Interview: Matthew Lillard Transmogrified

Being an actor, especially a youthful one, is rarely a stable arrangement. The vast majority of performers in Hollywood upon reaching their “expiration dates” are quickly discarded in order to make way for a new breed of talent. While many of these individuals concede their fight to reclaim public favor, the ones that endure are forced to weather an uncertain career path riddled with highs and lows. This has particularly been the case for character actor Matthew Lillard. The rubber-faced thespian, while enjoying a period of popularity in the mid-90s due to the trademark zeal he brought to films like Scream and SLC Punk! (his crowning achievement), became an icon of the rebellious, disenfranchised youth of America.

But even at Lillard’s height, few casting agents knew how to utilize his endearingly abrasive persona, crystalizing him in a perpetual state of flux. “I’m a bit of an odd duck. I don’t look like Johnny Depp and I don’t look like John Goodman, and I’m not dramatic and I’m not funny and I’m in between everything.”

Eventually, the effervescence that initially made Lillard stand out from his contemporaries became the very thing that would unravel his career, leading to a trying period of underemployment. After going from notoriety to obscurity in short order, Lillard quickly matured after his fall from grace and, with a reappraisal of his lifestyle and career approach, began clawing his way back towards regaining credibility.

Despite recently hitting a newfound patch of momentum propelled by his dramatic turn in the Oscar-nominated film, The Descendants, Lillard has begun to channel his vast reservoir of energy into his new life’s ambition: directing. Perpetually underestimated and discounted, the persevering Lillard is proving skeptics wrong by regaining legitimacy with his debut feature, the independent Fat Kid Rules the World, which has steadily generated buzz after being exhibited at film festivals. It’s a good feeling for the maligned artist. “I learned a long time ago that you can’t live by what people think of you. If I did, I would have been dead long ago.”

Lillard burst onto the scene as a unique figure in the Hollywood landscape. Exhibiting a freewheeling and kinetic vitality, he established a reputation as a notorious wild child of the screen. Exuding a natural exuberance, he excited his directors, who routinely unleashed him on the film shoot without steady parameters, often to his detriment. “I think early in my career, I did more than I ever needed to stand out. If you’re in two percent of the script, you want that to pop. I made people laugh on the set, so the director rarely pulled me back. I made a lot of mistakes; I just went overboard a lot.”

Despite excelling at translating his frenetic personality to an on-screen persona, Lillard quickly noticed a distressing pattern to the roles offered him; they were all one-dimensional, outlandish characters offering little in the way of challenge or conflict. After a string of commercial and critical flops, the pigeonholed Lillard began to lose self-respect.

In a sadly ironic turn, the boisterous roles Lillard was being relegated to were beginning to wear on audiences. In 2004, coming off a trio of movies that the actor was certain would catapult him to prominence (the psychological thriller Wicker Park, the sequel to his blockbuster Scooby Doo, and his first hard comedy, Without a Paddle (which, despite negative reviews, grossed $70 million worldwide)), Lillard stopped receiving offers from casting agents, leading to the bleakest moment of his career. “If you would have told me after 2004 that I wouldn’t make another studio movie for 5 years, I’d have thought you were crazy. I felt forgotten. But, no one tells you what you did wrong; it’s not like they send out a memo.”

Attributing his abrupt expulsion from Hollywood to “lost street cred” resulting from his work as Shaggy in the commercial Scooby Doo (a performance Lillard remains proud of), Lillard was soon confronted with the stark economic realities plaguing many Americans. Under the assumption that he would maintain a constant stream of work throughout his career, Lillard’s habit of overspending placed him in a precarious position with limited income being generated from voice-over work. With responsibilities as a husband and father of three, Lillard was forced to downsize his life, including selling his cars, which the actor refers to as an “incredibly humbling experience.” Faced with an uncertain future in show business, Lillard knew that he had two options: get out of Hollywood and find another occupation or reorganize his life and start from scratch. Choosing the latter, Lillard began to make ends meet by teaching acting around the globe, including at the Vancouver Film School.

Despite rededicating himself to his craft, Lillard found it impossible to shake the tarnished reputation he had received, as casting agents branded him a has-been. After years of toiling in patience, Lillard divorced himself from the impression his career had made.

Lillard would play Brian Speer, the secret lover of Matt King’s (George Clooney) dying wife in Alexander Payne’s Oscar-nominated picture, The Descendants. “That’s the great thing about Alexander. He doesn’t give a shit what you’ve done and he isn’t impressed with what you’re doing. He took a chance on me, and thank god he did.”

As the central elusive figure of the film that motivates the King family’s search, Speer’s appearance marks the culmination of the film’s crescendoing action. Despite relatively little screen time, Lillard delivered a performance rife with nuance and conflict, the maturity of which turned heads from Hollywood types that had long underestimated his abilities. “I won’t lie, it felt good. I felt a sense of validation.” He credits his success to director Payne, who wrangled in Lillard’s oft-unbridled zeal and redirected it towards emotional restraint. “If left to my own devices, I’m sure I would have screwed it up.”

After garnering credibility from his performance, Lillard has shown signs of resurgence, with the 42-year-old actor currently working on a Clint Eastwood-helmed film.

Yet, despite this exciting new chapter in his career, Lillard has set his sights squarely on a new passion, this time behind the camera. Currently exhibiting his independent Fat Kid Rules the World at circuits like the Seattle International Film Festival, Lillard’s transition is by no means a passing whim but has been in a state of development for the past ten years.

Happening upon KL Going’s young adult novel in 2003, Lillard was struck by how applicable the brutally honest story of two friends (one a suicidal and obese youth, Troy, and the other his mercurial, troubled bandmate) was to his own experiences growing up. While not overweight, Lillard’s childhood was plagued by a constant struggle with a severe learning disorder that sapped his self-confidence and left him feeling ostracized from his classmates. In addition to being an outsider, Lillard, like Troy, befriended a boy that, in dire circumstances, was taken in by his parents. The story’s central theme of self-discovery through punk-rock music also resonated to Lillard’s core.

Despite receiving no training as a director, Lillard instantly knew he had to adapt the novel to film and began channeling his signature vigor into his newfound labor of love. After literally begging author Going to sign off on his vision, Lillard set out to find writers that would share his passion for the material. He found them in Peter Speakman and Michael Galvin (the latter of which is a member of a punk-rock band), who, so enamored with the novel, scribed an initial draft without compensation.

Coming on the heels of his work in Scooby Doo, Lillard originally planned to make the movie for $10 million. After his break from Hollywood, however, he found no interested parties willing to take a chance on the film for such a sum and eventually secured funds after agreeing to make it for under one million dollars.

Filming over 21 days in Seattle, Lillard had no time to lose in bringing all the production elements together. For a first-time filmmaker, this was not without its challenges. “The biggest obstacle was staying ahead of the learning curve on a film where I didn’t have time to make any mistakes. If you screw up two days on our shoot, that’s a tenth of your schedule. You couldn’t make up for that. It’s like putting up a target on a dartboard and asking 50 people to hit it.”

Energized at the opportunity of bringing his vision to life, Lillard thrived under his restricted conditions. Serving as the ultimate caretaker of his pet project as producer and director, he exhibited his tireless work ethic while inspiring and motivating others. Having acted since age 13, Lillard distilled down his experiences in showbiz to a trusted formula, adopting the positive elements of directors he’d worked with (like Payne and Wes Craven) while weeding out the counterproductive aspects.

In order to facilitate an atmosphere of creative fulfillment for all parties, Lillard cultivated an open sense of collaboration, a luxury not afforded on some of his previous unsuccessful shoots. Also, with an adeptness at communicating and evaluating actors from his time teaching, Lillard found a natural ability to guide the energies of his performers, eliciting tremendous work from Jacob Wysocki, who gives a sympathetic turn as Troy, and the exuberant Matt O’Leary, who plays the drug-addict friend, Marcus. Lillard even filmed scenes with himself as the school guidance counselor (as an adult version of Stevo from SLC Punk!) before deleting them early in the editing process.

Despite suffering through an agonizing career collapse, Lillard used every one of his experiences to shape the fabric of Fat Kid, which the director is proud to say achieved everything he envisioned it to be. “I am on every frame of that film. I’m thrilled with it.” While most fans will see Fat Kid as a touching film of alienation and friendship, for Matthew Lillard, it’s the vehicle for his new life trajectory. “If I had to do one thing for the rest of my life, it’d be to direct. It’s the most fulfilling.” With control over his films, Lillard will continue to make what he calls “dirty pretty pictures,” truthful and passionately told stories.

For now, though, Lillard knows that he is just at the foot of his uphill climb. Despite gaining exposure at both film festivals and at the Vans Warped Tour (for which Lillard’s team is a co-sponsor), Fat Kid has a long way to go to get into theaters. Due to the thematic balance of dark and light elements, lack of name actors, and a teenage target audience, the film has met with reluctance by distributors. “We’re not dark enough to be Shame and we’re not PG enough to be Disney, so we’re kind of somewhere in between.”

After rejecting initial distribution offers, Lillard and company have recently signed with Tugg.com, a Groupon-type website that exhibits films in theaters after acquiring a set number of pre-sold tickets, a strategy they believe will help them reach their audience. For now, even with a rebounding acting career, Lillard is focusing entirely on the future of his film and his own potential to continue telling stories. “In the next three weeks, my life is going to change in direction. If [Fat Kid] takes off, then I become a relevant player in the area of new filmmakers. If not, then I go back to the pile. We’ll have to see where it ends up. I’m curious to see it myself.”

Support Fat Kid Rules The World via Kickstarter here.

Bookmark the permalink.