John C. Reilly is one of Hollywood’s most well-known and most diverse actors. His filmography has taken him from serious, creative and acclaimed dramas (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) to an Oscar nomination (Chicago) to tear-inducingly hilarious comedies (Step Brothers). He’s also branched into the world of television, most notably as Dr. Steve Brule, who has been seen in multiple shows in the Adult Swim universe.
Reilly is also no stranger to the animated world, having voiced one of the most beloved cartoons of the past decade, Wreck-It Ralph. Now, the actor finds himself steeped in the animated world of television along with Animation Domination creative director Ben Jones. Together they bring the masses, Stone Quackers, a series set in the fictional city of Cheeseburger Island, the series revolves around the misadventures of two ducks, Whit and Clay.
Recently, we caught up with Reilly and Jones in a roundtable set up by FXX. In it the two talk about improvisation in an animated world, Wreck-It Ralph vs. Stone Quackers and Reilly’s work as ‘Office Barry’ on the show.
John, what was it about this project and working with Ben (Jones), in particular, that made you want to get involved?
John C. Reilly: I was actually first exposed to Ben through his artwork. I saw a show that my friend, Mike Diamond, curated at MOCA, and his piece was my favorite piece of the whole show. And, then it turns out we had a mutual friend, Eric Wareheim (Tim & Eric), and Eric just had nothing but great things to say about Ben. And, then I went in and met with everyone, and he was a delightful chat, and Whit [Thomas] and Clay [Tatum] were also very charming, funny guys, and we quickly just started telling stories about our childhood and juvenile delinquency. It just seemed like a really inspiring, fun thing to do.
But, to tell you the truth, like, actually the first thing I saw of Ben—what was the thing called? Chrome—that first short you did that was the prequel to Problem Solverz?
Ben Jones: We had Neon Knome. That was a good one.
John C. Reilly: Neon Knome—that’s it. So, I saw Neon Knome, and myself, and a lot of my friends were obsessed with that for a long time. I just thought it was this mysterious thing created by some weirdo somewhere, and then that was true, but it also turned out that Ben had done a lot of other things and—anyway, so I was already a big fan.
So, when this came my way, I thought, wow, I must be a cool person to be asked by such a cool person to do such a cool project.
What makes Stone Quackers stand out from the rest of the animations out there, like currently on TV?
Ben Jones: That’s a good question. Yes, I mean, well there’s lots of great things about how we make this. First off, we make it with a very small team, it’s like three or four people drawing it for the designs, and then ten people animating it, and that makes it a very different creative experience, making it. And, I think the end product, you can kind of tell it’s a little bit more like, maybe experimental isn’t a good word, but it’s more an artistic project than a kind of commodity or a product of like a big studio, and so I think that kind of makes it a little bit more crafted and a little bit more unique, more like a Wes Anderson film and less like a—I don’t know, Charlie’s Angels 2, or something, which are both great films but a—
Yes. That’s one of the things as to why it’s different than other shows.
John C. Reilly: I don’t have a huge awareness of the other animation on TV other than, say The Simpsons or something, but what I can say, what I think it has going for it is, I can tell from the creative process that improvisation is embraced, and used which gives it a real kind of spark of excitement and originality, and it’s really, it’s also very personal, these stories.
For the most part, or at least the characters come from the real lives of Whit and Clay. And also I think having Ben’s perspective as an artist is different, and I don’t know, it’s different than just trying to please people with a cartoon. It’s more—there seems to be more depth to the expression, and certainly visually it’s pretty unique.
Ben Jones: Yes. I’ve just tried to create a world for the characters to kind of explore and inhabit. Yes, and that’s been, I think that’s a much different process than some other shows, and I think it’s really fun for us to kind of work in that zone.
John, what’s been your your favorite episode of Stone Quackers so far?
I haven’t really seen any of the full episodes, yet, but my favorite one to make was probably, I don’t know. I mean, my favorite interactions on the shows have been—oh, I know, my favorite— I think the favorite one I did was the last one which may have not have aired yet, which is where the boys try to teach me to be a tougher guy.
Ben Jones: Yes.
John C. Reilly: They teach me not to be someone who gets their beak busted, which is a euphemism for getting his balls busted. In Stone Quackers, it’s getting your beak busted by your cohorts. So, that was pretty fun, and I also liked really—I really liked working with Heather Lawless, who plays “Dottie” in the show. She’s really, really funny, and we do a lot of ridiculous romantic interactions in the show. I hope that answers your question.
What’s different about recording a series like Stone Quackers compared to recording something like, Wreck-It Ralph, a film?
John C. Reilly: They’re pretty similar, in my experience. In terms of—what I like about doing voice-over, in general, is that you’re never fighting the sun. When you’re doing films, you’re always fighting either the clock or the sun or you’re always desperate when this kind of scramble to get what you’re trying to get in as quickly as you can. But with animation, the voice recording is always moving faster than the animators can move, so you have the luxury of exploring and improvising and goofing around.
[Stone Quackers] takes place within one session as opposed to Wreck-It Ralph, which was months of getting that arc complete. But honestly, I felt really lucky, and I was very careful before I agreed to do this, that it would feel similar to my experience on Wreck-It Ralph because I got really spoiled on that, by that director. He gave me a lot of freedom, and it was just fun to be together, and I quickly realized meeting Ben and these guys that this would also be a fun hang. That’s pretty much my criteria at this point for everything in my career. It has to be a fun hang or it’s really not worth it.
With the target of this being kind of older kids or adults, basically, watching this at midnight, do you feel you have a little more freedom in terms of what you say? Obviously, you can go to places and say things that you wouldn’t have been able to say, like in Wreck-It Ralph. I mean, this does seem more like the target that would have been a fan of Talladega Nights or Step Brothers.
John C. Reilly: Well, I don’t think because it’s on at midnight means anything these days. You make something, the whole world’s going to see it, and I can’t tell you how many times a nine or ten-year old has come up to me and said, “I love Step Brothers, and that part when you say like, “Fuck this shit.” It’s kind of startling like you can try to guide your material towards a certain age group or audience, but in fact, it’s just out there, and I think the kind of anarchic fun spirit of this show really appeals to a lot of different people, but I never try to feel constrained.
The only constraint, I don’t really try to edit myself in terms of like content. What edits you is the character, like Ralph wouldn’t swear, whatever. He wouldn’t do stuff that was like R-rated because he’s not like an R-rated character. You know what I mean? He was sort of an innocent—so I didn’t feel constrained, like oh, I can’t say this, I can’t say that. I was just honoring who he was.
I was curious if you had any say in what your character would look like or did you leave it all to Ben and the animators to do that?
John C. Reilly: No. I didn’t really. I mean, they all look like ducks, so I mean, so I didn’t try to change that. I think we did have like a brief conversation Ben, about like… you’re going to put curly hair on the duck? Okay, I honestly don’t remember. I just have so much respect for Ben as an artist that I just was like, whatever. I’m going to be delighted by whatever it is, so I put myself in his hands regarding that.
Did you try to make him look like me, Ben?
Ben Jones: I remember inventing this language as a whole, like what the eyes, and the nose, and the mouth, and the hair would function globally in the universe, but when it comes down to characters, much like improv or a joke, that stuff just kind of happens, and you can tweak it in the moment. But I don’t think there’s that much of a precise discussion in terms of any of the design, it’s more these overall rules. That’s a little nerdy, but the truth.
Ben, you’ve worked with—you’ve had shows on FOX or Cartoon Network. Is there anything different with dealing with FXX, with getting notes, or with content that you can or cannot air, or any sort of influence they have?
Ben Jones: I think the main difference, so to speak, or the main important amazing insane thing is that we’re on after The Simpsons, and that’s like telling a young David Letterman that he’s going to be on after Johnny Carson. We have this amazing opportunity, and I just can’t even imagine that we’re expanding on what they’ve done as a cultural force, and not only just as a visual thing, so that’s what this affords us. In terms of the specifics — I can’t remember day-to-day on anything. I can’t even remember if we asked John if it was okay to make him have a big beak, and chest hair, but yes, this is just about—you turn on, kids are watching The Simpsons, and then all of a sudden they see a bunch of ducks. That’s what FXX is all about, and it’s an amazing opportunity.
This one is also for John. So, you have tackled film and now animated television. What do you enjoy most about the animation and voice-over process in comparison to a film and making a movie?
John C. Reilly: Yes. Actually, I have to brag for a second. I was a guest star as myself on The Simpsons, one time.
Ben Jones: It’s true.
John C. Reilly: And I got a residual check the other day from The Simpsons for $0.01, which is a whole other conversation. But yes, what’s different about this is the freedom of not having to fight the clock, and not having to be worried about the sun going down, and shooting movie scenes have really pressurized situation because you’re trying to quickly get lightening in a bottle, and then you have to move on.
And, in animation you have this luxury of always having time because the animators need time to draw, and so you can horse around in the studio, you don’t have to memorize all the dialogue, you can just kind of freestyle, make mistakes, go back, do it again, so it ends up being this really kind of collegial fun thing, or it has been for me for the most part. It has been all the time on this one.
Ben Jones: Having John in the booth, I don’t think we’ve ever kept anything in the script. I mean, he and whoever else is in the scene find it in the process and yes, we have the script to kind of outline what’s going on, but in essence they’re writing it in real time, which I assume is harder to do in live action. I don’t know. Maybe not.
Well, I was wondering, you were talking about you do a lot of improvisation, so obviously you’re interacting in the studio, which I know some shows the actresses have a script, they go in, do their part, they’re done. If you didn’t have that chance to improvise and interact, would you still be interested in doing any animated series? This is for both of you.
John C. Reilly: No. I wouldn’t be. I’ve had experiences like that, and I have to say that it really stinks, you end up feeling like, I don’t know. It sort of feels like a manual labor job or something, you’re just going in, plugging in, doing this thing everyone told you to do, and then punching your card and getting out, not seeing any of the other actors, and I don’t know. For better or worse, that’s not my skill set. My skill set is like trying to come up with something tailor-made for the moment, so I try to avoid those situations that are going to end up like feeling like what you just described. Ben?
Ben Jones: I agree. Absolutely. Never.
You were mentioning that you do a lot of improvising. How does that impact—is that common in animated series? And, how does that affect the animators?
John C. Reilly: I don’t know how common it is because this is the only one I’ve ever done, but it doesn’t seem to upset the animators on this too much. Ben? Right?
Ben Jones: Not at all because, again, we have everything in house, and it’s a small team so other processes take— other studios will take eight months to turnaround something. We can turnaround something in five minutes, so if there’s a change, we’ve developed a work flow that plays to that.
And, how far afield have you gone from the scripts in the course of the series, so far?
Ben Jones: Yes, 360 degrees to which we were back at the exact same lines written on the—not. Not funny; 100%, absolutely.
John C. Reilly: There’s a similar process to actually when I’ve worked with Will Ferrell in the past where we—you try to come up with a really funny script then you do what’s written a few times until like you feel like you did it really well, and it was funny. Then you start goofing around, and you throw it out, and then you cobble together something that best fits, I guess, at the end of the day.
Why ducks? Any special reason or—
Ben Jones: Yes. I think it’s just kind of a— it’s cartooning. Why do cartoons even exist? It’s an interesting thing, I think. It’s a way to kind of make something that’s even more human than you can draw realistically, like sometimes you can capture someone’s personality as a funny little drawing, and certainly one where you turn humans into characters, they become even more human, and I think it’s a way for us to just explore these characters as real funny people. It’s just something I’ve always drawn.
You guys have talked a lot about improvisation, so there’s probably a lot of stuff that doesn’t make it to the final cut that’s really entertaining. Could we maybe see something like that with the show? Some outtakes?
Ben Jones: Yes. I will tweet them out to all for our fans which I love and our fans on social media aren’t homeless people defecating in alleys, to tag the last answer that I gave.
John C. Reilly: Didn’t they do that? What movie, what animated—they did that like in Toy Story or something—?
Ben Jones: Yes. Toy Story does a good job.
John C. Reilly: They took outtakes and made it like the cartoons were goofing off camera, whatever.
Ben Jones: We do plan to make little shorts and literally tweet them out and put them on Instagram and Vine, and I think that’s a great format and platform for really fast, short, funny content.
Stone Quackers featuring the voice of John C. Reilly airs as a part of FXX’s Animation Domination Block Thursday nights at midnight.
Mallory Delchamp is a writer, model, and performer living in Manhattan. You can routinely read her film and music reviews here on Pop-Break and you can also check out her work on zumic.com and nytheatreguide.com. A social media and pop culture enthusiast, Mallory also enjoys musical theatre, superhero films, and drinking coffee. You can visit Mallory at her website, www.mallorydelchamp.com