Lou Diamond Phillips: No Diamond in the Rough
Not long ago, I saw Lou Diamond Phillips on a cooking show. He was extremely likable but very competitive. He took his cooking seriously. He was also always “on”. He struck me as the kind of guy who always heard the roar of a crowd no matter what he was doing. I don’t mean to say he was arrogant although he certainly has a healthy self-image. He was always so gracious that any signs of ego were tolerable and even a bit endearing.
Twenty years ago when Phillips was starring on Broadway, Martha Frankel interviewed him for the August 1996 issue of Movieline magazine. They discussed his visit to Graceland and his appearance on Howard Stern. Then Frankel told the actor something no one had ever told him before. My impression is that Phillips hasn’t changed all that much over the last two decades. He’s always been a showman, but he’s courteous enough about it that you can forgive the self-promotion.
The world is divided into two camps. In the first camp are the people who have seen all of Lou Diamond Phillips’s movies. In the other camp are the rest of us, the ones who say, “OK, I remember La Bamba and Stand and Deliver and, wait, give me a minute, that’s right, there was Young Guns, too (as well as Young Guns II). But what else has he done?”
What else?! Phillips has been in nearly 20 films in the last 10 years, some of which went direct-to-video, and some of which went straight to hell. Or so it seems. They include The First Power, A Shaw of Force, Teresa’s Tattoo, Ambition, Dakota, Sioux City… OK, you get the idea.
But right now, New York City belongs to Phillips. In the celebrated revival of The King and I, which has been packing them in night after night on Broadway, Phillips has taken over the role that Yul Brynner made into a career and has put his own stamp on it.
“It’s like this every night,” Phillips tells me, referring to the thunderous standing ovation that moments ago greeted his curtain call. “We got a standing ovation our first night, and there’s lots of young kids in this show, so I told them, ‘Don’t get used to this. It may never happen again.’ But I was wrong. We’ve gotten a standing ovation every night since. Those poor kids–they’ll be fucked up for the rest of their lives!”
There are a dozen of us stuffed in Phillips’s dressing room at the theater. Actors Tim Guinee and Matt Damon have come to the performance because they worked with Phillips on the big summer movie Courage Under Fire, and, according to Damon, “We wanted to come here to see if we could bust Lou’s balls,” Phillips’s wife, Kelly, and her “best-friend-from-my-whole-life,” Lisa, have come to meet him for a late dinner. And a couple of fans have managed to talk their way backstage. Phillips is gracious and sweet to them, and they leave beaming.
Turning his attention back to me, Phillips brings out his “three kings collection”: a photo of Yul Brynner, a cutout of Elvis Presley and a doll of Phillips as the King of Siam.
“I’m just so happy to be part of this triumvirate,” he says with a smile. “I once went to Graceland with my band, The Pipefitters. They gave us a private tour, and this woman who was our guide was making all these weird observations. She had this thick Southern accent, and she’d say, ‘These are all his suits he wore on tour, and this one’s my personal favorite, but don’t tell anybody that, because I’m not supposed to tell you.’ She literally got misty at times, because I think she felt we were kindred spirits. At one point she turned around and said to us, ‘The King would’ve loved you boys.’ And so our obvious question was, ‘Oh, did you know the King’.” And she goes, ‘No, but I saw him across the parking lot once, and that was enough.’ We end up at his grave, and we are certainly affected by it, because this is an American icon, this is the height and the depths of fame. Then this tourist group shows up and they spot me, and I end up signing a couple of dozen autographs by Elvis’s grave. I just thought, this is ridiculous. The irony of it was just too much for me. Part of me felt guilty. I thought. I’m sorry Elvis. I don’t mean to be stealing your thunder, man.”
“I get queasy when an actor tells me they’re in a band.” I venture.
“The way I see it, I play at being a musician. I write the lyrics, and I sing. We toured around a bit, and actually a lot of people like us quite a lot. But we’ve never done that big push to get a record deal. Right now, it’s just this little side thing. It’s hard to pin me down… I like movies, I like the stage, I like playing music, I like to write, I like to direct. I’m not willing to give up any of these things.”
By the time our group reaches the street it’s nearly midnight, so only a few dozen fans are still waiting outside the theater for Phillips, but he takes his time and signs autographs, posed for pictures and thanks them for the support they are showing his play.
Lou Diamond Phillips, at 34, is still one of the most exotic looking men in films today. With his dark, brooding good looks, he is, as he says, hard to pin down. In La Bamba, he played a Mexican; in Sioux City, a Lakota Indian; in Ambition, which he also wrote, he played a Filipino. His background is part Filipino, with Chinese, Hawaiian, Spanish, Scottish, Irish and Cherokee Indian thrown in. But the truth is that he hails from Corpus Christi, Texas.
When we walk into Gallagher’s Steak House, everyone turns towards us and starts clapping. Phillips smiles and says hello to a few people, and then we all settle into the back booth. Damon and Guinee are kidding Phillips about the stunts he did on Courage Under Fire. “I still have this,” Phillips says, pulling his T-shirt away from his neck to show a bad burn. “I was strapped to the glider on a helicopter, leaning out and firing a machine gun, and I guess one of the shell casings hit me. It was burning like hell, so I kept banging my neck, trying to get it off me, but some of it stuck. I’ll tell you, though, the feeling of hanging off that helicopter was so great. I cannot describe the rush of the wind, and the noise, and the adrenaline that was going through my body. And this was only pretending to be at war! It gave me goose bumps, because I kept thinking that in the real situation, you must go out of your mind.”
Over clams and asparagus, the Courage comrades talk about what a great experience this movie was. ‘This was my first big studio movie,” Phillips says at one point, “and to be working with Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan was a treat. No bullshit with them, they’re both so well-prepared and so directed. Plus, this was Denzel’s second movie with Ed (Zwick, who also directed Glory). And I felt like I was with them on their second date, like I got to experience this special time.”
We close the place down around 1:30, and Phillips and I make plans to have breakfast later in the morning. Before they leave, I ask Kelly if she had any advice for Phillips when he took on the role in The King and I.
”Definitely,” she says. “I told him to work hard, do well, but not to try any of that ‘King’ shit at home with me.”
A few hours later, Phillips arrives promptly for our meeting at Barney Greengrass on the upper West Side. I see him walking down the street, and notice that every single person who walks past says hello. In the restaurant, it’s the same thing: the waiters, the other customers, the guy cutting lox behind the counter all smile.
“Is it always like this?” I ask, because, truthfully, I wasn’t aware that Phillips was such a big star.
“Absolutely. There are people who stop me every day, everywhere we go. When Kelly and I are shopping, or outside the theater every night, or on a plane, everyone is very sweet and they tell me how much they like my work.”
“What is it that all these people recognize you from?”
“Oh, I doubt you can watch cable television for a week and not see one of my movies. The Dark Wind, Shadow of the Wolf and Dakota are cable perennials. Plus the Young Gun films, which have a lot of fans. So people see me, and I never try to hide from them or act weird; they see I’m accessible and they respond to that.”
“Talking about Young Guns, Charlie Sheen is a Movieline favorite.”
Phillips shakes his head. “You know, whenever Charlie gives an interview, he just says anything that pops into his head. But, after a while, you gotta wonder if this is a Howard Stern thing, if the guy is just putting you on, because, man, I read Sheen’s interviews and I just can’t believe what he says.”
“Talking about Howard Stern…”
Now Phillips groans. “Do we have to?” he pleads.
“Absolutely,” I say. Phillips knows exactly where I’m going. A couple of years back, he went on Stern’s radio show–which was also broadcast as a two-parter on E! Entertainment Television–to tell his side of the story about the breakup of his first marriage to Julie Cypher. A couple of years after their divorce, it came out that Cypher had left Phillips for rocker Melissa Etheridge. As you can imagine, Stern was merciless.
“Actually,” Phillips says, “I thought Howard went pretty easy on me. Considering.”
“Easy on you?” I shriek. “I thought I would die when he said, ‘So, Lou, when your wife first went lesbian, were you saying, “Oh man, I must have been bad in bed or something'”?’ What the hell ever made you go on that show?”
“Well, let me put it the right way. When Julie and I split up, I always told interviewers that our marriage ended because Julie needed to find out more about herself. Which I think was true. I knew all about her relationship with Melissa, but it wasn’t my place to say anything; I was very supportive of them and their relationship. Very supportive. We were all friends. Then, years later, Melissa [decided to] come out. And right after that, she and Julie started to do all this press. And in some of those stories, Julie cast aspersions on our marriage. In some articles, she would say how terrific I was, and in others, she would say things that really hurt. I felt she had no right to do that to me, that their coming out was their business, and there was no need to drag me into it. Then Howard Stern called and kept saying, Lou, if you don’t come on here and talk to me. I’m gonna dog ya.’ You know Howard, he loves it when someone’s wife leaves him for a woman.”
“You were already married to Kelly by that time. How did she feel about all this?”
“Kelly and I felt like we were under fire, that our names were being brought up in magazine stories that had absolutely nothing to do with us. So I decided to go on with Howard. And Kelly came because she wanted to defend me…”
“To prove that you really are great in bed?” I ask.
Phillips smacks my hand. “No, to show that we were really OK, and that we felt lousy about being brought into their relationship. I didn’t feel the need to air my laundry the way Julie and Melissa did, but they had done it so I needed to respond. I’ll tell you, I’m very grateful to Howard, because he could have been cruel to me and he wasn’t. There were some moments that were uncomfortable, to be sure, but I felt he was really courteous to me.”
“You had the best line on the show, Lou. Howard was raging on and on about how he’d like to watch Julie and Melissa, how that’s every man’s fantasy, and you said you weren’t interested. When Howard pushed you on this, you said, ‘I may be off-white, but I’m very vanilla.’ I’ll bet that most of Howard’s audience didn’t have a clue what you meant, but I thought it was brilliant.”
“Thank you. And now, can we please talk about something else?”
“Sure thing. You said last night that Courage Under Fire was your first big studio film…”
“It was. The other films I did, like La Bamba, Stand and Deliver, even the Young Guns movies, they were either made for very little money or they were picked up after they were made. I don’t know why I’m not thought of for those studio films, but I really hope I will be from now on. I’d still do the independent films that I like, stories that I wrote, or want to direct, but I’d like to be brought into the studio stable. I’d like to be thought of as one of those actors that can do both. Usually part of why I’m cast is because I can look Asian or Mexican or ethnic. But in Courage Under Fire, my character’s ethnicity is of no interest, and that was a pleasure. It’s an incredibly emotional film, even though it’s a war movie. If you look at Glory or Legends of the Fall (which Ed Zwick also directed), there’s always something very human and very costly in how he views war. In this film, you know from the beginning that Meg Ryan is dead. She is going to be awarded–posthumously– the Medal of Honor. Denzel Washington is a disgraced tank commander who’s put in charge of the investigation into Ryan’s case. The government wants to give her this medal because she would be the first woman to get it, and Denzel has to interview the survivors–me, Tim Guinee, Matt Damon and Seth Gilliam. I’m the fly in the ointment, in that I had trouble taking orders from Ryan; my character thinks she crumbled when the pressure got to be too much. When Denzel starts to talk to all of us, it becomes like Rashomon: everyone has a different story to tell about how she behaved in battle. Some of the differences are minor, and some are major. And Denzel has to decide what’s the truth, who’s lying and what’s the right thing to do.”
“Have you made any war movies before? Because actors are always telling me what a rush they are.”
“Well, this is my first war movie. I’ve done a lot of cop movies, and I thought this would be the same, but it’s not. First of all, it’s not hard to get into it. I think even Meg would say the same thing, and Meg is probably the most anti-militant person you could ever put in this position. Running around with the guns and jumping into helicopters and all the war toys… it’s unbelievable. The whole time you’re saying to yourself, ‘this is a blast’–you’re dodging mortars, blanks are flying past you, and there’s dust up your nose and in your eyes and up your butt… it makes you very gung-ho.”
“You’ve written a couple of movies, directed a couple of movies…”
“I’ve written more than a couple,” Phillips says. “I must have a dozen in some stage or another. I love to write, and I think I have something to say. And it’s something I can do when I’m not working on a film. Directing is something I love, too. I directed Dangerous Touch for HBO, and Sioux City, which was a very sweet little movie. I wrote Ambition, and starred in it, but I didn’t direct it, and I think from now on I’m going to direct all the movies I write, if at all possible. You know, there are movies that I did that were really good, but people didn’t get to see them in the theaters because they weren’t in the theaters long enough.”
“Which ones?” I ask, scanning his résumé”.
“Things like The Dark Wind, Shadow of the Wolf and Ambition. They were very good movies, and I feel terrible when they came and went, because I had worked so hard on them. And I swear, at least once a week someone will stop me and say, ‘I saw Shadow of the Wolf on cable last night and I really liked it.'”
“Isn’t The Dark Wind from one of Tony Hillerman’s novels?”
“Didn’t Robert Redford option all those books and you were going to do them all? They were going to be your franchise…”
“Well, I’m not sure about that, but the film was very good, and for some reason they let it die.”
“Lou, one of the reasons some of these films died is because they’re bad. Admit it–you’ve made some bad films.”
The look on his face says it all: nobody has ever said this to him before. How is that possible?
“Do you know they’re bad while you’re making them?”
“No, of course not. Maybe that’s why actors fall in love so much and get married so much, because you tend to love the process. You find something to love about what you’re involved with at the time, and if your intentions are right, you just get carried along with it. But beyond that, many times it is not your doing; in the final analysis you’re not responsible for a lot of what goes up there. Just because your name is above the title or because you are the reason that it got made… well, you wind up taking the responsibility for it. You know, I have a certain presence overseas, and certainly in the cable and video market. And that’s enough to underwrite a certain budget level film, no matter what the script is. ‘Does he have a gun? Does he have a girlfriend? Great. OK. We’re in.’ And the film will get made, usually for less than $4 million. And that’s terrific. Maybe after Courage Under Fire, the studio people will also see me as a good commodity.
“But I’ll tell you, I don’t think I could have written this last year better if I had written it myself,” he says, smiling. “Kelly and I are trying to start a family. Courage Under Fire was an unbelievable experience, and, well, I’m the King in The King and I on Broadway. Could it get any better? I don’t think so.”
Martha Frankel interviewed Bill Pullman for the July ’96 issue of Movieline.
Posted on August 11, 2016, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged Courage Under Fire, La Bamba, Lou Diamond Phillips, Stand and Deliver, The King and I, young guns. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.