August 04, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

John C. Reilly swaggers elegantly into a Chicago coffeehouse, his curly hair topped by a jaunty panama hat, his legs Jimmy Stewart-long in a pair of beige slacks, and you think… Who’s this guy? The actor has played many roles in his nearly two-decade career, but they haven’t hinted at any innate suaveness. Or faked suaveness, for that matter: Reilly broke out in 1997’s Boogie Nights as Mark Wahlberg’s adorably doofy, disco-era sidekick and got an Oscar nod for his cuckolded husband in 2002’s Chicago (a man so unremarkable he crooned a song called ”Mister Cellophane”). Now comes Reilly’s crowning glory of uncool: In Talladega Nights, he plays Will Ferrell’s drawling good ol’ buddy, a naive NASCAR driver who offers eager, odd dinner conversation, like how he pictures Jesus as a ” mischeevious badger.”

It’s Reilly’s first big, broad comedic role, and he’s happy for the jolt. ”I love surprising audiences — I’m glad people don’t see this coming,” he says. The 41-year-old actor, however, did: He and Ferrell, who met years ago through mutual friend (and Talladega costar) Molly Shannon, had been looking for a movie to do together. ”We share a sense of humor,” he says of Ferrell. ”We’re both in a high-profile business but kinda low-key people — or just more down-to-earth than some of the ‘celebrities’ I’ve met.” Reilly was ”crushed” when his work on Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator prevented him from playing one of the news guys in Ferrell’s 2004 hit, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. So when the role of Ferrell’s best friend in Talladega came up, Reilly was the obvious man to slip into that uncomfortably snug racing costume and start improvising away. ”He’s such an ensemble player,” says Anchorman and Talladega co-writer/director Adam McKay. ”He’s smart as s—, really hip, and a great musician, too.” (Reilly’s guitar jam, cut from the theatrical release, may appear on the Talladega DVD.) He’s also a good man to chill with: During a float trip with Ferrell, Reilly’s embrace of the experience earned him the sobriquet ”River Dog.” (Did McKay fret over directing an Oscar nominee? Nah: ”You end up calling a guy River Dog, you forget that.”)

It was that laid-back spirit — and acting chops honed in DePaul University’s theater program — that landed Reilly his first break. During rehearsals for Brian De Palma’s 1989 drama Casualties of War, he distinguished himself by his ability to stand in for any actor (apparently he does a very good 80-year-old Vietnamese man). Reilly ultimately saw his minor role upgraded to a juicy part opposite Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox. The film marked the Chicago-born actor’s first plane ride, his first step outside American soil (or even the Midwest), and it was crucial to his personal life, too — his wife-to-be, Alison Dickey, worked for Penn. ”I got off the plane in Thailand [and] within half an hour I was sitting on the beach with Michael J. Fox, which is strange enough…. Then this woman walked across the beach and went in swimming, and I was like: Who’s that? That was my wife.”

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