Reilly digs deep into rock lore

If John C. Reilly is nervous — and, by his own admission, he is — you wouldn’tknow it.

Seated in a dimly lit changing room in the basement of San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, he seems relaxed yet focused, a portrait of calm in the hours before he will perform a set of bluesy originals and popular covers (J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine,” Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab”) for anticipatory fans of his raucous new comedy, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” which opens Friday.

“I am nervous, but Dewey Cox is not,” he says. “Dewey Cox is extremely confident, a master showman. He doesn’t get scared.”

Cox, a fictitious rock legend whose rise, drug-fueled collapse and triumphant return was inspired in equal parts by the cautionary tales of real-life icons including Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson, is the latest in a series of dim-witted, self-destructive misfits dreamed up by “Superbad” producer Judd Apatow, who worked with Reilly on last year’s NASCAR comedy, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” It was an experience both men recall fondly.

“When we decided John would be the person to play Dewey Cox, it focused the whole film for us,” Apatow says. “John has a voice like Roy Orbison and he’s built like Johnny Cash. We met him early on, before we wrote the script, and told him a little bit about the outline. Then when we were done with the script, we gave it to John and we begged and begged and begged.”

“Judd’s silly that way, always trying to make things sound more ridiculous than they are,” Reilly counters. “I was initially hesitant when there was no script because I couldn’t say ‘I’m definitely in,’ then read the script and discover it was totally different from what I’d imagined. When they finally wrote the script, I knew it was a golden opportunity. To play a larger-than-life character like Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby, I couldn’t say no to that.”

For Reilly, a Chicago native who plays guitar, drums and blues harp and began his career in musical theater, it presented an opportunity, like 2002’s “Chicago” and last year’s “Prairie Home Companion,” to combine his longtime passion for music with his nearly two decades of experience as a film actor.

Better yet, it represented a chance to return to a playful, highly spontaneous working environment in which Reilly felt comfortable.

“For me, it was a chance to do music, improv comedy and even elements of serious drama as an absurd, over-the-top character that I got to know through the songs we created,” he says. “I had creative input on every level, from the lyrics to the time changes, along with Judd and Jake. In the end, we wrote about 40 songs, and that is how I discovered who Dewey Cox was — by listening to the music.”

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