Gemma La Mana
John C. Reilly stars in "Walk Hard" as a musician whose songs changed a nation. Reilly took on the Dewey Cox persona on a publicity tour for the film.

The thing about John C. Reilly is that he looks so much like John C. Reilly. Other actors can disappoint in the flesh, but Reilly's face is remarkable: piercing gaze, Neanderthal brow, chiseled cheeks, nose like a pickle.

He comes down the stairs to the backstage area of San Francisco's Great American Music Hall dressed as a stylish civilian — plaid shirt, suede jacket — but the occasional bleats of sound check and the massive stacks of gear serve as reminders that he isn't just an actor playing a musician in a movie. He'll take the stage later that night as Dewey Cox, the imaginary, legendary master of all popular 20th century musical forms as part of an 11-date publicity tour for the new movie "Walk Hard."

Reilly calls the tour "super fun" but admits to a bit of wear. "Filming the movie and recording the music for the movie took everything I had, in terms of being an actor and learning how to be a musician," he says. "And doing these shows has required a whole other level of energy output."

A few years ago, when Reilly played the cuckolded husband in the screen adaptation of the musical "Chicago," his career seemed to be summed up in his solo number, "Mr. Cellophane." The lyrics — "Mister cellophane/ 'cause you can look right through me/ Walk right by me/ And never know I'm there" — pointed to Reilly's status as an award-winning actor without significant name recognition.

That has changed. Perhaps a better way to identify Reilly is through the nickname he came up with for Cox: the Chameleon.

Over his career, Reilly has slipped into a wide variety of parts with ease, and worked with many accomplished directors and actors. After beginning his film career with a principal part in Brian De Palma's "Casualties of War," he become a favorite of Paul Thomas Anderson ("Hard Eight," "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia"), was in two Martin Scorsese films ("The Aviator" and "Gangs of New York"), got an Oscar nomination for his role in "Chicago" and worked with Robert Altman in "Prairie Home Companion."

He's been happily married for 15 years to independent producer Alison Dickey, whom he met on the set of "Casualties." They have two children.

"Walk Hard" marks the second time Reilly has been cast as a leading man — he played a con man in "Criminal" (2002).

For the role of Dewey Cox, director Jake Kasdan says there really was no other candidate. "At the absolute earliest stage of the project, he was the only person we talked about," Kasdan says.

"It was as real an acting job as I've ever had to do," Reilly says, "with the emotional stuff — we're talking about drug addiction or a long-lost son or begging for your life in prison."

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service