EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: MATTHEW LILLARD ON THE DESCENDANTS
by Paul Fischer
The Descendants is currently in limited release in New York and Los Angeles
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It would be fair to say that Matthew Lillard has come a long way since bursting onto the Hollywood scene in the likes of Scream and the family hit Scooby Doo. The now 40-year old Michigan native plays a character integral to the journey of George Clooney’s Matt King in The Descendants. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Clooney plays a Hawaiian lawyer whose wife is in a hospital, having suffered a severe head injury after a motorboat crash. As a result, King is forced to come to terms with his family life, which involves two daughters that he hasn’t connected with much and a marriage that has fallen even further into neglect. On top of that, King is involved in a massive property deal that will make millions for him and his cousins if he accepts one of many bids to transform the family plot from a rural idyll into a commercial holiday resort. His life takes an unexpected and obsessive turn, when he discovers that his comatose wife had an affair with real estate broker Lillard’s character Brian Speer. Lillard’s performance looms large as his character becomes a catalyst for Matt King’s subsequent journey.
As we chat in a Beverly Hills hotel room, the actor says, “For me, the challenge was there is such a build up to the character. They talk about him throughout the whole movie and he becomes this kind of central theme in the movie by this guy who’s on this journey. Then you have this big confrontation.” For Lillard, playing a character who appears in a few scenes towards the end of the movie “is about being prepared. You can only do what you can do and with the people involved with, you want to be in your best game. So as an actor you want to walk in and be as prepared as possible and available for whatever happens on that day. You can’t think about doing too much in a moment. As a young actor I tried to do as much as I could with whatever little time that I had, because I wanted to be special. I wanted every moment to shine. Then I realized as I’d gotten older I realized it’s the less we do sometimes that’s the more powerful.”
On his character in The Descendants, Lillard disagrees that he is one of the least sympathetic characters in the movie. “I actually feel bad for Brian. I think he’s a good guy who’s done a bad thing.” And rather than not judge him, as many actors tend to do, Lillard takes the opposite approach “by judging him on his positive attributes. Even Captain Hook has a good reason for why he’s right and everyone else is wrong. So you have to be your own advocate for the character you play. He’s just a guy who fell into a situation and made a bad choice.”
The Descendants comes at a time in Lillard’s own journey where he has evolved as a young movie star to an actor, director and even teacher. Lillard was born in Lansing, Michigan, but grew up in Tustin, California. He attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena, California, with fellow actor Paul Rudd, and later, the theater school Circle in the Square in New York City.
While still in high school, he was co-host of a short-lived TV show titled SK8 TV. After high school, he was hired as an extra for Ghoulies 3: Ghoulies Go to College.
But his big break came in 1996, when Lillard was cast in the horror slasher, Scream as Billy Loomis’s friend, Stu Macher. Lillard was then cast as Shaggy Rogers in the 2002 live-action Scooby Doo film, a role he later reprised in the 2004 sequel Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. It has been quite the journey for the actor trying to work in a difficult, ever-changing industry. “It’s a difficult time in our industry,” Lillard says. “We’ve gone from 10 studios making 10 movies a year to maybe three studios making maybe three big tentpole movies that unless you’re number one and two actors, you’re only going to make scale 10, which is like $1500 before taxes, agents, managers and lawyers. So you’re clearing $500 a week and you have to raise kids. But like so many industries in this country, we’ve been decimated and it’s a really interesting time right now.”
So what does he do then to stand out from the pack? “I’m always going to stand out from the pack,” Lillard confesses. “I’m not like everybody else, inherently by who I am.” Yet Lillard is diversifying. “I’m teaching, I’ve directed my first movie and I’m back on the stage. You just have to reinvigorate and continually work on your craft.” At 41, Lillard has perspective on his career. “I now have a different sense of awareness. I think when I started out I wanted to be really famous and wanted to be huge. I’ve kind of given up on that and so it’s not my dream any more. I just want to be around, to act and do stuff I’m proud of.”
That includes his directorial debut, Fat Kid Rules the World, starring Billy Campbell. And Lillard teaches acting to many young hopefuls at the Vancouver Film School. Asked if Lillard gives his young students the kind of advice he wishes he would have received as a young actor, Lillard pauses. “When I teach about career or business, I teach about longevity, about the last year where I haven’t worked. I teach about getting through that and how do you get through that ebb and flow. And in my work, as an actor, you teach best what you love least, so I try to teach simplicity and connection. And I teach what I do well, which is bringing energy to a part.”
For Matthew Lillard, it seems his own journey is just beginning as audiences see him in a new light sharing the screen with George Clooney in The Descendants.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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