John C. Reilly Says Career Was ‘Dead in the Water’ Before ‘Winning Time’: ‘I Got Nothing Going On’

Reilly says Adam McKay revived his career with the HBO Lakers drama despite McKay's fallout with the actor's "Holmes and Watson" co-star Will Ferrell.
John C. Reilly attending the 'The Sisters Brothers' premiere at the 75th Venice International Film Festival at the Palazzo del Cinema on Setember 02, 2018 in Venice, Italy | Verwendung weltweit Photo by: Daziram/Geisler-Fotopress/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
John C. Reilly
Daziram/Geisler-Fotopress/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

It was the casting decision heard ’round the world.

After Adam McKay brought on John C. Reilly to portray former Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss in HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” the news reportedly led to Will Ferrell splitting with McKay as producing partners for joint company Gary Sanchez Productions. McKay’s decision to cast Reilly was the final blow to their relationship.

In a The Hollywood Reporter cover story, McKay recalled when there was some discussion about Ferrell joining the cast as Buss, though they ultimately went with Michael Shannon instead. “It really bugged Michael that we were breaking the fourth wall,” McKay said. “He kept saying, ‘I don’t like this. It throws me. I’m having a hard time.'”

Shannon parted ways with the project weeks before filming, leading McKay to call up longtime friend and collaborator Reilly. “I told him, ‘We’re in a weird spot here, but I’m directing the pilot and I think you’d destroy this,'” McKay remembered, giving Reilly a deadline of 48 hours to commit. After getting the offer, Reilly called Ferrell with the news.

As McKay said, “It was at this weird moment where Will and I weren’t exactly hugging each other, even though there was nothing that terrible and he called Will and said, ‘Hey, McKay just came to me with this.’ Will was very hurt that I wasn’t the one to call him, and I should have.”

“Will is one of my best friends, Adam is one of my best friends, I was delighted to get the job and that’s all I really have to say,” Reilly added.

Reilly was at a career crossroads when he heard from McKay, following the 2018 flop “Holmes & Watson.” Reilly also starred in the 2020 Showtime series “Moonbase 8,” but apparently had not much else to look forward to.

“I’d been sitting at my kitchen table, thinking, ‘Man, I’m dead in the water, all this work, 80 movies, and I got nothing going on,’ when I got the text from Adam,” the Oscar nominee said.

And the role of Buss was the perfect fit, as Reilly is a personal fan of the NBA legend. “For all of his reputation for being a hedonist, he really believed in women,” Reilly explained, “and he gave a lot of them in his organization big starts when no one else was doing that.”

As for the McKay-Ferrell partnership fallout, McKay previously told Vanity Fair that the last straw was his decision to cast Reilly over Ferrell in “Winning Time.”

“The truth is, the way the show was always going to be done, it’s hyperrealistic,” McKay said. “And Ferrell just doesn’t look like Jerry Buss, and he’s not that vibe of a Jerry Buss. And there were some people involved who were like, ‘We love Ferrell, he’s a genius, but we can’t see him doing it.’ It was a bit of a hard discussion…Maybe there was a little shadow in there where I wasn’t able to confront a harsher, darker side of myself that would ultimately err on the side of making the right casting choice over a lifelong friendship.”

Ferrell spoke out about the casting choice in The Hollywood Reporter in October 2021. “Adam was like, ‘I want to do this, and this, and this’; he wanted growth and a sphere of influence, and I was just like, ‘I don’t know, that sounds like a lot that I have to keep track of,’ ” Ferrell said. “To me, the potential of seeing a billboard, and being like: ‘Oh, we’re producing that?’ I don’t know. At the end of the day, we just have different amounts of bandwidth.”

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