John C. Reilly: A Quirky, But Effective Mentor, On Screen and Off

John C. Reilly, a wise mentor trying to help a troubled teen through a difficult coming of age? Really?

Really. Reilly, who’s specialized in headlining big, broad comedies in recent years, continues his foray into smaller, more nuanced yet still funny films (“Cyrus,” “Cedar Rapids”) with “Terri,” the engaging story of an overweight, frequently pajama-clad student struggling to cope with his difficult high school years. As the concerned, chatty vice principal whose own life isn’t so together, Reilly delivers a vivid yet amusing turn as the well-meaning but decidedly imperfect adult trying to reach out to a kid in crisis.

It was a story he could easily related to, he tells PopcornBiz.

“I remember what it was like to be in high school and to feel kind of like an odd kid,” Reilly recalls. “I was doing plays and singing in the chorus at a school that prided itself on sports, so that was kind of an odd thing to be doing. Then I also remember all the different mentors that I've had through my life. The relationship between Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald felt a lot like some of the relationships that I've had with different mentors over the years. If you're really being honest with each other, age really doesn't have anything to do with it. We're all just human beings trying to sort out our time on this earth.”

The actor, who would go on to be both Oscar- and Grammy-nominated (for “Chicago” and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” respectively), says he was able to navigate his own outsider experience with the help of adults who took an interest in his ambitions.

“I felt such encouragement in what I was doing,” he affirms. “Before I was even doing movies, before I dreamed I could be in a movie, there were all kinds of people along the way – drama teachers and chorus leaders and vocal coaches and people like that – who were really encouraging and made me believe in myself before I really believed it of myself. They believed in me. You have to do something that makes you feel good that you feel like you're good at, that you can you find success in no matter what it is and just know that the top of food chain in high school ends at graduation, pretty much. It's a big reshuffling of the cards once you leave high school.”

Upon venturing into Hollywood, says Reilly, he also benefitted from the support given to him by a certain emerging acting icon on his earliest film projects, beginning with 1989’s “Casualties of War.” “He's not much older than me, but Sean Penn was a big role model for me when I started out,” he reveals. “I did my first three movies with him. I was lucky to have people like him, Robert De Niro [“We’re No Angels”], Robert Duvall [“Days of Thunder”], Ed Harris [“State of Grace”] – a lot of pretty amazing people for my first few movies, but Sean, especially. He was an early champion of mine who spoke up for me behind closed doors when things were being cast. He never lorded it over me. It's not like I had to be his boy as a result, but he just respected me for what I could do as an actor. He let people know, 'Hey, this guy has something to give,' and I'll be eternally grateful to him for that.”

With “Terri,” Reilly came full circle, trying to set an example for the fresh, promising ensemble of young actors (Jacob Wysocki, Olivia Crociccia and Bridger Zadina), who re-energized him on set. “It's inspiring, that enthusiasm,” he says. “It's contagious and it makes you realize, like, 'Wow, I should really appreciate every day I have while telling a story on a movie set.' These kids, some of them it was their first experience. It makes you reflect on what you were like at that age and it makes you think about what would be the perfect older person in your life at that time, how would they act."

"So I got to be the senior statesman, even though I still feel like on inside I'm a very young person.”

"Terri" opens in limited release this Friday

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