John C. Reilly began his career on a high note, playing a very dim member of Sean Penn’s platoon in Casualties of War. His solid character work in comedies and drama alike established a high bar of quality. He’s worked for such directors as Martin Scorsese, P.T. Anderson and Terence Malick. Now as Wreck-It Ralph, the bad guy with the heart of gold in the movie of the same name, he gets a chance to play the lead for a change. He recent spoke to the press in Hollywood about the challenges of the role.
Question: You've done voice work like this before.
John C. Reilly: Not quite like this, not on the scale of this, but yeah. I was in a movie called Nine, that was kind of a post-apocalyptic story for older audiences. Actually, Jack Black and I once recorded a whole animated movie on spec. They were just trying to get the money together, and all the characters were designed and everything, and the script was written, and then it went nowhere. But it's still recorded out there somewhere.
Q: For this one, you went in early and really worked with the animators and participated maybe more than a voice actor might do.
JCR: Oh yeah. Rich Moore was really nice that way. He really included me in a collaborative way as a director, got me to come into story meetings and solicited my ideas. He really encouraged me to take a personal approach with the character and improvise a lot. And I encouraged him to have the other actors in the recording studio, which I guess is not such a common thing with animated movies. Usually you record separately and then they splice it all together. But I thought, with people like Sarah Silverman or Jack McBrayer or Jane Lynch… those guys are really nimble improvisers and very witty people, so we'd be able to throw some stuff back and forth.
Q: This is a family film, and yet you never seem to be giving away the fact that you're in a family film – I'm thinking, for instance, of those Bad-anon meetings: just this idea that that's something that the adults will get a kick out of and may go right over the kids' heads. Was that an interesting balance to try to maintain?
JCR: It wasn't really my balance to maintain. But I don't know: I think you'd be surprised at what kids understand. I was actually concerned about it. I thought, “Do we really want to go to this 12-Step place with kids? Isn't that a little too adult for kids?” And they're like, "No, no, it'll work. It'll be great." And the kids see it almost like a counsel circle at school where we sit around and talk about how we feel.
My wife pointed out something to me this morning. "It's so funny when Ralph goes to the party, he's not invited, and then he comes in and then he makes a mess of it as soon as he walks in. Little kids can really relate to that, because it's like you're trying hard not to break something and then you make a mistake, or you lose your temper and there it goes.” It's such a precarious balance as a kid, keeping yourself in control and not messing stuff up, and then the regret of messing stuff up.
Q: What about script made you want to work on Wreck-It Ralph, or act as Ralph?
JCP: It was really just the chance to work on a Disney film. Let's face it, it's not every day that someone comes up to me saying, "Oh, do you want to play the lead in a Disney animated film?" Just the pedigree of the studio and the director’s work was enough to get me interested. He [Rich Moore] did The Simpsons and he worked on Futurama. Phil Johnston, who wrote the script, had just worked with me on Cedar Rapids, and he's another Midwestern guy like me, so I knew we were going to be able to work together in a great way.
Even having said all that, it took me a little while to sign on. I wanted to make sure I was going to really be able to believe in the project, and be able to really put my heart into it, instead of just plugging in like a hired hand. I've been offered a lot of animation in the past and it just seemed really kind of like a boring day at work, actually. You go in, and a lot of times they don't even give you the whole script. "Yeah, just read this page. Don't worry." "Faster," "Slower," "Okay, now a funny one." And then you go home and all the creative part is done without you there. So I passed on a lot of stuff over the years
This all began with just sitting down at lunch with Rich Moore. He seemed really generous and open and kind. And he said, "Look, there's a way that people make these movies, but we can make this movie however we want to make it. And I want you to give as much as you want to give. And I want to make the situation work for you, because I see you as this guy."
At the end of the day, everyone really put a lot of their heart into the movie, Disney has this reputation for being this giant monolithic corporation that churns out market-driven entertainment, but with John Lasseter coming in and all the Pixar people, you could just get the sense of a new era starting, Yes, it's still this big corporation and it still has this wide reach, but the actual creative people behind it are being given a lot of freedom and a lot of chances to really put their heart into their work.
Q: Any thoughts about being introduced as an action figure and a talking doll, as we go into the holiday season?
JCR: Yeah, there’s worse things than to be loved by children. If it was a movie that I wasn't proud of or I didn't feel like a personal connection to, then that could be a nightmarish scenario, but I remember how much I loved my toys when I was a kid, and I think that's actually kind of an honor to be in a kid's heart like that. That said, I'm not going to make any money on it. [Laughs.]
Q: What did you have to do to prepare for the voice of Ralph?
JCR: I just had to go in and be honest every day. Having fun part was just a feature of being able to improvise in the studio. That is one of the great joys of doing voice-over work: you often have more time than you need. They’ll book four hours for a session and to do the scripted material well takes you probably an hour and a half, and so you have this extra time to just kind of fool around. As a result, the pressure of getting it right is really not there. It feels like this laboratory where you're just trying to make each other laugh and surprise each other. That's different than a live-action movie where the sun's going down, there's people standing there, and it costs money every second that you're out there working. There's a lot more pressure in that situation.
Q: Did you try cartoon voices and finally settle on your own?
JCR: No. I think if it was a more different character than myself, physically, maybe I would try something like that, but like I said, my main goal was to just try to make it sound as honest as possible. If you can do it well, then go for it. Alan Tudyk, who plays King Candy in the movie, doesn't talk like that at all. That was a layer that he put on as an actor, and he does it so well he was able to be honest through that voice. But Ralph's a different character than that. He's more straight ahead, a simpler guy.That's a temptation in animation a lot, to put on a funny voice. I had to fight that here
Q: How about using your physicality? In animation, they often make a lot out of video taping the actors. Did you see some of your characteristics? Did Ralph evolve into something that reflected some of the things that you did while you were voicing the character?
JCR: Definitely. You can't make noise when you're doing stuff like that, but you do a lot of physical stuff when you're acting, to make it sound like your body is experiencing what the character's body is experiencing. I also went in for a Q&A with all the animators, just because they were curious to meet me and they wanted some more insight as they headed into the heavy lifting of the animation itself. They wanted to know what my point of view was about the character, so I went in and did this Q&A. While I was there, I asked if I could just do some movement to show them what I was thinking. I come from an Irish-Catholic family in Chicago: there's a lot of ex-football player guys with big guts. They carry themselves a lot like this guy might carry himself. So I did it, and they were like, "Oh, my God, that was so cool!" I said, "I could do that for hours! I'll come back." So I went in and did this motion study where I actually acted out the scenes. They really appreciated that. As a result, even more than usual, a lot of my physical characteristics ended up in the character.
Q: Were you a fan of any of these games when you were younger?
JCR: Yeah. I was the test generation for all this stuff: you can blame me and my generation for the popularity of video games. I went from pinball machines to Space Invaders. I remember the day that that machine suddenly appeared in the bowling alley where I used to hang out in Chicago, and it was like, "Oh my God!" It was such a quantum leap from what we'd had for entertainment up to then. There weren't even computers then. People forget that: no cell phones, no computers… it was crazy to suddenly be able to manipulate what was on the TV. Just the idea that you could move a button that would move something on the screen was radical. And it cost me a lot of money. A lot of quarters. For some reason, I seemed to get worse the more I played. I would be really good at first – my instincts would be great – and then the more I thought about it, the worse I got.