“Can you believe it? Can you believe the Cubs won the World Series?,” exclaimed a very enthusiastic John C. Reilly, who plays huge Cubs fan Hank Marlow in “Kong: Skull Island” (opening Friday).
Reilly’s character is a World War II pilot who had been stranded — and out of touch — on a remote South Pacific island for 28 years and asks if the Wrigley Field-based team “had won the World Series yet.” The irony: The movie, set in the 1970s, was shot well before the Cubs broke their legendary 108-year dry spell last fall.
Reilly laughed thinking about the Cubs and Chicago-centric references he makes in the film. “When we were making this, of course, we had no idea of what was going to happen. The season was just beginning. The Cubs were doing well, but it was anybody’s guess the way it was going to go. But we knew we would have a topical joke — about the Cubs — no matter what happened,” he added.
The always-busy Reilly was calling from London, where he just wrapped “Holmes and Watson,” playing Dr. Watson to Will Ferrell’s Sherlock Holmes in a humorous take on the iconic British sleuth.
His Chicago roots had nothing to do with all the Windy City references in the script, Reilly said. “The character was always written to be from Chicago. Of course, I took a special relish in all that stuff, as I was diving into the character. It was definitely a love letter to my home town in a lot of ways.”
The South Side native snickered when asked about Chicago’s other, World Series-winning team. “That’s the elephant in the room, Bill! I’m definitely a lifelong White Sox fan. But having watched that exciting win last fall where the Cubs pulled it off — I had to give it to the Cubs. After that Game 6 I thought, ‘Well, maybe they don’t deserve it!” But the way they pulled it out in that last game, I thought they did deserve it — big time. It was so great for the city, no matter what side of town you’re from.”
Reflecting on “Kong,” Reilly admitted he would have had a very tough time surviving on an isolated island for 28 years. “I kept imagining all the different journeys he must have taken from despair to hope to back to despair again.” That said, the actor noted that he loved playing someone from the World War II era. “I love so much about that time — the jargon, the music, the clothes of that time. I love the sense of masculinity from that period. That can-do spirit.
“Still, at the same time, he’s also this kind of an evolved character who has gotten past all that war stuff. He’s come to realize it’s human beings who are important — and not flags and uniforms. That was a very cool part of the character.
Reilly was involved with the filming of “Kong: Skull Island” from start to finish. “I was there from day one to the final day of filming,” said the actor, thinking back to shooting the movie in Australia, Hawaii and Vietnam. It was that Southeast Asian locale that resonated the strongest with him.
“First of all, this was the first big Hollywood movie to ever be filmed in Vietnam. And think about this: It depicts all these Americans in Vietnam War-era uniforms from the 1970s. So going into that place was a really heavy thing, when you think about it.
“When you arrive there, you realize the Vietnamese don’t call it the Vietnam War, they call it the American War! … But they have moved on. Most of the people in the country are under 40, so it’s a very young country.”
However, Reilly was deeply moved by a scene he shot near the end of the film, when his character said goodbye to the leaders of the fictional native people on Skull Island — played by two elderly Vietnamese actors. “They were two people who lived through the Vietnam War era, and even though we didn’t have a common language to talk about that stuff together, we were saying a lot with our eyes. The tears that were coming to me at that moment in the film were not just about my character saying goodbye; there was some kind of connection with me being an American. It was a shared human moment that was very powerful for me, and I think for them too. I’ll never forget that, and it added something to that scene.”
Helping add Chicago flavor to “Kong: Skull Island” was its young director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts. It was while he was studying at Columbia College Chicago that the Michigan native decided to pursue his dream of making movies.
“But, being from the Midwest, Hollywood always seemed so far away and unattainable,” said Vogt-Roberts, during a chat in Los Angeles. “I never thought it was realistic. I thought it was a fool’s errand. … But I overcame that and went to Columbia to try this film thing despite all those misgivings.”
Vogt-Roberts’ early approach to filmmaking was a far cry from the big, special-effects-loaded action adventure of “Kong: Skull Island.”
“I was all about comedy and improv. My early stuff was completely all comedy-focused, working with friends like Thomas Middleditch, Pete Holmes and T.J. Miller. My world was the comedy world. It was so great in Chicago, thanks to places like Second City and the ImprovOlympic [now iO Theatre]. It was a great incubator for me — and incredible place to cut your teeth in the business.”
For the director, the chance to helm “Kong: Skull Island” was an opportunity for him to convince audiences that “this is not some generic Kong film. This is not going to be what you think it’s going to be. In addition to all the amazing special effects — which I have to give the lion’s share of credit to [Industrial Light & Magic] — we also have incredible actors like John C. Reilly, Brie Larson, Sam Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston and Richard Jenkins, who can do Broadway and Shakespeare. We have incredible actors who all are so engaging to watch in this film.”
For Vogt-Roberts, while “a huge element of this film is about the struggle of man vs. nature, there’s something even larger: being OK with the unknown — being confronted with myth. Myths can still exist and we need myths. We need magic in our lives. In this age of the internet and super technology, we want answers to everything. Part of this movie is about surrendering, and saying, it’s OK not to have all the answers.”
Speaking of myths, Vogt-Roberts believes the enduring appeal of the King Kong myth is fairly simple.
“All of us, in our own way, feel like we are misunderstood by somebody. There’s always someone who doesn’t understand us in the way we want to be understood, and that can be painful. There is a pain felt when somebody thinks you’re something you are not.”
Myths aside, it’s a fact that Vogt-Roberts misses some Chicago things now that he’s settled in L.A.
“That’s simple. These are real: Pequod Pizza on Clybourn and Sultan’s Market — for its great falafel sandwiches!”