From being “discovered” while getting a haircut to landing his first major role in a Ridley Scott film, Ryan Phillippe has enjoyed the kind of good fortune that many only dream of. But his success didn’t come without hard work; the young actor has remained busy since his fist stint on the ABC soap One Life to Live almost nineteen years ago, moving from popular teen fare like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Cruel Intentions to critical darlings like Gosford Park and Oscar winner Crash. This week, Phillippe takes on a nuanced dramatic role as Louis Roulet, a successful LA realtor accused of a mysterious murder, in the film adaptation of Michael Connelly’s novel The Lincoln Lawyer. RT was fortunate enough to chat with Phillippe about his Five Favorite Films, as well as his fortuitous introduction to the film industry and what it was like to work with legendary directors like Clint Eastwood and Robert Altman.
Cool Hand Luke (1967, 100% Tomatometer)
The film that sort of made me want to be an actor was Cool Hand Luke. I watched it one Sunday when I skipped church, and I was home sick, and it was on TBS, and I was about 12 or 13 years old. I had never seen a man cry like that. [SPOILER AHEAD] When Paul Newman finds out his mother’s died and he sits on the bed and plays “Plastic Jesus” on the banjo [END SPOILER], I was so fascinated by this masculine tough guy getting emotional, and that sort of started my interest in acting. Figuring out how one gets to that place, and why. And both he and Steve McQueen were the two people I first connected to or looked up to as actors.
The Sand Pebbles (1966, 88% Tomatometer)
The Sand Pebbles with McQueen is one of those films that shows more of his sensitivity. People tend to think of him as just the badass, and I love the fact that that film lets you see another side of him. And I also think it’s beautifully shot. So that’s another one on my list.
The Graduate (1967, 89% Tomatometer)
The remaining three are films that I just feel are nearly perfect. The Graduate, from top to bottom, visually, sonically, performance-wise, the energy, and the time when it came out, and what it represented – that whole Holden Caufield sort of aspect to it. I think the music, obviously; there are very few films where the music has been so married to the actual film itself, and I love that about The Graduate. It seems like that’s the way it always should have been. It’s just amazing to me how perfectly it complements the film.
Fargo (1996, 94% Tomatometer)
I have to go with a Coen brothers movie, because they are my inspiration as producers, filmmakers — I want to direct soon. Again, I think that Fargo is a nearly perfect film. Visually, comedically; it manages to be tense, and it’s smart. I love the fact that it’s based on somewhat of a true story — I think that’s kind of where my interests lie, the idea of doing a true crime story that’s darkly comedic; that’s something that really appeals to me. I could name several of their films, but Fargo is the one that just… I always think about that shot in the parking lot in the snow, when he’s just trying to scrape the window off and he just loses his mind. [laughs]
Raging Bull (1980, 98% Tomatometer)
And then one of the most inspirational films for an actor would, in my opinion, have to be Raging Bull. Just to see what De Niro went through physically, the span of time he takes that character through, the insecurity and the bravado and the anger. I think it’s still a performance that’s relatively unmatched in film history.
Next, Phillippe talks about how he got into acting, and what it was like working with some of cinema’s greatest modern directors.
RT: You mentioned when you saw Cool Hand Luke that you were pretty young, and you said it was the first movie that really inspired you. Were you then confident that you would become an actor someday?
Ryan Phillippe: No, definitely not. I didn’t grow up with any means or access to the business in any way, so it was what my mother would have referred to as a “pipe dream” at that time. [laughs] Also, the schools I went to had no drama programs; it was nothing I had any experience with. When I was younger, I used to make home movies on the video camera with my sisters, and I would really direct them, and I would have plots, and I would write the story. But I had no experience in acting, in any formal sense, when I saw that movie.
So when was it that you finally took that first step towards becoming an actor?
It was about two or three years after that, and I didn’t even really take the step. Someone saw me getting a haircut, oddly enough, and recommended us to an agency in Philadelphia. It’s one of those; that’s how it happened. So I started going to Philadelphia for essentially what would have been commercials or modeling jobs, and met people through that.
Let’s talk about The Lincoln Lawyer…
Dude, it’s really good. [Matthew McConaughey] is going to win back a bunch of people with this. It’s his best performance ever. It’s better than A Time to Kill. It’s legit, man.
The difference is, this character of his is so flawed in Lincoln Lawyer. You know, he’s got a drinking problem, he’s divorced, he’s got a kid, he’s kind of an ambulance chaser; it’s a very textured part for him.
Your role in the film is textured as well. It’s one of those roles where the audience is left guessing, “Is he guilty, or is he not?” When you’re playing a part like that, is there any sort of extra preparation needed to pull off that sort of subtlety?
It definitely has initially that sort of Primal Fear dynamic, and you’re trying to figure out who this guy is. What’s a benefit always is the source material, having a full novel to read. You can glean even more and add to your design of the character through things written by the author of the novel that the audience doesn’t even know about. That allows you to add layers and subtext that fit into an adaptation of a novel. There’s so much more, obviously, in the book. So it’s fun, as an actor, to have those little secrets, and hopefully people go and read the book — it’s really enjoyable — but yeah, that was the primary preparation for me. It was kind of getting into all the details that lie within the book, and finding a way to fit that in the moments in the movie, even though it’s truncated or compressed.
Were there any other films or performances you drew upon to flesh out your character?
No, and I rarely do that. I play a Beverly Hills real estate agent in this movie, and I did spend a day or two shadowing this guy who essentially does the same thing my character does in LA. But I never watch other performances in regards to what I’m going to do. A lot of it is instinct, and a lot of it is trying to make the part or the person that you’re playing as complex and interesting as you can, and I think that needs to be original to some extent.
Well, you know, I feel like I’ve gone to the best film school in the world. Ridley Scott, Kim Peirce, the ones you mentioned, and I took time from an early age… My first real role was in a Ridley Scott movie, and I knew who he was as a filmmaker, I’d seen all of his films, and so from that first job, I really paid attention to every aspect of it. I spent time talking to the DPs on those films, and I got to sit in dailies next to Altman; he actually kind of forced me to. [laughs] During lunch, he shows his dailies, and he’d be like, “I want you to sit here,” and I’d get to hear what it was he did or didn’t like about each and every individual take, and why. It was amazing. And then, working with someone like Eastwood, who’s so efficient and so confident in what he’s doing that there’s no stress, there’s no fuss. I plan on incorporating elements of each of those directors I’ve worked with when I make a film. I feel really fortunate. It’s also why I feel ready to do it; I’ve made 25 films, I’ve been doing this for 19 years, pretty much, 18 years. So I feel ready.
Wow, has it really been that long?
Well, my first movie, I was 19. I’m 36 now, so… And I was on a soap at 17. That’s the thing, you know. As an actor, you can have almost two decades in the profession and still be relatively young. It’s a funny thing.
The Lincoln Lawyer opens this weekend in the US.