Carnage - John C Reilly
Michael Longstreet (John C Reilly) © 2011 Sony Pictures Classics, Photo by Guy Ferrandis

As a play, God of Carnage was hailed by critics and audiences alike, as it enjoyed sell-out runs in Paris, London and on Broadway, winning the Tony Award for Best Play.

Now it’s been turned into a movie called Carnage by Academy Award winning director Roman Polanski. Set in Brooklyn, New York, John C Reilly and Jodie Foster portray Michael and Penelope Longstreet, whose son had been attacked in a playground squabble by the son of Nancy and Alan Cowan, played by Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz.

When Nancy and Alan come to Michael and Penelope’s apartment to discuss the incident, false civility soon escalates into verbal warfare, with all four parents revealing their true natures and beliefs.

John C Reilly sat down with us to discuss the movie, his role and working with Roman Polanski.

Had you seen any of the stage productions?

Carnage - John C Reilly, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet
Michael Longstreet (John C Reilly), Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet) © 2011 Sony Pictures Classics

I had not seen it on stage before. I’d read the play. I had been approached about the play, but it just didn’t work out. I was actually kind of glad that I hadn’t seen someone else play the part before, because it gave me the freedom to feel like I could just interpret him as I saw him.

Outside of the warped human parts of the story, you see where the men bond and the women bond in this.

I think it’s a fascinating thing about the script and I always said, and maybe I’ll do it at some point, it would be really cool to take a pen, put the characters names down and then draw a line between the alliances and the conflicts.

It would be a really interesting, geometric pattern because first it’s the two couples against the two couples, then at one point they align with each other, I side with his wife and he sides with my wife, and then the two men side up against the women.

It’s really interesting how it shifts.

There’s also the idea of forced civility and manners which keeps them there. It’s clear you don’t want them in your apartment anymore.

Carnage - Jodie Foster and John C Reilly
Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet (John C Reilly) © 2011 Sony Pictures Classics

I think he’s waiting for 4:45 when he pours the first scotch every day. He’s just padding the time until then, and when they’re still there, he just says, ‘The hell with it, I’m downing my drink, this is what I do.’

Right around that same time is when he reveals this very cynical, dark point-of-view about marriage and families.

Maybe he’s being extreme for the sake of the performance in front of these people, but if he even means half of what he says, the place he’s gotten to inside in terms of what he believes is pretty intense.

Did you ever get together with Jodie to talk about what the lifespan was between your characters?

Carnage - John C Reilly and Jodie Foster
Michael Longstreet (John C Reilly) and Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) © 2011 Sony Pictures Classics

We didn’t talk about that so much. The script is so specific, what they say to each other.

We talked a little bit about the background amongst all of us in the rehearsal session with Roman, because you don’t want to go off and create some whole back story that the director doesn’t agree with you, you want to make sure you are all on the same page.

But as we were doing it, especially as the carnage started to pile up towards the end, we started to hypothesize, ‘How many times a week do you think these guys have sex? How about you guys?

At the end of this are they still married? Can you say that to your wife and still be married?’ And the basic consensus  among the actors was, Christoph and Kate have sex much more often, and Jodie and my marriage is pretty much over, although it could be saved by therapy, but I don’t think Michael would go to therapy (he laughs).

You shot the movie in Paris, for Brooklyn. How important is the sense of place to you?

Carnage - Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, John C Reilly and Christoph Waltz
Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet), Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), Michael Longstreet (John C Reilly) and Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) © 2011 Sony Pictures Classics

First of all when you looked out the windows in this apartment you saw green screen. We were inside a soundstage so it wasn’t like we had to ignore Paris. And we were twenty minutes outside of Paris in a strange industrial park soundstage place.

I think in this case the story is less about the place where it takes place. This story has been custom-fit for Paris, Zurich, Berlin, London, New York, for audiences in all those places and the dialogue has been changed, certain names and things have been changed to make it relatable to those audiences.

So in this case I don’t really think the larger place is such an important character in the story. I think it’s a universal story about parents and people’s beliefs and who they say they are and then who they’re actually acting like, and the comedy that comes from the contrast of those two things.

Can you talk about working with Roman? This is an unusual movie for him.

If you look at his movies the only thing that really strings them all together is they’re excellent, they’re really well made and beautifully photographed. He’s not like a Sam Peckinpah where if you catch a scene out of his movies you go, ‘Oh that’s a Peckinpah movie.’ He has a lot of variety as a director.

I thought this was a really gutsy movie for him to make, given the fact that he’s already this legendary director that’s got so many feathers in his cap in terms of incredible films. Why at 78-years-old would you take on a play in real time with nothing to cut away to?

You look at this story, you can’t cut anything, you can’t cut out all the scenes that are not working, everything refers to something else throughout the film.

So it’s really like a high wire act with no net.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.