Interview : Ryan Phillippe


Among the cast of “Flags of our Fathers”

Ryan Phillippe is one of today’s most talented actors, as we’ve evidenced in such films as “Cruel Intentions”, “Gosford Park” and recently, “Crash”. His latest role is among the ensemble of Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of our Fathers”.

When you’re playing a real person, how much do you want to know about him?

I don’t know. To me, it’s an asset. A lot of the work is done for you if you really delve into who the person was because you’re not building or creating a character if you’re trying to play tribute or homage to someone who lived, and I love it. It makes my job that much more easy to know what the guy looked like and how he smiled and the type of person he was and the way he treated people. That gives me the total directive for what I need to accomplish.

Is there the sense of responsibility that this was a real character?

Yeah. I was in contact with James Bradley and I’d email him, I’d ask questions. The things I learned about Doc from the book, about just how thorough, what a great medical man he was on the battlefield, how specific and the way he packed his bags, how with his eyes closed he could reach into his bag and know exactly where everything was, and I wanted to get to that place. I worked really hard to make sure that all that stuff was really second nature and went as smooth as possible. You have one take with Clint Eastwood, and a ton of props to deal with, you do that reversal. I did that reversal on my own time in my hotel room at nights. I would work on that stuff over and over again. I got from the props guys a male dummy to practice tourniquets, and pressure bandages and slings and all this different stuff.

That looks good when you’re checking into a hotel.

Yeah, I know. It’s strange. I know it freaked the maid out, and I would also put them in different positions almost every time I left the room just to surprise her.

Does the experience of making this film live on with you?

Yeah. It was really the best work experience of my life, and there are so many things about it that will stay with me forever, as far as the physical making of the movie, the production of it. But, also, just the opportunity it gave me to pay tribute to the men of that generation and to my grandfathers who fought in this war – very rarely do you get to do something that has that much personal meaning to you, and that feels that important.

What were the soldiers like during the World War II era, as opposed to now?

In World War II, these guys had sometimes three weeks from being in high school and then on the battlefield. They weren’t as prepared, and I think that’s one of the reasons why Clint didn’t want us to have an extensive boot camp beforehand, because they weren’t prepared. A lot of these guys, when there’s a draft in place, that’s what you get. Now, we have professional soldiers that are trained killers and that are far more lethal than these guys were. That’s a completely different military now.

Do you think this film will resonate currently, while we’re in the midst of a war?

Well, I think it’s such a completely different time and place. World War II had to happen for the greater good of the Earth. I don’t think that’s the case right now with this war. The comparison to me is not very apt. When you think about the experience of a soldier, what doesn’t change is this idea of losing a guy who is a brother to you, and he’s dying next to you, and then the impact that that has. That’s something that I think is constant in any war, any battle. But they’re just so totally different. We really immersed ourselves in that era, and didn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about the current situation. There are certainly parallels, and because we’re all mindful of what we’re living through right now, I think there’s a natural connection. But this movie could have been made 10 years ago or 10 years from now, and it would have had the same intent and heart. I think it’s more about the ‘greatest generation’ and what they went through, and depression era kids who were then put on a battlefield, and then, in our character situation, went on to help raise money that won the war, essentially.

Are you thinking about the awards race at all?

You know, I like making movies. I like the response I get from real people that I meet that say, ‘Oh, this movie had this in fact, this stayed with me,’ or, ‘I loved that,’ and that’s really all the reward or award I need – to have that.

Were you in awe with Clint Eastwood?

Oh yeah, absolutely. He’s an icon. It takes a while to get over that. And then once you do, you see what a great guy he is and the way he treats people and his sense of humor, and it all starts to get a lot more comfortable, but yeah. I think there was something additionally, like what he represents culturally; like, my dad is a huge Clint Eastwood fan. And to get to work with him, it’s a big deal. And when you’ve done this as long as I have, you don’t really get fazed too often by the people you meet. I don’t at all. But he’s different.

But you can’t completely roll over.

No, but he doesn’t want you to either. When he casts someone or hires them to work on his film in any capacity, he trusts them to do the job, and he really allows you that freedom.

You joked about one take, but it’s really not a joke.

I love it. No, it’s not a joke. I mean, 80% of this movie, 80% of what you see in the film was only one take. There’s a great freedom there. You don’t beat yourself up, and you don’t judge your work as harshly at the end of the day because you don’t even remember what you did. It goes by so fast and it feels so real and nerve-wracking and alive that you just submit to it. And then it gets to a point where you get pissed off at yourself if you don’t get it on the first take. If they have to go again, it becomes this macho thing on his set where it’s like, you don’t want to let down the whole mythology of the one-take deal. Actors typically would love to go on and on and love to hear themselves talk and try all these different things. But you get to a point on his movie where if you have to go again, you feel like you failed. And it’s funny.

Your character does not have pages and pages of dialogue.

No. He’s a quiet, I love that. I love being able to tell more of the story with the way you look and feel, and having the audience share that with you, rather than spell it out. He was a quiet guy. He’s a very quiet, straightforward, folksy, simple, simple guy. And I think that he was also not a Marine. He’s not carrying a weapon. He’s a guy who is there to save lives and be a parent in some ways on the battlefield and when these guys are calling out, ‘Corpsman,’ you could very easily put ‘Mommy’ in the place. It’s just that primal connection that these guys have to men in Doc Bradley’s position. I do think that was part of his personality, but I think it’s also part of the position, like where he’s not really a Marine. They considered him one, but he’s not. He’s separate because he’s not the guy running around with grenades, and an automatic weapon. So, you are removed in that respect. He didn’t talk when he came home. He didn’t talk about it.

Is there a particular scene that was maybe a little bit harder to play because this is such an emotional film?

Well, an experience that I’ve never had in my life was when I was doing this scene that comes in towards the end of the film where I’ve been wounded and I have shrapnel in my leg and it’s raining in the guy calls out for ‘Corpsman,’ and I crawl to find the guy and help him while I’m wounded. I was doing that scene and James Bradley was standing there watching me do it, watching me do something his father had done that was so brave and so heroic. And I was face-down in the mud, and in between takes waiting for it to roll, I looked over at him and he was just crying. He just gave me the thumbs up, and it was just, I mean, as real an emotional connection you could have with somebody on a film set. Things like that are pretty beautiful to experience.

Do you get the feeling when you’re doing a very emotional scene like that, that this is really making the movie?

Oh yeah. For this one in particular, I felt like I was part of something so huge. I would get there and on the set would be these tanks and 500 guys in body bags on the beach. I mean, it was something. It was the dream I had when I was a little kid. It was the thing that if I could’ve picked the perfect job and the perfect situation, the perfect story to tell, it would be this.