John C Reilly

"What have I seen that actor in before?" is the question most people ask themselves after watching one of John C Reilly's many successful films. The 38-year-old has earned a reputation as one of Hollywood's most respected character actors but, for the most part, he's remained that familiar face you can't quite put a name to.

Having appeared in three of 2002's most feted productions - Chicago, Gangs Of New York and The Hours - it seems strange he hasn't yet become a star in his own right. The actor's rugged features may be partly to blame for his supporting role status, but John insists that's fine with him.

Having worked with George Clooney on The Perfect Storm, the Chicago-born performer says he can do without that kind of fame. "I watched what he went through every day with hundreds of people constantly after him," says John. "When he's not working he's fleeing. I don't want that I cherish my anonymity."

He admits, however, always playing second fiddle can be a little frustrating. "I'm friends with guys like Brad and George and they'll come up to me and say they want the parts I play, because I get all the interesting stuff… Yeah, but they get the girl!"

His success in complex roles comes as little surprise considering John first appeared on stage at the age of eight. Growing up a Catholic in one of the Windy City's toughest neighbourhoods, he started developing his craft early. "There were a lot of girls schools that did musicals and needed boys to star in them, so I would stud myself out to do as many as I could handle," he says. It was an experience which would stand him in good stead for his role as devious Amos Hart in Chicago. He went on to study at drama at DePaul University, before making his screen debut opposite Sean Penn and Michael J Fox in Casualties Of War.

Working with Sean and director Brian De Palma was to prove a life-changing experience for the actor. Not only was it his first major production, it was also his first time outside the Midwest. (The movie was filmed in Thailand.) He made his next two pictures with Penn (We're No Angels, State Of Grace), and in the meantime fell in love with the star's development aide, Alison Dickey, whom he went on to marry. The couple have a son.

Having found his way into the contact books of several Hollywood heavyweights, it wasn't long before John started receiving offers. And with every role his reputation grew. The actor's portrayal of an uncertain cop in Magnolia won him great acclaim, though it was Tom Cruise's angry misogynist that garnered an Oscar nomination. He was likewise applauded for his appearance in Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight and his portrayal of Jennifer Aniston's substance-happy husband in The Good Girl. Indeed, his consistently powerful acting has made him a favourite with critics, if not with the public at large.

"When people say I'm a character actor that's a real honour," he says. "On bad days I think that's just a limitation that they're trying to keep me in my place and tell me I can't play larger roles. Most of the time I just think 'character actor' just means a good actor someone who is not playing themselves for a living."

Whatever the definition, he has clearly found a winning approach to the craft. His method? John simply takes his roles one step at a time, literally: "The first thing I try to figure out is their shoes," he says, "since that's the way a person is connected to the earth. Shoes can dictate your feelings." Perhaps his A-list buddies should take note of his down-at-heel system.

As for the future, John would clearly like to become a leading man. His ideal role might not be the heroic character you'd expect, however. "Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory That would be a dream role for me," he reveals. "I understand they are doing a remake of it. To play Willy Wonka I could just die happily then." We can only hope that John Christopher Reilly's sweet dreams will one day come true.
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