"Old Town School of Folk Music is such a legendary venue in my mind," said the Windy City native by phone from his home outside Los Angeles. "It's an honor to be playing there ... with my friends and family from Chicago."
"A lot of times people are surprised I'm doing this, like, 'You're a successful actor! You should be riding around in gold limousines and getting your picture taken!'" he said.
Instead, he's hitting the road with musician friends like Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and Tom Brosseau, breathing new life into traditional folk and country tunes like "Ain't No Grave (Gonna Hold This Body Down)."
In a recent interview, the actor/musician discussed how the experience of portraying "Walk Hard" rocker Dewey Cox prepared him for this current endeavor, why he's drawn toward roots music and the discomfort he felt when he first took the stage as John Reilly.
I noticed you dropped the "C" from John C. Reilly for this project.
Yeah, that was a bit of baggage I picked up along the way as an actor. It's something the actor's union made me do because there was another John Reilly. I just decided to keep it simple because the music is pretty simple and pure, and I wanted there to be a difference between what people know me for as John C. Reilly and what they might experience at the music show.
Have you run into anyone who knows you solely from the music and has been confused to learn you're also an actor?
[Laughs] I played some shows in England not so long ago, and a friend of mine's parents live in London. My friend told them, "My friend John Reilly is coming to play." We played this beautiful old church in London and her parents came, and then a week later they emailed her and said, [adopts British accent] "Did you know your singer friend John Reilly has actually done quite a few movies as well?"
As an actor, you've portrayed a number of different characters. Was it terrifying to take the stage as John Reilly for the first time?
You point out something that was a big transition for me, actually. I grew up [acting] from the time I was 8-years-old, and you always have that refuge of the character to hide behind. I've always prided myself on being a modest Midwesterner--someone who says, "It's not about me. It's about the character or the play or the movie. I'm just in service of this thing." So it took a second for me to get comfortable going out there and saying, "No, I'm talking to you as myself."
Why are you so drawn toward that vintage American sound?
I think I'm drawn to ... an eternal quality in the music. There's something about these older songs where this combination of notes and words stays with you. Maybe it's the fact I'm getting a little bit older and starting to crave things that have some permanence. You look at how quickly things change, and how disposable some of our culture is, and then you come across a song like "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and you're like, "Wow, there have been millions of songs written since that one, but for some reason we still remember it." It's like it goes all the way down to our DNA.
Do you see any similarity between singing these three-part harmonies with Tom and Becky and being part of an ensemble film cast?
Well, yes and no. When you sing harmonies together, it's so intimate and so immediate. Occasionally you're in a movie with people you know well, and you have a camaraderie, but it's temporary and you split up afterwards and then maybe you don't see that other actor for another five years. Every single time I sing with Tom and Becky I feel like our souls are connected. To me, the ability to sing harmony is one of the few things human beings can do that really is magic. You're taking your voice, combining it with someone else's and creating a third voice. That's magic, if you ask me.
Did you learn anything from portraying Dewey Cox you were able to apply to this band?
Oh, yeah! That movie was really the summation of everything I'd learned music-wise up to that point. We did this eight-city tour in character as Dewey Cox ... [and] it really made me realize, "I should do this! Why am I not doing this? Is it because the world has told me I'm an actor?" I just think life is short, and everyone should do everything they can while they're alive. If you've got a painting or a short story or a song in you--no matter what the world has told you about who you are--you need to do that. The world would be a better place if everyone who has been dreaming of acting on an artistic impulse just did it.
You also appeared as "Future Mike D" in a Beastie Boys video. Is a rap career next up?
[Laughs] Well, I actually love hip-hop. Will Ferrell and I at one point were talking about doing a music album as our characters from "Step Brothers," and we did write a couple [songs], so maybe that will actually happen one of these days.
John Reilly & Friends, 8 p.m. June 22 at Old Town School of Folk Music. $26-$28.