Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Lou Diamond Phillips first came to prominence when he played early rock ’n’ roll star Ritchie Valens in the 1987 biopic La Bamba, earned raves for his work in Stand And Deliver, then quickly expanded from drama into action with the Young Guns films. Since then, he’s bounced from genre to genre, from comedies (Disorganized Crime) to sci-fi (Stargate Universe), working steadily. Phillips can currently be seen in the A&E series Longmire, where he plays the occasionally enigmatic Native American Henry Standing Bear.
Longmire (2012-present)—“Henry Standing Bear”
Lou Diamond Phillips: First of all, there was probably a very short list for actors who were physically appropriate for Henry Standing Bear. He’s northern Cheyenne, and when I read the script, I said, “This is me. This has got me all over it.” I was incredibly excited about it. I wanted the role quite badly, and when I started reading the books, I just realized how rich and how textured this role is. So I went in and met with the producers. John Coveny and Hunt Baldwin did an amazing job putting together the show, and, thankfully, they felt like I was the appropriate choice.
The A.V. Club: After watching the pilot, Longmire seemed to borrow tone from Jesse Stone while adding a bit of Justified as well. Did you find any particular frame of reference when you were reading the script?
LDP: Well, I’ve actually played a number of Native American characters, whether it’s Young Guns or The Dark Wind or whatever, and I’ve been involved with cop shows and films throughout my career. But what I loved about this script was the world that they created, and the fact that it is a Western and has this contemporary feel to it. But it’s a world that we’re not seeing a lot of on television. I mean, Wyoming? And characters with a different perspective, a different world view. So you’ve got this very contemporary feel, with contemporary criminology meeting this old-school Western, bigger-than-life kind of mentality, and I thought it walked a really fine line, a nice line, in that. And then when I started reading Craig Johnson’s Longmire novels, which I’ve read all of now, the humanity, the sense of humor, the through-line, the fact that these aren’t wet-behind-the-ears characters… They’ve got history, they’ve got baggage, they’ve seen a lot and been through a lot in their lives. I think that really informs the relationship between Henry Standing Bear and Walt Longmire and how they approach their desire for justice, their desire to see the world balanced between—without sounding too high-faluting—the forces of evil and good people just trying to live their lives.
AVC: How do you feel about how Henry Standing Bear’s storyline has gone over the course of the season? Are you happy with how the character’s being developed?
LDP: I absolutely love how the character’s being developed. I literally hug and thank the writers on a weekly basis, because they put absolute gold in my mouth. [Laughs.] There are some great lines, some great wisdom, some great observations, and I think that they haven’t tried too hard to pound home the relationship between Walt and Henry. The chemistry I have with Robert Taylor, it’s so apparent that there’s a great shorthand there. They don’t have to go off on long explanations and get historical about everything. And the thing is, too, that it’s an ensemble. There are those episodes where I wish there was a little bit more of Henry, and thank goodness the audience is saying the same thing. But I also understand that the writers need to introduce Robert Taylor to the American audience and firmly establish in a very complete way who Walt Longmire is before we start investigating everybody else.
AVC: One of the most impressive feats of Longmire is that it’s allowed to be subtle both in character and plot development.
LDP: I know, right? How about that? [Laughs.] What I also love is that they make it a point to… it doesn’t have to run helter-skelter. People don’t have to get all of this exposition out in a very clipped and rushed manner. It is very indicative of the setting and of the people who live in this environment and in this landscape, and they knew from the beginning that they wanted to capture that. They didn’t want fake big-city banter and cynicism and everything else and just set it in front of a pretty landscape. They really are trying to capture this world. And it’s a world that’s incredibly well articulated by Craig Johnson’s books. So I like it, but fans of the books, fans of Westerns in general, have also been giving us their blessing, which makes us even more certain that we’re doing a good job.
Dallas (1985)—“Sidewalk Thug”
LDP: [Laughs.] Oh, my God! Wow. Um… it’s funny, because that goes back to my days in Dallas. I lived in Dallas, Texas, which is where I started my film career. The Dallas series was one of the first things I landed, and I was absolutely thrilled. I worked with Linda Gray and met Patrick Duffy. What’s funny is that the last thing I directed was a television movie for Hallmark called Love Takes Wing, which Patrick was in, so we reminisced. I ran into Linda Gray years later, and she gave me such a big hug and said, “I knew it. I knew it when I worked with you that you were going places.” I mean, what a kind and generous thing for her to say.
What was sort of amazing was that in that period of time—and I’ve joked about this since—I used to keep a red bandana and a switchblade in my car, so I could be like, “Oh, I’ve got an audition? Okay!” [Laughs.] Because looking the way I look, there weren’t a whole lot of guys in my category in Dallas, Texas, so I ended up playing a lot of gangbangers, a lot of thugs, a lot of young punks, and this was one of those. What was a lot of fun about this particular appearance was that it was all improv. I have a degree in theater from the University of Texas Arlington, and I have some improv chops and can act on my feet, so to speak. That was the audition: You come in and terrorize Sue Ellen. And that’s what we did. We just made it up on the spot.
La Bamba (1987)—“Ritchie Valens”
LDP: You know, there’s a thread there, because I was cast for La Bamba out of Dallas, Texas. The funny thing was that my agent’s assistant got it wrong when she called to tell me about the appointment. It was in a downtown theater, so she automatically assumed it was a musical piece. And I was already doing theater in Fort Worth, at the Stage West Theater, and still doing college theater. So she goes, “Yeah, you got an audition for this musical on the life of Frankie Valli.” And I’m like, “Huh?” [Laughs.] I mean, it’s ironic now, because Jersey Boys is a huge hit, but at the time I thought, “They’re doing a musical on Frankie Valli?” [Sings a snippet of “Sherry.”] But I figured, “What the hell, man: It’s a gig, I’ll go in.” And, of course, when I walk in the door, [casting director] Junie Lowry from L.A. is there, along with one of the associate producers, and they hand me the sides and go, “All right, this is a movie, a negative pickup through Columbia Pictures, on the life of Ritchie Valens.” And in that moment, I knew. I thought, “This is the opportunity of your very young career. This is a game-changer.” And they put me on tape that day, and I was flown to Hollywood two weeks later for a screen test, and it became lightning in a bottle for me. It was my Cinderella story.
AVC: To look at pictures of Ritchie Valens, the resemblance between you and him is not what you’d call striking. Was that an issue with rock ’n’ roll history purists?
LDP: Well, the thing about playing Ritchie… it’s not like you’re playing Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis, these people who had these very indelible, iconic images. Not that many people knew what Ritchie looked like, so in that respect we had a bit of a blank canvas with which to create him. But the family was incredibly involved. They were there every single day of shooting, they were there during casting… I mean, Bob [Morales] showed up at the screen test, and I remember it to this day. I was standing outside, and he pulled up in this T-Bird convertible, wearing a black leather vest and these wraparound Ray Bans, and I just went, “Oh, my God, that’s Bob Morales! That’s the guy!” And he gave me a nod, and he told me later, “I took one look at you, and I knew you were the guy.” Which is odd, because I didn’t look much like Ritchie. But what Luis Valdez, the writer/director, was looking for wasn’t necessarily someone who was a carbon copy of him physically. He was trying to capture an essence. He was trying to capture Ritchie’s heart, Ritchie’s optimism, that sort of infectious personality and warmth that the young man had.
AVC: It was obviously a game-changer of a role for you, but be honest: Was there ever a point when you went, “So help me, if someone brings up La Bamba again…”?
LDP: [Laughs.] The funny thing is, to this day people still scream “Ritchie!” at me from across the street. “Not my Ritchie!” And that’s the good news and the bad news, you know? I mean, it’s been 25 years, but the thing’s on cable all the time, it gets constantly reintroduced to a new generation, and what’s really wonderful is that it’s become a classic. It wasn’t trendy or of the moment, and as a result, it’s a perennial. It continues to be played, and it stands the test of time. It’s a film that’s as relevant and touching and moving today as it was when it came out in 1987.
Stargate Universe (2009-2011)—“Colonel David Telford”
LDP: That was just an amazing experience. I absolutely loved that cast. And that was a phone call. That was one where I got the call, and it was like, “Hey, would you be willing to come on and play this role?” I never became a regular. I was a recurring guest star the entire time I was on the show. Which was a little odd. I felt like the distant cousin at times. But the phone call kind of sold itself; it’s the Stargate franchise, which had been successful for 12 or 13 years prior to that? When they told me that it was Robert Carlyle, I immediately knew that they were taking a different approach to it. It was darker, it was grittier, it wasn’t quite as fantastical or action-packed as the previous incarnations. And I liked that about the show. It’s not something that I think the entirety of the fan base approved of, but I was very, very proud of what we did, and it was a shame to see it go away, because they definitely had a plan. There’s a lot more story to tell.
As I said, I absolutely adored that cast. Strangely enough, Louis Ferreira, one of his very first jobs ever was one day on Renegades, with me and Kiefer [Sutherland], way back in ’88. Plus, a lot of the Vancouver film crew were people I’d worked with on other projects over the years, so it was very comfortable for me to step onto the set. Longmire is the same way, because I shot Young Guns and Young Guns II in Santa Fe, and when I went back, a number of people on the crew had worked with me 20 years ago! Uh, I can also confirm that a lot of the bartenders were the same as well. [Laughs.]
Renegades (1989)—“Hank Storm”
LDP: It’s interesting when you look at the progression of things. There was Young Guns, then there was Renegades, and now once again I’m playing the Native character, and the respect that I started with then is something I’m still trying to apply today. As soon as I knew that I’d landed the role of Henry Standing Bear, I flew to the Cheyenne reservation in Montana just to soak it up, to get the blessings of the people that I’m representing. And when I go back to Renegades, which came about because Kiefer and I got very tight; there was an obvious chemistry from the beginning. Before we finishing filming Young Guns, [executive producer] Joe Roth handed both Kiefer and I the script and said, “I want you two guys to make this movie with me.” So right off the bat, we were like, “Okay, let’s roll with this.” Kiefer’s still a dear friend. I’ve had an immense amount of respect for him from the moment we met, and we’ve done five projects together since then. Once again, this was something that sent me on the road of approaching Native characters with the utmost respect and with an attempt to inject dignity and integrity into the roles. I worked with Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman, who played my father in Renegades, and went to my very first sweat with him. It opened my eyes to that way of life and that culture. You can look at a lot of the films I’ve done, and I represent a lot of different groups without ever really having been a part of them. [Laughs.] You know, I was never a Cholo, I wasn’t raised in East L.A., but I managed to soak that up and get it right in Stand And Deliver. So it just solidified my notion that if you’re representing something, you don’t create it in a vacuum. You go and see the real deal, and you try to get it right.
Miami Vice (1987)—“Detective Bobby Diaz”
Stand And Deliver (1988)—“Angel Guzman”
Filly Brown (2012)—“Jose Tonorio”
LDP: Man, things just seem to go full circle, and this year is definitely one of those universal harmonics that’s happening, because I went to Sundance to see the Filly Brown première; I appear in it, and it was produced by Edward James Olmos and co-directed by his son, Michael. The role in that is very much as if Angel, my character from Stand And Deliver, grew up and had kids. I’m the dad in this one. [Laughs.]
When I look at my career, I look back to… I don’t know, call them the coincidences. After La Bamba—the movie didn’t come out for a year, and I was running out of money. I made scale on that film—I was going to have to move back to Texas, because I was almost out of money for rent in Los Angeles after not getting a job for six, eight months. Then I landed this gig on Miami Vice, and in that episode, Viggo Mortensen plays my partner, who gets killed in the first five minutes, and Annette Bening is the girlfriend of the bad guy. So I had one scene with Eddie Olmos, who had done Zoot Suit with Luis and Danny Valdez, and he knew that I’d played Ritchie in La Bamba, but it wasn’t out yet. So I do this one scene with Eddie Olmos, and after the scene, he says, “What are you doing next month?” I went, “Uh, nothing. Why? You wanna have lunch?” [Laughs.] He says, “No, I’m doing this movie, and you have to be in it.” He gave me a phone number, and he said, “When you get back to L.A.,” because, of course, we filmed Miami Vice in Miami, “you call him.” And I get back, I call, and it’s Ramón Menendez, the writer-director of Stand And Deliver, and it led to me being in the film.
AVC: Stand And Deliver seems like the sort of film where you’d hear from people over and over again how much it meant to them or affected them personally.
LDP: You are 100 percent correct. A couple of anecdote comes to mind, number one being… I’m approached by teachers all the time, and they continue to show that film in their classes. It’s another one that’s stood the test of time. We recently just got inducted into the National Film Registry, so it’s archived and… it’s a classic, basically. But I also remember that I was teaching this seminar in New York, at the New York Film Academy, and there was a Q&A session. And I remember this young woman, I believe she was a Puerto Rican actress, who stood up with tears in her eyes and said she just wanted to thank me because, in watching Stand And Deliver, she saw us up on the screen and realized that this was a dream that was within her reach. That she could do this. That there were people up there being represented that looked like her, that lived the kind of life that she had lived. And it inspired her and it motivated her, and… I hope she went on to do great things.
Bats (1999)—“Sheriff Emmett Kimsey”
LDP: Uh… yeah. It’s funny how much people like Bats. It’s just odd. The reason I took that was because I thought, “My kids would like this.” It’s scary enough, but it’s not too gory. At the time I think my daughters were 5 or 6 or something like that, and it was a real kick for them. Not to mention that it was the first time I ever got to play a Texan. And I’m from Texas, but people I guess look at me and don’t automatically think, “Oh, he’s a Texan!” But it was with the wonderful Dina Meyer and Bob Gunton, and it was fun. It did quite well for Destination Films, which I don’t think exists anymore. But what was odd was shooting in Utah, especially at the time. With the split schedule we were on, I don’t think I ever made it to a bar before last call. And, truth be known, it probably wasn’t worth it, anyway, with the near-beer they served there.
Courage Under Fire (1996)—“Monfriez”
LDP: Courage Under Fire was a real watershed moment for me. It was one of those roles in a year that I think was a real milestone for me in my career, because I had Courage Under Fire come out when I was also doing The King And I on Broadway. In fact, I went straight from Courage Under Fire to rehearsals for The King. I remember that role was very important for me because I was playing in the big game. I mean, the absolute A-plus game. Directed by Ed Zwick, working with Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, and Matt Damon, who was unknown at the time. That was actually a moment in my career where I sort of reassessed things. I’d gotten to the point where it was like, “Oh, Lou’s on offer-only, he’s not going to go in and audition,” but I read that script, and I said, “Uh-uh. No way. Bullshit. I need to do whatever I need to do to get this role.” And the funny thing is, they didn’t want names. They didn’t want names to be in Meg’s unit. They wanted sort of fresh-faced people that they hadn’t really seen. And yet I went in, went after it, and Ed was kind enough to open his mind and look at the role in a different way.
I think what finally sealed the deal was the final audition with Denzel, where it just clicked. I saw a lot of other actors come through and audition with different people, but Ed Zwick had put together these units of actors, and he had recorded machine-gun fire and mortar fire and chopper rotors and all of this craziness, and he just let us improv scenes. He goes, “Act like a unit. You know your characters well enough by now, so act like a unit, protect the character played by Meg, and… just go.” And he had this camera set up in the corner, and it was one of the most invigorating and visceral auditions that I’ve ever done. I really felt as if it gave the actors the best shot at getting the job. I mean, a lot of times an audition seems like it’s set up to not help and support the poor people coming in and putting their heart on the line. But this one was.
I wrote Ed Zwick a letter after that, saying what I felt about how much he cared, how supportive he was, and that he obviously knew his theater background. This was before I got the role. So I’m home one day, and the phone rings, and it was an assistant saying, “I have Ed Zwick calling from Bastrop, Texas.” [Imitates sudden panic attack.] “Uh, okay…” So he gets on the phone and says, “Hey, listen, Lou, that kiss-ass letter worked. You got the job.” [Laughs.]
Che (2008)—“Mario Monje”
LDP: Strangely enough, it was another overlap with a theater production. I was in rehearsals to do Camelot, the national tour, and I don’t have any absolute proof of this, but I think it was actually Benicio Del Toro who thought of me for the role and brought me up to Steven [Soderbergh], which is sort of amazing. I got the call asking if I could come and do this, and as you probably know, it’s, like, eight minutes, but it was like, “Can you come to Madrid for a week?” Fortunately, the rehearsals for Camelot were going so well that the producers carved me out and let me go. Now, the interesting thing is this: I didn’t speak Spanish. [Laughs.] I never have. I’m not actually Latino. I’m Filipino on my mother’s side. So when they told me that the entire film was going to be in Spanish, I told my managers, “Be sure they know I can’t speak Spanish, and if that’s gonna be a deal breaker, I understand.” But they said, “No, no, no, that’s fine, it’s okay.” So they sent me the material, and I learned everything by rote. They sent me tapes of the vocal coach, the translator, and I’m like, “Okay, great, great,” and I’m getting it down on the plane during the eight hours or whatever it is over there. I’m just boom, boom, boom, drilling over and over. Of course, when I get over there, the entire freaking script has been rewritten. [Laughs.] So I’ve got to start from scratch. Not since La Bamba have I been that scared of getting fired from a job.
I’d love to say that it was a magical experience being in Madrid, but it wasn’t. I only got a couple of hours sleep every night, because I was up drilling, drilling, drilling. And I have to say that the vocal coach was just an angel, because he’d sit there with me, and we go over and over it. Same thing with being on set. So it was a constant chore for me, but ultimately I’m just really, really proud to have been a part of that, and in my opinion—because it was such a long film and because it was in a foreign language—I think it was a bit overlooked. I really feel Benicio deserved an Oscar nomination, at least. He won Best Actor in Cannes, but I think the film was under-seen here.
Wolf Lake (2001-2002)—“Noah Cassidy” / “John Canin”
LDP: Oh, my. [Hesitates.] Wait, Noah Cassidy? The character’s name was John Canin. Why would they call him Noah Cassidy? Oh, wait, now I remember. You want to know what it was? This was one of my first introductions to network television. Actually, the first pilot I ever did was Chris Chulack and John Wells’ very first pilot after doing ER [The Adversaries]. This was back in ’96, ’97, and it did not get picked up by NBC, so it was like, “Okay, that was a rude awakening.” It isn’t always a slam-dunk, no matter how good it is… cough, cough, Aquaman pilot. [Laughs.] I’ve never even seen that, by the way. It’s just too heartbreaking. It’s like, “Why am I gonna watch this and go, ‘Wow, this could’ve been great,’ when it’s all for naught?” So I’ve learned to wait before I get too excited. But anyway, we did the original pilot for Wolf Lake, and it was very expensive, and CBS liked it enough, but they went in and re-shot the entire thing. So I think my original character’s name was Noah Cassidy and then became John Canin. They brought in [executive producer] Alex Gansa, they rewrote the entire pilot, they kept the nugget of the inspiration for the series, but it was just so odd to have done the entire pilot with certain actors, and then those actors were not picked up for the new version of it.
Wolf Lake was a bit of a heartbreak as well, in the respect that I thought it was a good show, and the people who have seen it since then have remained fans of it. Not to trivialize world events, but we were supposed to premiere on September 12, and there was just no way in the world that that show was going to succeed at that time in history. We were up against NBC Nightly News and I think 20/20, and here we are with this fantastical, weird werewolf drama. It just didn’t fit into people’s perception of the world at that time. What is sad is that, we were ahead of the curve. Cut to five years later, and you’ve got Twilight and Supernatural and all of these shows, and now you’ve got Grimm and Once Upon A Time, with my buddy Robert Carlyle, so this fantastical element has really taken off. We were just a little too much on the early side of the party.
Young Guns (1988) / Young Guns II (1990)—“‘Jose’ Chavez y Chavez”
LDP: It’s amazing how iconic that role’s become. It’s not quite as much as people screaming “Ritchie!” at me, but I do get people yelling, “Mexican Indian!” [Laughs.] I love those films. And they’re films that have stood the test of time. They’re still entertaining, they’re still good, and people still watch them. There’s a whole generation that… well, it’s one of their favorites. And it was the moment in time where I felt like I’d made it. My first three films in Hollywood were La Bamba, Stand And Deliver, and Young Guns, and they’re probably the reason that I’m still here today. Stepping onto that set with Kiefer, with Emilio [Estevez], with Charlie [Sheen], with Dermot [Mulroney] and Casey [Siemaszko], suddenly I went, “Okay, I’ve arrived. I have been granted access to this echelon of young actors in Hollywood.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Anointed, if you will.
LDP: “Anointed.” Exactly. [Laughs.] And I’m still the only ethnic member of the Brat Pack. Although I never actually got a card in the mail, so maybe they didn’t actually accept my application.
AVC: You’ve maintained your friendship with Kiefer Sutherland over the years. Have you kept up with the other members of the cast?
LDP: Dermot and I served on the executive committee for the Academy for quite a bit. Emilio and I, we’re Twitter buddies. [Laughs.] We’re both home gardeners, so I’m picking his brain about that. I’m also very proud of his work as a writer/director. I still need to see The Way. I’m trying to catch up. But you cross paths with everybody, and once you’ve shared something with that… It’s interesting, because you never know when you’re doing something historical. Not in the moment. And you look back at it now, and people are like, “Oh God, what was it like, hanging with Charlie and Kiefer?” Well, we were young and stupid. [Laughs.] We were just young actors with big dreams.
I will say this: That generation—my generation—also including guys like Robert Downey and Sean Penn and Tom Cruise, even Brad Pitt and George Clooney—when we were breaking into the industry, we wanted to do good work. We wanted to make good films. We wanted to do work that could stand the test of time. And you see that today in some of the young actors, but there’s also this… I don’t know, it’s a phenomenon created in Hollywood today where people just want to be famous. They want to go to parties. They care about being on the covers of magazines and starting a cologne line or something. That’s changed a bit since we were starting, and I’ll just say, if I can manage to do it without sounding like too much of an old fart, that there was a purity in how we approached the work back then that I’m still very proud of.
Disorganized Crime (1989)—“Ray Forgy”
LDP: Oh, my goodness! That was a lot of fun. I actually got the offer when we were doing Young Guns, and it was the beginning of the time in my career when I suddenly didn’t have to audition for things. They were just kind of coming my way. My agent got the call from Disney giving me the offer, and somehow we knew that Emilio had just passed on the project. Emilio was a new friend at the time, and I remember being very aware of not wanting to step on any toes, so before I said “yes” to that, I read the script, liked it, and then I went to Emilio and said, “You just passed on this. Is it cool if I take it?” And he was like, “Yeah, absolutely. I passed because I didn’t want to do it.” He’d had a relationship with Disney prior to that because of the Stakeout films, so he had the offer first. I don’t know, they might’ve just been going down the Young Guns cast list. [Laughs.]
AVC: How was the experience of working with the ensemble on Disorganized Crime?
LDP: I absolutely loved it. As a matter of fact, Fred Gwynne and I became very close. I was told under pain of death that I had to touch base with him any time I was in New York. We became very, very good friends, and I was sad when he passed.
We had these five little cabins right on this trout farm in Montana, in the Bitterroot Valley in Hamilton, and there were only four restaurants in town. So we formed something called the Hamilton Dining Club. It was William Russ, Rubén Blades, Fred Gwynne, and myself. We’d dine together practically every evening and just rotate the restaurants. Unfortunately, two of them weren’t so good. [Laughs.] So we worked our way down the menu on a couple of them. What was sad was that Corbin Bernsen, because his character was separated from us and we were trying to find him for the entire movie, we never got to work together. Whenever we were off, Corbin had to go to work, and vice versa. So I didn’t get to spend much time with him at all. And ditto with Ed O’Neil and Daniel Roebuck. But I absolutely loved that entire ensemble, and a lot of us have stayed close over the years.
The Big Hit (1998)—“Cisco”
LDP: Cisco in The Big Hit is one of my favorite characters of my entire career. I absolutely love that character. It’s so over the top, and Kirk Wong, the director, gave me ridiculous license with that role. He would let me adlib, and he would let me just do crazy things, and he would come running out from behind the monitor going, “Too much, too much! Come back!”
If you remember the little gesture I do in the film, he told me early on that he wanted me to come up with a signature gesture. And I thought, “A signature gesture? That’s just crazy!” But it just so happened that Carlos Santana was playing a concert in Toronto during the preproduction, so I took Kirk, I took Mark Wahlberg, I think Antonio [Sabato Jr.] came, and the producers came along to go see Carlos. And we got to go backstage, and when Carlos was introducing his band, there was a Filipino drummer named Raoul who did that little chest-pound kiss to the audience. And I went, “That’s it: I’m stealing that gesture.” [Laughs.] And I told him, “When you see this in the film, don’t sue me, but I’m totally stealing it from you.”
How I got that part was, I was on Broadway doing The King And I, and Kirk Wong and Terence Chang, a producer who’s John Woo’s partner, came to see me in that. And then we took a meeting, and I read and auditioned for that, because it was a comedy, and it seems like anytime a comedy comes up, people just assume that I’m not funny. But since he was the bad guy, they told me later that nobody made him funny. Everybody was playing him so straight that he wasn’t funny. And they were looking for broad. They were looking for big. And after seeing me onstage in The King And I, they knew I could go big. [Laughs.]
Hollywood Homicide (2003)—“Wanda”
LDP: Well, first of all, there was more of her in the movie. They actually cut two or three scenes of mine, a few more in drag, one where I actually got to ask Harrison Ford if this dress makes my ass look fat. [Laughs.] So that’s a shame. And there’s one where they actually reveal me as a guy who’s a cop. But there’s so many amazing supporting players in that film, and all of us lost scenes that were not part of the A-storyline. I know Dwight Yoakam got cut down a lot, Lolita Davidovich got cut down a lot, Bruce Greenwood got cut down a lot, even Martin Landau! We all lost a lot of scenes. And that’s a shame, because I think there was probably a lot of really good work left on the floor. My agent says, “Well, listen, they’re inclined to go with you, but [writer-producer] Ron Shelton has to see everyone up for this role in drag.” So I thought, “Oh God, here we go…” But I bought a dress and a pair of black panties, and I used to drive a Ford Bronco, so I slip into this stupid dress, get into the full drag, and it’s the only time in my entire life I’ve ever driven 55 miles per hour in the slow lane, because there was no way I was getting a ticket or getting into an accident dressed like that. [Laughs.] But the funny thing was that this semi truck kept pulling ahead of me and slowing down. And I’m going, “What the heck? What is this guy doing?” And I finally realized that the dress had scooted up—because I’m not used to wearing one—and was basically a cummerbund at this point, and the little black panties are showing, and all this truck driver could see was what he thought was a long-haired woman with her dress hiked up around her waist. I thought, “You bastard!” [Laughs.] Now I know how women feel…
Southland (2012)—“Officer Danny Ferguson”
LDP: I’m incredibly thrilled to play Ferguson, and there’s a very good chance that I’ll be coming back. I’ve already been asked. I don’t know for how many, whether it’s one or more, but they left me alive at the end of last season. [Laughs.] I just so loved the work with [Benjamin] McKenzie. I have to say, Chris Chulack directed the pilot for Longmire, and that’s probably what put me in the forefront of his mind when this character of Ferguson came up last season on Southland. He called me and said, “Hey dude, wanna come and do this?” And I didn’t even have to read the script. I love Southland. My wife Yvonne and I have been fans from jump street, from the very first episode. We’ve followed it forever. I think that is one of the best casts on television and certainly the best cop show out there. I think it ranks right up there with some of the classic ones, like Hill Street Blues or The Shield or NYPD Blue. So I’m really excited to have worked with all of those people, and at this point I’m just thrilled that they’re gonna have me back. I’m looking forward to seeing what they have in store for me.
Supernova (2000)—“Yerzy Penalosa”
LDP: Uh, that’s a bizarre story. I was actually doing Chris Chulack’s very first pilot that he and John Wells did after ER—they did it for NBC, but it never aired—and it was called Adversaries, a thing about both the prosecuting and defense teams of lawyers in Washington, DC. I had been offered this movie Supernova two or three times, and I turned it down every time. The script just wasn’t there. There just wasn’t anything for the character to do. And when that’s the case, it’s like, “No, not interested.” But one day on the set of Adversaries, this assistant director comes up with a cell phone and says, “Walter Hill’s on the line for you.” And I went, “What? Walter Hill? Are you kidding me?” So I get on the phone, and Walter goes, [Adopts a gravelly voice.] “Hey, Lou, you gonna do this movie?” I went, “What movie?” He goes, “Supernova!” I said, “You’re directing it now?” “Yeah, yeah.” “Well, Walter, there’s not much of a character there.” He says, “Oh, I’m rewriting it. Lemme send ya 40 pages.” So he gets a fax number, sends over the 40 pages, and I see a vast improvement. And at this point, both Angela Bassett and James Spader were attached, so it just made a huge world of difference. So I said, “Yes.” Having said that, I think it’s a pretty good film, but it should’ve been great. And you’ll notice that Walter Hill’s name is not on the film, because he walked away during post-production. It was this period where MGM was really pretty shaky and not in a good place, and they so micromanaged that film and—unfortunately, I think—cut some of the bigger sequences mainly because they had squandered millions on the film already. And instead of saying, “Okay, we’re gonna fix this,” they said, “Okay, let’s just get it in the can and force Walter to rewrite every single day.” It was literally the most inefficiently scheduled and budgeted film I’ve ever been on.
The First Power (1990)—“Russell Logan”
LDP: I liked that, actually. And it’s one of my wife’s favorites, probably because I get beat up a lot in it. [Laughs.] Let’s see. I had done Renegades with Dave Madden, and I think somebody else had the role and dropped out, and Dave Madden immediately thought of me and brought me in to meet Bob Resnikoff. I just loved the script. I thought it was fantastic. Like The Big Hit, it’s turned into one of those cult favorites, because it was scary. I’m thrilled with the film, but, quite honestly, it kicked my butt. There are so many fight scenes in that film. And I have to say that the same stunt guy, who was a gymnast, doubled both the nun and the bag lady, and he managed to kick me in the nuts twice in two different fight scenes. [Laughs.] I was like, “Dude, you’ve got to calm down! You don’t need to kick me in the nuts!”
Angel Alley (1981) —“Boxer”
Dakota (1988)—“John Dakota”
LDP: Oh, Dakota, that’s so bizarre. I mean, it’s an interesting film, and it’s not a bad film, but it’s early on. My very first film ever was a little thing called Angel Alley, which was a Christian youth film that was made by the Kuntz brothers and was directed by a guy who became a very, very dear friend of mine, Fred Holmes. So they kind of discovered me in that, and then they wrote this film called Harley, where they took me from being the bad guy to being the lead. Fred Holmes directed that, too. Cut to a couple of years later, I land La Bamba, and now the Kuntz brothers want to scrape up enough money to do a small independent feature. And it’s the same team. These guys have been great to me, gave me my big break, and Fred Holmes was my first director and certainly a guy I became very close with over the course of a few years, so I said, “Yeah, absolutely!” But they sent me the script, and it was basically a longer version of Harley. [Laughs.] It’s the exact same movie! I said, “Guys, we made this one!” [Laughs.] And they were, like, “Yeah, but this is for a different market, so we’re gonna make this one and make it a little bit bigger.” It’s actually the first film I did after filming La Bamba, but before Stand And Deliver.
[Ironically, Harley ended up sitting on the shelf for several years. By the time it was finally released on video in the wake of Phillips’ box-office success, it appeared to be the retread rather than Dakota. —Ed.]
Spin City (1998)—“Nate”
Cougar Town (2011)—“Lou Diamond Phillips”
LDP: Actually, it always flatters me when somebody just offers me comedy, so when I got the Spin City call, I was thrilled. Plus, playing gay is just fun. I’ve got a ton of gay friends, and I knew everybody would get a kick out of that. I figured people wouldn’t see it coming with me. I also think one of the reasons they cast me was that I was one of the few contemporaries of Michael J. Fox who could actually lift Michael Boatman. [Laughs.] So they went with me because they figured I could physically get him off the ground. But I had a blast doing that.
Cougar Town also came out of the blue. It was just like, “You’ve got some fans over there who’ve seen you do comedy, and they just want you to come in and do this cameo that’s so out of left field that it’s bizarre.” Once again, I didn’t even read that script. I just said, “Okay.” I mean, first of all, I think I know the part. [Laughs.] But I’ve just got such a huge amount of respect for Courteney [Cox] and that entire cast. I think Busy Philipps is fantastic. Plus, it’s always just nice to go and play with people of that caliber, especially to do some comedy.
AVC: Given that he’s an obvious link between the two series, do you know if Bill Lawrence was directly responsible for bringing you onto Cougar Town?
LDP: You know what? I don’t know if it was his idea or if it just came out of the writers’ room, because there were a few of the guys who came out onto the set and just were happy to see me and happy that I did it. But obviously Bill and I had the experience before on Spin City, so it’s very likely it could’ve been him.
Lone Hero (2002)—“Bart”
Numb3rs (2005-2010)—“Agent Ian Edgerton”
LDP: Absolutely loved the role of Agent Edgerton. Once again, that was an offer that came in where I didn’t even have to read the script. First of all, the role was created by Ken Sanzel, who was an executive producer on Numb3rs. I had done a film with Ken Sanzel called Lone Hero, with Sean Patrick Flanery and my good friend Robert Forster, a few years before, and then he became one of the staff on Numb3rs. And when he created this character, he created it with me in mind. I was incredibly flattered, and it once again speaks to having a great working relationship with somebody that comes back around a few years later. So I said “yes” to it, and I was a fan of the show beforehand. I think Rob [Morrow] is great, I think [David] Krumholz is a little genius, and I’ve been a fan of Judd Hirsch and Peter MacNicol for a million years, ever since the beginning of their careers. So that was a really easy “yes” for me without even reading the script, but as I read the script, Edgerton was such a mythic, iconic kind of character. I was a bit flattered that Sanzel wrote it with me in mind. After the first episode, they said, “Well, we have to bring you back.” I said, “Well, he’s got kind of a narrow field of expertise. You’re not going to need a sniper expert in every episode.” [Laughs.] And they go, “No, no, no, we’ll figure something out.” So over the course of the next few years, I would pop up two or three times a year on Numb3rs, and they would just slowly expand his bag of tricks until he kind of became their go-to guy if they needed backup for Rob.
AVC: Well, since you brought it up, how was the experience of filming Lone Hero?
LDP: I actually liked that film quite a lot. I mean, to be honest with you, I thought it could’ve been a bit edgier and a bit tougher, but it was Ken Senzel’s first time directing. It’s his dialogue that I thought was so appealing. Ken actually wrote me a very beautiful personal letter, which came along with the offer, and they offered me either role. They said, “You can play the hero or you can play the bad guy.” And I read the script, and Bart had such great monologues and such nihilistic, devil-may-care one-liners that I said, “You know what? I’m gonna play the bad guy. He seems like a lot more fun.” [Laughs.]
The Aquabats! Super Show! (2012)—“The Spirit Of The Sun”
LDP: The Aquabats! Once again, it’s just about ongoing relationships. It’s very bizarre. I was on Stargate Universe, and my wife Yvonne and our daughter Indigo, who was probably just turning 3 at the time, we’re all in Vancouver and we find out that Yo Gabba Gabba! was coming to town. I thought, “Well, we’ve got to take her to Yo Gabba Gabba!” So I make a phone call, I hear back from them, and they say, “Oh, we’d love for you to come! We’ll get you tickets, and you can come backstage and meet the characters and everything, but… Can you do us one favor? Can you do a Dancey-Dance for us?” And I was like… [Breathless.] “Can I do a Dancey-Dance for you? Uh, YEAH!” [Laughs.] So I did a Dancey-Dance in Vancouver, we ended up seeing the show again in L.A., and then saw it again in L.A., when they asked me do to a Dancey-Dance again. We actually ended up becoming friends with a lot of the road crew, the people inside the costumes, who are accomplished actors and singers. We got to hang out with them a little bit, and we became friends with Christian Jacobs, who’s one of the creators of Yo Gabba Gabba! but is also an Aquabat. That was his band since, what, the early ’90s? And they created their show around that. When this role came up of the Sun Spirit, they just called up and said, “Hey man, would you play the Sun Spirit for us?” [Laughs.] Once again, it’s a no-brainer.
Having kids and really appreciating children’s television and everything, it’s a bit of a blast for me to have that on the résumé. I mean, I worked on Sesame Street way back in the day, and now I’ve worked with Yo Gabba Gabba! and the Aquabats and I’ve just become pretty good friends with the Wiggles. [Laughs.] My daughter’s got Hollywood cred now, apparently. She hangs out with all the children’s television bunch.
The Dark Wind (1991)—“Office Jim Chee”
LDP: That should’ve been bigger. Over the years I think it’s gotten a lot of attention, especially from Western fans, and I think people are revisiting it now because of Henry Standing Bear on Longmire, but Jim Chee was the first time I really immersed myself in the culture and was creating a character that was much beloved and well known by a very loyal and rabid readership. It was wonderful because, in the rehearsal process, Tony Hillerman, the author, said, “You look an awful lot like the Jim Chee I had in mind,” and that meant the world to me. I spent a couple of weeks on the Navaho reservation with a shaman, just soaking things up, learning and sweating, and we actually did a beautiful sunrise ceremony. It was a real love affair with that character. Sadly enough, Fred Ward and I were supposed to go on and do a trilogy. Errol Morris directed The Dark Wind, and unfortunately that didn’t go well. I don’t think the producers were happy, including Robert Redford, with how things went down and the final product and everything. But Fred and I were supposed to reprise Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee over two more films, which were supposed to be Skinwalkers and A Thief Of Time. And there was a very good chance that Redford was going to direct one of those. So I not only feel like this is a role that got under-seen and an opportunity that was just missed, but there were those two other films to be based on books that I really, really enjoyed that I never got a chance to make.
Aquaman (2007)—“Tom Curry”
LDP: I can’t even speak to that very much, because I’ve never seen it. Everything pointed to the fact that that project should’ve been a slam-dunk. It was from the creators of Smallville. The CW was going to rebrand and launch their new network, and it just seemed to be such a great calling card to have a big, slick project like that. So to me, it was a no-brainer. We had filmed the pilot in Miami, and it went beautifully. And I’m literally waiting for a call to go to the upfronts, and not until the day before do we get the call saying, “Well, we’re not going to pick it up.” And it was devastating to me.
I had real high hopes for the project. And when something like that happens, I don’t even bother to watch it, because it’s just too painful. It’s like, “My God, what could’ve been…” And it ended up being literally the number-one download for two weeks once it became available on iTunes, so I was like, “Do you see? It would’ve had an audience. It would’ve been a hit.” But they blinked and were afraid to pull the trigger. So it’s just one of those things that I chalk up to… it’s one of the reasons why I’ll never understand the industry.
With that said, I look at things like that not happening, I look at Stargate Universe getting canceled, and now I look at the success and the role that I absolutely love in Henry Standing Bear on Longmire, and I think, “Even if you have to take a left turn sometimes, maybe if you can’t go in the front door and you have to come in through the window, you still get to where you’re supposed to be eventually.”