After appearing on the soap opera One Life to Live, 34-year-old Ryan Phillippe first came to fame in the late 1990s, starring in a string of teen-oriented films including I Know What You Did Last Summer, Cruel Intentions, and 54. He worked with Robert Altman on Gosford Park and in 2005 starred in Academy Award-winning ensemble film Crash. He followed that with Clint Eastwood's WWII epic Flags of Our Fathers, Breach, a movie based on the true story of FBI Operative Eric O'Neill, and Kimberly Pierce's Iraq War drama Stop-Loss. In Franklyn, a bold, highly stylised film from newcomer Gerald McMorrow, he stars as Jonathan Preest, a masked vigilante who will not rest until he has dispatched his nemesis. The story folds together the lives of four separate characters, played by Phillippe, Eva Green, Sam Riley and Bernard Hill.
Magnolia meets The Dark Knight. Could that be a fair description of Franklyn?
Absolutely. In fact, that comes out of a conversation I had with Gerald pretty early on, when I was talking to him saying, 'How do we describe this movie to people? What do we tell them? What's the frame of reference?' And he said that a friend of his, after they saw a screening, made that comment. It's great because the film is a tough one to sell in one line. It's difficult but that's what excites me. That's the sort of film I look for, ones that don't really have a comparison.
It's a very ambitious film, especially for a first-time director like Gerald McMorrow. Was that part of the appeal for you?
Very much so. I think it's so impressive in regard to what Gerald has been able to do during his first time out with a film, because it is so dense and complicated in terms of its themes. And also making this kind of a film while not having the budget the size of a typical big Hollywood movie. And then the way he made this look and what he was able to do with what he had, I thought was truly impressive.
A number of themes run through the movie. Did any particular one stand out for you?
Obviously the aspect that deals with religion and I think it's interesting too the way this film tends to shy away from those topics. In some senses. It was interesting that he was delving and digging into what people's attachments and ideas about faith and religion and God are. That was something that really struck me as being bold and atypical.
With a film likes this, do you understand it more as you're shooting?
I think you do; the script was so complicated to read. You had to read it a couple of times before you had a firm grasp of what was going on and how everything fits together. And the other interesting thing about making a film like this is that it was like two different movies being made at the same time. We, the actors in the film, our stories were all pretty individual. So that was an interesting thing for me to see when I saw the film for the first time. Usually, you see the majority of what ends up on the screen as an actor in the film. But here, so much of it was a surprise to me because we are all pretty separate in terms of how we shot our parts of the film.
Was it disappointing not to spend more time with the other actors?
That is one of the things I do feel I've missed. Eva Green is so great. Sam Riley is so great. I would have loved to had more time with her and some work with him. She is definitely someone I'd like to work with again-Eva's performance is really intense and powerful.
There's a life-size model of your character in the Forbidden Planet shop in London. Looks like you might become an action figure.
That would be so cool, man. That's long been a dream of mine. And something Gerald and I spoke about was taking that character and doing a graphic novel based around Preest. You could see how it would work. That city world is unique and there is something interesting to that character, especially where we are in the world, where there's been so much fighting over religion, people's ideas of faith, and I think Preest represents something of our time.
You have worked with some incredible filmmakers, Clint Eastwood, Robert Altman, Kimberley Pierce. What did you make of Gerald?
Gerald, he's the kind of guy I could sit down and have a beer with. His sense of humour and mine are so similar and he's just a great guy to be around. You would never have known this was his first film, as he was so prepared, not only because he wrote it himself and did the storyboards, but the guy is a great artist. He came from video commercials so I think there was a great amount of technical preparation that he had had, which a lot of first time directors don't, and I was impressed by the way he commanded a set on his first time round as a filmmaker. After seeing the film I really felt he shows some flashes of being like Ridley Scott who came from a commercial world and had a flair and ability to do the sci-fi stylized stories. I really believe that is the direction he is going.
How did wearing the mask affect your performance?
It was really a challenge. First of all you are acting with your body more and it becomes a much more physical performance. And the mask itself was really uncomfortable. With the first version of it there was something in the eyehole, some kind of dust, I don't know what, that gave me an eye infection! And it was so hot. The thing was barely breathable. I was doing these action scenes and it would take me forever to catch my breath, because you just got your air through the mask. It was really a challenge wearing that thing the whole time but I also got into it because you become anonymous on set. I was the only person to ever wear the mask and I like to put that out there because I was doing martial arts and I like making sure people know it was me doing it! I couldn't ask a stunt guy to wear it anyway - the thing was so disgusting after two weeks of shooting, just caked with make-up and sweat!
You have that early rooftop action sequence with the mask.
That was tough. The first night we shot was on top of the V&A in London, it my first night of shooting and I put the mask on, up on the roof of the V&A, and the stunt coordinator guy goes, 'You are going to run up here and run up these steps and jump over the railing.' Wearing this mask literally gave me 20 per cent vision so it was kind of being thrown into the fire that way! I got into it though. I got to a place where I could get very serious about it and when it had to go on, when I had to wear it for long stretches, I could find a way to school myself to get through it. But it was a challenge!
You said you'd like to be an action figure. Is sci-fi a genre that's close to you heart?
I go back and forth with it, because as a kid, especially, I loved things like Star Wars. I have just introduced my children to Star Wars. We've watched all the first three in a row and I do love that and I love the fantasy elements of it. I do think sometimes, though, because I'm drawn to parts that are based in real life, it's difficult for me to always accept seeing how heightened some of the elements of sci-fi are. Personally, as an actor, I am drawn to serious movies, true events and true life. But I do think when it's done well and when it is original sci-fi can be exciting.
Speaking of Star Wars, did George Lucas actually offer you the part of Anakin in the Star Wars prequels?
No. He never offered me the part. I went to the screen test with Natalie Portman and I think, ultimately, I was too old for it. I don't know if it's something I would have wanted to do or if it would have been a good thing to do or not. I was pretty excited to be there, sitting with George Lucas and testing for that film, but no I didn't bring it down. It was pretty cool to go up to The Skywalker Ranch, though. They've even got a bed and breakfast up there!
Flags of our Fathers was an excellent film. I understand that you felt quite personally invested in that and wrote to Clint Eastwood before being cast?
Yes. Both of my grandfathers fought in WWII. My dad's father was in the Pacific and my mother's father was on the ground in Germany and he was awarded a Bronze Star. He had some pretty serious action in Berlin and he was my idol growing up, my hero, so getting to make a movie that paid tribute to him and the men of his generation, who fought in the War, was really, really meaningful to me. A lot of it was to do with the fact he was the guy I idolised when I was growing up. He would tell me his war stories. I was holding his hand when he passed away, when I was about 21, and some of the last words he said were the names of some of the guys who fought with him on the ground in Germany. I remember at 21 being blown away by the man's final thoughts having to do with having been in war and how indelibly impressed the memories are. I wrote a letter to Clint Eastwood when I heard he was doing the film, basically saying I would love to do any part, two days of shooting, anything, to be a part of a film that was going to honour that generation. I don't know how much that had to do with me actually ending up in the film but I have never been moved to write a letter to a director before or since. I just had to for some reason because of the connection to my grandfather.
Did that experience make Stop-Loss very different, because while that is a story told directly from a soldier's point of view, it's drawn from a more divisive theatre of conflict?
What was so curious for me about the two was how differently society treats soldiers. In WWII these guys came home and it wasn't about therapy and then making sure that they assimilate back into life. The men of that generation came home and just kept quiet. Also the idea that in WWII, guys were drafted and put on the battlefield within three weeks. Now, these soldiers are professionals. They are machines in a lot of ways. I thought that was an interesting comparison and something I found myself thinking about a lot when I was going through the two films, which were shot so closely together. Obviously, with WWII, nobody had any doubts about whether it should happen. It had to happen for the sake of the world. This war in Iraq we all have completely different ideas about. But the soldiers themselves are there to do a job and when you do a film about any war you have to project yourself to that mentality and put aside your political feelings. So no matter how against the Iraq war I am that wasn't the point to my character's journey in Stop-Loss. It wasn't about the politics of war. They follow their orders and don't question those higher up.
Were you surprised that the film wasn't a bigger hit with the critics? People were waiting for another Kimberley Pierce film with bated breath.
I don't know exactly what they were expecting from her. I think there may have been a version of the film that was more in line with her first film, but when you go and make a movie for a studio it's much different. Boys Don't Cry was made for a million, a million and a half dollars, completely independent and they could do and have the exact film that Kim had conceived. This was a situation where we were at Paramount and then people have different ideas on how to sell it and get afraid of a lack of success that other films on similar themes have had. Even before our film came out people were talking about how an Iraq War film can't succeed - that no one wants to see it - and so that affects the editing process and the market. I am proud of the film and think that Kim did a great job. I guess you can't make your film thinking about what the critics will say because it takes so many different shapes along the way and there are so many different peoples' hands on the final product.
I understand you've written a script, a crime comedy. Did you have a story you desperately wanted to tell? Or was it case of having worked with great directors, you want to direct, so wrote the script for yourself?
I would say it was the first. This is the third script I have written. The other two I'd still like to produce and maybe put in the hands of another director but I wrote them when I was younger so I feel a little bit distant from them. But I do feel there is a part of me that is a writer and wants to write and loves the written word. This most recent script came from when I read a news story in the paper and I took the core of that story and created a whole script of my own. I didn't investigate the story. I took what was appealing to me about it and wrote something based on it. So I guess I do feel there are stories that I want to tell. I sometimes feel more like storyteller than a performer and think that's what I am starting to gravitate towards. I want to direct this script and I am producing a couple of TV projects.
Anything you can tell me about?
There's one TV show called Isolated about surfers who go to exotic locales in search of unridden waves that are difficult to access. The first season takes place in Papua New Guinea and they need permission from cannibals to ride this wave! And the second season we are planning on going to the Arctic and having guys surfing in among the glaciers. It's a pretty cool piece that we are hoping will be on Discovery Channel. The other show is a film about a limo driver in LA and we hope it will be on Showtime. I think because I have been in the industry for so long - I made my first movie when I was 19 and I am 34 now so I have had 15 years of experience on set with some great producers directors - it makes sense to me to start doing this type of thing myself. In this business, the more content you can create and introduce yourself the more control you have over your own career. The rest time you have to spend waiting for somebody to give you a job, or trying to find the right job, so if you make some yourself, you are in the driver's seat more.
What are you working on next as an actor?
I am doing a movie called The Bang Bang Club, based on a book, a true story about four war photographers during apartheid in South Africa. These four young white guys would go deep into Soweto and the townships and put themselves right in the middle of these riots. They got to be a bit famous in South Africa. They helped to get attention to the point where other nations wanted to be involved, wanted to see the photographs and wanted those reports on the ground from those areas. Up until then, people tended to turn a blind eye or ignore certain parts of the world, so I think it will be pretty interesting. I start shooting in South Africa at the end of March.
FRANKLYN starring Ryan Phillippe, Eva Green, Sam Riley, Bernard Hill, directed by Gerald McMorrow and produced by Academy-Award winner Jeremy Thomas will be released in cinemas on February 27th, 2009.