Reilly the only guy for ‘Cyrus’ 

Taking risks has never intimidated Mark and Jay Duplass.

Since debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003 with “This Is John,” an eight-minute short shot on a $3 budget, the New Orleans-born brothers have risen to prominence as the founders of mumblecore, a vérité-style approach to filmmaking that favors on-set improvisation.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that they took an equally fearless approach in casting “Cyrus,” their first studio film, which opens today.

In the movie, John C. Reilly plays John, a lonely divorcé whose latest romance is nearly sabotaged by his girlfriend’s pathologically possessive son. Mark and Jay knew they needed Riley for the role — they wrote the movie with him in mind — but they never bothered to tell him.

“If he didn’t take the part, ‘Cyrus’ probably would never have been made,” says Jay, 37. “It was a ridiculous gamble to do something like that, but when you’re that inspired by one human being, you can’t help it.”

As fate would have it, Reilly was a fan. His wife, indie film producer Alison Dickey, had turned him on to Mark and Jay’s 2005 debut, the no-budget romantic comedy “The Puffy Chair,” and had encouraged him to work with the brothers, whose do-it-yourself style suited Reilly’s talent for improv.

Soon after, Mark and Jay presented him with a script.

“The first time we met, they told me ‘Cyrus’ wouldn’t work without me,” says Reilly, 45. “It’s not every day that someone writes a script with you in mind. It means someone has taken the time to think about what you bring to the table that’s unique. It means they have a vision.

“Sometimes I’m offered things, and the producers tell me they need an answer by Friday or they’re moving on to somebody else. To me, a movie is only worth doing if you get the perfect people to do it. If you’re just trying to beat a deadline and you don’t care who plays the parts, why bother?”

Today, Reilly is grateful to be working with filmmakers who refuse to settle for second choices and trust their actors to participate in the creative process. In Mark and Jay — who used their script only as a loose outline to inspire the cast — he found two such visionaries.

“I’m not sure about this mumblecore label,” Reilly says. “What does it mean? I guess it means that Mark and Jay reject processed storytelling and phony characters. Maybe they’re not as economical with their words as some writers, but who cares? That’s exactly why I wanted to work with them.”

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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