IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Matthew Lillard talks 'The Descendants'

Friday, 16 December 2011 09:37 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Matthew Lillard talks 'The Descendants'

Matthew Lillard is probably best known for his work on the Scream franchise and for playing Scooby-Doo’s BFF Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo series of live-action films. But the actor has been working in the entertainment industry for over twenty-years and has appeared in several popular movies including Hackers, She’s All That, Summer Catch, and The Perfect Score, as well as the critically acclaimed SLC Punk! Lillard is now receiving some of the best reviews of his life for his career transforming performance in director Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, which was just nominated for several Golden Globes and is currently a frontrunner for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards.

The film, which is currently in limited release and opens wide on December 16th, stars Oscar-winner George Clooney as Matt King. Matt is a real estate lawyer from Hawaii put in charge of his family’s land deal while he is dealing with his wife’s terminal coma, and two young daughters. Soon after finding out that his wife is going to die, Matt is struck with more bad news … she’s been cheating on him. Along with his children, and his oldest daughter’s (Shailene Woodley) friend Sid (Nick Krause), Matt goes on a quest to confront the man his wife was having an affair with. Lillard plays Brian Spear, the man he’s desperately searching for, but when Matt finely locates him, he discovers that Brian is closer connected to his own life than he could ever have imagined.

I recently had a chance to sit down and speak with Matthew Lillard about his work on The Descendants. The actor discussed his new film, his pivotal character, working with director Alexander Payne, his insecurities about playing George Clooney’s wife’s lover, and his overall career.

Here is what he had to say:

IAR: To begin with, I understand that director Alexander Payne’s sets are different than other movie sets. He only shoots about eight to twelve hours a day; he always uses the same crew, and he’s very collaborative with his cast. I would imagine that as an actor, getting to work like that is very rare, did you adjust to it right away and was it fun for you to be a part of a production like that?

Matthew Lillard:
Well, I mean you realize that you're with a great filmmaker. It's been a long time since I've held for sunlight. Right now, in my present situation, they give you just barely enough money to get by. When you're doing a film like that, you're just trying to make your days. Its like ten pounds of shit crammed into a five-pound bag. When you stop, and you're watching everyone on set with a monocle looking at the sun to see when it clears so you can start shooting again, you know you're on a different tenor of a set. There's a different focus and you're focused on making something great rather than just making a day. That feels great, and as an actor that's extraordinary. That's all you want. You know you're bringing your top game and everything you can to the part. It's nice to look around and go, "Oh wow, everyone's here for the same reason." The great thing about Alexander as a director is that you know you're on a journey with somebody that knows where he or she is going. As an actor, you'll run into a wall a million times for a guy if he tells you to run into the wall, if he knows what he wants because you have confidence. I will do that, for better or for worse, I will listen to a director whole-heartedly and I don't judge. I’ll go running in any direction they want like a dog. You know sometimes that works with a director like Alexander Payne, and sometimes you do an Uwe Boll (BloodRayne) movie and it doesn't work as well. I mean look, you wish that they were all great movies, but they just sometimes miss.

How has this film experience changed you as an actor? Is there anything that you’ve learned from this process that you will be able to take with you to your next project?

Lillard: Sure. You adapt and overcome. If you're on a million dollar micro-movie you can't act like you're on an Alexander Payne movie. We're creatures of adaptation; anywhere we go we are ready to go. By the nature of being an actor you're thrown in these different situations, different families and different moments, and you just have to adapt and overcome. I've been on sets like that before, I mean Wes runs a set like that, Wes Craven. Kenneth Branagh runs a set like that. They're great leaders and great men, and you try to steal from those great ones. I just started directing and my life has kind of gone in that direction, so for me watching as a director one of the great directors of our time, I learn more on that respect than I do as an actor.

George Clooney, who's also a great filmmaker in his own right and has a long and prestigious acting background, was obviously on set as a performer and not as a director, but was there anything that you were able to learn from him as an actor while you were shooting your scenes together?

Lillard: The great thing about George is that he's just the nicest guy in the world and he's everything everyone says wants him to be. He is that great of a guy. I think in general, I think our industry I like ninety-nine percent of the people I run into. There have been three people in twenty years of acting that I'm like yeah … I don't really like them that much. But there are very few that are extraordinary and I think George Clooney's extraordinary. But in terms of learning from them, that's the thing where for better or for worse, I like acting. I like being an actor, I've trained my whole life to be an actor, I like being in moments where you're with great actors because you're able to do great work. With great material, great directors and great actors comes greatness.

It would seem that when you have those three elements in place, its almost impossible not to hit a home run, right?

Lillard: No, I think you can always get lost! Alexander Payne could rest on his laurels right now. He's not going to. I mean he spends enough time in between where like he's ready to go, and George Clooney. I mean with George Clooney, I think personally this is the best work he's ever done in a movie.

When you’re on set and doing scenes with him, does that thought ever cross you mind or are you so focused on the work that you don’t realize that till after the film is complete?

Lillard: Not really. It's like if you're a surgeon, everyday you're doing a surgery and all of a sudden someone scrubs in next to you, and you're both doing surgery. It's not like, "Wow, he's amazing!" Do you know what I mean? Look, I mean, I don’t do the best surgeries in the world, but I still feel like I can cut with anyone. If we didn't feel that way we never would've got this job because this job was not built on your resume, not on your Q rating, not on the ten movies you did with so and so, or because you've been packaged by so and so. I got this job, Judy Greer got this job, and Bob (Forster) got this job because of who we are as actors. You know that's really satisfying and when you get to set you feel validated. I felt like I deserved to be there because Alexander hired me and wanted me. This is what I do. So you do feel grounded and it was very exciting.

Did you talk with Judy Greer a lot about your characters' backgrounds and relationship together before you started shooting or did you just work off the script and let the scenes play out on set?

Lillard: You know we got there on Thursday, we shot on the following Monday, we hung out by the pool, and bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. You know but that's easy. Alexander runs the set in such a way that it's comfortable. There's no stress, there's no tension, nobody's screaming, you're there to make a great movie, and there's just relaxation. I'm a comfortable guy. We can sit and talk about bullshit all night about anything. I like people. Judy likes people. We're together, there's nothing weird about it. Acting's not hard. The career is hard, being great is hard, but just being in a moment, relating to each other and talking on set is not hard. You know we've done it for twenty years. So us hitting marks and saying lines and being present, it wasn't that extraordinary.

Your character only appears in one scene in the movie, yet it is a pivotal role that is talked about throughout the entire film. As an actor, is it difficult to come in and play such a small but important part, or is it freeing in a sense to know that your only job is to just be the guy who slept with Clooney’s character’s wife?

Lillard: I felt odd and I wish I were better looking. You know, I wish I had better abs, and I wish I had a better ass. You wish that as you're sitting there across from George Clooney. I wish I had felt like I was more handsome than George Clooney. But going into doing the part the acting's great, you feel comfortable with acting. The last thing I wanted to do was be the joke. I didn't want to be the butt of the joke playing the guy who’s sleeping with Clooney's wife. I don't want people to come out of the movie and go, "Clooney's wife would never sleep with that dude." That was the thing I really had to get my head around. I had to put my own insecurities behind and put my faith and trust in Alexander Payne. I had to remember that he cast me for a reason and that I won't be the butt of this joke. As I got cast I'm like, "Shit, am I going be this guy that everyone in America is like, 'What the fuck was that?'"

But even George Clooney is not really “George Clooney” in this film; he's playing a regular guy named Matt King.

Lillard: Yes, but it's so hard these days to get away from the fact that it's George Clooney and everyone's like, "What's George Clooney like?" in the back of your mind it's ridiculous that I'm going to sleep with his wife. Look, that was the hardest thing about getting the job, walking in the room. I auditioned and Alexander's like, "That's the best audition I've ever seen." I'm like, "That's the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. Too bad I'll never get this job." He's like, "Why would you say that?" I said, "Because I'm never going to be the guy sleeping with George Clooney's wife." That's when he threw me out of the room. He said, "Just get out of the room. Go get out of here!" So you know three months later after him seeing everyone and their mother, I got the job.

Finally, as an actor, what choice did you make regarding how Brian truly feels about Elizabeth, the woman he has been having an affair with? In the film he tells Matt that he didn’t love her, do you think that’s he’s telling the truth or was he lying to him? Was he just using Elizabeth or do did he really love her?

Lillard: Yeah, no he doesn’t love her. But no, he wasn't using her at all, not even a little. I think it's really important to know that. I think that he is a guy that met her at a Super Bowl party, they hit it off, they had sex, they became lovers and they were having sex. I don't think it had anything to do with any diabolical plan. He says, “It was just sex, go away, what are you doing here? Go back to your wife.” In this whole movie (George’s character) is on this journey to find this oracle and the guy's like, "Dude it was just sex, nothing more, and nothing less." That's the thing that's great, just going on and bringing it back to what's important which is Alexander Payne. I think that if my character was like Taylor Lautner, ridiculously handsome and had his shit together, that he would be a villain. I don't think anyone in that movie goes, “Oh that guy's a villain.” Hopefully they see this guy who made a mistake. That's the thing about all of Alexander’s movies. They're all so human. It's not a comedy, and it's not a drama, that's the thing. I think that that's why it's so gripping at the end. You feel so much.

The Descendants opens in wide release on December 16th. 

To watch our exclusive video interview with actor Robert Forster about The Descendants, please click here

To read our exclusive interview with actor Beau Bridges about The Descendants, please click here

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