In 'Catch Hell,' Ryan Phillippe examines, and toys with, his image

Over Skype, Ryan Phillippe discusses directorial debut 'Catch Hell'

Skype interviews are weird.

I had one a couple of weekends ago with the actor Ryan Phillippe. It was a Sunday afternoon and he was in New York, doing a day of press to promote his directorial debut, “Catch Hell.” I was in my bedroom in Los Angeles, wondering if he'd judge my duvet cover.

Suddenly, he popped up on my computer screen. He was wearing a white T-shirt and navy ball cap, framed perfectly between two nondescript hotel lamps. He is 40 now, which seems impossible if you’re a millennial like me who grew up watching him in teen films such as “Cruel Intentions” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” He also has two kids with ex-wife Reese Witherspoon -- Ava, 15, and Deacon, 11. So he is very much 40. But he doesn’t look it. He still has a head full of tiny blond curls not unlike 'N Sync-era Justin Timberlake.

Before Phillippe’s face appeared on my laptop, I hadn’t seen much of it in the last few years. Since rising to fame alongside Freddie Prinze Jr. and Josh Hartnett in the late '90s, Phillippe attempted to make a name for himself as a serious actor. He had a role in Clint Eastwood’s 2006 World War II drama “Flags of Our Fathers” and two years later acted in another war picture, Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop-Loss.”

But save for a strong supporting turn in “The Lincoln Lawyer” opposite Matthew McConaughey, he’s mostly acted in little-seen indies over the past five years. Which isn’t what he wants, of course.

“I did this terrible movie with 50 Cent,” he told me, referring to the 2011 heist flick “Setup” -- which as far as I can tell, was never even released theatrically. “It was just a situation I didn’t want to be in. I was sold a bill of goods and it turned out to be something different, which is often the case in this business.”

The experience was so negative that it stuck with him, in part inspiring “Catch Hell,” which came out in a few theaters earlier this month and is currently on video-on-demand. He directed the film from a script he and his friend, Joe Gossett, wrote together in a few months -- and he's also its star. It was a lot of work, he said, but the acting didn't take much effort -- he kind of plays himself.

In the film, there’s an actor, Reagan Pearce (the initials are hardly an accident) whose career has hit the skids. Flight attendants still ask him for his picture, but he can’t land any good gigs. “What the hell happened to my career, man?” he asks his manager. He also wonders in vain: “Did we hear back on the [James] Cameron movie?”

“We need that game changer that is gonna get you back on those studio lists,” replies the manager--played by David Schiff, Phillippe’s real-life representative.

Desperate for money, Reagan decides to head to Shreveport, La., to work on a sketchily financed indie. That’s when matters take a slightly different turn than they did for Phillippe in real life. He’s kidnapped by a pair of rednecks, who tie him up in a dilapidated shack infested with alligators. The kidnappers then hack Reagan's social media accounts and write racist, homophobic things that are picked up by a number of entertainment outlets. (Seriously.)

As it turns out, Reagan's kidnapping en route to the set was inspired by Philippe's own flight of fancy in Shreveport. A little while back, he was filming a movie called “Straight A’s” with Anna Paquin in the city. One day, in order to practice some horseback riding for the film, he was picked up at his Holiday Inn by two production staffers he’d never met before.

“I just started messing with myself, saying, ‘What if these guys weren’t who they said they were?’” He said. “You blindly just hop into a van with people you’ve never met. Back in L.A., an actor or actress of any fame has video cameras and gates and a guard and then on location, you kind of let all that stuff down.”

He was curious what this would mean given the public's perception of him. If he disappeared, after all, it wouldn’t land in the same way as if, say, Brad Pitt disappeared.

“This guy goes missing? It’d be a blurb,” he said. “It’d be like, this guy with a bad reputation has gone off the reservation.”

Which isn’t to say Phillippe has resorted to self pity. “It’s certainly not a lament of mine that I’ve fallen out of favor in Hollywood,” he explained. Over the last couple of years, he said, he took a step away from acting. He wanted to be with his kids, and making his own movie allowed him to do that.

“I’ve made 30-plus films over 20 years,” he said. “And in my opinion, five of them are good. So you slave away and you work hard and you want to make something great, and a lot of times you end up disappointed. There are a lot of elements that are beyond your control when you’re an actor for hire. So this is kind of the beginning of my wanting to take a little more control and be a little more involved.”

In a way, the entire movie is about exerting control, an “I’ll take aim at myself before you can take aim at me” kind of thing. But during the 19-day shoot, he also remembered some of the reasons he got into the business in the first place--how much he’d liked making silly monster movies as a kid, for instance, or about his experiences working with Eastwood and Robert Altman, who he repeatedly referred to during the interview as his “biggest influences.” Directing felt right, unlike acting, which he admits he's lost some passion for.

“Acting alone doesn’t sustain me the same way it used to,” he said. “Which I think is completely OK if you’ve done something for 20 years. Trying something else becomes really appealing.”

Which is kind of an odd thing to say, considering that he's currently in the middle of filming what he calls his most challenging acting gig to date. It's the upcoming ABC murder mystery "Secrets & Lies," which he stars in opposite Juliette Lewis and which he's been working on in North Carolina for the past few months. But he’s already planning to make another film -- he calls it "a dark comedy in the vein of 'Raising Arizona'" -- this winter, which he says he will not star in.

And what if, I asked, people come away from “Catch Hell” thinking Phillippe is desperate to regain his fame and fortune?

“I love it bleeding together and being a question of how much is directly related to me or isn’t,” he said. “I’m proud of this movie. I came in on time and under budget. I got it done, and it is what it is. It’s not giant. But I can’t wait to do the next one -- especially since I won’t be required to be on-camera the whole time.”

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