Lou Diamond Phillips: "My entire career has been fighting against those labels"

The veteran actor spoke to Salon about his new film, being an inclusive ally, authenticity and "Prodigal Son"

Published March 9, 2021 6:31PM (EST)

Lou Diamond Phillips in "Prodigal Son" (Phil Caruso/FOX)
Lou Diamond Phillips in "Prodigal Son" (Phil Caruso/FOX)

In the slick B-movie thriller, "Adverse," Lou Diamond Phillips lends an air of gravitas as Dr. Cruz, a therapist who counsels Ethan (Thomas Ian Nicholas, a far cry from his "American Pie" role), a young man on parole for an unspecified crime. Phillips has only a handful of scenes, but he exudes a calm, cool demeanor while Nicholas — along with co-stars ranging from Mickey Rourke to Penelope Ann Miller — veer towards camp.

In "Adverse," Phillips talks with Ethan about opportunities for underprivileged Chicanos. The actor, who was born in the Philippines, and is one-eighth Cherokee, often plays ethnic roles, but it is his ability to disappear into the characters that makes him so in demand. 

Phillips is currently appearing in FOX's dark comedy crime series "Prodigal Son." He even directed an episode of the show that aired earlier this month. Late last year, he published a science fiction/fantasy novel, "Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira." The actor has not stopped working since the late 1980s, when he came to prominence in "La Bamba" (as Ritchie Valens), "Stand and Deliver," (for which he won an Independent Spirit Award), and the western "Young Guns" (and its sequel). Over the course of his career, Phillips, has also been a musician in a band ("The Pipefitters"), appeared on Broadway, in "The King and I" (which earned him a Tony nomination) and has written and directed both feature films and episodes of various television series. In his spare time, he plays poker professionally. 

A true shapeshifter, Phillips spoke with Salon about his new film, his hit TV show, and his experiences in Hollywood. 

In "Adverse," you play a therapist who is charged with helping a character channel his energy and temper. Your character remains calm under pressure. Are you given over to a cool demeanor, do you anger easily? Even in "Prodigal Sons," your character, Gil Arroyo, seems grounded. 

I can be passionate. It's difficult to be a director and fly off the handle. You have to have an inordinate amount of patience and understand what the process is. [One of Phillips' cats, starts meowing; Phillips lets Squeak out of the room]. Sorry, I have five cats, speaking of patience . . . One of the hallmarks of my career is having a certain amount of patience that has allowed me to deal with the slings and arrows and look at the big picture and not get too overwhelmed. That's been indicative of a few characters I have played.

Gil on "Prodigal Son," is long-suffering and puts up with a lot and handles it somewhat with aplomb. My character on "Longmire," Henry Standing Bear, is the definition of salt of the earth; he is a pillar of strength. He is very patient, calm and measured person. Many of the characters I play are aspirational and they remind me of qualities I strive to have in real life. I'm like everybody. You get to that breaking point . . .

Your character, Dr. Cruz, has a speech in "Adverse" about "not being owed anything" and taking opportunities. Given how you don't seem to ever stop working, is this what drives your work ethic? 

In film and television and theater, it's aspiration, and reminds us of qualities to live by, and at this moment in time in particular, I think we are dealing with a certain amount of entitlement in the world — certainly in our country. What is owed to you? What you deserve? Privilege. These are deep and wide-ranging conversations. There are basic human rights, that every person on this planet deserves, but when we get into a situation, especially in a country like ours, that is about excess that has privilege, and advantages that the rest of the world does not have, we can fail to look not only outside of our bubble, but also outside of ourselves and see the bigger picture. It's a pretty hard-nosed speech, but that's the job of Dr. Cruz — to be a straight shooter and give unvarnished truth, and hold the person's feet to the fire if they are going to change. It's not about coddling. I'm a little bit more compassionate and understanding in my real life, being a dad, but these are statements that need to be considered. What do we take for granted? What do we not appreciate? This reflects on my own life, I was a military brat, I grew up in Texas. I'm a little old school in the respect that I think manners have gone by the wayside. A certain work ethic has gone by the wayside. So many people want to be famous and rich. I have called that the "American Idol" mentality. It's a lottery mentality. Reality television hasn't helped this one bit. I can have instant fame and riches and gratification for the things I think I deserve. But it takes the work and putting in the time and discipline and perseverance and patience. That's what attracted me about Dr. Cruz. I can tell the truth and bring some of my own experience to bear, so the gravitas of the character is authentic.

Lou Diamond Phillips in "Adverse" (Lionsgate)

You are often cast in ethnic roles. Yet you never seem typecast, shifting between playing Latino and Indigenous characters. Can you talk about how you are perceived racially in Hollywood? 

I am in a very peculiar situation, being of mixed heritage; being part Filipino and Scot-Irish. You never get to see me play Scot-Irish, although my character, Russell Logan in "The First Power," there's a little bit of that in there. I have been proud to represent so many different communities and to be embraced by those communities. I always approach those roles with a great amount of respect and a desire to bring dignity to who I am portraying. I have always gone to the source and asked for their blessing. Whether it's the Latino community and Edward James Olmos, or going to the Lakota and Cheyenne reservations for "Longmire." I know that I am not 100% authentic in that respect, but I have been a standard bearer for brown people in Hollywood from the beginning of my career and I take that very seriously. Hopefully, I am a conduit to bringing more attention to other artists. 

On "Longmire" I was able to bring Graham Greene and Tattoo Cardinal, and Gary Farmer in. All of those people were my suggestions. "Let's get the real deal." I'm an ally, a cheerleader, and a friend. Same with playing Latinx roles. But Hollywood has not always known what to do with me because I don't fit in their box. Now, there is more authenticity, and that is fantastic. When I started there weren't that many brown or Asian actors with a name that could be put into leading roles. Now there are so many more, and I'm incredibly happy about that. Are we making the boxes smaller? When I look at "Prodigal Son," I'm of mixed heritage. Frank Harts and Aurora Perrineau are of mixed heritage. There is a place for that in our art and community as well. I worry about when it comes to the decision-makers who want "this" and only "this," as opposed to who is the best actor for the role. Are the Korean male or the Puerto Rican female only going to get one chance per year and not be up for other roles? I hope we get to the place where the acting is the primary criteria for the role.

There is idea of tokenism, and that if there is one person of color in a film or series, they have to speak for the entire community? We need multiple people of color representing always!

I have been in that situation where I was up for a major supporting role and an offer was out to an African American male for the lead. If he got the role, I would have gotten the role. He said no. A white guy got the role, so they cast and African American in the role I would have done. I said, "OK, Wow, you're playing ethnic bingo here," as opposed to asking: Who is the actor I want for this? 

You had breakout roles back in the late '80s with a string of critical and commercial hits. How did you see your career unfolding after such a forceful start? You made a bunch of Hollywood films, but also shifted into B-movies (like "Adverse") Did you find you want to have more control over your work? Or was it difficult to find the work you wanted? 

I have to say that I've always felt fortunate because I've always been employed. I have been able to work as an actor, or writer, or director. Someone in my position doesn't get as many at bats as some of my contemporaries do. You don't get to have as wide a range of opportunity. Careers are cyclical, as Jack Nicholson said. You get the highs, you get the lows. If you have a family and bills, this is what you do for a living — and you have to work. I've never been in a position where I could not not work. So, you take the best that is offered to you, or the best you can get. Would I like the opportunity to get the Tom Cruise role? They were not open to me. 

We were talking about the casual racism earlier. If I said, "Hey, I love this script, can I get a shot at it?" They would say, "Hey, we're not going that way." I knew what that meant. You never got an opportunity at that. When you don't, you have to make your own opportunities. I'm taking this role because I have bills to pay, but I will do it to the best of my ability. I will try to elevate the material. I will hold my head up high because I will hold up my end. There have been small films that have overachieved. People think of "La Bamba" and "Stand and Deliver" as great successes — and they are — but they were small films. "La Bamba" was a $6 million negative pickup. It was not a studio film. It was essentially an independent film that was guaranteed distribution. "Stand and Deliver" was made for $1 million originally by PBS, and picked up by Warner Brothers at the Mill Valley Film Festival. 

I made "The 33" with Patricia Riggen and it was undersold, and it underperformed. It had a Mexican-American director, and the most international cast I've ever worked with. And yet it didn't get the kind of support that would have put it into the awards consideration it should have been. I'm a member of the Academy, and they didn't even send out screeners. They are putting labels on things and making the boxes smaller. My entire career has been fighting against those labels. 

You have focused more of your career on television recently. Are you choosing supporting roles in films like "Adverse" because it fits your schedule, or gives you an opportunity to work with friends? 

I want to do what challenges me and interest me. Thomas Ian Nicholas and I ran into each other at conventions, and he was looking to do something unexpected for him, and it was a young Asian American director, Brian A. Metcalf, so I will always try to support well-meaning films like that. I jumped on, Sean Austin said yes. Then we get Penelope Ann Miller and Mickey Rourke, and all of a sudden, this little film has some caché.

Every few years I want to do films like this. The last time I did it, was a beautiful film called "Filly Brown" which introduced the world to Gina Rodriguez. My buddy Eddie [James] Olmos called me, and his son Michael was one of the directors. Of course, I want to put my name on this and support films with people of color working behind the scenes and finding new and fresh talent and helping to expand that platform.

Where I'm at right now, I'm fortunate. "Prodigal Son" is a hit. Major representation going on there — it is exciting work and the opportunity to direct is fantastic. But quietly, behind the scenes, I wanted to make sure a number of the speaking roles went to people of color. We flipped one of the major roles to an Indian American actor. These are the things we do to make a difference. That is the quiet, perhaps insidious way we change minds to make sure representation is out there and in your face. I am still looking for great roles and writing more. 
What prompted you to publish a sci-fi novel last year? 

I have to go back to original inspiration — my wife Yvonne. When we first met, she was showing me her artwork. She did these beautiful manga-style illustrations inspired from Hans Christian Anderson's "The Tinderbox," and it was evocative of this post-apocalyptic feudal, Kurosawa kind of world of kings and queens and princesses. My immediate response was, let's set this in outer space! It's very "Star Wars," it has its own mythology. I wrote the screenplay and realized it was far too expensive. No one would give me the amount of money to direct it. So, we decided to write the novel. The hardcover has 30 illustrations by Yvonne. I didn't set out to write a sci-fi novel. I set it in that world. My hero is brown. If the movie ever gets made, I can hire the best 20 year-old brown actor to get the role. It goes into that philosophy of creating content that will have a life in representation. 

My friend Lauren Wolkstein, who codirected "The Strange Ones," wants to know if you'll join her quarantine poker club. Are you still playing?

I've been playing on Poker Stars. I was going to go back to the World Series and jump into the main event. The one time I did play, I cashed. It's a passion. Speaking of patience and discipline, how someone behaves at a poker table is usually how they behave in life. 

Given your career overall, what ambitions do you still have?

I'm doing a lot of writing. I'm adapting a friend's novel into a miniseries. The experience of working with my wife was wonderful, and the response [to the book] was so great, I'm actually working on the sequel. She came up with the storyline. I want to continue to do what I'm doing, getting wonderful opportunities and not resting on my laurels. I want to direct more. There are some big things I want to direct one day. I can conceive of a role I want because some of the coolest things in my career have come out of left field. It is just being open to those, read everything that comes my way, and actively search out other things. Back in the '90s, there was a moment I was an offer-only actor. I looked around and wondered, "Why am I not seeing that script? Why wasn't I part of that project?" When I changed that attitude — I want to see everything and if I have to [audition] I will — that lead to "Courage Under Fire." I auditioned four or five times for that and finally got the role when they didn't want someone known. From then on, it's always been about understanding that there are so many wonderful actors out there and there are a lot of actors in my category. I saw the list for "Prodigal Son," and I knew if I waited for it to fall to me, I probably wouldn't get the job. I went in and I read for it. "Here's what I can do in this role." That's what you have to do sometimes. You have to hit the bricks and take that leap. I feel some of my best work may still be ahead of me. Retirement is not in my vocabulary. 

So, there may be a "Young Guns 3" . . . 

That rumor is out there. I actually did read the first draft of the script and it's quite exciting. In this world of reboots and revisiting things, it could be very interesting.

"Adverse" is out March 9 on digital, on demand, and DVD. "Prodigal Son" airs new episodes on Tuesdays on FOX and is also available to stream on FOX Now and Hulu.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Adverse Diversity Editor's Picks Inclusion Interview Lou Diamond Phillips Movies Prodigal Son Representation Tv