Ryan Phillippe has lived his entire adult life in the public eye. A star since “Cruel Intentions,” he courted, married and divorced America’s Sweetheart, Reese Witherspoon. Always the object of paparazzi, you’re not going to get tears from Phillippe about this security camera video of your worst moment going viral, or that leaked collection of nude cell-phone selfies.
“I don’t feel bad for anybody going through that,” he says with a laugh. “Because I have been LIVING with this for 20 years! Welcome to our world!”
He mentions Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen and former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, and remembers back when he and Witherspoon were together “and we were besieged by photographers– shooting right into our car, our windows. Everything you said could be overheard. Now, with social media and cell phone cameras, EVERYBODY faces that. It’s not just celebrities…Anybody’s life can be undone by the wrong choice of words or actions.”
That trial by cable TV news or gossip website culture has been on Phillippe’s mind of late. Not because of any fresh abuse he’s faced. He just turned 40 and he’s shooting an ABC mini series about a man accused of murder “and tried and convicted in the media.” “Secrets & Lies,” co-starring Juliet Lewis, airs early in 2015.
And then there’s a project even closer to the bone. “Catch Hell,” opening in limited release this weekend, is about Reagan Pearce, a jaded, struggling movie star who finds his past indiscretions catching up with him on an indie film shoot in remote Louisiana. Reagan is kidnapped. And to make matters worse, his kidnappers set out to ruin him by posing as him on social media. Phillippe co-wrote, stars and directed it.
“Reagan is me, basically,” Phillippe laughs. “We wrote it in my voice. The things Reagan says to the kidnappers or whoever are said in my voice. It’s not a far throw from him to me. I exploited that and embraced what people think about me or think they know about me.”
Reagan Pearce tries to shrug off the state of his career, the state of his hotel room and the unwanted attentions of the Shreveport locals. He’s trying to be a good sport. But when he hops into the production van to ride from the hotel to the set, he quickly realizes these people don’t know what PA (production assistant) stands for, or that PAs are usually who drive actors to sets. Next thing he knows, he’s beaten, chained up in a cabin in the swamp.
“I was shooting ‘Straight A’s’ with Anna Paquin in Louisiana, and riding in a van on my way to horseback riding lessons way out in the woods when it hit me,” Phillippe says.”‘What if these guys AREN’T my drivers?’ Celebrities and actors back home in L.A. live behind so many safeguards. Gates and video cameras and security people. But on location, you haven’t met anybody you’re about to work with, face to face, you’re blindly hopping into a vehicle just because somebody else you don’t know TOLD you to.”
He envisioned a “modern day ‘Misery,'” with a jealous husband out to punish a movie star who once had an indiscretion with that husband’s wife.
“I started telling actor friends about this idea, and they’d start divulging these stories to me, things I could never ATTRIBUTE to anyone, about some of the situations they found themselves in. Guys go on location, meet a girl, neither of them know each other’s whole life. On location, you kind of create a different version of yourself. I have had friends who hooked up with a girl in a small town they were shooting in, her husband would turn out to be a cop or whoever. There’d be some guy in the parking lot of the hotel looking up at the actor’s window all night.”
From that, “Catch Hell” was born. He had a $2 million budget and just 19 days to shoot, so Phillippe cast mostly unknown stage actors (“You know they’ll be prepared.”) and went for broke. He tried to emulate the directors he’s worked for who made the strongest impression — Robert Altman (“Gosford Park”) and Clint Eastwood (“Flags of Our Fathers”). “They ran calm, efficient, fun sets.” Reviews haven’t been glowing (“Catch” is “a self-deprecating brand of satire…tinged with a gonzo weirdness,” according to Slant Magazine). But Phillippe caught the directing bug. He’s already setting up his next directing gig.
“This time, I won’t star in it. I couldn’t focus all my attention on the directing when I was acting, because I was literally chained to a bed for most takes.”
And he’s about to have his profile raised, not for saying the wrong thing on social media or divorcing America’s Sweetheart. “Secrets & Lies” is “ten hours of TV, told completely from my character’s perspective. It’s like shooting five movies, back to back, and the most dramatic (stuff) I’ve ever done — in every scene, heightened emotions, drama, like ABC’s effort to do something as good as ‘True Detective’ on cable.”
And he’s staying out of trouble, watching his behavior off-set while filming in Wilmington, N.C., “the way EVERYbody has to these days. But I can do it. I’ve had 20 years of practice.”