It’s no understatement to say that Lou Diamond Phillips has done a bit of everything in his acting career. Many may remember him for his starring roles in “La Bamba,” “Stand and Deliver,” and “Young Guns,” others for his memorable guest spots on shows like, “Law & Order: SVU,” and others still for his A&E, then-Netflix series “Longmire,” his reality TV triumphs on “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” and “Rachel vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-off,” and even his appearance in an Imagine Dragons music video.
His latest work, playing prolific serial killer Richard Ramirez — who terrorized Los Angeles in the summer of 1985 with his string of murders — brought him to Seattle this past weekend for the world premiere of “The Night Stalker,” at SIFF Cinema Uptown.
On Saturday, Phillips spoke with the Queen Anne & Magnolia News prior to his Seattle International Film Festival appearance, to discuss the movie, and his acting career.
Q: What drew you to this role?
Lou Diamond Phillips: You know, it’s interesting. This hasn’t come up a whole lot. [Director] Megan [Griffiths] and I met at a Milan International Film Festival awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Her film “Eden,” — I think she was breakout director, it might have taken best picture — [and] I won best supporting actor for “Filly Brown,” that I did with Gina Rodriguez, and we met and we hit it off and everything else. A couple years later, I get this letter out of the blue saying, “Lou, I’m doing this film and I thought of you and I think you’d be perfect.” I watched her movie “Eden,” and I mean literally, I’ve said it before, I was hooked by page one. The introduction to Richard was like, okay, alright, if the rest of the script lives up to this anti-hero’s entrance, this villain’s entrance if you will, and just page after page after page, it was this complex, complicated, psychological portrait that she had painted in the screenplay, and then the knowledge that, you know, I was obviously familiar with Richard Ramirez, I knew who he was, I didn’t know that much about him, and so, immediately went online, saw some footage and went, “Oh my god, well, first of all yes I do look like him,” which is frightening, but that he had this idiosyncratic personality, that you know, I’m sorry man, it’s like giving prime rib to an actor. There’s a lot of meat on this plate, and from his vocal quality and his speech patterns and his physical life, all of that is just such a joy to wrap your head around and try to replicate. I was intrigued — and intrigued is even the wrong word because that’s an understatement — I was excited, I was really, really compelled to do this, and within the same day I had been given a link to her film “Eden,” and I watched that and she got an amazing performance out of Jamie Chung, and it was elegantly done. A movie about human trafficking that was tasteful and intelligent and yet still horrific and emotionally effective. I thought, this woman is an amazing director, and so it was literally a no brainer. Within hours of reading the script it was yes, I’m in, I’m in.
Q: You’re no stranger to playing these real-life characters, but what are the challenges of those kind of roles?
Phillips: There’s a huge amount of responsibility. When you look at something as uplifting as “La Bamba” or “Stand and Deliver” or “The 33,” which I just had out, that is something that you want to get right because it’s such a story of heroism, that you want to humanize it, that you want to make sure that many of these people who are still alive, for instance the Valenzuela family, and certainly at the time Jaime Escalante, and most definitely “The 33,” [Luis] Don Lucho [Urzua], I just saw him last year at the premiere and we hung out together. You have a responsibility to them to represent them well on the screen.
My responsibility here with somebody who was not heroic, who was the absolute opposite of that, is to get it right, to be as potentially frightening or disgusting or disturbing as you can be because that’s the truth of what happened. I in no way am trying to aggrandize or to elevate Ramirez and what he did, but I am trying to create him as a human being that you can understand, and that you’re not just watching him, you’re not just writing him off simplistically as a monster, you’re going, “Wow, how did this man get to this place, what were the motivations, what made him tick,” and that’s the challenge. That’s the challenge, is to not to be a cartoon, and if you do it right, then hopefully it gets inside of people, it affects them, it touches them on a psychological level.
Q: You look at your line of work, and you do a lot. You do starring roles, you have a Netflix series, a lot of guest spots on TV, reality television, I was personally a huge fan of “Rachel vs. Guy” Celebrity Cookoff.” so congratulations on that win.
Phillips: [Laughter] Thank you! It’s so bizarre, I almost don’t even look at that as reality TV, but I guess it is. But it’s like, anytime I’ve ever done that I’ve done it for charity, but I love to cook, and I’m sorry man, I am unabashedly competitive, it’s like, “Alright dammit I’m gonna win.” A lot of people go, “Oh, you’re a chef,” and I go, “No no no no, a chef runs a restaurant,” and I am a restaurateur, I’m a co owner of the Tribeca Grill in New York in Manhattan, but I’m not a chef. I don’t run a restaurant. I’m a very, very good home cook, and a very creative one, and so for me, that competition, that getting into the arena man, that just gets the juices flowing.
Q: And how do you balance all of those roles?
Phillips: You know it’s interesting, somebody asked me what my favorite role was. My favorite role is employment. I’ve got four kids, I mean I have to work, I’m a journeyman actor. I’m very fortunate that this has been my living for 30-plus years, but I think the amount of diversity, if you will, that I have within my own career, is because of the many interests that I have, but also because I started in the theatre. I got my first film, it was a Christian youth film when I was 19 years old in Dallas, Texas. I was majoring in drama, I was doing a lot of theatre at Stage West in Fort Worth. In my freshman year of college, I got conscripted into a comedy troupe, which used to do this sort of subversive, raunchy Saturday Night Live type sketch comedy in a punk club called Zeroes. We were called the Zero Hour, on Fridays and Saturdays at midnight, and if you weren’t funny, they threw beer bottles at you. I was a mime for a while. All of these sort of different things that I did professionally, or you know — actually I got paid for all of them — in college, and that I think informed how I approached my film career.
And interestingly enough, the line has blurred in 2016, the line has so blurred. Back when I started with “La Bamba” and “Stand and Deliver” and “Young Guns,” you didn’t do television. You were either a film actor, a TV actor, heaven forbid you do a commercial, and now, you can be everything. Fame has become this umbrella that covers everyone. Mark Wahlberg has a reality show, and yet he’s still top lining $100 million films, he’s producing TV through HBO and Showtime and what not, so I mean, this idea that you become your own cottage industry, that you are this entrepreneur, this has come into being in 21st century Hollywood, and so, fortunately, it allows you to investigate every opportunity that’s open to you
Q: So, the world premiere of “The Night Stalker” is tonight, how does it feel to get to that point with this film?
This was done as an independent film, so you never know where you’re going to go. “Stand and Deliver” for me kind of reached the apex of what was possible with an independent film. “Filly Brown,” that I did with Gina Rodriguez, Sundance [Film Festival] smash, it did quite well in theatres, put her on the map and now look at her. I’m so proud of her, and literally, that was her quinceanera, that was her coming out party. So to bring “The Night Stalker” to a film festival, to an environment where people love film, they support film, where they’re looking for the next new thing that is somewhat off the beaten path, that is somewhat to the left of the mainstream if you will, I mean that’s very exciting. You’re here with a bunch of people of like mind, and the fact that its in Seattle, one of the coolest places on the planet, I feel very, very fortunate to be here and to be supporting the film, but also to soak up this environment and support this film festival, because it’s one of the, I think, premiere festivals in the country, to have been doing it for as long as they’ve been doing it, and the sheer size and scope of what SIFF achieves every year. I mean, it’s incredibly impressive, and I’m glad to put my name on the role call.
"The Night Stalker," screens on Sunday, June 5 at 1:30 p.m. at AMC Pacific Place. Standby tickets may be available. The film premieres on Lifetime (Comcast Ch. 51) on June 12 at 9 p.m.