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: Matthew Lillard made his first big impression on moviegoers when he played Stuart Macher in Wes Craven’s Scream, a role that led him into a steady schedule of film roles, most notably the 1999 cult film SLC Punk! Although Lillard has rarely been without work since then, he recently jumped behind the camera to direct his first feature film, Fat Kid Rules The World, which debuted at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival and won an Audience Award.
Fat Kid Rules The World (2012)—director/producer
Matthew Lillard: I’ve always been on this trajectory [to direct], it’s just that I finally got the chance… or, rather, found a sucker willing to take a chance on me. And I’m pretty ugly, so I knew it was only a matter of time before I went behind the camera. [Laughs.] Look, I think the film is an underdog story, and when I read the book—because I did the book on tape—I saw me in the role. I mean, it’s a story of a kid who’s on the outside of the high-school experience and finds something he loves. For me, I found acting, and for him, he finds punk-rock music. So, you know, I completely related to the story, and I wanted to tell it.
The A.V. Club: Had the book been on your radar prior to getting the assignment to do the book on tape, or is that how you discovered it?
ML: No, you know, I got an offer to do the book on tape and… It was the worst job I’ve ever had in my life. [Laughs.] I can barely read out loud to begin with. I have a very mushy mouth, and mushy-mouthed people don’t generally do books on tape. That’s why it’s the only one I’ve ever done. But I feel like the fact that it was sent to me was kismet. And I don’t even really know what that word means, but I feel like it’s applicable here nonetheless.
AVC: Prior to Fat Kid, the only thing you’d directed was a short film, 2009’s Come Back Home, but presumably you’d picked up at least a few things from your years of working as an actor.
ML: Yeah, I think that it’s the collection of experiences that helped. I mean, I’ve been acting since I was 13 years old, and I’m 43 now, so I’ve seen a lot of directors who’ve told me really good things and really bad things. And you try to steal the good and forget the bad. Hopefully, I was able to execute the film the best way possible as the director I was in that moment. Look, it was the first movie I ever made, but I learned a lot. I learned more over the course of that movie about filmmaking than I ever could’ve dreamed of learning as an actor.
AVC: Which director’s work proved the most beneficial to you over the years?
ML: I don’t know. To be completely honest with you, the most beneficial thing to me was teaching. I teach acting at the Vancouver Film School, and I think that that gave me more confidence in myself to get great performances or help people craft great performances out of their work. That’s been the most beneficial. And beyond that, probably Uwe Boll. Because he’s violent, and I like violence. [Laughs.] I don’t know. That was stupid. Sorry, I’m just trying to be funny.
AVC: Was there any pressure on you to step in front of the camera for the film?
ML: I did put myself in the movie, but then the first thing I did was cut myself out. The scene was so bad that it never even made the rough cuts. So, yeah, I did put myself on tape, but it did not prove useful. In the end, it was really just a waste of a quarter of a day.
AVC: As high-school underdog stories go, how would you say Fat Kid Rules The World stands out? Because it’s not exactly a small playing field.
ML: No, it isn’t. I think it’s kind of a throwback movie, to the John Hughes films of yesterday. I feel like it’s got that kind of vibe. You know, every chance when we could’ve gone dark and indie with it, we decided not to. We tried to keep it more suggestive than Brown Bunny-ish, if you take the reference. [Laughs.] So I think we’re different in those terms. I feel like most films under a million dollars try to shock their way or art-house their way into success, and we really just kind of leaned on the story and the storytelling and the characters instead of doing that. And I think that makes us kind of stand out in the independent world.
AVC: How did you come to team up with Tugg.com for the distribution of the film? It’s kind of a cool concept to begin with, but it seems to have worked out particularly well for Fat Kid.
ML: Oh, it’s awesome. You know, they say destiny breeds ingenuity… Or is that desperation? [Laughs.] Either way, we won the Audience Award at South By Southwest, and we kind of figured, “Oh, here we go, we’re gonna be off and running!” And we just never got an offer that came through that gave us much of an opportunity at all to find success. So instead of taking a crappy offer, we decided to do it on our own, and Tugg is one of those things that really hit the SXSW Film Festival while we were there. Our whole marketing campaign was based on the idea that we would take it out to the Vans Warped Tour, and marketing it to those kids. I was in a movie called SLC Punk, and I know that that movie still has resonance to those kids, so we went back to those kids and basically said, “Well, look, we made a movie for you, you should check it out.” And our kind of grassroots campaign—we did a Kickstarter campaign and raised $158,000, and we’re all about making movies by the people for the people, so Tugg just kind of seemed to make sense. And the model is really good as well. I think to date we’re the most successful film on Tugg, and we keep on climbing.
Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College (1991)—“Stork”
ML: Yes! I was a non-union extra for 19 days. And on the last day, I told them they were going to give me my Screen Actors Guild card or they were going to have to reshoot the scene without me, but I was going to get it. And the first assistant director told me I was never going to work again. But look at me now! [Laughs.]
Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)—“Longaville”
ML: That’s probably one of the top three most influential directors in my life: Ken Branagh. The way he leads and guides people and the way he directs a production was really hugely influential in the director I became.
AVC: Most people don’t necessarily see you as a Shakespeare guy.
ML: Yeah, it’s a little against type. Not just the Shakespeare, but singing and dancing in a film set like a 1930s musical… That’s not really in my wheelhouse. And I think I proved that on set. [Laughs.]
Thir13en Ghosts (2001)—“Dennis Rafkin”
ML: The only time in my life a director’s said to me, “Do it again, but do it better.” Look, I loved the movie. Tony Shalhoub is one of the great actors of our generation. All I really remember about Thir13en Ghosts, though, is that it was really hot and filled with people who were doused in blood. ’Cause there’s nothing that conducts heat like glass and movie lights. It’s a terrible combination. It was glass, movie lights, and the smell of burning latex, ’cause all the rubber on the people—all the ghosts were covered in latex, and the whole thing just stunk to high hell. Also, I’ll never forget F. Murray Abraham at 4 o’clock in the morning, in a junkyard in the middle of winter in Vancouver, British Columbia, standing on top of 16 stacked cars with a fan blowing directly in his face, screaming down, “This movie isn’t about special effects, it’s about acting!” I was, like, “I think you’re wrong, bro.” [Laughs.] I mean, he was screaming it in this really snide, pompous voice, “It isn’t about special effects, it’s about acting!” Eh, maybe not.
Hackers (1995)—“Emmanuel Goldstein”/“‘Cereal Killer’”
ML: Yeah! One of my favorite jobs ever. I’m one of the few people in the world who can say they knew Angelina Jolie before she had tattoos. It was her first movie, and… You know how some people are meant for greatness and some people are meant to be fourth on the call sheet? It was obvious on that movie which of us was which.
AVC: When you were filming, were you aware of the possibility that the movie might already seem technologically dated by the time it hit theaters?
ML: Um… [Laughs.] Yes. I think we were all aware of that. I don’t think, however, that we imagined the film would come back into vogue almost 20 years later. I think that’s the most amazing thing about that movie: It’s perceived as cooler now than it ever was when it originally came out.
Serial Mom (1994)—“Chip Sutphin”
ML: With John Waters, who gave me the first direction I ever received in my movie career, and it was, “Do it again, but don’t do it so gay.” And all I could think of was that I wasn’t doing it gay. And then I thought, “That sucked.” [Laughs.] But that’s the thing: You think you know acting, but then you get on set and you’re like, “Oh, what I actually know is a whole lot about nothing.”
The other thing about that movie was that the first day’s shooting I ever had was the day that Waco, Texas blew up. So for me, I always have an anniversary date. I know the first day I worked. It’s not a day that you’d necessarily remember otherwise, but because it’s the day everything went down in Waco, I’ve got a permanent touchstone for my first day of work. Which is kind of crazy.
SLC Punk! (1998)—“Stevo”
ML: It’s the only time in my life that I’ve ever been given the opportunity to really carry a film. I mean, you could argue I carried Scooby-Doo to some extent, too, but… Oh, I guess I’ve done it on other movies, too, like Spooner. But for me, the proudest piece of acting I have is when I’m doing what I do in most of that film. I mean, that’s one of those movies that I remember doing and being super-proud of it even as I was doing it. You mention that movie, and “pride” is definitely the first word that comes to mind.
AVC: It wasn’t a huge film by any means when it came out, but as you mentioned earlier, it’s built a cult following over the years.
ML: Yeah, and just to bring it back to Fat Kid for a moment, part of me understands that. Now I can walk down the street and have the benefit of knowing that, if I run into 10 kids, five of them are bound to say, “I loved you in Scooby-Doo,” “I loved you in Scream,” or, you know, some other random terrible movie. But the other five will say, “SLC Punk! changed my life.” So I know the impact that movie has had firsthand, and that goes into one of the reasons why I wanted to make Fat Kid. In that subculture of kids, there aren’t a lot of movies that depict them in honest ways. But we tried to do that with that film.
AVC: What was your punk street-cred going into that film? Were you into punk at all?
ML: No, not at all. I was way more into hardcore rap. And I claim no kind of particular ownership of punk-rock music at all or any kinship to it. I like punk-rock music because there’s a visceral reaction when you listen to it, and I like that about any kind of art. I try to bring that into my acting, because I think that’s why you do it. But, no, I’m not into punk or around punk or know anything about punk.
The Descendants (2011)—“Brian”
ML: That was like being called up from toiling in double-A or triple-A ball and getting a call saying, “We’d like you to pitch in Game 1 of the World Series.” I mean, the whole whirlwind of the Academy Awards and the experience of that is something I’ll never forget.
AVC: How did you come into the film? Did they call you up and ask for you specifically, or was it an audition?
ML: Uh, no, it was an audition. No one has ever called me up for a film in the entire history of mankind. [Laughs.] The only time I ever get called up is to validate whether I’m dead or not. Look, my career has never been about somebody needing me. It’s always me needing them much more. So, yeah, I auditioned, and trust me when I say that I thought I was the last guy to ever get the role of the guy who gets George Clooney’s wife. I almost went in as a dare more than anything else, because you’re definitely kind of transcending reality at that point.
Wing Commander (1999)—“Lt. Todd ‘Maniac’ Marshall”
ML: We shot that in Luxembourg, and all I remember is that my hair was so bleached and short that I had open wounds on my scalp. Oh, the price you pay for fame…
Scream (1996)—“Stuart Macher”
ML: Yeah, you know, that was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and it ended up being one of the biggest hits of my life, so it’s nice when that culmination hits on both sides. And with that said, I really wish the world would ask me about things other than Stuart in Scream. [Laughs.] For every three Twitter followers I have, one of them asks me three times a day, “What was it like to play Stuart in Scream?” Dude, that’s like asking a 6-year-old, “What was it like going potty for the first time by yourself?” You know the impact it had, but you don’t really dwell on it
Nash Bridges (1997)—“Brian Van Pelt”
AVC: All right, then, so what was it like to play Brian Van Pelt on Nash Bridges?
ML: [Laughs.] Fair enough. I’ll never forget Don Johnson looking at me and saying, “You know what? I used to be good, too, until I started doing this shit.” And I thought to myself, “Oh, my God, what have I gotten myself into? You call this a career…? I’m going to be miserable.”
Scooby-Doo (2002) / Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004) / Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010-present) —“Shaggy Rogers”
ML: Being Shaggy has been awesome. What that job has become in my life is way more exciting than movies. I did the films, but now I’m doing the cartoons, and… Scooby-Doo is like the clap. It just keeps on coming back.
AVC: Doing the films was one thing, but when you took over the voice of Shaggy on the animated series, was there some sort of official ceremony where the job was passed from Casey Kasem to you?
ML: [Laughs.] Well, he does still play my dad on the show. No, there was no ceremonial hug or cutting of the ribbon, but I made sure to say—and I said it very loud and clear—that although I would gladly jump in as Shaggy, I’d only do it if Casey was done. But it’s one of the great jobs of my life. And for better or for worse, the movies still feed my kids, so I’m proud of them. I mean, six months of being chased around by a dog that’s not there is maybe not my crowning achievement or my most shining moment, but… Man, you know, I say that, but I actually like Scooby-Doo. And I’m oddly proud of the performance, as stupid as it may sound. It’s not an easy thing to do to bring a two-dimensional character to life, so I’m kind of proud of how it came out.