Daily updates from the first annual AFI DALLAS International Film Festival presented by Target, founding sponsor Victory Park, March 22 to April 1, 2007

Friday, March 23, 2007

Actor's Corner: Lou Diamond Phillips

Film noir is a beloved genre by anyone who has picked up a camera or instructed someone else where to point theirs. It is also the one of the easiest genres to become "lost" within (in a good way) as plot strands and veiled intentions lead often hapless lead characters to either their ruin or their salvation.

In Stephen Purvis' El Cortez (screening Friday March 23, 7:30pm, and Saturday March 24, 1:45pm), Lou Diamond Phillips strikes a chord that is at once measured and dynamic as his autistic man with a past finds his way to both of those destinations.

Q: Your role in EL CORTEZ is a real tightrope walk between near comic retentive and browbeaten behavior to simmering rage and explosively violent outbursts. What specific challenges did that pose for you?

A: In the script there was no mention of Manny being on the autistic spectrum. But I've done a lot of work with autism here in LA with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders. When I read the script I said, "Wow, it would be wonderful to play this character as somebody with autism." But I didn't want it to be RAIN MAN, which is what everybody thinks of when they think autism. There are a number of people with autism that hold down jobs and lead regular lives. You wouldn't even know they have autism. But they have issues like OCD, or they're restricted to rigid routines, or they have social issues like they can't look people in the eye. So I was seeing a lot of that in the character. I ran it by Dr. Doreen Granpeesheh, founder of the center, and she set me up with a man about my age. I was able to incorporate his mannerisms and such, but the thing I found really interesting was that he was really warm. People have this idea that autistic people are cold and distant. There's a comic element to him, but it's something that I didn't want to play for laughs.

Q: How much of that character was in the script and how much was layered on through the combined efforts of you and director Stephen Purvis?

A: When Stephen first gave me the part, he said to run with it. I spoke to him about playing Manny as somebody with autism and he was really excited. The autism explains not only why they put him in jail, but it also explains the issues he has. In fact, the wardrobe was Stephen's idea. The bow tie and all is a little Forest Gumpy, but
it gives the character and film a kind of classic/timeless feel. Although it's a contemporary film, there's an element that makes you question when it's happening. And there's kind a retro feel to the character.

Q: There seemed to be a bizarre joy to this character. Have you enjoyed playing any character more than this one?

A: This is one of my favorite characters. I'm happy that I can create a very fleshed-out figure that's a person who's totally different from me. I mean one of the reasons people get into acting is to take on roles that are different from themselves. Manny is right up there with Richie in La Bamba or Angel in Stand and Deliver. It let me use all the lessons I learned from my training at the University of Texas at Arlington and with Nita Cox. And I'm not just another cop, or bad guy, or a character that's in my "wheelhouse," as my manager likes to say. I tried not to be aware of how the character appeared. I usually always watch the monitor or the dailies. But on this one I avoided it like the plague. I wanted to do it 100 percent and trust Stephen's judgment. That way I wouldn't be able to think that the character was too goofy.

Q: What is your favorite classic film noir?

A: Wow! Casablanca is one of my favorites. I have two classic pieces from the film in my house. One is a frame from the actual film. I've always wanted to do a film noir in the way that Bogey did. But I never thought I'd be doing one as an autistic person! With Bogey, you can always see that he's carrying baggage. It's never really
explained, but you know it's there. It's in his eyes and his being. That's what I took from his character and applied to Manny. His baggage is that he always wants to do the right thing. He can be positive and sunny, but it's a way for him to control things. When Theta shows up it allows him to loosen up and be more himself.

Q: Let's be truthful here – were there a few extra push ups or calorie cutting before the sex scene with Tracy Middendorf?

A: Ha! I always try to stay in shape because action roles come along. I stay within striking distance, as I like to say. But for this role, I stopped working out. We even chose to make the wardrobe a size or two larger. Of course, when you drop the laundry there's no hiding what's underneath. I finally justified his physique by saying, hey, he's been in prison and working out. What else is there to do in prison? Anyway, one of the most difficult things you can do is a love scene, and this character made it a bit different. Everybody just jumped in and went for it. But I won't be coy, I took a few shots of tequila here and there.

Q: You seem to be constantly working, going back and forth from film to television. Is your life similar to being a musician, always on tour?

A: That's a perfect analogy. A lot of people in the theater say you're a gypsy. The thing is that there's not a lot of boundaries anymore. Even Broadway is opening up to American Idol and stuff. You do try to go to the work that's going to get you some attention. As an actor, you gotta feed the bulldog. But you try to make the best choices you can. For instance, I'm going to be doing A Few Good Men at Casa Manana in Fort Worth this summer. I get to go back home and work and see a bunch of good friends.

Q: How many times did you have to mediate debates between Bruce Weitz and James McDaniel over whose cop show (Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue) was better?

A: The cop shows didn't come up a lot. There was the usual, "Hey man, I loved you on such and such show." With actors, I think we mostly tend to focus on what we’re doing now. Certain things don't go away, like La Bamba and the work they did on those shows, of course. La Bamba is always running on cable, and between us we like to talk about other stuff. But we all realize that if those projects hadn't happened for us, we wouldn't be where we are today.

Lou Diamond Phillips will appear at the El Cortez premiere at 7:30 p.m. today at AFC.

- by John Wildman, staff writer, AFI DALLAS Daily News