There are small but key roles in great movies that make a crucial difference in the way a film turns out. Think of Marlon Brando getting the top billing in “Superman” for less than 15 minutes of time as Jor-El, the Man of Steel’s father.
In the new Oscar-buzzed film “The Descendants” by Alexander Payne (“Election,” “Sideways,” “About Schmidt”) George Clooney may be getting all the glory for his terrific lead performance as Matt King, a real estate mogul who has to deal with his comatose wife’s wishes to die at the same time he is forced to become a better father to his two daughters.
But it’s when he learns that his wife had been cheating on him with a smarmy-looking real estate agent named Brian Speer that the film really takes off, as he sets out to find Speer in order to gain closure.
It would be easy to play Speer as a heartless cad, and a lout who callously disrupted the family life and betrayed the marriage of another man. But as Speer, actor Matthew Lillard delivers a powerfully nuanced performance that actually makes viewers feel his pain as he begs for forgiveness from King and also begs King not to tell his own wife what he had done.
Lillard nails the pivotal role in a turn that comes as an almost complete surprise. After all, he’s had two other shots at big-movie success, as one of the two teen killers in the original “Scream” and as the iconic cartoon character Shaggy in the live-action film adaptations of “Scooby-Doo.”
In both cases, Lillard’s star potential waned after the films left theaters. But this third shot at stardom may prove to be the charm, as the Pasadena-based family man – a long-married father of three – has seen his career opportunities soar in just the three weeks since “The Descendants” was released. In fact, he just had an audition for Clint Eastwood’s next film, a fact that even he admits “wouldn’t have happened three years ago.”
Speaking with Big Hollywood, Lillard looked back on his career as a working actor thus far, and spoke of the ups and downs that he and so many other actors face. Yet he remains grounded, down to earth and hopeful about his future.
BH: How’d you decide to live in Pasadena, rather than a more trendy area like the Hollywood Hills or Beverly Hills?
LILLARD: My wife and I lived in the Hollywood Hills, and I had just gotten back from doing “Scooby Doo,” she was pregnant and we needed to decide if we’d go West side or East Side in LA. We found a house in Pasadena that nullified the entire debate. Within five minutes of walking through it, we bought the house. That was ten years ago. I can’t imagine living anywhere else, it’s got everything every family in America would want. Great Schools, restaurants, incredible culture like the Pasadena Playhouse. We’re happy to be living here and can’t imagine living anywhere else.
BH: How did “The Descendants” come about?
LILLARD: The audition came across my desk and I wanted the opportunity to audition for Alexander Payne, I’ve always been a fan of his work. I was to play Clooney’s wife’s lover, and thought there’s no way I’d get this part. But I went in to audition anyway and five of the best looking guys in the world were there and I thought I’ll never get this.
I promised to take my kids to the Warner Bros ranch for a screening of a film that day, but though I can do this quickly and do it fast and be off to take my kids to the movie. I auditioned once, and Payne said it was the best audition he’d ever seen. I said there’s no way I get the part, because there’s no way George Clooney’s wife cheats with a guy like me. They said to get out of the room, and four months later I got the call.
The good news is there’s a lot of hype built up around that part. The whole movie is a ticking clock about when Clooney’s going to confront that guy. The climax of the movie is that scene and I knew reading it, what was coming and what everyone said in terms of the script. I knew there’d be a lot of pressure on that moment because if you suck at that scene you destroy the whole movie – and in an Alexander Payne movie with George Clooney you want to be really good.
BH: How did you manage to make Speer rather sympathetic?
LILLARD: You go back to the genius of Alexander Payne. I think if the character is the quintessential better-looking guy than George Clooney then viewers automatically hate him. But I don’t think you can hate Brian Speer as me, ’cause I’m a nice guy and the lines are like “Please don’t screw up my life, I love my wife, it was a mistake, just sex.” Alexander Payne did a really smart move in casting a guy like me, a really normal guy. Every time you think it’s going cliché or melodramatic, he makes a left turn and Brian is simply human.
BH: Are you getting any new heat out of the role?
LILLARD: Things are starting to move a little bit differently. I just came back from auditioning for Clint Eastwood and I don’t think that would have been available to me three years ago. Every artistic career ebbs and flows, you’re hot or not and you hang in there to come back. Right now it feels good to come off a lull in my career and if nothing happens at least I have something I can be proud of.
BH: Where did you grow up, and did you always want to act?
LILLARD: I grew up in Detroit, moved to Orange County when I was 10 and lived in New York for a long time.
I was 13 and my dad said take either typing class or acting class, and I took acting. He thought I’d be a salesman and it would help me to be put in front of people. It was the first time in the world where I didn’t suck at something, and adults said ‘You did good.’ I studied at New York’s Circle in the Square, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts which used to be in Pasadena and studied there. I try to stay busy and endure the downslides that come.
BH: What was it like being part of “Scream,” which just came out of nowhere to be enormously popular?
LILLARD: It was a movie that at the time was really exciting to be part of, always fun to be part of something big and unexpected and it changed the trajectory of my life for awhile.
BH: And how about playing Shaggy?
LILLARD: To be a big part of a big Hollywood popcorn movie is fun and exciting and for better or worse, it provided the opportunity of staying the course as an actor and not selling pharmaceuticals. The good side is I got paid good money, the bad side is it ended my “cool card” doing Scooby Doo. You have to get that back and “The Descendants” is a part of that journey, hopefully.