After a quarter-century in film, John C. Reilly has learned a thing or two about nuance. He’s had occasional turns as a leading man, but makes his trade in animating the personalities of otherwise underdog characters. In Disneynature’s Bears, which opened in theatres last Friday, Reilly does just that. As narrator, his trademark voice colours the lives of a mother bear and her two cubs wandering the Alaskan wilderness, injecting a sense of playfulness into a story of survival. The Globe and Mail talked to Reilly about bears. Just bears.
Why did you decide to take on a movie about bears?
I came in relatively late in the game. [The producers] were like, ‘Would you like to be the narrator of this nature film? Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones have done it before you.’ And I was like, ‘Uh, yeah – that’s a group I want to be counted among.’
What did you learn about bears that you didn’t know before?
How difficult it is to be a bear. The popular conception of bears is that they’re these massive, totally dominant animals that live this solitary life and just wander around eating. And then they sleep, or dig up honey – almost this kind of hedonistic life. … And then you watch the film and you realize, no, because of the extreme nature of the places they live, it’s a challenge every single season to get enough to eat.
Do you have a particular favourite kind of bear?
After watching so much of [the film’s] bears, I’m pretty interested in brown bears, yeah. I’m not really someone who thinks of things in favourites. But I think bears are really cool animals. … And looking at them – unlike most other animals, when you look at a bear moving, it really does look like a person inside of a bear suit. There’s something about the way their skeletons are laid out that it actually looks like a human form inside of there. Like a big, fat human inside of there. That’s pretty fascinating to look at.
Who’s your favourite bear in pop culture?
My favourite bear would be Baloo from The Jungle Book. I think that’s how I got this job. I was doing Wreck-It Ralph at the studio, and I turned to Rich Moore, the director, and said, ‘You know, I feel like I’m channelling Baloo the Bear – the rumbly, gentle voice.’ The engineer behind the glass was like, ‘John, that character was voiced by Phil Harris, and he stood in the exact spot you’re standing right now when he recorded The Jungle Book.’ I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a big honour.’ And when Disney approached Rich to ask him his advice about who to narrate the movie, Rich must have remembered that conversation.
Stephen Colbert once called bears ‘godless killing machines.’ Now that he’s the new host of The Late Show, this new influential position in society, do you fear for America’s bears?
Stephen Colbert is a great satirist, so I don’t think he actually feels this way about bears.
Have you ever encountered a bear?
Yeah, I’ve encountered a couple of bears. It was pretty scary.
One of them was digging through my garbage cans, and he ran off. Another time we saw a younger bear run in front of our car up in the mountains north of Los Angeles. It was thrilling, though, like seeing a leprechaun – ‘That’s a bear! In Los Angeles County!’ They’re there, but you don’t expect to see them.
What would you use to defend yourself against a bear?
Well, I suppose, a tree. Climbing a tree. I would not recommend to anyone to engage in a violent manner with a bear. If you can’t scare them off by acting bigger than they are, the best way is to hit the deck and hope they get bored with you. I think the best-case scenario for humans interacting with bears is that we both go our separate ways.
This interview has been condensed and edited.