“I try to make myself invisible, so that you can see the character better,” Reilly said recently, explaining how he came to be one of Hollywood’s hardest-working actors. “I would much rather work from inside the character and try to really become that person. I think people relate to the characters I do because I work really hard to make them real, to make them as complicated as human beings really are.”
Raised on the Windy City’s rough Southwest side, Reilly began his acting career performing in local theaters. He was accepted into the prestigious Goodman School of Drama and graduated into the upper echelons of Chicago’s thriving theater scene, working with the influential Steppenwolf Theater and the Organic Theater.
At the Organic, Reilly wrote and directed his own two-man show, “Walking the Boogie.” It was during this period that he sent director Brian De Palma a video of himself. De Palma immediately hired him to play a misguided grunt in his Vietnam drama “Casualties of War.” Memorable roles in dozens of films, including “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “The Thin Red Line” and “Magnolia,” soon followed, but Reilly never turned his back on the theater. He returned to the Steppenwolf to star opposite Gary Sinise in both “The Grapes of Wrath” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” A recent stint on Broadway in Sam Shepherd’s “True West” earned him a Tony nomination for Best Actor.
“The hard thing about doing a play on stage is that you have to repeat it all the time,” he said, “but the good thing about that is that if you mess it up one night you can say, ‘All right, tomorrow night I’m really going to get that.’ “
Reilly admits it was his love of live performance and the “pure energy” it channels that first made him want to be an actor.
“I am a huge Tom Waits fan,” he said. “He’s such an incredible story teller in his music and I remember thinking when I was studying acting, ‘Man if I could ever do with my acting what he does with his music.’ That immediate connection. There’s no filter that the audience experiences. His music misses your head altogether and goes right into your heart. That’s a really exhilarating feeling, when you’re channeling pure energy to an audience.”
In preparing for the majority of his roles last year, three of which had him playing husbands trapped in unhappy, even tragic, marriages, Reilly says he found inspiration in a long line of “tramp clowns” or “archetypical, sad-sack vaudevillian guys,” particularly Stan Laurel, Emmett Kelly, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Discussing the part he plays in the big-screen adaptation of the musical “Chicago,” Reilly describes his character, Amos, aka Mr. Cellophane, as a “mechanic desperately in love with this girl and she keeps doing him wrong, but he loves her so much, he just can’t see the truth,” not just some “stupid, goofy guy.”
“That’s a through-line that a lot of my characters have for whatever reason,” he said. “Your guess is as good as mine why people see this in me, this kind of willfully ignoring reality or they’re just na