If his latest film gets any traction, he might be a whole lot better known. In Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby, Reilly, playing Will Ferrell's dim-witted but lovable NASCAR buddy, drives away with some of the film's funniest lines.
"It was so much fun it should be illegal," says Reilly, dressed in a cream-colored summer suit and coming across exactly as he appears onscreen: luggish, homely, with a tremulous voice that never quite puts you at ease. "They should probably make me give my salary back. It was almost like a vacation."
You've seen Reilly, even if you don't recognize his name. Since gaining indie cred as part of P. T. Anderson's regular ensemble, he played a porn star in Boogie Nights, a love-struck cop in Magnolia, and he's probably best known for his series of screwed-over cinematic husbands, including that poor schmuck in Chicago, a role that netted him an Oscar nomination.
"Yeah, I've played a few cuckolds," he laughs. "Unfortunately, they were all in the same year. These days, I'm trying not to repeat myself."
Earlier this year, he tried his hand at comedy as one of two cowboy musicians (Woody Harrelson was the other) in Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion. Reilly was good -- he's always good -- but Talladega Nights marks his highest-profile film role to date. And it could be a transitional moment.
Director Adam McKay calls him one of the four or five funniest people in America. Even if you take this sound bite with a grain of junket back-patting salt, it's telling. In Talladega, Reilly devours the role of Cal Naughton Jr., whose happy-go-lucky manner, complete with handlebar moustache, makes way for a couple of unpredictable twists.
"Some people like a dependable flavor of ice cream, but I like to be surprised," Reilly explains. "Part of the mission of comedy as a genre is to subvert people's expectations, to upend societal norms."
Recently, he defied another kind of audience expectation when he starred as Stanley Kowalski in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. The reviews were mixed.
"I knew going into it that there were a lot of preconceptions about the show," he says. "But if you read Marlon Brando's autobiography, he writes that he was miscast in the part. He thought if you made Stanley too charismatic or sexually attractive, it threw the whole balance of the play off. Stanley's a working-class polack. I don't know how this idea came about that he should be some Greek god."
To find comparisons with Reilly, you have to look back to actors with Everyman mugs like Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine or Karl Malden. It's no surprise to discover that Reilly's working on a musical version of Marty, the film that won Borgnine an Oscar.
"I think I look like people you know in your everyday life," he says, "and that's a good thing. It gives me more adaptability. People can relate to me more than if I were some perfect specimen."
And with his buddy Philip Seymour Hoffman's recent success as Capote, maybe things are looking up for hard-working talented character actors.
"We had a party for Phil on Oscar night," says Reilly. "I took his win as a great sign, that people can open their minds to accept something other than that the best actor should be the handsomest actor. I was happy the year I was nominated that Chris Cooper won."
He smiles. "I like it when one of the good guys wins, as opposed to someone who's pretty but mediocre."