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Bizarre Love Triangle: Cyrus

Veteran character actor John C. Reilly teams up with Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei in the Duplass Brothers' dark new comedy. Mumble no more...

John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill


The Duplass brothers are a filmmaking team whose first few films (including The Puffy Chair and Baghead) were instrumental in the coining of a new genre: mumblecore. [Definition from Wikipedia: "primarily characterized by ultra-low budget production (often employing digital video cameras), focus on personal relationships between twenty-somethings, improvised scripts, and non-professional actors."] However, pigeonholing them with that moniker does them a disservice—aside from potentially hipster 20-somethings, who wants to see movies that are best described with a word containing “mumble”?
With their latest feature, Cyrus, the brothers—Mark, who moonlights as an actor (The League, Humpday, The Puffy Chair), and Jay, the cameraman—have broken out of the super-low-budget indie mode. Cyrus has legitimate stars: John C. Reilly, morphing his character-actor genius into a leading man role; Marisa Tomei, changing things up as the mother of a 21-year-old; and Jonah Hill, the socially awkward aforementioned 21-year-old manchild. It also has a real budget, thanks to another pair of brothers serving as executive producers—Hollywood bigwigs Ridley and Tony Scott.
Cyrus: Duplass Brothers
Jay and Mark Duplass


The plot of Cyrus is a bizarre love triangle, if ever there was one. John (Reilly) is a long-divorced, lovelorn freelance film editor whose ex-wife (and still his best friend) Jamie (Catherine Keener) is about to remarry. Worried about John’s asocial tendencies—he lives alone, and tends toward depression—she demands he join her and her fiancé at a party. John is decidedly skeptical, but his wildest dreams are answered when he meets Molly (Tomei), who is not only charming and lovely, but also clearly fancies him; the two hit it off and begin to see each other. The trouble begins when John discovers Molly has a son—one who is not particularly keen on the idea of another man coming into the picture.
The film is being billed as a comedy, and while it’s wildly funny, it’s also quite dark. The relationship between Molly and Cyrus makes the outsider looking in uncomfortable, as Cyrus’ attachment to his mother is clearly unhealthy. What’s equally disturbing is Molly’s oblivion about—and encouragement of—the situation, which gives John understandable pause. But I reiterate—it is very funny. And I won’t give away much more, because the beauty is in the surprise, which was as true for the actors as it is for the audience.
Cyrus: Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly
Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly


The Duplass brothers are known for their commitment to unique moviemaking techniques—two in particular. First, while they write a complete script, they almost abandon it while filming, relying entirely on improvisation. They don’t even film one take of a scene using the scripted dialogue. This method necessitates their second requirement: they insist on filming their scripts entirely in order. This is basically unheard of in modern moviemaking, since it requires all actors to be available the entire length of the shoot (for example, Keener is in scenes at the beginning and the end, but not many in between), and they need access to some sets/locations the entire time as well. This would be prohibitively expensive—and somewhat impossible—if they were filming a movie with intricate lighting and multiple locations, but given the simplicity of their needs, they are able to make it work.
In a recent roundtable interview with the press, Reilly explained that his wife [Alison Dickey] is an independent film producer who had met the Duplass brothers and had seen their Sundance breakout The Puffy Chair early on. At her encouragement, Reilly saw the film, loved it, and put the word out that he’d be interested in finding something to work with them on down the road. They wrote Cyrus with Reilly not only in mind, but as their only choice to play John. In fact, Reilly continued, “We sat down and they said, ‘We really hope you want to do it, because if you don’t, we’re not going to make this movie; we’re going to make something else. Because you are the only person we thought of the whole time we were writing.’ I wanted to work in the way that I’d heard they work, and it’s not everyday someone writes a script with you in mind. It was flattering, you know?”


Cyrus: Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly
Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly


While Cyrus was the first foray into studio filmmaking for their brothers, they brought their indie gestalt with them. Reilly said, “When they made The Puffy Chair, I think it cost them like 10 or 15 thousand dollars. And they would just shoot things over and over and fully improvise and find their way through the story; I think the story kind of made itself as they went along. And [Cyrus] was much more expensive, and had a bigger movie crew and all the trappings that come with a studio film. But to their credit, they really stuck with the way they like to work, which is basically to kind of throw the script out.”


What does that mean as an actor? “You get to the set, and they are like, ‘Yeah, this is a great scene, [but] we’re not going to do that. Just go with your instincts, and if what happens in the scene [as written] ends up happening, then that’s great, cause that’s what we were thinking, but if something else happens, then that’s fine too.’”
Reilly is no stranger to improvisation, from his work with Will Ferrell, Judd Apatow, and the like, but this was something entirely different. “It was actually kind of scary on a lot of days! Even when I do a lot of improvisation, you do the scripted version once or twice. And once you… feel like you’ve got a good version of that, then you can start riffing on it. These guys were like, ‘Don’t even bother saying what’s written in the script. Literally, just say what comes to mind.’”
He continued, “We also shot in order, and it’s a real blessing to be able to do that… You can really find an organic way through the story, and the characters build and get to know each other. I didn’t know Marisa at all before we made this movie, and I met her the day before we started. So when you see us meeting at that party, it’s like the second day I’d known her. As we [the characters] got to know each other better, that was what was happening between me and Marisa. And Catherine and I have known each other for a long time, so it was great to have that instant intimacy [which served the story well].”
Cyrus: Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly, Catherine Keener
Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly, Catherine Keener


Given that there is little to no rehearsal time among the actors, and also minimal blocking of the scenes, it’s not surprising that the majority of what we see on screen is the first or second take of each scene. Reilly is surprised with the final product: “I’m really happy with the movie. I was really shocked at how well it all tied together. Many days on this, I was like, ‘I don’t know what we just did. Hopefully it makes a story, because we were all over the place.’ It’s funny, because they wrote a script beforehand, but really I realized that what these guys do is they do their screenwriting in the editing room, almost. They gather all this material, and they try to guide it,  but they leave it in the actors’ hands, and then they sit in [the editing room] and construct.”


What audience is Cyrus for, exactly? Reilly was thinking about it from a 40-something point of view [though he’s been happily married for 18 years], but soon realized the appeal extends to other generations—in part because of Hill's street cred with a younger demographic [fans of Superbad, Knocked Up, the recent Get Him to the Greek], but also because of the subject matter. “When we took this movie to Sundance, I was being driven around by this guy in his 20s,” Reilly explained. “He said, ‘I think a lot of people my age are going to relate to this movie.’ And it took me a second, because I was thinking about it from [my friends’] point of view—people in their 40s trying to figure out a new relationship… He was thinking, ‘Well, my mom and dad are separated, and there are many times when I’d come home from college, and there’s be some dude boning my mom. And I’d have to sit across the table from this guy. You kinda want to punch him in the face, but also it’s your mom’s friend, but you’re not sure how nice to be, because is the relationship going to work out or not? So it’s this really awkward thing.’”
Cyrus: Jonah Hill
Jonah Hill


We asked Reilly if there was a lot of cracking up on set, given the comedic talents of all involved. He singled out a particularly hilarious scene, in which Cyrus is unjustifiably enamored of his own ridiculous computerized music: “Jonah could NOT keep it together. He laughed so much when he was doing that, that the footage that’s in the movie is the ONLY footage of him not laughing. They cut out all the laughing and what they were left with is what’s in the movie.”


Typically, actors have systems in place to develop their characters, and that usually comes from the script, but in this case, there wasn’t the luxury of memorizing lines. “All I could do was just prepare to be unprepared! And that’s sometimes really hard to do. It’s easier to go in, ‘I’ve memorized it. I know what to do. I’m just going to do my best.’ If you’re walking in, ‘WHAT is going to happen today? The whole story could change”—and [the brothers] were really open to it—I think it makes for a really original sounding movie, an emotionally true movie.”
When you see the film, it’s true—the characters sound like real people reacting to real-life situations as would you or I. Reilly shrugs, “Over 80% of what I say in the movie is improvised. [When I say,] ‘I’m Shrek, I’m like Shrek in the forest’—that was just me having a low-self-esteem moment in front of Marisa Tomei. The movie is full of all kinds of lines like that.”

opens Friday, June 18, in New York and LA, and in other cities in coming weeks. Find tickets.


Follow Cyrus on Twitter: @n0tmileycyrus


Check out the official website: and the unofficial website:


Watch the trailer:



Check out the trailer for The Puffy Chair:



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