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After roughly 30 TV and movie roles and one well-documented split from actress Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Phillippe has become somewhat of an enigma in modern-day Hollywood: a star who’s cultivated a career based on talent and drive rather than personal dramas that take place behind the scenes.

Though he’s been working in show business for 20 years, we can’t help feeling like we don’t really know the guy. That could be because his MO runs counter to the paparazzi-friendly ways of today’s celebrities: He grants few interviews, doesn’t lend his handsome mug to endorsement deals and is more likely to hang out at home with his kids (daughter Ava, 10, and son Deacon, six) than canoodle with fellow A-listers at yet another red-carpet event.

He grew up in New Castle, Delaware, and before New York and Hollywood came calling, Phillippe chased his dreams of stardom to Philadelphia. It was here that the now 35-year-old first signed on with a local modeling and talent agency. In 1992 he snagged a short-lived role on One Life to Live before achieving It-boy status through parts in late-’90s teen-themed flicks like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Cruel Intentions.

The next decade led to brainier dramatic roles that hinged more on his acting ability than heartthrob good looks. Phillippe was part of the ensemble cast of the British drama Gosford Park, which garnered seven Academy Award nominations (as well as a win for best writing) and also appeared in the ensemble of surprise 2005 Best Picture winner Crash. He starred in Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated Flags of Our Fathers and, more recently, in a number of worthy yet overlooked flicks like Breach, opposite Chris Cooper and Laura Linney, and Kimberly Peirce’s timely war drama Stop-Loss, costarring Channing Tatum.

This summer brings moviegoers what is arguably Phillippe’s most poignant performance to date, playing a photographer in Apartheid-era South Africa in The Bang Bang Club, but many fans are excited to finally see the straight-faced hunk crack a smile in Saturday Night Live skit-turned-feature film MacGruber, a raucous romp that just might become a sleeper hit à la The Hangover.

We sat down with the actor to talk about local roots, two decades in show business and taking down the paparazzi. Here, a rare look into the private life of Ryan Phillippe.

Do you ever make it back to visit your parents?
I do. Actually, a lot. I try to make at least two trips a year. I was just there this summer and went to the Phillies game and got a tour of the stadium. The kids know how important it is to me to come back. I have a lot of work in New York coming up over the next six months, so I can come down more often.

Since you mentioned the Phillies, do you have any local sports commentary you care to share, especially after another lukewarm Eagles season?
This year was tough losing to Dallas two weeks in a row. And then all of the rumors about [Donovan] McNabb leaving—I love him and would hate to see him go. You really don’t know what it’s going to take to change the team’s chemistry. And Philly sports fans have so much contempt. Philly has been in the shadow of New York for so long that now we have an underdog perspective.

The Phillies winning the World Series was a nice change of pace, though. I was sitting with my children in my house when they clinched the Series; I got a tear in my eye. The last time [they won the World Series] I was my son’s age. Men have such a huge emotional tie to sports. It’s a lot of what I share with my dad.

I just saw the trailer for your new movie MacGruber, and it’s unlike anything else you’ve done in the past. What prompted you to make the jump to something a little more fun?
This is the fi rst interview where I get to talk about the movie! I’m a comedy nerd. I watch all of the stand-up specials on HBO and Comedy Central and had never done anything like that. You know, my friends fi nd me funny, but it’s not something I’ve explored professionally. I’ve been watching Saturday Night Live since I was 12 years old. [Comedy] has always been a big deal to me, but it was never something I had a way into. So I was musing to my manager that I wanted to do something like that, and it turned out that the director, Jorma Taccone, was interested. Jorma and Andy Samberg are the ones behind [sketch comedy troupe] Lonely Island— they did SNL skits like “Dick in a Box” and “I’m on a Boat”—so it was hilariously brilliant. Of the 30 or so movies I’ve worked on, I can’t wait for my friends to see this one the most.

Tell me a little about your character.
MacGruber is really a spoof of ’80s action movies like Rambo and Lethal Weapon; it’s like Austin Powers to the spy genre. My character is the Danny Glover to Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. I play a hotshot military guy that’s annoyed and disappointed by MacGruber [played by Will Forte]. The guy’s a complete idiot.

Your next film after MacGruber is The Bang Bang Club, right?
It’s based on a book called The Bang Bang Club about four white photographers working in South Africa during Apartheid. Two of them won Pulitzers. Two of them died—one committed suicide and the other was killed during the fi nal battles before Mandela was released. I got to work with the guy I was playing, Greg Marinovich. There’s something so great about that—so much of the work is done for you. You pick up parts of their spirit or mannerisms.

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