Ryan Phillippe for “Igby Goes Down”

Ryan Phillippe is one of the most interesting and intellectual actors of his generation. In the star-studded ensemble black comedy Igby Goes Down, Phillippe plays Oliver Slocomb, older Ivy League brother to the rebellious Kieran Culkin.

Phillippe, who was born September 10, 1974 in New Castle, Delaware, has quickly risen from obscurity to become one of the most talked-about actors in Hollywood. Phillippe got his first break on the TV soap opera One Life to Live, on which he portrayed daytime’s first gay teenager, Billy Douglas. After quitting the show to focus on his screen career, Phillippe got a small part in the 1995 submarine action thriller Crimson Tide.

More work–and more boat-oriented action–followed in 1996 with Ridley Scott’s White Squall, in which Phillippe was given a prominent role alongside two other up-and-coming actors, Ethan Embry and Scott Wolf. After this mainstream, big budget venture, Phillippe went down the independent route, first with his starring role as an abused trailer park teen in Little Boy Blue (1997), and then in Gregg Araki’s Nowhere (1997).

Phillippe’s major screen break came with his role in the 1997 sleeper hit I Know What You Did Last Summer, in which he starred alongside Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Sarah Michelle Gellar. The film’s success, coupled with Phillippe’s exposure from previous films, was enough to propel him into two leading roles in 1998, first as a blue-haired club baby in Playing By Heart, and then as a bartender in the critically maligned 54.

Following 54, Phillippe opted to play a naive dope farmer in the obscure Homegrown (1998), in which he co-starred with Billy Bob Thornton and Hank Azaria. This preceded his next big in Cruel Intentions, an all-teen adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Co-starring Sarah Michelle Gellar as his scheming half-sister and Phillippe’s real-life wife-to-be Reese Witherspoon, the film proved to be one of the year’s most guilty pleasures, winning and was a huge hit.

Ryan again shows his unpleasant side in director Burr Steers’ Igby Goes Down, a kind of contemporary take on Catcher in the Rye. Phillippe talked to Paul Fischer.

Question: Is it fun for you to play the asshole?

Answer: I do yeah! It’s fun!

Question: What attracted you to the script?

Answer: I almost produced this movie. It was sent to me as a producer initially. Then I still realized that if I [were] an actor in it and still involved in it, then they could get the money and get the movie made. And I loved the script so much and believed in Burr so much that I wanted that to happen. That’s the primary reason. I was cast first before Kieran [Culkin]. When I decided to do the movie, what appealed to me most [were] the brothers. That’s something cinematically I find appealing. I have three sisters and I’ve always wanted a brother, so I was really interested in that notion. There’s something very psychological profound about the fraternal relationship.

Question: Could you relate to your character?

Answer: Playing these kinds of guys which I do like is fun because it’s so not where I came from. People often say that even if you’re playing a character who’s not redemptive, you have to like the character, which I disagree. I don’t have to like this guy. I have to believe that he’s generated by his environment. It’s clear he is.

Question: Do you think Kieran fully fleshed out the role of the angry young man rebelling against his world?

Answer: I was sceptical of Burr when he first said he was casting him. I guess I hadn’t seen him do work that was that resonant. I’d only seen him doing kid parts. He so impressed me from the very beginning. I remember the first days from rehearsals he was really intimidated when he was in the room with me and Claire and Susan Sarandon and it’s like we’re all older and we’ve worked and things like that, but he was working so hard. I think he’s the first young actor to capture the essence of Holden Caulfield in film. You get that unrest and that angst and you get the intelligence behind the unrest and angst.

Question: What was it like working with a new director like Burr Steers and then working with Robert Altman?

Answer: The similarities to the experiences were the ensemble cast and the fact that both felt like doing theater. Burr is director from theater. Altman, when you work with him, it feels like the camera is out of the way, so there are some similarities. One of the greatest things I learned from Altman wasn’t even stylistic or artistic ” it’s the way he treats people and how inclusive he is with each member of the crew. To the point where everyone on the set is giving their all because they feel like they’re valuable.

Question: What’ve you been working on lately in terms of your production company?

Answer: My first film goes into production in October. It’s called White Boy Shuffle and it’s based on a novel about a young black kid and it’s sort of reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye. It’s the thing I’m most proud of in my career because it’s a twelve and a half million dollar movie with an all black cast and it’s not genre specific. It’s most like American Beauty if it is anything at all, so it’s a real hard movie to get made. I found the book and hired the writer and brought it additional producers. Will Smith came on as a producer. It’s something I put together from the ground up.

Question: How have your views of yourself as an actor changed over the years?

Answer: I have changed the perceptive of myself as an actor in the past three years and I did it caculatively and it worked because most people in our business are sheep and they will follow what they see. I am miserable when I’m in a movie I’m not proud of and a movie that I don’t want to do. I don’t want to put myself through that. I’ve been in [that situation] three or four times and because of those three or four times, I never will be again. At 27, it’s great to get to a place where I’m not an actor for hire anymore. I’m involved with the movies I make years ahead now. I won’t make a movie for money ever again.

Question: Do you have a timeline as to when you want to start directing?

Answer: I’ve written something and I would like to have my first film directed by the time I’m 30. What I’d ideally like to have, by the time I’m 35, to have a [production] company that resembles Miramax in the early 90s, where you’re making these small interesting, diverse projects.

Question: Do you have plans to ever work with your wife?

Answer: Yes. When it’s mutually appropriate for our careers. Right now, she really has to focus on being a big movie star! I’m really interested in having a studio one day and being a film maker. She’s driven to be a very powerful actress who can make the movies she wants as an actress

Question: Have the tabloids been bad to you as one of the golden couples?

Answer: For me they have! I’m married to America’s sweetheart now, so they’re looking to shoot me down! They’re always insinuating that I’m running around on her and that kind of thing. What’s more ludicrous is the whole idea of me being jealous and competitive. Well actually, some weeks they’ll write that I’m jealous of living in her shadow. Then other weeks, they’ll write that all I want to do is loaf around on her money! It’s ridiculous!