In Jacques Audiard’s new film The Sisters Brothers, John C. Reilly plays Eli Sisters, a sensitive hitman and a foil to his more aggressive brother Charlie, played by Joaquin Phoenix. The two brothers are on the trail of a chemist (Riz Ahmed) with a secret formula for prospecting gold, as well as a turncoat detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) who was initially hired to secure the chemist but betrayed his duties for financial gain. Their shaggy-dog journey leads them down many roads, but throughout the film, Reilly stands out with his perceptive, gentle performance as a violent cowboy looking to finally give up the gun.
I sat down with Reilly to discuss the film and what it was like working as a producer for the first time. However, the conversation eventually detours into the special bond between man and horse, as well as the enduring legacy of his satirical music biopic Walk Hard.
The Film Stage: You bought the film rights to The Sisters Brothers in 2011. What initially drew you to Patrick DeWitt’s book and what made you believe it could be a good film?
John C. Reilly: Well, anyone who reads the book tells me, “Oh my God. This is such a page turner!” It’s a very compelling story. So there’s that, but at the time I was working on a movie called Terry, an independent film that my wife Alison Dickey produced, who also produced this movie. That movie was based on a manuscript of Patrick’s that was supposed to be a book, but was turned right into a screenplay. So when we finished that movie, we asked Patrick, “What else are you working on?” He had the manuscript for Sisters Brothers, it hadn’t been published yet, and he let us read it, and we bought the rights before it was a book.
What drew me to it…I mean, obviously, I already thought Pat was a brilliant writer, but it was such an original story. For a western, it did so many things that westerns don’t normally do. All this emotional life in the story, all this stuff about brothers. I have some brothers myself. This character just really jumped off the page for me when I first read it. That said, we went to Jacques [Audiard] and said, “We want you to direct this, we want you to make it your film, we want you to tell a personal story,” because that’s more important to us than just having some flashy director. We want someone who’s going to take this very moving book and make a personal story. All of our favorite films are stories like that, whether it’s Paul Thomas Anderson, or Martin Scorsese, or Terrence Malick, or Jacques: they all end up telling these stories. There’s the subject matter, and the source material, but then there’s this other thing going on where the filmmaker is saying, “This means something to me.”
It’s definitely an Audiard film.
Yet, it was a DeWitt novel, and now it’s an Audiard film, both are true. It just landed in my lap. Alison asked Patrick for it, she read it, just whipped through it, and then she gave it to me, and I was like, “Oh my God. Yeah. I guess this is when you do that thing called, ‘buying the rights for something.’” I had never done it before, I haven’t done it since, but it was just this perfect moment. It took quite a few years to make it happen, but it’s a miracle that it did.
This is your first film as a producer. What was it like splitting the duties between being a producer and an actor?
I had been involved in writing things, and part of a creative team on things before, but I had never produced something, been responsible for securing the financing and getting other people involved. I really liked it. At the point that we got the rights to this, Patrick had become a friend, and I respect him so much, and I think he’s such a brilliant writer. I was like, number one, I want to do right by this guy who’s my friend, and number two, I want to honor this beautiful piece of writing that he has. So it was more than just, [old-timey producer voice] “We gotta make a successful picture here!” It was like this mission, this labor of love.
To answer your question most directly, my wife was the producer. Alison Dickey is really the producer of this movie. Of course, she and I worked as a partnership, especially early on, before Jacques was involved, developing the profile of the film. But once I started acting, then Alison really took over. Also Jacques’ production company—there’s this guy Pascal Caucheteux, his long-time producer partner—once Jacques’ company took over, and we gave him this piece of material, then his apparatus took over, especially since it was a European production. We shot it in Spain and Romania and France, so…
But that said, all along the way I kept having people come up to me, the other actors would come up to me, and say, “Hey man, you’re a producer on this. There’s no toilet paper in my trailer. What the hell?” So, I definitely stayed involved, and then I was also getting reports from Alison about, like, this is what the dailies look like, these are our concerns, we have this and that, could you write an email so and so. We all had our strengths. The relationship I had with Joaquin [Phoenix] in the movie was so intense and all-encompassing. At different points in the filming, Joaquin and I were living together. I was so immersed in that, I wasn’t thinking like a producer most of the time, but it felt good. It’s a lot of responsibility, and if things go wrong, I would imagine it feels really terrible to be the producer of something, but in this case, it was a big success and we pulled it off. It’s really satisfying to know I and some other people did that. First Pat had these thoughts, and he turned it into a book, and we took that and turned it into this thing. That’s gravestone stuff right there. I’m very happy to have pulled that off.
This is your first true-blue western. Were you a fan of the genre growing up? Did you like cowboys?
I’m not made of stone! I don’t know anyone that doesn’t really love a western, even if you don’t like the trappings of westerns, the core elements of story in westerns are so pure and so compelling to watch.
People always ask actors, “What part do you want to play? What project would you like to be involved in?” The truth is so much of an actor’s life is just jobbing into things that other people are setting up, that I don’t bother disappointing myself by saying, “I must play a priest by 2019!” If you were to ask me before this all started, “Would you like to do a western?” Yeah, of course. I love horses. I love to ride. That would be really cool. Every little boy has a fantasy of being a soldier, of being a cowboy, of being a fireman, and all these things. I’m no different in that way.
I definitely wanted to do a western, but that said, there are a lot of clichéd westerns out there. There’s a lot of stories…the research they use is past westerns, and I feel like the research that Patrick used and Jacques used was this time period. What was actually going on, who was there, what were their concerns, what was life like for people that had never heard of a toothbrush before, or people who had to reload their guns by hand. All these physical details of life at that time.
The tooth brushing was fascinating. I did some research on the actual powder after the movie. It’s been around since the Roman Empire, but it became a codified product around the 19th century.
It’s hard to believe! But health-wise, there was just so much about that time… You get an infection? Cut it off. Teeth smell bad? Pull them out. It was sort of barbaric in that way.
All these trappings—brushing your teeth, treating a woman with care and respect, being open to a woman who might be a man or might be a woman. There are challenges to this old, brutal way of thinking, and they point to a new future. We can do this differently. I think those are some of the ideas that Jacques was playing with.
You mention that you’ve ridden horses before. What was your first experience riding?
I had been riding horses since I was a little kid, but just recreationally. You go for an hour, and basically those horses…
They go in a circle?
No, they go where they want! They know the trail. You get halfway through and suddenly the horse starts going faster and faster because it knows they’re almost back.
I have had a pretty strong connection with horses and animals over the years. But what you come to realize when you ride a horse, it’s not horse riding. It’s riding that horse. I realized, oh my God, I’m going to have a relationship not only with Joaquin, and Jacques, and Jake [Gyllenhaal], and Riz [Ahmed], but also this animal. I’m going to see this animal every day.
I don’t think I’ve told anyone this, but this was a very emotional journey making this movie, and it was at the end of a long road of working on others things that led to this period. I had imagined, “Wow, when this ends, I’m just going to be so emotional.” You start thinking before it ends, “Wow, how am I going to say goodbye to Joaquin? That’s going to be so hard. I love him so much.” Then the last day came, and the only time I cried was when I was saying goodbye to the horse. There are all these pictures of me hugging him and talking to him. On our last day of shooting, that horse is being retired. He was one of the oldest horses working on the movie because they needed a horse that looked beaten down. Pollito was his name, Little Chicken, and that last day of shooting was his last day of work. He was just going to be in the pasture after that somewhere in Spain. So, I dunno…
That’s really touching.
It was a very, very moving moment. I’ll show you a picture. [He pulls out his phone and starts looking for the appropriate picture.]
I’d love to see that. While you pull that up, you worked with Thomas Bidegain on The Cowboys, and he’s collaborated with Audiard pretty much since the beginning. I was wondering how their styles differed, or were their approaches in simpatico?
That’s interesting. I think, in terms of story and insights into character, they’re very close, but Tom is much more affable. [Laughs.]
[Shows me the picture of him and Pollito on his phone.] This is me saying goodbye to Pollito on the last day. It was on the beach. You can’t really see me, but…
That’s a beautiful horse.
It was the sweetest horse, too. I’d go visit him on the weekends and bring him apples and stuff, because I realized my safety depends on this animal and its feelings towards me. What you realize riding horses is that you can’t treat it like a machine. You have to be in connection with it. They are very sweet animals. In a way, they have this childlike quality, even though they’re stronger than you and kill you like [snaps] that. They can step on you and that’s that. I dunno, I just ended up with this really deep connection and understanding of horses. It sounds corny…
Nah, man. I think it helps the movie.
If you think about it, in terms of man’s relationship with animals, if we hadn’t made the agreement that we made with horses, we would have nothing at all. We’d still be in fucking skins and knocking each other with bones. It’s almost like a gift from God or something, this mystical thing that happened, that this enormous, powerful animal said, “I’ll let you ride my back. I’ll pull this thing for you.” Once you tap into that, you realize, “Wow, we owe a lot to horses.”
It’s not just, “I’ll let you ride my back,” it’s also, “I’ll control the transportation of an entire nation.”
Your character in The Sisters Brothers has all these rituals—I was thinking about the tooth brushing, and the scarf—that sort of ground him in contrast with the violent nature of his job. I’m curious if you have any rituals in your own life that ground you in a reality beyond the trappings of the film industry.
You might not have an answer for that.
Well, I’m not a very habitual person. I’m a Gemini. I do get superstitious on specific projects. I’ll do the same thing in the morning every day. I’ll listen to the same song every day in the car on the way to set. That helps me stay focused and brings me into a familiar place, but I think I do it for reasons other than why Eli was doing it. I think the story of Eli and Charlie is really the story of two children pressed into this traumatic life without a real choice in the matter. If you look at immigrant kids on the run, or runaway kids, or kids going through foster homes, you’ll see similar things, where a kid will be like, “If I fold my shirt like this, nothing bad will happen to me today.” It’s the little things you hold onto for stability. I really loved doing those things in the movie. I loved all the rituals of them going to sleep—hold the thing, fold the thing, hand on the gun. I could relate to it very much, but I don’t have things that I do like that continually.
I’m an enormous fan of Walk Hard. I’m curious if it bothers you that biopics are still doing all the things that that film ruthlessly parodied.
[Laughs.] I just did one. I have a lot of nerve. In a way, I thought, well, this cuts down my film roles because I can never do a biopic now that we’ve taken the piss out of biopics so much in this movie.
I just feel like that should’ve been the end of a certain kind of movie, and it’s still…
Well, yeah! You know, film is somewhat disposable. It’s a cultural thing. Certain stories mean certain things to us and then we need new stories. But for some reason…
In the same way, when you watch a detective story, even if it’s bad, you’re like, I gotta know what happens. I need to know who the killer was by the end. I hate this movie, but I need to know. So, I think there’s just certain things about human beings…
The reason why there are all these tropes that occur in biopics is because that’s what happens when you take a life and smash it into two hours. Everything becomes a cliché. Jake Kasdan had this great line, “Look, in biopics, literally every time you open a door, it’s a new era.”
I’m really, really proud of that movie. We worked really hard on it. We did six months of music recording and songwriting even before we started shooting. We really poured our hearts into it, so many people did, a whole group of songwriters that I’m still friends with as a result of that movie. But at the end of the day, I was like, “Well, you can have a cult movie or you can have a box office success, but you can’t have both.” I’m not sure which one I would pick, but a cult movie is pretty fucking cool. Every musician I talk to, and I’ve met some big, famous musicians, the first words out of their mouth, “Oh my God. Walk Hard! We watch it obsessively on the bus!” I saw Don Henley at a Lakers game, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Walk Hard, man. Dewey Cox. I lived that!” You realize, to a lot of these guys, it’s like a documentary. It’s not a satire.
It’s a Spinal Tap thing.
They say, “Fifty didgeridoos in a recording studio? That’s nothing! We went so much crazier than that!”
The Sisters Brothers is now in limited release and expands Friday.