John C. Reilly — the Academy Award-nominated actor, musician and one-time on-screen “Step Brother” of Will Ferrell — surely knows something about video games. He provides the voice of the main character in Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph,” a movie steeped heavily in arcade culture that opens in theaters on Friday. He was a teenage boy when the digital toys of the Atari era were first unleashed on the joystick-obsessed youth of America. Yes, he seems like the kind of guy who would do well on a retro-video-game-trivia quiz, which is why this writer attempted to give him one during a recent phone interview and the affable Reilly agreed to participate ... until he heard some of the questions.
“Let’s skip the quiz,” Reilly, 47, suggested after we got to quiz item No. 3. (Which famous journalist endorsed the home video game console Intellivision? Answer: George Plimpton. Yes, the questions might have been a little obscure.) “All the gamers will be mad at me” for not knowing the answers, he said.
No, it’s too hard to be mad at Reilly, especially when he compensates for the quiz mishap by confessing that he once was obsessed with Space Invaders and also enjoys a quality round of Touch Tanks on his iPad. Here’s a partial transcript of our conversation.
Unlike a lot of animated movies, “Wreck-It Ralph” allowed its actors to record much of their vocal performances while in the studio with their fellow actors. What was that process like?
Reilly: I was kind of shocked to learn when I was offered the movie — as I did a little investigating about animated movies — that that’s how it’s done. Because you can’t really tell most of the time but ... I thought, that would be a shame to be cast in some movie with an actor that you really love and then you don’t even get to see them until the premiere. So when I met with [director] Rich Moore, I said Rich, you gotta have us in the same room at the same time. Someone like Sarah Silverman, she’s such a quick wit . She’s so funny and such a great comedian and such a great improviser, it would be a same if we didn’t take advantage of the chance to throw stuff back and forth to each other right there.
Was there a lot of improvisation?
Reilly: I think that was the obvious thing we thought we would get by being in the same room, the chance to have a repartee in real time. What I found surprising about working with Sarah was that there are a couple of really dramatic scenes that are really heartfelt and emotional. There’s this one scene where I kind of have to break her heart in order to save her life, and that was really amazing to be able to do that together, to be able to look into each other’s eyes. There could be an argument made that, well, you could have just imagined her there and done that on your own. But I think there are a lot of little, subtle details with the way we communicate with each other that [are] hard to reproduce in a fake way.
I can always tell when actors in movies are on the telephone and they’re pretending that someone else is on the other line. You can always tell. “Wait, they’re not — there’s no one on the phone. They’re pretending.” I think the reason is there are a lot of unconscious things we do when we’re communicating that are difficult to reproduce without someone being there.
Were you ever really into video games?
Reilly: I was of the first generation of people that had video games come into their lives. I remember when Space Invaders arrived in the bowling alley where I used to hang out. Going from pinball machines to Space Invaders was such a quantum leap. People forget now — we’re so used to computers and all of our ability to interact with media the way we do now. When Space Invaders came out, there were no computers, no cell phones — I mean, I think VCRs were invented, but we didn’t have one in my house. So just the idea to be able to manipulate something on a screen was really groundbreaking. It was super-exciting. So needless to say, I spent a lot of money and time...
...at the bowling alley.
Reilly: At the bowling alley, and then at the convenience store on the corner. Wherever. Those games used to be everywhere. You could go into any kind of hot dog place and there would be a couple of machines in there.
Do you play video games now?
Reilly: Every once in a while, if I, like, have a cold or something and I’m laid up in bed for days. Recently I was, and there’s so much stuff on the iPad to waste time like that. I ended up playing this game called Touch Tanks, which is ... basically just moving a tank around a board and blowing up other tanks. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that. In general, those are the sorts of things that I’m drawn to, as opposed to things where you need to memorize the technical aspects of different weapons systems.
My mind was blown when I realized that Jerry Buckner of Buckner & Garcia, the duo behind the ’80s hit “Pac-Man Fever,” contributed a song (“Wreck-It, Wreck-It Ralph”) to the “Wreck-It Ralph” soundtrack. Did you have any input into the song since it focuses on your character?
Reilly: [The filmmakers] asked me to sing that song. And I was like, well, I have a band and I do music. I’ve worked so hard to be taken seriously as a musician. I don’t know that I want to be the guy to do the novelty song for the movie. I’m glad it worked out that way because you got the guys who do the Pac-Man song. I think they were better suited to it. I brought a bunch of kids to the premiere of the movie the other night, and they were dancing in the aisles to that song. I think they were the right choice for it.