We haven’t seen too much of Matthew Lillard since the early part of the new millennium, when he was popping up in nearly every teen-oriented comedy and a handful of Scooby-Doo movies. Maybe not the headiest material of all time, but the man had chops and he made it work. If you weren’t a little freaked out by his turn as the psycho killer in the original Scream movie (sorry if that’s a spoiler), then you might be a weirdo.
Lillard bounces back into the mainstream this holiday season in The Descendants, the new film by director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) with a George Clooney powerhouse performance at its epicenter. In the movie he plays a real estate agent who may have been having an affair with Clooney’s character’s comatose wife (a realization that Clooney doesn’t take lately). The role is completely different than anything we’ve ever seen Lillard do, and, after sitting down with him to chat about the movie, he couldn’t have been more excited to step out of his comfort zone:
I spoke to Judy [Greer] a little earlier, and she was thrilled to be part of the movie. Mostly because she does a lot of comedy, a lot of crazy roles, but here was something out of her norm that she was really passionate about. She mentioned that Alexander [Payne] cast everyone because they were right for the movie. Did you speak with him about who this guy is and how you might fit the role?
Matthew Lillard: You know what’s interesting is that he does not have to suffer through the “What has he done? What can do you do?” for foreign sales. Once you have George Clooney a lot of those pressures are taken off, and Fox Searchlight allows you to make the movie you want to make. So he can just go out and hire whoever he wants to hire. It’s not that he ever saw Scooby-Doo or Scream or whatever.
You don’t think he saw them?
ML: No. Isn’t that weird? Shocking! I don’t think he did.
That’s not fair. He should see them.
ML: Yeah, but he’s hiring you, I think, because in the audition and in the moment you’re the guy he wants you to be. And there’s not a lot of talking. There’s not. There’s like, ‘What do you want [me] to do in the scenes?’ ‘Just do what you did in the audition. That’s why you’re here.’ And that’s terrifying, because you’re like, ‘Oh my God!’
I was about to say, is that what you want to hear? ?
ML: Well, yeah. But you’re like, ‘Oh my God! Am I going to screw it up? Because I don’t remember.’ And then there’s, ‘You got the part because you are who you are.’ And there’s something really nice about that. I wish Hollywood ran more on just the audition.
One of the best scenes in the movie is the encounter between you and Clooney. Can you talk a little bit about working with him in that scene? Or was it as simple as throwing you guys in a room?
ML: The given circumstances were awesome. It’s hard to come into a movie in the middle of the movie and do one scene. The good thing is, there’s only, like, seven of us in the film. So it’s not like it’s a huge cast, every day dealing with other people.
There’s just that scene where…I remember the first day he looked over at me [and said] ‘Wow.’ Which was nice. It takes the pressure off. I’m here for a reason. I’ve been saying all day, it’s a little like, if you’re a basketball player, you want to go one-on-one with LeBron James. If you’re an actor, you want to be in the ring—in an Alexander Payne ring—with George Clooney. One of the biggest movie stars on the planet.
Did he feel open with discussing with you and talking? What’s his attitude when he’s on set? ?
ML: Yeah. It’s great. I think we’re similar in the fact that there’s not a lot of talk—let’s just do. If it doesn’t work, he’ll tell me, I’ll do something different. I think that, collectively, as a group, we’re all very likeminded that way. There’s not a lot of ‘What if…?’ you know. It’d be like, ‘Hey, I’ve got something.’ You know, with the last line, ‘Okay, twice,’ I threw it in in a take. And they were like, ‘Yeah, keep that.’ The beats that you find through doing. I don’t think you can talk about acting. You have to act.
You just do it.
ML: Yeah, and that’s the thing about George. George is incredibly grounded. He’s just humble. Years and years of trying to make it and then becoming successful leaves a good imprint.
Do you feel you’re approach this and all your other work in the same capacity? Descendants compared to Scream or Scooby-Doo? Are they different process?
ML: No. Totally different processes.
ML: Yeah, sure, it all depends. If you do something like Scooby, you have to tear it apart from the inside out. Or from the outside in, rather. ‘How does the walk go? How does he carry himself? What does he do?’ You have to go back and watch a two-dimensional figure, and figure out hwo to make that a three-dimensional human being. So there’s a lot of business there that’s really technical. ‘Okay, what if I do this?’
You have to study the unnatural in order to make it natural.
ML: Sure! Sure! And also, you’re coming up with stuff. There’s a dance in Scooby-Doo, and you’re like, ‘How is that going to happen?’ But with something like this, you just kind of base it on…I brought guys down from Vancouver. The guy I work with, an acting coach. We tore it apart for three days. A seven, eight-page scene. I was ready to go. He could have done anything, I would have been ready to go any direction anyone wanted to go.
You mentioned you wished that Hollywood would work more like whoever is right for the audition should get these parts…
ML: That’s what you wish. But that’s like saying, I wish all the cute girls would kiss me in high school.
I actually wish that every day.
ML: Today! Exactly! [Laughs]
But do you find it to be a struggle? And what are you going after? Are you getting what you are looking for out of work right now?
ML: It’s been a huge struggle for me lately. I’ve done a lot of movies. I’ve done forty movies, thirty-something movies. If you had told me when I was twenty-one that I’d do thirty movies and have a hard time getting a job, I’d be like, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ There’s such ebb and flow in this business. It’s not always great. It’s been bad for me a lot lately. So, it’s so nice to be blessed with a part to come back on. I’m excited about it.
What do you have in the works?
ML: Um…nothing, really. I just directed a feature called Fat Kid Rules the World.
Who’s in that? Did you write it?
ML: No, I didn’t write it. I optioned the book eight years ago. It’s based on a young adult book about this obese teenager who finds punk rock music.
Are you a punk rock music fan?
ML: Uh…I am…ish. I’m a fan of punk rock music energy. I used to listen to punk, but I don’t listen to it so much anymore.
ML: Yeah. God, nothing sounds worse to me than contemporary punk. But, it’s Billy Campbell from The Killing and Jacob Wysocki from Terri…and Matt O’Leary from Natural Selection. We wrapped and just submitted to Sundance.
I hope I get to see it at Sundance.
ML: Oh, God, I hope we get to see it at Sundance.
And acting-wise, anything lined up? Or just kind of playing it by ear for now?
ML: Nope. Nothing. We made this decision, my wife and I—we have three kids—to kind of downsize our life. Stop taking really crappy jobs and try to wait until a good one comes. We’re hoping to God that one comes soon.
I was kind of disappointed that you didn’t turn out to be the killer in Scream 4.
ML: That is funny!
It was a nutty enough movie…
ML: What’d you think? Do you think it worked?
I did. I actually really like all three movies. This one totally worked for me.
ML: Wait, do you like all four movies? You just said all three.
Oh, I misspoke. I like all four.
ML: I was just curious.
I think the first one is probably the best. But I think the fourth one stands pretty close.
ML: I totally, one hundred percent agree with you. I was shocked at how good it was. I loved it. I was also shocked at how poorly it performed at the box office.
A little disappointing.
ML: You know, it’s weird. Scream found that thing at a time…it comes along every now and then. Saw had it. It’s just that thing that people find at the right time. You know, it’s a franchise that just keeps going. You never know.
To wrap things up, there was a time when you were doing a lot of movies with Freddie Prinze, Jr., and it made me wonder if the two of you would ever reteam for another. Do you talk to him? Do you hang out with him?
Oh. I hope you guys are still cool!
ML: No, we’re good! He and I are good. But…
Not the right direction.
ML: Not right this second.
I can understand that.
ML: It’s funny…it’s that thing we’re you’re like, I love the kid. But I don’t think he needs me in any movie he ever does again, and I don’t think he wants me in that movie he ever does again.