Matthew Lillard has been that guy in a whole slew of iconic films from the ’90s—ranging from a clownish murderer in Scream to the laid-back computer whiz Cereal Killer in Hackers. (We even did a Random Roles with him to prove it.) But once he grew out of high school roles—which brought him to his 30s—Lillard had to transform from a teenage fringe element to whatever kids from the ’90s grow up to be. That’s taken him to multimillion dollar franchises, Oscar-winning independent films, and most recently, FX’s The Bridge, where he plays an alcoholic journalist. Perhaps satisfying his own roots, his character is a bit of levity in an otherwise dark show—and literally gets thrown off a bridge at the end of the first season. Now Lillard is a series regular on a TV show after years of being a scene-stealer in film, which sounds quite adult, doesn’t it? We talked to the character actor of the ’90s about what it’s been like to grow up.
The A.V. Club: In The Bridge you play an off-type character for you—the recovering addict. How did you get this role? What drew you to this character?
Matthew Lillard: I got a call from Annabeth Gish one day, who I did a horrible movie with—I’ve done a lot of bad films!—and then we became fast friends. She had this show called The Bridge and she called me one day and said, “There’s a part on the show that they can’t cast. They’ve tested five people, but they can’t find the guy to do it. Can you do it?”
To make a long story short, I called them and said, “Listen, I’d love to talk to you about this part.” And they were like, “Well, come audition like everyone else.” And to be a guy who has been around for a long time and have to go audition for a role—it meant they didn’t really see me as this guy. It’s written as a younger guy. But I wanted to fight for this role, because in the pilot—at the end of the pilot is a four-minute scene that is fantastically written. I saw the potential to have a great moment in television and I knew that if I could do that role, if I could do that scene and not get beat out for the part, I could make something special. To do that last scene would be a great opportunity.
I went in to audition and met the showrunners, Elwood Reid and Meredith Stiehm. They said, “Look, we have no money.” I said, “I have no problem with that, as long as you keep writing good stuff and I can say great things and I have a job. I’d love to take that gig.” So they gave me the role.
In the Swedish show, my character dies in episode six. After the sixth episode, they said, “Well, we’re killing you in episode 10 now, because we like you a lot.” And episode 10 came along and they threw me off the side of a bridge. And then at episode 11 they were like: “Look, we need you for episode 12. Can we bring you back? Because we like you a lot.”
AVC: And now you’re a regular, along with Emily Rios.
ML: We both made the cut. We can take our kids to the dentist! I was about to sell a kid on eBay. So I was pretty happy because they get to stick around a little while longer.
AVC: How old are your kids?
ML: I have a 12-year-old, a 9-year-old, and a 6-year-old. And it’s funny because they’re all in the house—I have 10 people sleeping in my house right now. I’m outside in my car—huddled in my car—and I’ve been up since 5 a.m. doing these calls from my car. [Laughs.] If I fall asleep it’s from carbon monoxide poisoning. The windows are up. But the sun is now up. So that’s good.
AVC: What is it like being in a TV production, as opposed to film?
ML: It’s really fantastic, to be honest. When you’re an actor, when you’re a character actor—which I am—you have three scenes or four scenes to make an impact. For a big role, five, six, seven scenes.
As a younger actor, I tried to pack everything I had into that many scenes—full of energy and always trying to do something extraordinary in every scene. And I feel like when you have a TV show and you know you’re going to be around, you understand your place in that structure. That allows you to relax, or allows you to do more textured stuff.
Basic cable—and certainly our show—likes the weird, the specific. Our show is very detail-oriented. I ended last season in a wheelchair. So I said, he should be limping at the beginning of the season and as the show goes on. Little things like that. You have a lot of time. As an actor, it allows you to make interesting choices and create a character that’s more textured. And I think we have some of the best writers on TV. I love our writers, I love what they give us. And you have a job for six months. It gives you a sense of security which, as an actor, is a rare feeling. There’s a happiness to that, there’s a joy to having work. I love it. I love being on TV and I love being on the show.
AVC: Is SLC Punk! the bad movie you were talking about with Annabeth Gish?
ML: No, no, no, man. [Laughs.] Home Run Showdown was the movie I was talking about.
Any movie you do, it’s like having an ugly, fat child; you love it no matter what it is. Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker? His mother and father still love that kid. As delinquent as your child is, you still love them implicitly. And being an actor, when you sign onto a project—whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent— you kind of fall in love with it. You fall in love with the experience, you fall in love with the memories. I’ve been around for a long time and, in my life in this industry, there are only three people I will ever say bad things about. When you go from movie to movie, it’s like going from family to family. You work with people for really intense hours on really long days and a bond happens. So even when a movie is terrible, you love it.
But Home Run Showdown is one of the more terrible movies. [Laughs.] It’s one of the ugliest, fattest children that I have, but it’s a movie where I got a phone call on a Thursday to go work on a Tuesday.
It’s a script that everyone knew was terrible. It was produced by a porn mogul and we shot in Detroit, which offers its own intricacies of delightfulness. It was a movie about a guy that was down on his luck and he got convinced to take over a baseball team. So it’s Dean Cain and I and a group of kids, an ugly, little, fat beast of a film that is stuck in the doldrums of Netflix somewhere deep, deep, deep, deep, deep. It’s a horrible kind of film.
AVC: Dean Cain?! Did you play Dean Cain’s sidekick?
ML: No. The more lines I have, in general, the worse a movie is. It’s very rare that I get say great things in fantastic movies. So if you see me as like, number one on a call sheet? In general, that movie is pretty bad. [Laughs.] Now, look, I will say that I am usually the best thing in that horrible movie. I signed up with an agency and an agent came up to me and said, “Dude, you are the best actor in every terrible movie ever made.” And his thought was to get me to better movies and more lines in better movies, but we’re still waiting for that to happen.
No, the one exception in this whole rule is SLC Punk! It’s one of my favorite films, my favorite film I’ve ever done. I was also in a movie called Spooner, which was directed by a guy named Drake Doremus. Drake went on to do Like Crazy, and he’s a fantastic director, and that movie is lovely, tiny, little gem of a film. But in general, when I was selling out and making money, those movies are usually pretty bad.
AVC: How do you feel about the sequel?
ML: Look, nothing would have made me happier than to be a part of the sequel of that film. I would love to have been a part of that film, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. This is one of those politically correct things—but I wish them the best and want that movie to be great. It is my favorite movie to show in my life. I wish them all the best, but… I wish them all the best. That was pretty politically correct, right? I thought that was really badass. [Laughs.]
AVC: In the film you directed, Fat Kid Rules The World, there was a character that you wrote for yourself that was Stevo, but it was cut for the final, right?
ML: Yeah. I wrote it, I shot it, then I immediately tried to do the acting and it was terrible. The author of the book, which the film Fat Kid was an adaptation of, was Kelly Going—so his name was Stevo Going. I thought it was a fun little shout-out that he wore the same thing the character was wearing at the end of SLC Punk! It all would have worked, except for the fact that it wasn’t funny.
AVC: Is that deleted scene somewhere for fans of Stevo to find?
ML: Yeah, it’s on the DVD. So go on Amazon and check it out. I will say that in my life, SLC Punk! is my favorite movie as an actor, but my favorite thing I’ve ever done is direct that movie Fat Kid Rules The World. I’m pretty honest with the quality of movies I’ve done. The Bridge is fantastic and Fat Kid Rules The World is the movie that won the Audience Award at South By Southwest. I think the movie is really good and really rewarding and if I could push anything, I’d push that movie because it’s my, you know, baby.
AVC: Maybe, like, one of your less ugly babies?
ML: Yeah, it’s that shiny baby that gives you straight As.
AVC: You’ve played the character that represents a subculture in several films—subcultures that have become the dominant lens for looking back on the ’90s.
ML: Yeah, now that you say it. I don’t know. I feel like there are iconic films that, in the moment, were iconic. Like Scream. There was a moment where you were like, “This is a big deal,” and you knew it in that moment. There’s others that have kind of risen from ashes. Certainly Hackers is one of those movies, and SLC Punk! was a movie that I know that kids passed around on VHS from generation to generation. Like the scene in the movie where Heroin Bob’s character says, “Check this out. It’s new,” and he puts on Generation X, which was Billy Idol’s first band. They’re finding punk rock and I kind of feel like that’s what happened with that movie. Kids were like passing this VHS tape like, “You should check this out.”
Cereal [Killer, from Hackers] is one of those characters that kind of typifies me as an actor, throughout my career. That was a movie where that character had nothing to do and was barely in anything and was kind of forgettable. I feel like that role, more than any other role in my life, came out of nowhere to be something. And that was kind of how I made my way through acting: being bigger than I should have been, in every movie from ’94 to 2000.
And I think, to be honest with you, being that character, maybe, is why I made the cut from drifting off into oblivion and never working again to being a 44-year-old man and still being around—because I was able to be in those films that lasted through the window of time of the release. There’s those movies that get released and nobody ever talks about. I happen to be in a lot of movies that were released and people still hold on to for whatever reason. You know what I mean?
ML: I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I’m still around.
AVC: Your characters were always kind of on the fringe, but they’re also the most memorable. Films in the ’90s, like She’s All That, are often full of these stereotypical all-American types. But on YouTube, your dance scene from that film is one of the most shared clips.
ML: I feel like I’m lucky. Because—the director is kind of driving a thousand ships in the night to get this work, trying to get the shot, trying to get the cast, trying to get the marking, trying to get the lighting. You have all of these things going on, and the acting part is one of them. And the reality is that a director is never worried about numbers two, three, four, five, six on the call sheet—he’s just worried about people getting his story right.
So when you come in bringing a lot to the table, the director is excited. That’s where I make my money, because I kind of created these weird, obscure characters. They’re specific. You’re improving on the baseline. Of all those movies, of all the movies we’ve talked about, it’s those cookie-cutter characters—if you go in and bring in energy and create something out of that, you pop. As a kid, as a young actor, I really wanted to pop. I wanted to create something different. I wanted to be Sean Penn, but I didn’t have all the words to be Sean Penn. But I was trying to do something different in every role. Every kid’s dream is to be a great actor, and that was my attempt to be a great actor, for better or for worse. I typically fail miserably most times, but I was trying to do something extraordinary instead of just being the silly best friends for the hundredth time.
AVC: Is the role of being the outsider something you identify with from your own high school experience?
ML: Well, yeah. I’ve been an actor since I was 12 years old. It’s funny—in the light of Robin Williams’ death, I’ve thought a lot about this recently. The reason people become funny because they’d rather become funny than get their ass kicked. A lot of times, as a clown, you find acting for a reason. It’s a way to exercise yourself. If you’re funny, you test yourself. When Robin Williams died, it was so emotional for me and I didn’t know why. I sat there and cried for hours. And I liked Robin Williams—he was a great actor—but it’s not like when Philip Seymour Hoffman died I did that. Robin Williams died and I sobbed because I see the clown in myself like I did in Robin Williams.
You become funny for a reason. I became an actor because that’s who I was, nothing else—it was the only thing I was good at. You become a clown and you make people laugh because a) it protects you from everything, and b) it’s this validating force in your life. And when you’re 12 and 13 years old, you need validation and you’re lost and you’re kind of floating and you suffer from a severe learning disability and you’re overweight and you have glasses… you become funny for a reason.
So I became an actor and started doing these best friend roles. As an actor, when you’re a high school actor—a kid who has found acting and it’s saved your life—you are not of the norm. You are not the football player, you are not that kind of cliché. You live and die on Monty Python in 10th grade. You’re finding stuff on the outside bounds of what normal kids get in to. I identify with that world completely. I identify with the crazy outcast—that’s who I was. That’s how I found acting and at the end of the day. That’s how I found success.
That kid in high school finds that thing that is outside the norm and something to identify themselves with and find acceptance. But I found myself in junior high and high school in acting classes and I just never stopped. To me, Robin Williams didn’t do what he did to be famous; he did what he did because he couldn’t do anything else. He was rewarded for it and the side effect was he was famous, but people do what they do because that’s how they got through high school and they continued to do it. And that’s what happened to me.
AVC: You’ve played a lot of characters in high school, many of whom are social outsiders. The thing about Brock from She’s All That is that he’s ostensibly the “cool guy.”
ML: He’s a buffoon that’s graduated and comes back to date the high school girl.
AVC: And Taylor is excited about him because he was on The Real World but he’s actually not very cool.
ML: Uh, Brock is cool. I totally disagree with you, I think he’s the coolest character in the movie.
AVC: [Laughs.] I’m sorry. My sincere apologies.
ML: Yeah, you can’t really diss Brock. One of the things as an actor is that you’re always your characters’ advocate. So if someone’s like, “Yo, homes. In The Bridge, you play a bad guy,” I’m like, “He’s not a bad guy. He’s just an alcoholic that’s struggling to be something better than he is, but he’s not a bad guy.” Just like in Scream, there’s a reason [Stu] does those things and I always feel like I’m an advocate. And I was just kidding about Brock. But you can’t throw him under the bus.
I was blessed with a—I don’t know—very fun face that didn’t wrinkle early that’s now wrinkling with a vengeance. I’ll never forget my first date with my wife, and I had just wrapped shooting on She’s All That and it was funny because I was like, “Oh, I’m playing this Real World guy,” and she was not that impressed. [Laughs.] She was not that impressed and she’s still not that impressed. And that’s why we’re married, still, after 18 years.
AVC: How did the dance scene happen?
ML: It was actually choreographed by Adam Shankman, who has gone on to direct some huge films. That’s one of those things that I feel like was a line in the script—“and Brock is dancing over to the side.” We—and by “we” I mean Adam and I and his co-choreographer who was named Mamo who is now also directing, he’s directing a bunch of Step Up movies—we kind of went off and created this whole dance routine that was really elaborate and super fun. It was one of those things where we gave them a bunch of moves to that song, and I think that we thought they’d use one or two. And they used the whole song. Because it was funny! And it was kind of a fun set piece in this little ’90s movie that ended up being this huge hit out of nowhere. It was Paul Walker’s first movie—God bless his heart—and this weird cast with Usher and Lil’ Kim. It’s this weird kind of movie that we ended up making work.
AVC: It’s an amazing little artifact.
ML: You just referred to one of my movies as an “artifact.” Like it was something you found in the Temple Of Doom, like it was something an archaeologist has to dig up as a relic. I have never felt older than I feel at this exact moment. [Laughs.] No, you’re right. It is a relic.
AVC: It’s not a relic! It’s a sort of a… curiosity.
ML: My life is your sideshow. It’s not getting any better.
AVC: Fellow A.V. Club contributor Pilot Viruet requested I ask: How does it feel knowing you will do never do anything greater than Thir13en Ghosts? And did you do that, and Scream, because you’re interested in horror?
ML: [Laughs.] That’s funny—somebody just tweeted at me the list of movies you thought were good when you saw them but were actually horrible. And one of them, one of them is right. The best movie ever made and the worst movie ever made.
The funny thing is, I don’t like horror movies. It started with Scream, and for a long time after that, I got a bunch of offers to do horror movies. But the reality of it is they’re really hard to do, and even harder to do well. For better or worse, I take my acting seriously. I may not have been in the best movies ever made, but I take it deathly serious, and I love being an actor.
A lot of horror movies are horrible, horrible films with bad storytelling—and not that I’m above that, but it’s hard to make good movies, and I think it’s even harder to make good scary movies. People screw them up all the time. And the older I get, the more I can’t stand violence and have a hard time with seeing people die in horrific ways. It gets harder and harder to watch and deal with that stuff.
So yeah, the crazy thing is I don’t like them very much. You know, except for Thir13en Ghosts, I hadn’t really been a part of them—and it’s not for a lack of having opportunities—I would just rather not do horror.
AVC: I can see that Scream might make more sense for someone who isn’t necessarily into horror because it a funny commentary on horror films.
ML: I get people on my Twitter account, 10 comments a day, about Scream and—I said it once—“Talking about Scream is like talking about the first girl you ever kissed.” It’s this big point in my life, being a part of that moment and that cast. The cast and I shared this incredible bond and I love Wes Craven. He changed my life—he’s a fantastic human being and a fantastic director—and the cast and I are still good friends. And the idea that people are still obsessed with it, it’s so bizarre to me. I can understand why people are obsessed with Hackers—it’s kitschy kind of fun attached to an era and the beginning of something on the Internet. But the Scream thing—the obsession with Scream—I just don’t get it. It’s something that kids are still obsessed with, 20 years later.
The Princess Bride is one of those movies that if it comes on, you can’t turn it off. Scream is that way for a lot of people—that it comes on and a lot of people can’t stop watching it and are getting back into it.
AVC: It’s ironic, given your other roles—which are sort of chilled-out pacifists—that one of your most famous roles is a murderer.
ML: It’s funny because that character in Scream—Wes has talked about this a lot—was sort of “best friend role” that became more by the end. The last 10 minutes of Scream, a lot of that was improv and it came out in the moment.
I feel like that’s another experience where looking back on it—yes, I do too much and yes, it’s too big at times, but that’s one of those characters that does stuff in that movie that I love that we came up with on that day and that was supported by Wes and kept in the film.
In terms of what my characters do as roles—I’ve killed someone, I play an alcoholic right now on television, I was a philanderer. I don’t judge those things. All those people do those things for a reason, and your job as an actor is to justify every single aspect of their messed up-ness. Every character lives in ever actor and if you’re doing your job right, you’re just accessing that part of your fantasy life. I can kill someone just as quickly as I can have sex with someone. You can switch that instinct, no matter what—you can pretend anything.
The great thing about acting is the longer you do it, the more you realize that all those realities are inside you. No matter how crazy they are, you can pretend that they are a part of you. The great thing about this job is you get to play with every aspect of your id and who you are.
AVC: You’ve said in other interviews that the Scooby Doo franchise was a career killer. But almost every actor in Hollywood has to do a blockbuster in order to make money. Do you think your fans who knew you from the indie scene expected more from you?
ML: Of all the movies I’ve ever done, that movie probably put me behind the eight ball more than any other film. It was a huge franchise, a big hit, but a little like The Flintstones—nobody gives it any kind of credit or respect. Which is fine, but it definitely took my indie credit from being in SLC Punk! and a lot of those independent films and threw it out the window, because you “sold your soul” to be in this huge blockbuster. But for better or for worse, that movie has fed my family for 10 years.
I had a transition from being a kid that’s playing high school roles for 10 years—I had to transition from that to being a man, and it’s not always an easy transition. You look at people trying to make that transition and it just doesn’t happen—they go away and end up selling houses somewhere. They left. So that transition, while big for me, that transition happened after Scooby Doo. I’m off on-site shooting and all of sudden and I have a little gray hair and wrinkles and I wasn’t that high school kid. That’s probably the truth of the idea that Scooby Doo did me in. If it wasn’t for Scooby Doo, I wouldn’t still be in California acting, I’d be somewhere else doing something else. Scooby Doo the movie saved my bacon, to be honest—and it still does. That show is still around and it’s the constant job I have and I love doing the voice.
AVC: A lot of characters you play have to come to some sort of reckoning to make that same transition you described—or they die, which is what happens to Stu in Scream. The end of SLC Punk!—when Stevo decides he’s going to go to college and do things from the inside out—is sort of a crossing-the-threshold moment. It’s interesting that you’ve felt that in your life as well.
ML: Yeah. And part of that, too, is that crossing that threshold is really humbling. That threshold had a lot to do with me going, “I want to be able to be proud of the things I’m doing.” When I turned 40, there was a moment where I said that I have to change the way I’m doing this or I’m not going to be able to do it anymore. I had to let go of ego, walk away from ego and realize that I wasn’t as slick as I kind of sometimes felt like. I probably sound really pretentious, but I had this moment where I was like, I have to go back and do the work and stop expecting things to happen because they’ve happened like that before. It was humbling. And that moment of reckoning was unbelievably healthy for me as a man and a human being and a father and a husband, and it was great, to be honest.
The great thing about The Descendants was it came to me and I got it on my 40th birthday. It was kind of symbolic change in my life. I fired a bunch of people and kind of went back to my roots. I fired my agent—I had this big, fancy agent and a big fancy manager and a big fancy lawyer—and I went back to my first agent and said, “I want to go back to just being an actor.” And the first gig I got after that was The Descendents.
It was a really powerful moment in my career, being in the company of [George] Clooney and being in the company of Fox Searchlight, and Alexander Payne—you’re with the elite people in Hollywood. It was super validating—it was one of those moments where you get nervous and cold and scared and wonder if you’ll ever work again—you kind of close your eyes and think back to being on that rock and knowing you could ride with those people. There’s something validating about that, and it keeps you going.
AVC: That’s a good note to end on.
ML: Cool. And I’m getting out of the car right now because I can’t breathe anymore and I don’t want to die from carbon monoxide poisoning. I need to get up and walk around.