Not winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the 2002 musical Chicago was one of the best things that ever happened to John C. Reilly. "There's so much expectation that comes when you win," says the actor nominated for his turn as Renée Zellweger's doormat husband. "Winning an Oscar is like being the prettiest girl in high school: All the guys are convinced they've got no shot with you. My plan is never to get hot or cold. Stay "nice and warm."

He's getting warmer all the time. After powerful performances in Boogie Nights, The Perfect Storm, Gangs of New York and The Hours, the actor, 39, now stars as a two-bit con man in the new drama Criminal.

This December, he reteams with Gangs director Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio to play Howard Hughes's business partner in The Aviator. Why are directors so eager to get him on board? "He has this Every-man, working-class quality that people like," says Criminal director Gregory Jacobs. "He is believable in every part he plays." Granted, Reilly started training early for the role in Criminal; he admits that while growing up in Chicago, he sometimes amused himself with petty vandalism. "I was a curious kid who didn't have enough to engage him," says Reilly. But at age 8, "I went to the park near my house and started doing musicals and kids' plays. That put an end to my life of crime."

These days, his life includes steady work and a home in Los Angeles with wife Alison Dickey, 41, an independent film producer, with whom he has two children. His stellar reputation as a character actor has drawn comparisons to Gene Hackman, but after singing "Mister Cellophane" in Chicago, he'd rather be the next Bruce Springsteen. "All actors really want to be rock stars," says Reilly, who plays the harmonica with his L.A. blues band stereoblues and is developing a Broadway musical based on the 1955 Ernest Borgnine film Marty. "Before I die, I'd love to record a really great album."