After several years stuck in indie film oblivion, Ryan Phillippe is making a comeback of late. After acclaimed work in last year’s Oscar-winning “Crash”, he follows that up with lead role in Clint Eastwood’s latest film “Flags of our Fathers” which is also getting a lot of awards buzz. Attending a press conference in Beverly Hills and operating on little slip, the ultra good-looking actor was obviously tired but happy to answer questions about his work:
Question: More than anybody else in this film, the character you’re playing is the most connected to the author. Did you feel real pressure in playing this guy?
Phillippe: Yeah, there was definitely an element of that, just the responsibility that comes along with playing someone who I feel was really a pretty great person, and had gone through these experiences. But in a lot of ways it makes my job that much easier, a lot of the work is done for me, this man existed, I can see pictures of him and know how he smiled and talked to his son, and find out how he dealt with people, and read the book and know what was important to him during this battle, it really does a lot of the work for me.
Then it’s just about making sure that I’m prepared enough to replicate his ability with his equipment and the first aid stuff that I really took a lot of time to make sure I got right. But I loved playing someone who – I think it’s great, it feels very special and then when his son was on set and some of the moments I had to that end were just pretty amazing. His wife was there in Chicago when we were shooting. It’s pretty cool, it makes it all that much more important.
Question: You come from a military family, right?
Phillippe: Yeah, not to the extent that – I wasn’t like an army brat kind of thing, but my grandfather’s both fought in World War II, my grandfather was on the ground in Germany and my other grandfather was in the Philippines, my dad served in the Navy during Vietnam, my uncles were in Vietnam on the ground, so to pay tribute and to kind of tell a story having to do particularly with World War II, the greatest generation, the men of that time, and children of the depression who then were put into this situation, were responsible for the shape of the world in a lot of ways. That was huge for me.
Question: How did you get this role, where were you when you heard that you got it and what was your first encounter with Mr. Eastwood?
Phillippe: I read that he had optioned this book in the newspaper and I immediately went out and bought it and read it within the next two days, and just thought to myself if there was one thing I could do in it, be involved with it in any capacity, the smallest role, I wouldn’t have cared, I just wanted to be a part of it if at all possible. It was the first job in my life I’ve ever pursued the way I did this one. I’d never written a letter to a director before in my life, and I did on this film.
I went in many times, they didn’t want to cast initially people my age, Clint had thought he wanted 19, 20 year olds, the age these guys were, so they so me for the Mike Strank, the Barry Pepper role, and they read me a bunch of times, and then it just got further and further down the line, and it was like, ah, they really wanted me to play Doc,’ and I just couldn’t believe it. I was in my office in Venice when I got the call from my agent, and I literally dropped to my knees, I literally was just praising God, it was one of the better professional moments of my life to get that phone call.
And I had never met him up until that point, because he doesn’t read actors. Phyllis Huffman, who’s an incredible lady and largely responsible for my getting this job, she passed away after the film was made, but he trusts her implicitly, she’s also a friend of his and so her word is really important to him, so I had never met him until we were getting on the Warner Brothers’ jet to fly to D.C. for our first day, and Adam and Jesse and I were all sitting on the plane just like, ‘Oh, we’re going to meet him, what’s he going to be like?’ His car pulls up and he gets out and it’s Clint Eastwood.
Then you’re on a private plane with him, sitting like a little boy in the front, looking back at him. And then it takes awhile to get over the fact that you’re working with this legend. Then it does and then you find yourself having beers and talking politics with him, because he does really become so – he’s so easy to be around, he’s funny, and he treats people decently.
Question: Your character is set apart from the rest because he has to watch out for everybody else. Did you try to really get into that?
Phillippe: Definitely. I mean, there’s something so primal when they’re calling – I really thought, these men are wounded and they’re calling out ‘Corpsman,’ it’s very much you could substitute, ‘Mommy,’ or ‘Daddy,’ in its place, because it’s just a desperate basic need that they find themselves having when they’re wounded on a battlefield, these are young boys. Yeah, and to know that you can’t save everyone, you can’t get to everyone, and what a frustration that is.
And he’s also set apart I think because he’s not a Marine, and he’s not carrying an automatic weapon, he doesn’t have grenades on him, his job is to preserve life for his unit and his country, and not take it, and I liked having that perspective. I liked how unique that felt to me, to be someone who’s out there in just as much peril, if not more because there was a point made about the Japanese snipers who were told to take out the corpsmen because if he dies that means probably another ten marines will die, and also what it does to the morale of the men to see their father-figure, the caretaker, die. So they were in a lot of danger.
Question: What was the trickiest scene to shoot?
Phillippe: It’s hard to say, any of the stuff that I did medical, when I did first aid, and I was working with a lot of props, because you only usually do one take, there’s a lot of pressure on just making sure that stuff’s accurate and getting it right, so those scenes, the scenes where I had to different medical stuff were probably the ones I was most anxious about just because I wanted it to be right and knew we wouldn’t do it too many times, and I wanted to impress the boss.
Question: Did Clint give you pats on the back? Is he very demonstrative?
Phillippe: Here and there. No, I mean, he’s not, and I like that, I hate when you’re on a film set and after every take you go, ‘Oh that was great, that was amazing,’ he doesn’t do any of that. He’ll say, (impersonates Eastwood) ‘That’s enough of that.’ And he’s right, and I far prefer that. But I do remember when we did the flag raising, and no one else had ever seen any of us rehearse it, but we’d gotten together on our own and studied the tape, and made sure we knew what the physicality was, and when we did it the first time he came over and addressed the group of us, and he said, ‘I’m proud of you.’ That was pretty cool.
Question: Was there archive footage of your character? How did you try to make it accurate?
Phillippe: I very much tried to make it accurate, I had pictures of him, a lot of pictures John Bradley, no audio recordings, I’d asked and looked for that but they really couldn’t find anything until he was a lot older, and it wouldn’t have made as much sense. But I kind of knew somewhat the accent from the area that he lived it, and the book was really helpful, but I didn’t have any video of him or anything. I had a lot of pictures, and I put them up all over my trailer and used those pictures and what I could take from the look in his eyes, and that sort of thing, to inspire me every day and keep me grounded and focused on him.
Question: What was it like to shoot in Iceland?
Phillippe: Iceland is just one really diverse landscape, it’s really wildly diverse, but Reykjavik, the Icelandic people party hard on Friday and Saturday, ’til sun up and through the night. Yeah, we’d blow off a lot of steam, we were doing really physical work, carrying forty pounds of equipment when we were doing the war stuff, we weren’t treated like actors, we carried our own stuff, we were responsible for each other, yeah, we would definitely – when you have a bunch of young guys, particularly young actors on a location with disposable money and that sort of thing, we had a good time.
Question: I hear even though you were shooting in the summer it got really cold?
Phillippe: Yeah it did. Nothing unbearable really, as it would be if you were there in wintertime, but it was – that was actually a great move on their part, because there’s only a few places in the world that have black sand beaches like Iwo did, and Hawaii would have been one of them, but it would have been such the wrong way to go, because it would have felt like a vacation, here we felt removed and isolated, and on foreign soil and it was just the right way to do it.