Once Merely Recognizable, Now Known by Name

He has played a soldier in Vietnam, a doomed Massachusetts fisherman, and a jilted Chicago husband.

As a steadily working character actor for nearly 20 years, John C. Reilly is just recognizable enough that people approach him on the street and say, "I think I know you from somewhere."

"You could call me a character actor, you could call me a comedian, you could call me a dramatic actor, you could call me a musician, but at the end of the day what you really are is a show person," Reilly said.

Reilly, 42, was raised in an Irish neighborhood of Chicago, where he was a bit of a misfit among both the jocks at the gym and the dropouts who hung out on the corner, until he found theater, in particular, musical theater.

"You know, that became my peer group, the kids that went over to the park to the field house to do 'drama,'" Riley said. "'John, are you going to drama class?' That's what we used to call it."

He went to DePaul University in Chicago, where he became an accomplished stage actor, and jack of all dramatic trades.

Front and Center

He's always been part of the background. But now, for the first time, his face is selling tickets. Reilly is, in his words, "the man on the movie poster."

In "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," he's the lead character, a fictitious musician who invented every genre of popular music from the sound of Buddy Holly to Bob Dylan.

The movie is a send-up of the musical biopic, poking fun at films like "Ray" and "Walk the Line."

His apprenticeship for writer-producer Judd Apatow's oddball humor movies began with "Talladega Nights."

"Whenever people notice me on the street or they come up to me, it's a great thing," Reilly said. "I can't tell you how many times people say to me, 'Hey, I love you.' I haven't even said hello to them yet, and they're telling me that they love me."

With that "everyman" Irish face, he has played a series of working stiffs, soldiers, losers and a porn actor in the 1997 movie "Boogie Nights."

"I think I'm ideally suited to the job of being an actor. I love to disappear into something that's foreign to me or something that's different from my everyday life," said Reilly.

For a guy who's played mostly dramatic bit parts, he's got a lot of talents.

"If you look back in film history and even theater history that used to be like a given. If you were going to be an actor, you should be able to sing, dance, do classics, do comedy, do everything and that was the job of the actor."

For the 2002 film version of "Chicago" he did a stunning vaudeville song and dance. He can also be very funny ... and he goes about being funny the same way he goes about being serious.

"I don't make a big difference between comedy and drama," Reilly said. "I try to just do it as truthfully as possible and if the circumstances are ridiculous then it's a comedy."

'All You Need Is Three Chords'

In "Walk Hard" Reilly's Dewey Cox gets his musical inspiration from life's struggles.

"It ain't easy to walk to the top of the mountain. It's a long hard walk," Cox says in the movie. "It's a rocky road. But I plan on walkin'. Oh, I'm gonna walk hard. I will walk hard ... walk hard."

Reilly plays a blues riff as his character sings "Walk hard, walk hard, down life's rocky road. That's my creed, that's my code."

He plays all the music in the movie, and is largely self-taught.

"All you need is three chords really. That's the great secret of guitar playing; all you really need is three chords. Buddy Holly said all you need is one chord and the truth. So if you know E, A, and B7 you can do almost any Elvis Presley song," said Reilly.

To promote the movie he's been touring the country with the band, appearing in character as Dewey Cox.

"There's a beautiful young man, name of John C. Reilly, playing me in the movie; he's not as good looking as me, but I think he did a fine job."

Poking fun at fame is just part of the job while becoming famous himself. As his notoriety grows, Reilly is ever-conscious of public expectations, and the idea that well-known actors ought to live a "gilded life."

But he just feels lucky to be doing his job.

"You have to really, at least I do, push against it. And say, 'No, I'm an actor, and I'm proud of that. And that's enough for me.'"