After years of losing leading roles to more genetically gifted but less talented actors, John C. Reilly's left the stage and screen behind, moved to Minnesota and gone into radio. Well, at least he did for a month or so while shooting Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion.

"I was doing ŒA Streetcar Named Desire‚ on Broadway at the time, and I was thinking Œugh, I‚m tired of doing this eight times a week," Reilly recollects. "So I made a list of directors that I wanted to work with at one point . This sounds like a phony story but the first name was Robert Altman. Then, three days after I‚d made that list, he called me and said, Œwanna come do this picture?‚ And I was like, ŒYes!‚‰

"It was pretty amazing," says Reilly, looking back on how quickly Altman‚s production got rolling. "I remember that I‚d finished the play on July 3rd ˆ I flew to St. Paul on July 4th and then started working on July 5th. So, it was just a shot-out-of-the-cannon kind of feeling.

Based on Garrison Keillor‚s popular public radio variety show of the same name, Companion is set on the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater, where the real deal has been broadcasting for the past 30 years. The story follows the backstage action and intertwining story lines of the show‚s talent who, unbeknownst to them, are performing their last show because the radio station on which they‚re aired has been sold to an axe man (Tommy Lee Jones) who‚s harder than a coffin nail. The ensemble cast includes Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Virginia Madsen, Lindsay Lohan and Woody Harrelson.

„I think those guys are a living performance,‰ the actor says of the fictional cowboy characters he and Harrelson play in the film. „I, personally, like playing characters that believe in some alternate reality and with Dusty and Lefty, they‚re living the cowboy dream.

Reilly‚s been around for awhile, building a name for himself in films like What‚s Eating Gilbert Grape, Boogie Nights, The Thin Red Line and, more recently, Gangs of New York and Chicago. Like his Boogie costars Don Cheadle and (until just recently) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Reilly‚s been one of Hollywood‚s most underrated character actors. In his newest role, the actor plucks out a tune or two. „I‚ve been singing my whole life, so it‚s nice to be able to do it in public these days,‰ he says.

As fate would hold, during the shooting of the radio show, Reilly, quite literally, had a captive audience ˆ the hundreds of local Minnesotans who‚d signed up to play audience extras for the film. Reilly expounds on how he helped keep their morale up between set changes.

„I just had that feeling, as a performer, that if you‚re standing on a stage and there‚s a few hundred people in front of you, you better do something to keep them interested,‰ he says with a laugh. „Me and Woody were just thrilled ˆ we could just pluck out a song as best we could [on guitars] ˆ but these guys [Richard Dwarsky & the Guy Shoe Band] were just filling it out in the most amazing ways. So, any song we covered would sound really good because we had this incredible band behind us.

As mentioned above, Reilly got to work with two of his heroes ˆ Altman and Keillor, the latter of whom co-wrote and acted in the film, which was based on characters the author/radio host has refined over the decades ˆ for Companion. „I was really impressed, I have to say, with these two old men of the sea,‰ says the actor. „I was amazed at how easily they ceded territory to each other. I thought, Œoh man, these are two strong personalities that are used to having total control over their retrospective kingdoms ? [But] it worked out beautifully.

A Prairie Home Companion releases in select theaters June 9.