Matthew Lillard on The Descendants, Hollywood Comebacks, and the Soup Commercial That Almost Killed Him

lillard_descendants300.jpgMatthew Lillard admits he's had three enduring cinematic moments -- in Scream, as its hilariously unhinged killer Stu Macher; in SLC Punk, as the spiky-haired Stevo; and in Scooby Doo, reprising Casey Kasem's beloved voice role Shaggy Rogers in living color. He is often both goofy and dark, and that dichotomy makes him a weird, but ingenious choice to play Brian Speer, a married real-estate hustler who has an affair with the wife of Matt King (George Clooney) in Alexander Payne's critical darling The Descendants.

Unlike Brian Speer, Lillard doesn't need to be confronted or challenged into honesty; he's a mature, yet devilishly candid actor who's pondered Hollywood's fickleness and the personal gratification of acting in equal measure. Movieline caught up with Lillard to discuss his improbable quickie audition for The Descendants, surviving Freddie Prinze Jr.'s filmography, and the legacy of Scream.

This appears to be your first brush with awards season. How disorienting or fun is it?

It's literally that thing where you're the fat, ugly kid in high school and all the sudden someone says, "Dude, you have the chance to be the prom king." You're like, "What?" You think it's a joke at first and then it sets in that, wow, you're on this trajectory. In the back of your mind, you just don't know if you're going to get a chance to come back -- and I keep talking about this, and I don't want to repeat shit to you, man -- but it's worth noting because it's been my life. I'm completely aware of where my career's been lately, and to have an opportunity to come back like this, with a movie like this and the people I'm with, and to have a chance to put on a tuxedo in March is ridiculous. You also realize that it's a whole other level of Hollywood; I had no idea the amount of effort that studios graciously and gracefully put into these movies that they care about. Tom Rothman, who runs Fox, I've seen him speak about the movie three times. All three times he almost brought me to tears, because he's so passionate about it. I see the kind of effort they're putting in -- they're trying to generate the accolades we hope it gets -- and it's really kind of humbling.

I've heard you talk about being a big Alexander Payne fan. Do you find yourself comparing this movie to his others?

My biggest fear about being in an Alexander Payne movie was -- I didn't want to be the joke. I don't want the whole movie to be like, "Wow. What the hell was she thinking?" in this kind of loose, weird way. Because for a guy who steals from George Clooney, I'm not the typical guy you'd expect, so I was afraid that throughout the course of the movie I'd be a joke. I was happy at the end of the day and I was proud of my work. I was happy about the fact that I wasn't the joke at the end of the movie. I'll never forget that one of the first premieres I ever went to in L.A. was Citizen Ruth -- Payne turns out these incredible performances. I mean, Giamatti? And now George (Clooney). For me, I feel like the movie as a whole stacks up performance-wise to what he's done in the past. I'm happy to be a part of that statement.

lillard_descendants300.jpgThe ensemble of The Descendants is a great mix -- veterans, dependable supporting players like you and Judy Greer, newcomers like Shailene Woodley -- what was the group dynamic like?

I will say that the ensemble as a whole is as diverse and eclectic as the movie. I just think if you put Beau Bridges and Robert Forster against Amara Miller, who plays the young girl, and Nick (Krause, as Woodley's boyfriend Sid) -- that's just crazy casting. Then there's Judy and I who come from comedy, and Rob Huebel and Mary Birdsong as well. He just pulls on really eclectic performances and people. It's funny, because you have these moments -- like while taking these spotlight bows at the New York Film Festival -- but you realize that this [mix] doesn't happen very often. Right now we're all the toast of the town, and that's fun to be a part of. The weird thing is, across the board, we're all so appreciative for our own reasons. For Judy and I, we get to change our feathers a little. As Robert Forster says, Alexander Payne has now punched his clock again. He's given him another breath of life and another kind of -- what's the world I'm looking for? -- you know, people see him again. He's got more time on his clock. And the same with Beau. So we're all appreciate. The kids have never had a chance, the old guys have their clocks punched, and we get to show our different colors. And George sees this for what it is; he gets to show himself off for the actor that he is. He gets a chance to be seen in a different life. He's incredible.

Your casting story for The Descendants, where you auditioned quickly with your kids waiting in the car, is great. My favorite part of it is when you said you saw a bunch of traditional "leading men" types up for the same role. How did comparing yourself to those types make you feel about the role?

I just thought there was no way Payne would see me in that way. I mean, look, once I got the job, I felt great going to set. It's not like I went to set saying, "Oh God, what am I doing here? I suck." I have pride in my work, and whether you do great movies or not -- and I wish every movie I've done in my life could've been The Descendants -- and whether you're doing "bad" or "good" movies. Being in this movie was like running with the best of the best. That's all we want as actors. That's all anyone wants as an artist or competitor. But walking in the room to get the room, I'd already discounted myself in being able to get it.

Do you have a worst audition story?

Oh my God. [Laughs.] I'm sure there are so many. I'm going to call you tomorrow and be like, "I have it!" Least favorite audition story. Thing is, I'm a funny actor, but I'm not good at being funny. I'm going to ramble for a second: I'm an actor who can make things funny in the moment, like in stakes or in circumstances or out of character. But if you give me a [mimics rimshot], like a sitcom? I'm not good at that. A good sitcom? I'd be good at that. But a bad sitcom, I'd be bad at. There are several times when I walked into a room and just felt like such a sham. That's the problem with auditioning. I love auditioning because it's a chance to work, and if everyone cast like Alexander Payne, I think I'd work more. I'm good in an audition. But it's those auditions with your hat in your hand and you need the job because you need to make money, and you know you're not right for it. You just feel like a sham. That's the bad audition -- that's not a specific audition, but it's just the overall world of auditions. I did almost choke to death once in a Lipton Cup A Soup audition when I was 21.

Um, what?

Yeah. I made this choice -- my whole life, I've made choices in acting for better or for worse -- well, I made this choice in this Lipton Cup A Soup audition, and you had to eat the noodles. I thought, "Oh, it'll be great. I'll play this college kid." I must've been 19. "I'll play this college kid who's just home from school" -- I had this whole back story I created -- "and he loves, loves Mom's cooking! Wah-wah!" So I shoved the noodles in my mouth, and then I started to choke to death, which is generally a bad audition. Then I threw it up into the cup and started eating it again. I thought, "That is such a creative and brave choice. I am for sure going to book this."

And you didn't nab the job?

No, shockingly.

In recent interviews, you've brought up the successful 2004 comedy you starred in, Without a Paddle, and how it mysteriously became your last studio movie until The Descendants. That's a pretty confounding fact. Do you think about it a lot when you reflect on your career?

When it's hot, I don't think about it. When it's not, you're like, have I done something wrong? You go back and recalculate your own career. You think, have I done something inexcusable where I don't deserve a break? Or I don't deserve that comeback? You know what I mean? Why are there guys out there who disappear who don't get a chance to come back? So you're sitting there weighing what you're going to do with your life and how you're going to pay for your kids to eat, you think, OK, am I crazy? Am I delusional? Because I'm not. That's the thing about me, I think. I'm the most normal guy in the world, but I happen to be an actor. You look at your life and think, "Where am I at?" And how do you judge that? There's no rhyme or reason to it. People get hot, and you wonder, "Why is that person electric and getting $10 million a movie? And why does somebody disappear?" I'm not a bad guy, and I know people like me. I'm not a jerk. In fact, I'm on my way to being kind. But maybe I should try drug rehab to benefit my career. You're faced with that decision: Walk away, or double up your efforts. For me, I've been keenly aware that I'd rather be an actor, sell everything, and plug away for another chance. Luckily, look, I got through without hustling on the street. I've just been doing bad movies. It's a declining scale of return.

To me, you represent a dwindling class of strong, very likable characters actors. Where have the character actors gone?

I think that in general, what's happened in our world as our industry gets squeezed, guys like that and like me -- there aren't many jobs. If you do get that job, they're not paying any money. And I don't want to talk about money in an interview, because I did that once, and I sounded disgusting. And who's crying about actors acting? But I will say, it's just really hard right now. Character actors are becoming a thing of the past. They're just going by the wayside. They're just cutting through that caliber of acting. I think a guy like Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the greatest actors we have right now, and I think he is like that guy. Paul Giamatti is a character actor that's funny and can do straight and serious. Same with Phil. They do huge choices. It sounds crazy, but if you go back and watch Twister, Philip Seymour Hoffman is incredible. Boogie Nights? Incredible. The guy just eats up the screen. I think there are guys out there who transition into being stars. I mean, that's the hope, right? But I think nobody in their right mind gets into an industry like this and goes, "You know what I want to do? Be a second fiddle." I mean, maybe they do? I just don't want to be that guy who gets lost in the lexicon of Freddie Prinze Jr. movies. I'm glad to have them, and I'm glad I did them. I learned a lot in that process of my life. But I was 23 years old -- and now I'm 41.

I prefer to think of you as the Dorothy Lamour to Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar's Hope and Crosby. Please tell me you enjoy glamorous escapades.

[Screams laughing.] Yes. We do. We eat crumpets and drink champagne almost every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I think that is the funniest thing I've ever heard in my life. Thanks for making my day.

No adventures together? Maybe a trip to Morocco or something?

Oh my God, that would be amazing. We did soft-shoe all over the south of France. We got into some capers in the Himalayas.

You recently directed your first feature, Fat Kid Rules the World. What are you like as a director?

Great question, thank you. I am a better director than I am an actor, if that means anything to anyone. In this blue period of my career, I thought, "What am I going to do? Am I going to sell pharmaceuticals to make money or am I going to do something creative that keeps me alive as an actor?" I taught acting. And in teaching acting, I learned more about acting and myself than I ever thought I would. First of all, I love actors. Every question you ask -- by the way, you ask good questions because I want to ramble and answer them for 20 minutes. But I direct with energy. I believe in energy. I think energy is an electric thing in actors. I try to inspire, encourage, and make choices with lots of energy. And truth. I'm big fan of truth and being funny. I like leading 50 people into battle every day.

Obligatory Scream question: I think it's one of the few '90s horror movies that is still terrifying. How do you feel about it now?

I'm glad it's scary and unnerving, because it does hold up. I did watch it recently, and the opening sequence with Drew is terrifying. Having done 40 movies, there are a couple you can be proud of. They're not all great, and they're not all terrible. That was one that kind of changed the trajectory of my life. I'll still walk down the street, and I'll hear that I'm the guy in Scream. It's one of three movies they identify me for -- Scream, Scooby Doo, and SLC Punk, which are the three biggest movies I've done. And now The Descendants! People recognize me. It's fun.

Lastly, you're a part of Movieline's magazine past. I heard you ventured to our founder Anne Volokh's Hollywood manse and played movie clip games with friends.

Yes. We used to play this thing called "Coffee and Clips." This is the greatest game ever. You bring a clip of a movie, you have to have a reason for bringing that clip, and you show a three-to-five-minute clip and everyone talks about it afterward. I was invited randomly one day, and it was the day that Jack Lemmon had passed away. So I brought Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross, and I didn't know you were supposed to stop the clip. So we watched the last 20 minutes of the movie. I got carried away because, like, I love that movie.

Follow Louis Virtel on Twitter.

Follow Movieline on Twitter.