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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.
What was it like shooting in South Africa?
I was there for two months, shooting six days a week and in just about every scene. It was low budget and really run-and-gun. There were no comforts, and I actually appreciate that. Where we were fi lming the poverty is staggering. We were shooting during the day in Soweto, and it was an endless procession of funerals—death is so common. Kids there have no quality of life. It has made me want to get more involved in Africa-based charities.
You played a gay teen on One Life to Live in 1992. Did you ever think that a soap opera would lead to roles in Oscar-winning movies like Crash?
There’s been so much growth and personal development since then. My dream was to sit in a movie theater and see myself on screen, and when that finally happened I felt like I had arrived. But as you mature you want it to become something else. I wanted to make movies that I believed in and dealt with issues that resonated. And that’s how [I got involved in] a movie like Crash. Some people said that [the Oscar winner] should have been Brokeback Mountain. But Crash made people think and stayed with them after they left the theater. I felt that way about Stop-Loss. Kim Peirce is a fascinating director. Clint Eastwood, too. They’re digging into real issues in society and what you can do with that in a fi lm.
Any roles that you wish you’d scooped up when you had the chance?
I don’t really dwell on that sort of stuff. I’m certainly better at that in my career than my personal life: keep going, don’t dwell on the past, no regrets.
Do you already have other projects lined up?
I’m getting a show going for Showtime. I’ll be working as a producer. I’m working on it with one of my best friends, Breckin Meyer [the actor whose credits include Clueless and Road Trip]. It’s an idea we’ve had for about 10 years about a limo driver in Manhattan. Showtime has really quality TV—I love Dexter, Weeds and Nurse Jackie—and you don’t have to be so cautious with cable television shows. Especially a dark comedy—you don’t have to pull punches.
If the world didn’t know you as an actor, what would you be doing?
I don’t know. If the world didn’t know me, then it really wouldn’t matter. [Laughs] Probably a literature teacher or doing some kind of societal or humanitarian work.
What’s the best thing about being a celebrity?
There’s some perks that I love. I have a good friend who’s from Alabama, and I was able to get tickets during the championship game for him, his brother and his best friend. We had amazing seats just because I’ve been in a movie. I’m thankful for that and never take it for granted. It was like when my dad and I went to the Phillies ballpark and took a full tour. He got to hold the championship trophy. I still get excited. Yeah, tickets are a nice perk—tickets for bands and sporting events.
What bands are you listening to these days?
I’m into bands, but I’m a huge hip-hop fan. Radiohead is my favorite band. I’ve seen them 13 times. For hip-hop, I love Jay-Z. I was just saying to my friend the other day that the three voices I’ve heard most in my life are Thom Yorke, Jay-Z and Howard Stern. Such an interesting mix.
I read that you’ve got a black belt in tae kwon do. Is that true?
Yes, it’s true. I still train and try to keep up my flexibility. Deacon just started taking karate, so it’s something for us to share. I lived in a bit of a rough area growing up and my parents put me in. It was my fi rst passion in life. I still want to fi nd a fi lm where I can use it before I get too old.
I still have to ask—what’s the worst thing about being a celebrity?
The paparazzi is the most obvious answer. There are things that you go through as an individual that are part of life and no one else’s business. But it’s less about me and more about my kids. So many things are said and implied. But you have to let it bounce off your back. No one’s forcing me to stay. Between their mother and me, we’ve done a good job of letting them know they’re safe. So [the paparazzi] doesn’t upset them as much now.
Have you ever thought about using some of your tae kwon do moves on lurking paparazzi?
[Laughs] Yeah, I have. I’ve fantasized and dreamt about it.
Photographs by DANIELA FEDERICI/CORBIS OUTLINE
Styling by BEN-SHMUEL
Grooming by LENA HANSON FOR MATRIX
September 22, 2017