reilly

Eh, men don’t really learn that.

Alissa Wilkinson

Well, that’s a useful lesson! I’ll bring it home.


Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers.
Annapurna Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson

I saw the movie this morning and really enjoyed it.

John C. Reilly

Oh, in there? [Reilly gestures toward the screening room adjacent to our interview room.]

Alissa Wilkinson

Yes, in there.

John C. Reilly

Oh, wow.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s a heck of a movie to see at 10 am. There’s a lot of vomit.

John C. Reilly

I walked in this morning, and they were like, “They’re watching in there right now.” I was like, “Are you kidding? We have to be quiet.”

Alissa Wilkinson

So, you’re kind of the reason the movie got made, right? You brought the book to the director, Jacques Audiard?

John C. Reilly

Actually, my wife Alison [Dickey] was the reason the movie got made. She was the initial producer of the film and is one of its main producers. She was producing an independent film that I was in called Terri that was written by Patrick deWitt and directed by Azazel Jacobs.

At the end of that process [the film came out in 2011] we asked Patrick, who we’d come to really know and love, “You got anything else?” He had written this manuscript for The Sisters Brothers, but it hadn’t been published yet. He hadn’t given it to a publisher yet.

He let us read it. We both just tore through it. Alison was like, “We have to buy the rights to this.” And luckily, Pat believed in us.

Then it was Alison’s idea to approach Jacques, because she was already a huge fan of his work. So was I, but she’d been following him in real time. I caught up once I’d heard about a few of his movies, but she’s the one who was like, “We’ve got to go to this guy.”


2018 Toronto International Film Festival - ‘The Sisters Brothers’ Premiere

John C. Reilly and Alison Dickey at the premiere of The Sisters Brothers in Toronto on September 8.
Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

We met him in Toronto. I think, at first, he couldn’t quite believe that we were just going to dump this whole thing in his lap and say, “Do whatever you want with it.” But that was our main concern when we were setting up the movie: to find someone who wouldn’t just be a hired gun — no pun intended — but who was going to make a personal film about it, who would take the source material and, regardless of what it was, make a film that felt like it meant something to them personally. All of our favorite films are like that. But we knew it would be a little bit tricky bringing something to someone and then asking that of them.

When we met Jacques, we said, “Well, listen. Here, read this, see what you think of it. If you respond to it, we want you to completely make a movie the way you make movies. We’ll get out of your way and help you do whatever you need help doing.”

After a little while, Jacques really took to it and then did a bunch of versions of the script. He did another movie in the meantime — he made Dheepan.

Alissa Wilkinson

Which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2015.

John C. Reilly

Yeah, the rest is recent history.

Alissa Wilkinson

Then he co-wrote the screenplay for The Sisters Brothers with Thomas …

John C. Reilly

Thomas Bidegain.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yes. You were in his own movie pretty recently, too.

John C. Reilly

Yeah, Les Cowboys. I met Tom because he was there at that meeting when we first met Jacques. They’re writing partners. At the end of that meeting, Tom was like, “Well, I’m directing this movie, you want to be in mine?” We got Jacques’s blessing, and then I went off and did that.

Alissa Wilkinson

This is Jacques’s first English-language film, right?

John C. Reilly

Yes.

Alissa Wilkinson

It has a very mannered speech pattern.

John C. Reilly

Mm-hmm. The book is even more like that. The idea is that these guys were raised by an educated woman, but then they went off.

I really loved playing this guy, because unlike the typical criminals or murderers you’ve seen in films before, who became criminals when they were adults, I think of Charlie and Eli like those child soldiers who are pressed into a murderous life at a very young age, before they develop empathy. It’s like this trauma happens to them, and then that’s just who they are. They didn’t choose it; they were children when it was put upon them. They’re doing these terrible things, they’re murderers for a living, but inside they’re these broken children.

I think that’s really interesting. It lends a sympathetic quality to them, even though they are terrible. You watch them murder many people in the movie, but I really loved playing the character. I really was so inspired by Joaquin every day, and he and I became very close. We lived together through a bunch of different places and all during the movie.


John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed in The Sisters Brothers.

John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed in The Sisters Brothers.
Magali Bragard/Annapurna Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson

The brothers are both kind of comedic and deadly serious. There are moments of very intense and shocking violence, but it’s shocking because a lot of the time, Charlie and Eli feel like a comedic pair.

John C. Reilly

Well, that’s the book, too. It has this dark humor. I love stuff like that, stories that don’t let the audience off the hook. I love doing comedy where something intensely real is happening at the same time, or doing drama where it’s kind of funny, it’s so sad that it’s funny, or whatever.

That’s the way life is. When people are going through tragedy, there’s always something that will make you laugh. When you’re having good times, there’s often those kind of bittersweet moments. That’s life. I think that’s a great quality of the movie.

Alissa Wilkinson

There are a lot of interesting Westerns getting made right now. Do you gravitate toward the genre?

John C. Reilly

Definitely, yeah.

Alissa Wilkinson

Why do you think people keep reinventing the Western?

John C. Reilly

They’re pretty perennial. Ever since we started making Westerns, they’ve been popular. They’re ensconced in the American psyche.

I think Westerns are popular for the same reason prison stories are popular, which is the same reason war stories are popular, convent stories are popular — all of those genres are about extreme circumstances, limited options, and characters out on their own or confined within.

That said, I think this movie is a really original Western because you know so much about what’s going on emotionally with the characters. When you watch a Clint Eastwood movie — and I love all of his Westerns — you don’t really know what’s going on. You’re watching his behavior to try to figure out what he feels or what he’s thinking. But in the original novel, it’s a series of inner monologues from Eli, and you really get this full internal monologue.

There’s this sort of self-replicating thing that happens with Westerns where a movie’s reality is based on the reality of another movie, and then another movie, and another movie, as opposed to what was going on in 1850 in San Francisco. That’s the take Patrick took with the book, and that’s the take Jacques took as an outsider to America. He didn’t have all that baggage, that American psyche, this idea that we’re some John Wayne–like people. Jacques just saw it from a distance, so he saw more just the reality of the situation. That was a great reason to make the movie with Jacques.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s an interesting film because it’s a Western with these hard-bitten men who become more vulnerable the longer you watch them. They start out as archetypes, but then they turn into something else.

John C. Reilly

As they get to know each other, yeah. Somebody said to me when they were watching the film, “It’s almost like Warm and Morris are the brothers’ first two friends they’ve ever had.” They had to do a violent thing when they were children and then they just banded together, and from that moment, these two country boys went out into the world and they were good at this thing. These criminals figured out they were good at murdering people. They don’t trust anybody.

The modern world seems completely bizarre and hard to understand and decadent to them. It’s almost like Hansel and Gretel going into the forest. There’s a whole sequence of the movie where we’re in the forest where Jacques, I think, deliberately wanted the movie to feel like some kind of fucked-up fairy tale — including the spider bite. Metaphorical things that happen to them.


Alternative Views - 44th Deauville American Film Festival

Reilly with Joaquin Phoenix and director Jacques Audiard.
Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

The funniest scene in the movie is when Eli first encounters a toothbrush and can’t figure out how to use it properly.

John C. Reilly

Yeah, and that’s funny because it’s like, “Oh, wow! That’s someone approaching a toothbrush for the first time who’s never heard of a toothbrush before.” That’s the reality. That’s such a simple little detail that really clues you in to what it would feel like to live at that time.

But then, in this stroke of brilliance, I think one of the reasons Jacques put that scene in the movie is that these guys are trying to find a new way to be. They’re trying to move out of this brutal past. And civilization was doing the same thing at the time in the West.

Like, “Okay, we settled this place with guns and murder and genocide and smallpox blankets. Now what are we going to do? We can’t keep doing it like this. And the sheriff’s 400 miles away.”

In the 1850s, cartridge bullets were invented, which meant that you could fire as much and as long as you wanted, and the world became a lot more dangerous at that moment. I think collectively, people just kind of went, “Okay, this is not sustainable. We need some laws or something here to keep us all from killing each other. Otherwise, we’re going self-extinguish.”

I think it’s a timely movie for that reason, too. It feels a little bit like the world right now. You know?

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah. Watching the movie, you get the feeling of mankind evolving very quickly almost, like in front of you.

John C. Reilly

Yeah.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s not like civilization hadn’t existed before, but now they’re out in the middle of nowhere.

John C. Reilly

Yeah, it’s almost like if you look at the four characters of the movie, it’s almost like those sketches of the evolution, going from prehistoric to upright man.

Warm was like the upright man, who’s like, “I see the way to go. This is the new dawn.” Then there’s Morris, who’s just gotten the nerve to follow him. Then there’s Eli, who’s like, “But I’m connected to Charlie. I can’t go yet, but maybe we should.” There’s Charlie, fully ensconced in the old way, like, “No. No. No, I’m going to be the top murderer.”

Alissa Wilkinson

That’s interesting, because … well, what I wrote down in my notebook was “there are a lot of bodily fluids in this movie.” There really are.

John C. Reilly

Yeah, that’s true.

Alissa Wilkinson

I feel like that’s part of that kind of primal nature of the movie.

John C. Reilly

Yeah.

Alissa Wilkinson

Which had to be bizarre to shoot. Or maybe just a weird experience, riding around on horses for so long in the middle of nowhere.

John C. Reilly

Yeah. It was really like a mobile community moving together, like a band of gypsies moving from place to place. We had trailers. But we’d just go and get dressed in them in the morning, and then we wouldn’t be in them all day. I’d be sleeping on a rock, or feeding my horse, or just going for walks. We didn’t have a lot of the accoutrements that are around American sets.

It was much more a lived experience for Joaquin and I. Short of murder, our relationship became a lot like that relationship in the movie. We spent all of our time together. We lived together for periods of time during the shooting. If we went out at night, we always went together and I was always keeping track of him, and vice versa. It was a real immersive experience.

Alissa Wilkinson

You’ve worked in a lot of acting pairs — that’s sort of your thing, especially in comedies. Joaquin is maybe not someone people think of as a comedic actor, though.

John C. Reilly

He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Honestly. If you know me, it’s hard to make me laugh really hard, and Joaquin makes me laugh. I cry. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to fall down and pee my pants. He’s such a mischievous person, and he’s so in the moment.

When you’re connected with Joaquin, when he brings you in, he brings you all the way in. He’s a really thrilling person to be around because he’s so authentic. He lives an authentic life. For an actor, that’s an odd thing to say. But it’s really true.

Alissa Wilkinson

Is there something about acting in pairs that you’re especially fond of?

John C. Reilly

Well, then if you fuck up, it’s not all your fault. To be honest, I think that is part of it — safety in numbers.

But I don’t like to work alone. I mean, that’s why I got involved in acting when I was 8 years old, because I liked being part of the community of people. I was like, “Oh, the weirdos like me! I found my people.”

I grew up in theater in Chicago, and in Chicago, it’s always like, “If I make you better, then I’m better, and then the play works.” It’s less aggressive and competitive than New York or LA, where people are trying to solo all the time. You know? Chicago’s much more of a collaborative mentality, so I suppose it comes from that.

I have four movies coming out before January, and they’re all partnerships.

Alissa Wilkinson

I know! I’m excited for Holmes and Watson in particular — that’s been such a storied duo, and you’re working with Will Ferrell again.

John C. Reilly

I know. [chuckles] What the world really needs is another reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes.

Alissa Wilkinson

Maybe, though!

John C. Reilly

Maybe.

Alissa Wilkinson

Aren’t there, like, four out right now?

John C. Reilly

Yeah, why not? The more, the merrier. They certainly won’t be like ours. That’s for sure.

The Sisters Brothers opens in theaters on September 21.