Q&A: John C. Reilly on Dr. Steve Brule, Rapping, and the White Smoke That Emanates From the Screaming Mouth of Will Ferrell

Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

There is a peculiar TV personality named Dr. Steve Brule. He used to show up on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! but now he’s got his very own Adult Swim program, Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule. To say too much about him would be to take away from his cockeyed magic. But rest assured he is armed with good intentions, a healthy curiosity about this earth and its many denizens, and a childlike naïveté perhaps unsettling for a fully accredited doctor. (Sample episode descriptions: “Dr. Steven Brule checks out what a home is and where some people live.” “Dr. Steven Brule learns what a horse is.”)

He also bears a striking resemblance to John C. Reilly. But ask Reilly about the program, and he’ll patiently explain he is merely the executive producer, tasked primarily with making copies of Brule’s footage at a “video duplication facility” and helping to get the word out about this special, special show. To that end, Reilly got on the phone with us last week to talk Brule, Paul Thomas Anderson, Step Brothers, Ricky Bobby, Cedar Rapids, and a few other landmarks of his oddly brilliant career.

I just found an old interview of you on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, talking about filming a fake take on Cops with your pal Paul Thomas Anderson. I don’t really have a question here. That’s just incredible.

That show, when it first came out, it was really unique. The whole world has turned into that reality TV, but when Cops first came out, it was like, “Holy shit.” We were obsessed. Nobody could believe what they were seeing. So we made kind of an improvised version of that. I would dress up and drive around, and those tapes kind of became the basis of my character in Magnolia. Paul loved to film stuff. He’d get the video camera and follow us around and we’d see what would happen.

Damn. That’s rad. So does doing Steve Brule kind of bring you back to those old freewheeling DIY days?

Anytime you get to work with total freedom, it’s pretty great. I would say I’ve gotten a lot of chances to do that, like the stuff with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. But yeah, so when I first met Tim and Eric, they were making Tom Goes to the Mayor. I remember walking into their offices and being like, “You have a suite of offices, a green screen, camera equipment, and people working here that could make anything happen, and no one is supervising this.” That was stunning: These two smart-asses from Philadelphia [alone] in L.A. I was like, “Do you know how lucky you are? Do you realize this never happens?” Anytime it’s just creative people making decisions, that’s usually the best stuff. That’s the stuff I’m most proud of.

You mention the same thing applies with Ferrell and McKay, which is obviously on a different scale. How do they get away with it?

They just insist on it. They say, “We are the ones that call the shots.” And they’re such good improvisers that the people that give them money, they know that no one’s gonna come up with a better idea. Most of the good ideas come up in the moment. And so it’s really no choice but to give them their freedom.

I was just rewatching the legendary “praying to Baby Jesus” scene from Ricky Bobby. It looks like maybe you’re fighting down some laughs?

I pride myself on not cracking up on camera, and Will is the one person that I have a total weakness to — there’s something about his commitment, and the crazy things he says, it really gets me. There’s one point in that scene, I remember, I really start to lose it. There’s a part where he starts screaming at Chip, the father of his wife, and Will was yelling so loud, I literally saw steam come out of his mouth. Some weird chemical reaction happened, you know, like when a plane breaks a sound barrier and a weird cloud appears. I saw white smoke come out of his mouth while he was screaming.

That is truly remarkable. Is that the same kind of mania that you’re trying to tap into for Tim and Eric and Steve Brule?

Well, I’m happy to, as executive producer of the show, to encourage people to watch Steve’s show. It’s a very important show and there’s a lot of good information. And I realize there’s a lot of fans of Steve’s out there that might not be aware that he has his own show. I realize that a lot of people know Steve from the [Tim and Eric] clips, and not as much from the fact that he has his own show. He’s worked very hard on it, he’s overcome a lot of struggles, and I think he deserves a shot.

What kind of struggles?

Well, you know, Steve, if you watch the past seasons: He’s gotten sick, he’s taken hallucinogens … he’s taken a lot of hits in the line of work for his viewers.

So you don’t have anything to do with the actual shooting of the show?

Oh, no. Me, Tim, and Eric receive the show from Steve after it’s already done. He gives us the videotape, and basically our only duty as executive producers is to duplicate it at a video duplication facility.

I see. So what do you think Dr. Brule has learned over the process of shooting his show?

You know, you’d have to ask him directly. But I would say, as an observer, I don’t think he’s learned all that much. I think that he’s just suffered trauma. But who’s to say that’s bad? Maybe that’s growth.

Some of your more mainstream stuff, like Step Brothers especially, is almost as unhinged as Steve Brule.

You’re either free or you’re not, you know what I mean? I feel really free when I work with Will. And even though Step Brothers was kind of a mainstream hit, I think it’s a very subversive movie, and it’s actually really absurd, too. It’s one of the things that I’m most proud of. We made a movie for a wide audience that’s got stuff that’s pretty out there. I appear as, um, what do you call it? Not a minotaur, a centaur. I appear as a centaur and I talk in an imaginary language. Most mainstream comedies just don’t go to that place.

I don’t know if you know this, but that movie seems to be particularly popular with rappers. These guys Don Trip and Starlito have done a couple of mixtapes now kind of in homage.

Will and I were gonna do that. I guess our style has been copied already. We were actually writing a rap record already. We’ll have to have our lawyers get in touch with these guys … No, I’m happy that somebody is doing it. I really wanted to do it for a long time. We’ve been so busy that we’ve never come together [for it]. We did write a few songs that were pretty great …

Wait, really? Like, you went in a studio and were listening to beats and stuff?

It was really like writing, writing the lyrics out and stuff. We never got to the place of actually recording.

How are you at writing rhymes?

I’m pretty good. I’m pretty good at writing in verse. And, uh, I love hip-hop. It was a super fun exercise.

Not as many people saw Cedar Rapids, but that movie has a special place in my heart. I’d argue it’s one of your greatest performances. How’d you nail the character of wild-man insurance salesman Dean Ziegler?

I’m from the Midwest, so I’m familiar with this kind of guy. I was really in my element. And anytime you get to play a character who’s the person in the story that gets to say what everyone else is afraid to say — whenever you get to tell the truth — its super fun. The challenge with that character is, he says some really gross things. He’s making vagina jokes, like about tuna. And blending that with some real, human honesty, hopefully I accomplished that.

There’s moments in Step Brothers, too: You really feel bad for these guys. You see the true humanity. Comedy and drama — I really do see it as all the same thing. There’s no good comedy where you don’t feel for the character in an emotional way, and there’s no good drama without a little bit of humor in it, or at least something that makes it familiar. And that’s definitely something we tried to do with old Deanzie.

Also, I had suffered a loss in my life right before I made that movie. It was a big right turn, to go and do that movie. And, uh, I think that’s kind of why I have such abandon when I’m making it. I was kind of coming from a really sad place.

You do drama, comedy, you play in a band, you show up in Beastie Boys videos. It must be really rewarding, to be able to ping around like that. Did you ever make a conscious decision to try to make that happen for yourself?

No. My whole life, I just tried to avoid having a job and keep doing what’s fun, and luckily at some point I turned it into a job. Acting was just something I was doing since I was 8, just because it was fun. Never did I ever make a conscious choice. The nature of my personality, I get bored easily and I don’t like repeating the same thing over and over again. I’ve met some people that can do that. And you look at somebody who plays the same character in movies, and you think, God, that guy’s got an easy job! Show up and be himself and people love it! For whatever reason, that’s now how I’m made up.

And I gotta imagine the more challenging stuff is more rewarding.

It can be. Stuff that makes you nervous to do it, it’s often an opportunity to grow in some way. But sometimes you get in the middle of something, and you go, “Oh that’s why I was nervous about doing this! ’Cause I shouldn’t have done it!” But I would say, most times, just go for it. The world limits you already. You shouldn’t limit yourself.

I’ve heard you say that you don’t really enjoy watching yourself. I feel like I’ve often heard good actors and even directors say that, and I wonder, is that kind of a requisite to making good stuff? Being self-critical, not being too enamored with yourself?

I don’t know. Some people just have very healthy egos, and they like looking at themselves. I’ve got much lower self-esteem than that. But even though I do find it uncomfortable to watch myself, it’s an important part of the process to watch it at least once, so you get a sense of “this is what I was feeling” and “this is what was coming across objectively.” This notion of actors are these instinctual children that can’t be shown too much of their own work or it’ll wilt the specialness of what they do — there’s a technical part of everything. Actors can really learn from looking from what they did.

That said, doing something in film, it’s like building a sand castle. Or it’s like fruit that gets ripe fast. It almost immediately starts to deteriorate after you’ve done it. That’s the reason that movies that stand the test of time are so special. In five years, you go back and look at it, and the consciousness of an audience has moved on. You realize, “People don’t think this way anymore. This is not relevant.” But there’s so many great classics that are not that way. It’s hard to predict. When they made Casablanca, did they know? Did Bogart know we’d still be talking about it? I was watching it the other night and I started crying from watching it! That’s an old movie! But it’s so romantic and, I don’t know. There’s something really true about it.

Awesome. Well, I think that’s all I have for you. Thanks, man!

Thank you, Amos. I like your name, by the way. I played a guy named Amos. It’s one of those good old classic names. Tell your parents I said, “Good job.”

Filed Under: Q&A, john c. reilly

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Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

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