Lou Diamond Phillips: From Young Gun to Young Writer
At the side of a tenement building near MacArthur Park that serves as a key location for Lou Diamond Phillips’ new film, “Mind Game,” is a billboard promoting the just-released “Young Guns II,” in which he stars with Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Christian Slater.
Already this year Phillips has appeared in the supernatural horror film “The First Power” and the political thriller “Show of Force.” Since his film career was launched three years ago with “La Bamba,” in which he played the late rocker Ritchie Valens, Phillips has made 10 films.
Too much exposure? Too many roles?
“I haven’t had any regrets yet,” says the 28-year-old actor, during a break on the “Mind Game” set recently. “A lot of films have come along that appealed to me for a variety of reasons. Yet I still turn down many more than I accept.”
Clearly, one reason for the flood of offers is the actor’s “crossover” status: in the eyes of Hollywood dealmakers, Phillips is one of the few ethnic actors who can carry a film. And his ethnicity is sufficiently vague--Scots-Irish and Cherokee Indian on his father’s side and Filipino with strains of Chinese and Spanish on his mother’s--that Phillips jokes, “I can play what’s in me the rest of my life and never do the same role twice.”
So far, he’s made a good stab at exactly that, playing Mexican-American in “La Bamba” and “Stand and Deliver,” Lakota Sioux in “Renegades,” Navaho-Mexican in “Young Guns I and II,” Irish in “The First Power,” Puerto Rican in “Show of Force,” plus non-ethnic roles in the feature film “Disorganized Crime” and the made-for-TV movie “The Three Kings.”
In “Mind Game,” a psychological thriller that Phillips wrote, he deliberately created his character as a Filipino. “I figured this was probably my only chance to play what is a large portion of my (ethnic) makeup.”
Phillips plays a struggling novelist discouraged by numerous publishers’ rejections. Looking for an instant best-seller, he strikes up a friendship with a mass murderer (Clancy Brown) newly released from prison. As their relationship evolves into something darker, the film hopes to raise questions about ambition and what people will do to gain success.
These questions were certainly on Phillips’ mind the night four years ago when he conceived the story. This occurred, he says, while waiting for a traffic light to change at an intersection in Beverly Hills.
“ ‘La Bamba’ had been finished but it wasn’t going to come out for a year,” he says. “I made little on ‘La Bamba’ and was worried about money running out. Casting agents liked me but I had no jobs. They wanted to wait and see how ‘La Bamba’ did. At the same time people were whispering in my ear, ‘This movie is going to do it. “La Bamba” is your big break.’
“So waiting at that light, I started thinking about what I was going to do when this movie finally did open on a Friday night and the next day I’m a known entity. How is this kid from Texas going to deal with that? Those themes went into the character of this writer, who wanted success and was willing to compromise to achieve it.”
Phillips says he had been writing plays and film scripts long before he came to Los Angeles. He makes a point to explain that not all his scripts have roles for himself and none of them are typical mainstream Hollywood films.
“I came up in the Texas independent film industry, where you don’t write in car chases because you can’t afford them.”
Although he was always committed to a career as an actor, Phillips says he wrote and produced plays throughout his high school and college days in Texas and after his graduation from the University of Texas at Arlington’s drama department, he spent three years in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area writing and performing with a comedy troupe called “The Zero Hour.”
“We were pretty much an uncensored ‘Saturday Night Live.’ We did some rude things, not all of which went over. We started in a punk club in 1980--an hour show at midnight--then later made the rounds at other night clubs. This was my introduction into professional theater.”
Phillips began studying film technique with the man he describes as his mentor, Adam Roarke, an actor who has appeared in such films as “The Stunt Man” and “Play It as It Lays.” Soon, Philips worked as an assistant director and instructor at Roarke’s Film Actor’s Lab. During this period, Phillips received his first screenwriting credit.
“It was on an independent film I’m not going to name because it’s in video stores. A group had made a film in Texas that they hadn’t been able to sell for two year. So they came to Adam and me. We had a reputation in Dallas as people who knew film--and we were cheap.
“We looked at this film and Adam asked if I could fix it. I spent a month studying the film, the script and outtakes. I rewrote 40 pages of dialogue and rerouted the plot. Then we reshot for about two weeks.
“Is it a good film? No. But I’m proud that (the new footage) doesn’t look like it was tacked on two years later. The plot works better and it was a wonderful lesson in screenplay structure for me. Also I achieved what I set out to do as a writer: We made a cohesive movie that the producers sold and got their money back.”
“La Bamba,” of course, did make the kid from Texas a known entity. Writer-director Luis Valdez used the life story of the Chicano rock star to create one of the few positive images of Latinos in American films. Valdez and Phillips portrayed Valens as the boy next door who achieved success through spunk and ambition. Some critics found the film overly sentimental. But audiences responded and the film became a hit.
Which, of course, resulted in the flood of movie offers. “I pretty much approach acting as I do my writing.” says Phillips. “I try not to do the same thing twice.”
Re-creating the role of Chavez Y Chavez for the “Young Guns” sequel was, in Phillips’ mind, less of a repeat than a chance “to fix things I didn’t like about the first film.” In these two Brat Pack Westerns, Phillips found himself in the company of other young actors who face the pressures of early success.
“Being in that fish bowl at a fairly early age carries certain baggage, either in the press’s or the public’s eye. I mean, whoever deserves to be as lucky as this? You can become extremely bitter about trying to prove something to somebody. So you do the best work you’re capable of and hope that it speaks for itself.
“It’s all about choices and tenure. I don’t think any of us have tenure yet. Certain guys establish themselves at the box office or establish themselves as artists beyond what the box office dictates. None of us are at that point. We’re all working like maniacs but, personally speaking, I don’t feel like I’m there yet. And maybe I never will be.”
Another of the sequel’s enticements was a chance to recreate a role that Phillips says he likes more and more. “A lot of that has to do with my involvement with the Native American community. I’m Cherokee by blood but I’ve just been adopted by the Sioux tribe. On Labor Day, I’m going to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for my naming ceremony.”
Philips, whose Sioux name is Star Keeper, is also organizing a benefit concert in Santa Fe this October, called “The Winds of Life,” which he plans to emcee. The concert will benefit Native American causes.
But the main reason for the Texas native’s involvement in “Young Guns” was the simple fact that they were Westerns.
“That was the most fun I will ever have on a film set,” he says. “I was thrilled to death to be in a Western.”
During the shooting of a lynching scene for “Young Guns II,” Phillips got more thrill than he bargained for. The scene called for Phillips’ character to be saved from a lynching when Billy the Kid (Emilio Estevez) shot the rope in half just as he was about to be hanged. But when Estevez fired his gun, the horse beneath Phillips--whose hands were bound behind him--bolted.
The rope around Phillips’ neck snapped before it could do any damage, but the actor’s foot got caught in the stirrups of the saddle and as he was being dragged alongside the spooked horse, his right forearm was shattered in four places.
Phillips holds the arm out at a right angle to his body. “It’s not entirely straight,” he says. “In softball the other day I hit one over the fence. But I can’t throw yet. One nice thing about ‘Mind Game'--I don’t have to break a sweat, I’m not beat up and I do no stunts. I’m playing a writer.”
“Mind Game” producer Richard E. Johnson admits that normally he would have “great trepidation” about producing a film whose star also functioned as the writer. “You might wind up with a vanity piece. But Lou is extremely level-headed and professional. He can really separate the functions. On the set, he responds like an actor, not a writer.”
“This is probably the most complex character he has done on screen,” adds director Scott D. Goldstein. “Lou’s using aspects of characters he’s played before in films and molding them together into a new form.”
Phillips himself notes: “Usually, you do research to assume somebody else’s personality. But I created this guy for me. I know what my motivations are.”
A smile crosses his face.
“Right before this film began, I received a batch of rejection letters for a novel I’ve written. We got clearances to use the (publishers’) letterheads for a scene where the character throws his rejection letters into a fire. Just before filming, I read over one letter and said, ‘Guys, there’s no question about my motivation for this scene. I know what it’s about.’ ”
Once “Mind Game” wraps, Phillips gets even busier. First on his schedule is “The Dark Wind” for executive producer Robert Redford and director Errol Morris. Phillips is negotiating to play mystery writer Tony Hillerman’s American Indian detective, Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police. He then heads to Canada for “Agaguk,” a film directed by Jacques Dorfman, which finds Phillips cast as--yes, an Eskimo.
“When I got the script, I had to laugh. For years I’ve been saying, ‘Hey, maybe one day I’ll play an Eskimo.’ Then here it is. But then I stopped and thought, Well, gee, who else are they going to send this to?”