In his new psychological crime drama, The Lincoln Lawyer, Ryan Phillippe plays a likeable criminal who doesn't necessarily get along with his own defense attorney. The acclaimed actor sits down with Buzzine to talk about being a father, a wealthy movie star, and (not) comparing abs with Matthew McConaughey.
Emmanuel Itier: Why was it so important for you to get this part?
Ryan Phillippe: Because I’d never played a part like it. This is the darkest character--one of the most complicated characters I’ve played. I’d read the script, and lately the trend in Hollywood and the studios has been so much about the sequels, the tentpole movies, the 3D, and this was sort of a throwback in a lot of ways. It was a very raw, stripped down, character-driven, complex drama, and that’s really why I became an actor. And this film, because of the psychological dance that the character engages in, it was important for them to see the actors. So I auditioned for this. I went after this role, and I think something like 200 guys auditioned for this part, and I really, really wanted it.
EI: Do you like to play a bad guy?
RP: Yes. [Laughs] It is so much fun, and I want to play an even worse guy. [Laughs] There’s something so freeing about being a villain, for lack of a better word, because when you are the protagonist in a movie, there are rules to keep the audience on your side, and you have to be relatable and all those sorts of things, and when you get to be the bad guy, all of that goes out the window. You don’t have to track those things, and I also like being complicit in manipulating the audience. I was definitely thinking about that as I made the movie, and one of my favorite scenes, and one of the reasons why I wanted to do the movie so much, is when I take the stand with everyone knowing that I’m a liar.
EI: Especially in the beginning when you are likable, because we are on your side…
RP: And then it starts to unravel. But that scene in particular is like an ultimate actor's scene because everybody knows the truth, so you could feel like people watching it, the jury--they don’t want the jury to believe it. But that’s fun for me. I enjoy it.
EI: It’s like acting inside acting...
RP: Yeah, which is awesome. How often do you get a role like that?
EI: I read that you Matthew (McConaughey) had never rehearsed together before you started shooting. Were there any surprises or challenges in the movie like that?
RP: I think we purposely kept a distance because the whole thing is a chess match--we are both manipulating each other, and we are completely opposed, and even though I’ve hired him, I’m his client, we still hate each other [laughs], which is not a relationship you've really seen before, where the lawyer-client are working against each other, but it’s interesting. But it was funny because we did keep our distances in the beginning, but underneath, I could tell and he could tell that we like each other very much as people, and as the movie went on, once it was taking shape and we established these characters and we knew the tone, then we let each other in a little more and we would talk about the kids, and we’d talk about football and our exercise regiments [laughs--stuff like that. He’s just such a good dude. He’s very face value, what you see is what you get--he’s genuine, he treats people well, and he worked his ass off in this movie. It’s important to him, and I think he reached levels in intensity that I haven’t seen in him as an actor, and that was exciting.
EI: What about the kids? What did you tell him about your kids?
RP: Matthew is a little older than me, but he’s a relatively new parent. I’ve been a dad for over a decade now, so I do have more experience in that department, and it wasn’t like he needed any advice or anything. I just talked to him about the stages of parenting and how it gets better and better, and how as they get older and can have conversations with you and you can teach them things--concepts or about the world--that you can’t when they are two and three. That’s when it got really fun for me--just seeing them develop into cool little people.
EI: What do you enjoy most about that?
RP: I grew up pretty humbly, lower-middle class; my parents struggled to pay the bills, that kind of thing. The life they are living is completely different to that, so having that as my foundation, I try to pass on to them that notion of how fortunate they are and how the rest of the world isn’t like this, and to keep those things in mind--caring about charity and the world at large is important. But one of the most rewarding things is when they, of their own invention, come up with something. My son, a couple of weeks ago, wanted to empty out his bank account and donate his piggy bank, which was a couple hundred dollars in coins. Or my daughter wrote a speech for her school. Their assignment was to do their version of the “I Have A Dream” speech, and she wrote this incredibly eloquent, so well-thought-out speech about clean water for Africa, and her speech was so good, she was asked to give it in front of the whole school, and Reese (Witherspoon) and I showed up and we were both just...tears coming down. [Laughs] It’s those things, when you realize that you are doing a good job, no matter what you are up against--the fact that you live in the public eye or that the marriage didn’t work out, regardless, these kids are happy and healthy and good people…
EI: What do you think Brad (Furman) brings to this picture? Why do you think he was the perfect director?
RP: I think that, in an older, more seasoned director’s hands, it could have lost some of the energy it has, or it could have been too reminiscent of other films within this genre--the courtroom... I think the fact that he infused it with this energy and vitality, like the whole hip hop thing and that edge to it, and how important it was for him that it didn’t seem derivative of other films. He and I are the same age, and I think that was fun for me. We are both from the same Philadelphia area, so we had a really good connection. I’d love to work with him again, but that’s the best thing he brought to this movie--that sense of shaking it up and not have it be standard.
EI: You mentioned talking about exercising with Matthew. Did you compare abs? [Laughs]
RP: No, we did not. [Laughs] No, and I laughed because when we first started, every day there was paparazzi trying to get pictures of us or our trailers, and then people would write stuff about it as if they thought we’d spend all of our work day shirtless. [Laughs] It was so silly, and then they would write stories about how we were jealous of each other and how I thought he spent too much time in the makeup trailer [laughs], and how he thought I didn’t have chops as an actor. And we’d sit there and read these to each other and laugh about it.
EI: You don’t mind reading it?
RP: There were times things were written about you that hurt you, certainly, if you pay attention, but something like that is silly--it’s just a complete invention of somebody’s warped mind, but you can’t do anything about it.
EI: Do you try to teach your children the same thing--how to get an armor against these kind of lies?
RP: They are still young enough, thankfully, that it hasn’t... I mean, when you are in the grocery store and they see it on the cover, then you talk to them about it or you tell them before they even see it. You say, "Oh, people are writing this story," or "They are just trying to say this about dad, it’s not true," whatever. But Eva is now getting to that age where--she’s 11, and sometimes I do think her little friends flip through the magazines and they see pictures of her, and it’s weird. But you just have to make them aware of why it is. We’ve always said to them that these people are only chasing us, the paparazzi, because mom and dad make movies and they can make money off a photograph of us--there’s no threat to you, they would never touch you or hurt you whatever, because the kids get really anxious about that stuff. Yeah, it is scary [laughs] to have a group of five men jump out pointing, so they get it now, they understand it.
EI: Have you ever thought of taking them out of LA and raising them somewhere else?
RP: I think there was a time where we thought that, but that in and of itself can become so disruptive. Eva loves her school and she’s been there for six years now, and especially once you are divorced, you can’t just take the kids away. [Laughs] Neither parent has the right to do that. And there are things to love about LA--you just have to be proactive in terms of preparing them for what may occur.
EI: Your character has a strong relationship with his mother. Do you understand this kind of relationship?
RP: I don’t because I think it’s a relationship that’s unique to privilege and to the idea of a rich kid who is permitted to behave however he wants, and his mother enables it. That’s not something I’ve ever had in my life. And in the book, it gets really weird. [Laughs] In the book, they hint that there may be a physical relationship between him and his mother [laughs], so they obviously chose to leave that out of it. [Laughs] No, they have a very warped lifestyle, I think.
EI: I read that the novel became your bible for an actor’s script. Were there things that you took just out of the novel itself, or did it help you in some ways?
RP: Absolutely. Obviously, with an adaptation, there are omissions and things are condensed, but both Matthew and I, before certain scenes, would go back and check the book to see... "This scene was not exactly in the book, but at this point in the story, what can we take away from it?" And there are things that weren’t in the script that we found in the book that were either nuances or just behavioral ticks or whatever it was. And it’s great to have that as a resource. I love making movies based on true stories, and I love making movies adapted from novels. They are usually the strongest, most rich backgrounds from which to start a film.
EI: Does that also come with more pressure?
RP: To an extent. One of the great rewards about how the movie turned out was the fact that Michael Connelly loves it. He thinks it’s great. He’s completely happy with it, and you do want to please him. It’s his baby, it’s his material.
EI: Did you read his other novels?
RP: I started to since I was not a fan before. I knew of him, but Lincoln Lawyer was the first book of his I’d read, but since then, I actually found one of his that I’d love to make into a movie for myself, called The Poet. It’s about a serial killer who uses poetry as his calling card. It’s really fun. [Laughs]
EI: Do you feel this movie can be a big turning point in your career?
RP: I don’t know. I never thought of looking at it that way. I think if you put those expectations, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Also, I still feel like my career hasn’t been defined. I still feel I can go in many different directions, and I like that, even though I’ve done it for as long as I have and I’ve made nearly 30 movies. I’m not known as “that guy” who does this kind of movie, and I like the freedom that allows me. But I hope it does well. I feel like the word of mouth will be good. I feel like it’s a different audience for me, like slightly older. I think it’s a smart movie, and I think there’s something refreshing about it in that way because there’s so much right now with the sequels and 3D, and this is a throwback to character-driven, dramatic filmmaking.
EI: You mentioned your family coming from lower-middle class. When you see a big movie star like you, how do you then relate, and has it changed in some way?
RP: No because, in my day-to-day life, I still feel like that same guy, and it’s only when you are being interviewed or when you are at a premiere are the only times that you feel somewhat different. For me, I don’t walk around thinking of myself like a movie star.
EI: But you probably have a little bit of wealth that your parents never had, and there is a big gap between their world they were living and you…
RP: I see what you're saying. There is. I try to close that gap. One of the great things about what this business has afforded me is I was able to buy them a house five years ago--a house nicer than we ever had growing up, and I try to help out with my sisters and with their kids. But when I go back home, it’s almost like nothing has ever changed. Maybe I’ll pick up the tab for dinner [laughs] and stuff like that, but I certainly don’t act any different.
EI: Are there certain values that you still carry with you?
RP: Oh definitely, yeah. I guess what comes to mind is maybe just not being judgmental, and accepting anyone and everyone for who they are. Like a work ethic, I think when you come from very little and you see how hard your parents have to work to pay the bills, that’s something that was instilled in me from a very early age. And also the importance of family.
EI: Are you a frugal person? Do you enjoy your wealth?
RP: I’m somewhat in between. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about money, and I feel like you can’t take it with you and you should enjoy it [laughs], and there’s so much junk that you have to put up with sometimes [laughs] that I think it’s okay to reward yourself here and there, but I’m not frivolous. I don’t have sports cars and lots of jewelry. I don’t have like $100,000 watches.[Laughs] I’m simpler than that, definitely.
Lionsgate's 'The Lincoln Lawyer' is released on March 18, 2011.