With a who’s-who cast of modern comedy actors, the music-biopic parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is like an SNL movie, only funny. Sure, the jokes are obvious ones that practically wrote themselves, but their hilarity often lies in being so obvious—and then overtly pointing them out again and again. You needn’t be familiar with Walk the Line or Ray to get them, since most music biopics (and even many non-music ones) follow the same pattern.
Actor John C. Reilly, a.k.a. Dewey Cox, and director Jake Kasdan (who co-wrote the movie with current king of comedy Judd Apatow) were recently in town to screen the movie. Before Reilly’s live show at the Mercy Lounge—on the “Cox Across America” tour, natch—the Scene spoke with both gentlemen.
SCENE TO JOHN C. REILLY: I've read that Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan really created Dewey with you in mind. Once they told you about the role, did you immediately say yes or did you have to think about it?
John C. Reilly: They actually called me before they'd written it. Judd called me after Jake Kasdan—who'd come up with the idea and pitched it to Judd—Judd called me right after that and said, "I was just talking to Jake, and we were laughing really hard about this idea, doing a comedy version of a music biopic, and we think you'd be perfect." Judd and I had just worked on Talladega Nights together, and there was actually a big music scene in that movie that ended up getting cut out.
Scene: What was that?
Reilly: Me and Will go to this sort of country-Western concert, and we get up onstage with this guy and sing this song about America called "F-in' Red, F-in' White, F-in' Blue." And it just didn't make the final cut of the movie. It was too much of a detour from the plot, I guess. But Judd was there that day when we filmed it, and he saw me playing the guitar and singing. I think that's when he realized, "Wow, he could play a musician." That said, I knew Judd was brilliant and that it was a really good thing to work with him and that we had a great time on Talladega Nights.
Scene: So you were involved as they were writing it?
Reilly: Yeah, they encouraged me to give them any ideas that I had for the character and also the types of music that I thought I'd be good at, that I could sing. The two of them wrote it, but they kept asking me for ideas and my response to the different drafts of the script. Then we pretty much right away started recording music and writing songs, and that was a whole other discovery of the character too, finding out lyrically what he'd be saying at different times in his life and also how he would respond to the changes in music over the years. I was hesitant at first, just because I wanted to make sure that whatever I did next in terms of comedy would be as funny and as good as Talladega Nights, and as fun as that to do. As soon as I read the first draft, I realized what a dream-come-true this was going to be in terms of getting to do all the different things that I love like dramatic acting and comedic acting, and then the music.
Scene: And singing.
Reilly: Yeah, the music was a huge part of it.
Scene: In your interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, you talked about the slippery slope a rock star experiences, where you become a legend to the people around you, so then become a legend in your own eyes. When you got into the character, did you find yourself slipping into that at all?
Reilly: My own self personally?
Scene: Well did you get lost in the character at any time?
Reilly: Well that's the whole point, to try to get lost in the character if you can. I never did anything I regret, if that's what you're asking.
Scene: No, no.
Reilly: Personally I just shut that stuff off at the end of the day. I'm, like, a family guy.
Scene: So you didn't need Dewey rehab afterward.
Reilly: No, I did not. Although that said, it was really exhilarating getting to play someone as confident as Dewey is and as reckless and insane as Dewey is in the movie. It was super liberating to be able to just let go of any kind of modesty or shame. Dewey may have started off down-to-earth, but he quickly became a legend in his own mind.
Scene: Now that you're getting to perform as Dewy Cox on the "Cox Across America" tour, is it great to be able to re-live that character again?
Reilly: It's a little daunting actually to go back and start doing the character again, because I'd done another movie since I did Walk Hard. I just finished this movie with Will Ferrell about a week ago.
Scene: Step Brothers?
Reilly: Exactly, and it's a very different character in that one, so it was, like, "Oh, OK." But the music has always been the touchstone for me to this character, and once I did a couple of rehearsals with the boys, it all came flooding back.
Scene: Do your get more out of it performing the character live onstage with a live audience vs. on a film set?
Reilly: Well we had a lot of audiences on the film, so I did have a lot of that same performance...
Reilly: Energy, yeah, and feedback. But doing the live shows is this whole other crazy thing, getting to interact with the fans and cut Dewey loose. It feels more like doing a play than a movie actually. I've done a lot of theater in the past, and it's that feeling of independence that you have as an actor onstage.
Scene: Is the tour wearing you out?
Reilly: No, I'm all right. They're taking good care of us, and the shows are really exhilarating, so as tired as I am during the day, by the time I get to the show and afterward, it's been a lot of fun.
Scene: So Walk Hard is actually your second biopic about the rise, fall and re-rise of cocks.
Scene: Yeah, I'm referring to Boogie Nights.
Reilly: Right. Yeah, that was the rise and fall of Dirk Diggler I suppose. Not exactly a biopic, that one, but yeah, I know what you mean. I was actually in The Aviator. That's what I thought you were going to say. That's the real biopic that I did.
Scene: I was actually more interested in some other characters that you've done, for instance, Dr. Steve Brule from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! What's the story with that?
Reilly: I became friends with Tim and Eric when they had a show called Tom Goes to the Mayor, and I just love how those guys can do whatever they want. They have this budget from the network, but the network never tells them what to do. They just have these offices, and you can just go in there and improvise. They're super nice guys, and they're very funny, some of the funniest people out there right now.
Scene: It's a hilarious show, and I didn't even know you'd done clips for it until my research for this interview.
Reilly: Yeah, I did a bunch more, too, that are coming out this season.
Scene: Was that a character of your own creation?
Reilly: Pretty much. I'd always loved the characters that they do called "The Married News Team, Jan and Wayne Skylar." I told them, "You guys, that is really funny. You shouldn't let that go," because it was just a thing that they would stick into Tom Goes to the Mayor. I said, "You gotta keep doing that. Those are really funny characters and a great, original idea." And they were, like, "Really? You like it that much?" I was, like, "Yeah. We should do a newscast, where I'm another person on the newscast with you, like the crazy features guy." And they were, like, "OK." So they came up with a couple of rough ideas, but then I just went in, in front of a green screen, and started improvising, and we just came up with a lot of different crazy ideas on the fly for that. Yeah, it's become a very popular character.
Scene: Who would you say is more like the real you: Dr. Brule, Harpoon Man, Sasquatch or Dewey Cox?
Reilly: Well Sasquatch is real, so am I like the real Sasquatch? I don't know. I suppose I'm most like Dewey Cox, to tell you the truth, because we have similar lives, in that we're both performers and do a lot of traveling.
Scene: Gods in your own lives.
Reilly: Gods in our own lives? I don't know about that. I'm a little more modest than Dewey. I'm a little more in control. Yeah, I suppose if I had any similarities to any of those people. Certainly not Harpoon Man. And Dr. Steve Brule, he's slightly damaged.
Scene: What would you say is your guilty pleasure when it comes to music?
Reilly: I don't have any guilty pleasures. I just enjoy what I enjoy. Are you trying to get me to say some silly thing that I'm into that I wouldn't normally admit? Is that what you mean by guilty pleasure?
Scene: Yeah, just something that you like that people don't know that you enjoy.
Reilly: When I take pleasure in something I try not to feel guilty about it.
Scene: Besides having the No. 1 box office hit, what do you want for Christmas?
Reilly: I want the world to love Cox. Beyond whether the movie's a hit or not, I just want the people who see the movie to walk out of it with a new understanding of Cox and what Cox has given us.
SCENE TO JAKE KASDAN: You and Judd Apatow have talked about how when you were writing Walk Hard, you were writing it for John C. Reilly.
Jake Kasdan: It's true. We wrote the movie for John. We had this idea early on about the fake life story of this—or the true life story of this ridiculous fictional character, and as soon as we started talking about who it should be, we knew John was really the guy to do it.
Scene: Was it from his singing in Chicago?
Kasdan: It was the combination that he's a brilliant actor and a hilariously funny guy.
Scene: Were you familiar with his sea chanteys on the Rogue's Gallery album?
Kasdan: I was familiar with his monstrous voice. I've got to say, as much as I knew he could sing, I didn't know he could sing quite like this. What he's done in the movie is just an amazing vocal achievement, really.
Scene: In a Fresh Air interview, you mentioned that you worked with several different musicians to come up with the songs. Did you collaborate with them or just pick through their completed submissions?
Kasdan: We worked with Mike Andrews, who produced all the music, and Manish Raval and Tom Wolfe, who are the music supervisors, and contacted a bunch of people and asked them to read the script and take a crack at anything that sort of got under their skin. So we started getting these demos back, initially from a bunch of people, then very quickly it became a core group of four or five guys that were doing most of it. And a lot of them were guys I had already known personally and was familiar with their work: Dan Bern, Mike Viola. Marshall Crenshaw wrote the title song. I didn't know him, but Manish called him up and asked him to take a look at the project. We sort of found some guys who were writing these great songs that were making us laugh.
Scene: When I heard "Royal Jelly," I was laughing out loud. It's a dead-on Dylan parody and totally off-the-wall. I love that.
Kasdan: It's pretty incredible, I know. I'm glad you felt that way.
Scene: When I saw the first commercial, I wanted to see Walk Hard. I love parodies, particularly when it's a parody with talent behind it—and a budget. It actually makes a big difference.
Kasdan: Well there's no question that this was the world's most complicated stupid joke to achieve, and we all put a ridiculous amount of—almost embarrassing amount of energy into it to get everything as accurate as possible.
Scene: Well the quality elevates it above just the dumb jokes.
Kasdan: I'm glad you think so. We love our dumb jokes, and you've got to hang them on something.
Scene: With the ensemble that you got together, that had to have been the most fun you've had making a film.
Kasdan: It couldn't have been more fun. We just had this unbelievable group of people. The way it works in the movie, because John's in every scene and playing the part from the time he's 14 to the time he's 80, the effect of it is we have this huge cast of hilarious people sort of rotating through in scenes opposite John—sometimes for one scene, sometimes for 10. But it was kind of an interesting thing to do because it was John every day and just this amazing sort of rotation of some of the funniest people we could think of.
Scene: Were there people who were chomping at the bit, once they heard about this project, to get into it, or did you just call up people that you'd worked with, such as Jack Black and all of Judd's guys?
Kasdan: Yeah, you call up and beg your friends and people you've worked with to come do it and...
Scene: Hope they're not busy, or if they are you say, "You don't want to do that. That's going nowhere."
Kasdan: That's right. And part of it is you find that people do want to be Paul McCartney for a day if they're free. That sounds like fun to people, so we got some of that. But it was just calling up and asking favors, and we found a lot of amazing people to come do it for a day.
Scene: I've seen a bunch of clips that you've uploaded to YouTube, and the number one video on the community-based popularity website Digg one day was the Tim Meadow's scene where Dewey walks in on him getting high, and he tells Dewey, "You don't want no part of this shit."
Kasdan: The "dangers of reefer" scene.
Scene: I haven't seen either Walk the Line or Ray, which I feel terrible about coming into this, but you've mentioned that there was a scene in Ray that inspired the scene.
Kasdan: Well there's a bunch of them that have stuff like that, where someone sort of happens into a dangerous situation and then is warned, "Don't get involved in this! You don't want no part of this!" And you know as soon as you hear that, they're going straight there. That's what they're going to do immediately.
Scene: In the biopic genre, you always have the foreshadowing. There's always someone saying, "Oh, this will never happen." And next thing you know...
Kasdan: There's always someone to walk in and announce what's about to happen and what's happening. "It's the '60s! This is a very exciting time!" Or, "Nothing terrible's going to happen today."
Scene: The clips I've seen but haven't heard much about are the '70s era, when Dewey does the disco show...
Kasdan: His variety show.
Scene: That had to have been so much fun to make.
Kasdan: It was so much fun to do. Yeah, his variety show is one of our favorite things in the movie. I swear, there's a part of me that feels like we could easily produce a season of The Dewey Cox Show with all of the ideas that we had. At one point we wanted to have him doing a bunch of comedy skits and stuff like that, you know, see what Dewey's show was like, but we ran out of excuses to do it.
Scene: And you didn't want to make an epic.
Kasdan: Exactly. Well we shot the movie very long—the finished movie's 90 minutes long, so it's quick, but the first cut was like three hours long and had all the songs playing out at length, and it was kind of an epic. I called it Dewey of Arabia, and we've since pared it down to a size that's a little more digestible for people.
Scene: I know you're focused now on the theatrical release, but looking forward to the DVD...
Kasdan: They'll be some good stuff on the DVD, no question. The Walk Hard experience is best consumed on the big screen just 'cause it's a big goofy movie, but after you've had that experience, there are entire other dimensions of the Walk Hard experience to continue to experience.
Scene: The movie looks like one you'll want to own and watch over and over.
Kasdan: I'm glad you think so.
Scene: Good music comedies like that—I'm immediately reminded of The Rutles and the overplayed This Is Spinal Tap, which is only so because it's wonderful...
Kasdan: You can't go wrong—that is a great DVD, and that's a movie that you can keep returning to and it remains hilarious and brilliant.
Scene: So getting back to the theatrical release, are you fully prepared for this to be the No. 1 box office hit that it's going to be?
Kasdan: Not only that, we are prepared to win all of the Academy Awards. That's our expectation. Our modest expectations, we want to be the biggest movie of the holiday season and win all the Academy Awards for Walk Hard.
Scene: I would think that because John C. Reilly is playing this so seriously—you've got this Oscar nominee already in your lead role...
Kasdan: I think it would be some kind of a mistake if he wasn't nominated. He has to be nominated. And I think just because he's flipping over cars in a diaper and doing PCP while crying in Yiddish is no reason he shouldn't win an Academy Award. I think those are reasons he should win the Academy Award.
Scene: It just shows the breadth of his...
Kasdan: It shows the depth of his ability, the breadth of his talent. And he sings.
Scene: So are you thinking Grammys too?
Kasdan: Yes, we'd like to win all the Grammys too. You're the first to mention that, but now that I think about it, absolutely.
Scene: Maybe even the Teen Choice Awards?
Kasdan: Yeah, yeah.
Scene: The sky's the limit.
Kasdan: That's the beauty, there are so many awards to win.
Scene: So what's next on the Judd/Jake genius train?
Kasdan: You know, I don't know. Judd's got 20 movies coming, as is his way. Every three months there's another Apatow coming for the next, like, seven years, I think. And I'm sort of going to catch my breath after this, and then figure it out. I just finished this movie the other day. I'm still pretty deeply entrenched.
Scene: What are you working on now?
Kasdan: No, this, Walk Hard.
Scene: Oh, you just finished this movie the other day?
Kasdan: It's still hot.
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