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Interview: The Wreck-tacular John C. Reilly

The title character of Wreck-It Ralph likes to destroy things, with his catchphrase being “I’m gonna wreck it!” Actor John C. Reilly couldn’t be more opposite – his voice performance of Ralph, full of humanity and conflict, builds the movie around him into something even greater than the sum of its many, many video game in-jokes. We caught up with Reilly at a hotel suite that had been decked out like Litwak’s Arcade, with free-standing Wreck-It Ralph consoles and a massive, fully edible Sugar Rush diorama based on the movie’s primary locale inside a candy-themed racing game.

Nerdist: So this now makes two of my favorite movies of the year that you’ve been in.

John C. Reilly: Wow!

N: Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie obviously being the other one.

JCR: The two very similar, of course.

N: Both deconstructionist in their ways.

JCR: I suppose so, yeah.

N: Now, it struck me that all the principals in this movie are basically doing really sincere takes on the sort of characters they normally do an ironic twist on. When you were doing it, did you ever feel yourself going in an ironic way and checking yourself?

JCR: Have I played this character in an ironic way before? I don’t think so. I feel like, in some ways, this character is really similar to my own personality, more than any other characters, in some ways. Well, there’s an innocence to the characters that keeps you from being too knowing, or too smart-assed or whatever you want to call it, because one of the things I think is really attractive thing about all the characters in the whole movie is that – other than Jane Lynch’s character, she seems to have a sense of how all the other games work – but my guy has been in this one very limited world for 30 years, and it gives him kind of an innocent quality. So that kind of kept things – the rules of that universe kind of dictated to you from straying too far off of that path, you know.

N: One thing the movie kind of touches on very briefly, but I think could almost go further, is the idea that the villain would be the guy to break free, because heroes don’t have free will in video games, they’re the ones controlled by the player, but the villains can do what they want.

JCR: Huh, that’s a good point!

N: Did that work into your thinking at all?

JCR: Well, I was thinking of it really in a more personal way than so much about the rules of the game. That didn’t occur to me that if you’re controlled by the player… of course, Felix does leave the game, and then there’s just nothing to do at all in the game because the character that you manipulate is not there. But I don’t know, I think it would get to be boring to be the hero of the game after a while too, you know. Of course, the hero only really succeeds in a video game if the player plays well, right?


N: Especially in those older ’80s games. I was just playing the one in the lobby, and Ralph kills me every time. It seems like in real life Ralph would actually win a whole lot more.

JCR: Yeah, but they wouldn’t like him any better.

N: No.

JCR: The Nicelanders would hate him even more.

N: Are you much of a gamer yourself, or are have you ever been?

JCR: This whole term “gamer” is a whole foreign thing to me; we used to call it “Player 1” and “Player 2” when I played video games. (laughs) I don’t have a lot of time to play games now; I’ve got a family and stuff, so I don’t do it too much, although I have a few things on the iPad that I occasionally will become distracted by, like Touch Tanks. But it’s funny, even the games that I’m drawn to now are really similar in their primitive style as the early games that I played when I was a kid, like Tank Battle on Atari. Simpler looking, but in terms of what the objectives of the game are, it’s not all that different than the tank game that I play on the iPad.

N: I’ve noticed that; The simple games are coming back because you can play them by social media and mobile devices a lot more.

JCR: Yeah, in some ways it requires more imagination or something; you’re reading more into it. I mean, some of these games are so complete and so complicated to interact with – there are so many option menus and all these different accessories and stuff that you almost have to… I don’t know, as I get older, I’m getting less and less interested in learning entire new rule sets for things that I use.

N: Are your kids at the right age to really appreciate you doing Disney movies, or are they like “Oh, dad, cartoons are lame!”?

JCR: I don’t really talk about them. But I will say this about the movie, that it has really broad appeal.

N: Yeah.

JCR: There were a bunch of kids at the movie last night, and it’s like a lame kind of press-tour thing to say, but it really is appealing to all different age groups. Because if you’re older, you can appreciate the kind of mid-life crisis that the character is going through. If you’re younger, you can identify with this little girl character played by Sarah Silverman. Or if you’re just kind of into the kinetic world of video games, you find that interesting – I don’t know, it seems to be appealing to everybody right now.

N: Also, to get things like the classic Nintendo cheat code, you have to be of a certain age to have known what it was.

JCR: Exactly!

N: In Ralph’s self-pursuit of the medal, does that connect in any way to how you felt when you were pursuing the Oscar a few years back?

JCR: (laughs) No. Honestly, I was really honored to be nominated for an Oscar. I know it’s a cliché, but I was really honored to be nominated, and I found the whole campaigning part of the thing really uncomfortable. That’s one of the reasons I became an actor, because I just didn’t have the stomach for the competition of sports. It’s just too intense.  And I don’t believe in turning art into a competitive field. I think first of all, you can’t, really. It’s like, putting things in categories and having them compete against each other, it is such a subjective kind of decision between things. Yeah, so to answer your question, no, I didn’t feel like Ralph chasing the medal when I was nominated for an Oscar, and in fact I don’t, I haven’t pursued prizes in my life in that kind of way. I think of my biggest competition as myself. I’m trying to get better at what I do and challenging myself. As soon as you start focusing too much on other people, and whether other people are better than you, or you’re better than them, you’re taking your thoughts out of what you should be focusing on in your work.

N: You’ve gotten to do so many different things, is there any one thing that you haven’t gotten to do yet as an actor that you’d really like to do?

JCR: I don’t know, I guess the thing I haven’t done yet, whatever that is (laughs). I had a really good time doing Gangs of New York. I think I’m really suited to doing period work; I wish I got more of that. Of course, there isn’t all that much period stuff being made these days; It’s kind of an expensive, adult-audience kind of movie to make right now, I think. I’d like to do more musicals; that’s something I get a lot of satisfaction from. I thought Chicago was great and I thought it was going to usher in a whole new age of movie musicals. Still waiting on those! I don’t know what else. Honestly, I said to Rich Moore, the director of this movie (NOTE: check out his Nerdist interview right here), last night, if I could make a living doing just voice over, if I got enough work doing voice over, if it was as collaborative as this process has been for this movie, I would be perfectly happy doing this, just being behind a microphone and doing things, stuff with my voice. Who knows? Maybe if they make a sequel or something, maybe it will be a way to make a living.

N: I’d be amazed if there’s not a sequel, frankly.

JCR: Ya think?

N:Everyone I speak to loves this movie, and there’s no way Disney’s not going to pay attention to that.

JCR: I guess so, yeah. It’s funny, I was thinking about it last night, and I watched the movie and I think the movie is great and works really well, but it wasn’t one of those movies where I felt like “Oh! And this would be the next chapter in the story!” It seemed like the story kind of settles at the end. I don’t know, that’s just my first impression.

N: You could also say that about Toy Story, but they made two great sequels to that.

JCR: Yeah, true.

N: So was it a really easy segue for you to just go into a booth and not interact with other actors, or did they record you guys together?

JCR: No, we did it together. That was one of the things I was pushing for hard at the beginning with Rich. You know, I was unsure about even doing the movie at first, because I’ve been offered other animated stuff, but it just seemed…I don’t know, the way other studios do it and stuff, sometimes you don’t even see the whole script, they just give you a scene, “Go in and read this page of dialogue, and we’ll call you when we need more dialogue.” You know, all these other great actors in the movie but you never even meet them until the press junket. It just seemed to me like it didn’t sound that fun, it didn’t sound fulfilling. But then Rich was like “No, we can do this however we want to do it. Just because that’s how other people have done it doesn’t mean we that’s how we have to do it.” So I was like “We should have everyone – if you’re talking to someone in a room, you should be able to do that!” You get so much more detail in the communication when you’re actually talking to someone, than as opposed to when you’re pretending to talk to someone. I mean, you can always tell when you watch a movie, and someone’s on a telephone, and you can tell when there’s no one on the phone, and the actor’s pretending to talk to someone on the phone, because that’s a really hard thing to fake, all of the little subtle things you do when you’re communicating with someone, especially face-to-face, even more than on the phone. So Rich agreed and we set it up in a way – mostly the reason people don’t do it more is because then the voices bleed on top of each other, and you can’t isolate takes. You can’t say “Oh, I like the way you said that!” But all we did was make these kind of isolation things and adjust the microphones in a certain way, and it worked for us! I hope it catches on, because I think it’s a much more fun way to work for actors.

N: It does seem like when I talk to people who do voice over, that that’s more and more the way. But another thing I’ve also heard people say is when you’re doing a part of the script where there’s a physical action, and obviously with Ralph there’s a lot of that, you can’t really do the big movements, you have to restrain yourself, so it doesn’t make noise in the chair. Was that the case on this, or were you able to move around?

JCR: I moved around a lot, but I’m also, I’ve been doing it for a while. I’ve done a lot of ADR, and looping and stuff for movies, so I’m aware – it’s no good if you’re jostling against the music stand, or whatever. But I did, and even some of the sound effects, I was manipulating my face, and I was putting gum drops in my mouth, or hard candies in my mouth for that scene when I’m interrogating Sour Bill. So I was using all kinds of physical aids to make the sound happen. You can’t walk away from the microphone, for instance. If you’re running or something, you have to kind of run in place. It’s like doing a radio play or something, you can get some of the feeling, if you get hit you go “Ugh!” You can do stuff to your body that will give you that effect.

N: Was it a very different process than when you did 9?

JCR: We did some recording in the room together on 9, but it’s funny, it also depends on how interactive the dialogue is. Some of the dialogue in the story of 9 was people talking in kind of soliloquy or interior monologues, or reactions to action happening with no one else around, like “Oh, look out!” You don’t necessarily need the other actor there for that. So anyway, it was a much smaller part on that one too, so I remember doing some recording on the same day as Elijah Wood, but it was a different kind of movie.

N: How much of the pre-vis was done when you came in? Obviously Ralph has a similar kind of hairdo to you; it seems like they may have taken some cues. Was he fully formed already?

JCR: No, that was one of the kind of amazing things that I got to experience thanks to Rich allowing me to be part of coming to the studio and I did motion studies for them. I would come in and act out the character and do all these gestures, because the way his physicality is kind of reminded me of some of my uncles and stuff, guys that used to play football that now had big guts. But that was one of the amazing things, was watching the development of the character from the beginning. He went from a one-horned monster at one point, because they were kind of riffing on that gorilla from Donkey Kong, this idea that he could just be this monster that’s destroying things. And then it was like a monster with my hair crudely Photoshopped on top of it. And then it took on – there were a lot of different sketches. I really love that about the animation process; it’s kind of no-holds barred, it’s completely free at the beginning, and they really encourage each other to just go with the wildest ideas they can come up with. But then at a certain point, I had to say, “Rich, I kind of need to know whether I’m playing a human or not.” It helps me understand what the character is about if I can understand what his point of view on the world is. It’s different if you’re a one-horned monster than it is if you’re just a big guy.

So there were sketches, and then they got more and more detailed, then they got more consistent, and then eventually, pretty much half-way through the process you start seeing short, crudely animated little sequences. But for the most part, the sessions would start, I’d come in, and Rich would have storyboards printed out on these big pieces of paper, and he would go through and say “And then this happens, and then this happens, and then we open up to this.” All beforehand, so that we knew when we were doing the dialogue, we were like “All right, this is that part.”

N: Last question: Step Brothers was so good. Can we persuade you to do any more writing?

JCR: Well, I did get kind of a writing credit on this movie. I mean, they gave me “Additional Story Material By” because I was doing all of this improvising and coming in and giving them my thoughts about the story. I’d love to do more writing! That was one of the funnest times I’ve ever had, working on Step Brothers, getting to toss around all those stories. Yeah, we’ll see. There was talk of a sequel to that one at one point. We’ll see.

Wreck-It Ralph opens today in theaters. If you enjoyed this article, consider signing up for Nerdist News to get more like it first thing every weekday morning, and subscribe to the Nerdist Channel for video interviews with the cast of Wreck-It Ralph coming later today.

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  1. Ben Ragunton says:

    I just saw Wreck it Ralph yesterday and all i can say is that it was SUCH an enjoyable film!!!

    The nerd references to 80s games gave this 50 something year old geek a complete thrill! The voice acting was superb and everyone was perfectly cast… The animation was fun to watch and the story had just enough depth to it that I found myself getting teary eyed at the end…

    Thank you for the interview… Sometimes being able to see how the magic trick is done allows one to enjoy the trick even more so, and knowing that JCR wanted the cast to be together in the room for the voice over work makes me enjoy all of the character chemistry that much more!!!

    Great interview Chris as always Chris!!!