Here's a twisted little Christmas present of a movie. In the new drama Carnage (which opened in select cities on Friday), directed by Roman Polanski from the play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, two affluent New York couples meet to discuss a playground incident. The son of Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly was hit, so they're the hosts, serving fruit crumble and tension in their carefully curated Brooklyn apartment. (The movie, which was shot in Paris, takes place on one set, in real time.) The son of Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz – the more upscale pair, in sharp suits – was the hitter, though he may have been provoked. But by the end of a brisk 80 minutes, none of that matters, because everyone's veneer of civility has cracked to reveal the brawling primate underneath.
"It's sort of a comic parental horror movie," Reilly said, chuckling, in a recent phone interview. His manner was jolly, and his voice, familiar from stage and screen work including Boogie Nights, Gangs of New York and Walk Hard, sounded the way it always does – like some prankster had glued his tonsils together.
"Yasmina tapped into something in the zeitgeist all over the world," he continued. "The characters are really relatable. It's a natural instinct for a parent to think the best of their own child. I've now been to premieres in Venice, Paris, New York and Los Angeles, and in each of those places, the laughter was very knowing. The secret to the humour is how real we're being, and we're being really awful to each other."
"You have two kids, right?" I ask.
"Ye – sss," Reilly answers.
"How old are they?"
"You know, they're private citizens," he says firmly.
Got it – we'll stick to him. Reilly, 46, grew up in Chicago's tough south side, the fifth of six children. "It was more of a Lord of the Flies situation," he cracks. "We never had babysitters; we had our brothers and sisters. My parents were much less concerned about what we thought and felt than parents are now. Like, this whole concept of picking the right school, getting your kids on waiting lists. My parents were like, 'Uh, your school? Yeah, it's two blocks that way.'
"It's such a generational shift," he continues. "Even now, in my mind's eye, I think of myself like I'm in my 20s. My dad was absolutely not like that. He was of a generation that thought, 'I'm an adult. I don't want to be like you, I don't want to dress like you, I don't care what kind of music you listen to. I live in the real world.' "
Reilly found his ticket out in theatre – first, from age 8, in amateur productions; and later, at the Goodman School of Drama and in the Steppenwolf company. "I'm very happy, and very grateful," he says. "Most people are lucky to work with one Polanski in their life. I've worked with several," including Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman.
"That's definitely not lost on me. I think if you went to my old neighbourhood, you'd be wondering how the hell a kid from there ended up staying in an apartment on the Place des Vosges, the oldest and most beautiful square in Paris, standing outside in the early-morning hours with a cup of tea, waiting to be picked up to go to work with Roman Polanski. I was pinching myself every day."
During the two-week rehearsal period, the four stars and their director were "polite and kind of phony with each other," Reilly says, not unlike the characters at the start of the film. "There was a sense of, 'I'm working with this legend.' But Roman doesn't have any patience for that stuff. He's a very practical person. He has this wonderful, Polish, down-to-earth side. He's always telling jokes; he's very hands-on.
"If something's not working, he gets right in there, right down to the rig they used [in a vomiting scene] You quickly realize, 'This legend wants me to get this job done. So if I really want to pay homage, I should stop acting flustered and get to work.'
"And a 78-year-old legend could have picked a much easier movie to put together," Reilly adds. "This piece is really a high-wire act for a director. Because there's no way to cut out of it. If one thing doesn't work, the whole thing falls apart."
When shooting started, everyone relaxed, and the actors became "close and supportive of each other," Reilly says. "I think that comes with the intimacy, with spending so much time together. There were only the four of us, so even on days when you didn't have a lot of dialogue, you were still present in the scene. You were always on the hot seat in one way or another."
The little-used bedroom set became their hideaway. Winslet would sew, Foster would read, Waltz would nap and Reilly would play chess against himself. But after a while, the claustrophobic atmosphere they were creating onscreen started giving Reilly cabin fever. He got a two-wheeled push scooter, and on his moments off, he'd go gliding about the studio. "French people are somewhat formal, especially in a workplace environment," he says, "so they found it pretty amusing to see this six-foot leprechaun zipping around."
Reilly calls his next film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, due in early 2012, "a parental horror movie of a different kind." He and Tilda Swinton play parents of a troubled kid who grows up to perpetrate a high-school massacre. "I was and still am a huge fan of [ Kevin co-writer/director]Lynne Ramsay," Reilly says, "so I just put the word out: 'What is she doing these days? I'd love to work with her.' It tells a story that you might think you know already. But Lynne tells it in a really personal, specific, original way."
Kevin, Carnage and a number of Reilly's other films – Magnolia, Cyrus and Stepbrothers come to mind, but there are plenty more – explore situations that are at worst harrowing, and at best madly discomfiting. "I think that's where the interesting stuff is," Reilly says, "in the stories that challenge you, or seem so familiar that they make you uncomfortable, or are full of cringe-worthy moments.
"It's conflict or oddness or whatever makes the day different that draws you in as an audience." He laughs. "There aren't too many stories about, 'I had a nice day, a perfectly pleasant lunch, and then I went to sleep.' "
If there were, I'm sure Reilly could find the squirms even in them.