As one of the two serial killers in the original “Scream,” and as the live-action incarnation of iconic cartoon character Shaggy in two hit “Scooby Doo” movies, Pasadena resident Matthew Lillard has had two big tastes of Hollywood success. Yet, like the vast majority of working actors, Lillard has also felt the fickle side of fame and endured a couple of lulls in his career as well.
But with his role as Brian Speer — a seemingly smarmy real-estate agent who has an affair with the wife of a real-estate kingpin played by George Clooney in the current critically-acclaimed hit “The Descendants” — Lillard may find that the third time is truly the charm.
His performance in the relatively small but pivotal role is brilliantly nuanced, revealing a man who is truly sorry for his adultery and terrified that Clooney’s character will expose him to his wife, turning what could have been a one-dimensional character as a lout into a sympathetic and emotionally torn man.
Lillard spoke exclusively with PW amid the current wave of attention for the film, which just netted a slew of Golden Globe Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. The happily married father of three spoke thoughtfully of riding the Hollywood rollercoaster and how Pasadena offers him a charmed respite from Tinseltown turmoil.
“I went in to audition for the part of her lover, and five of the best looking guys in the world were there, and I thought, ‘I’ll never get this,’” laughs Lillard. “I auditioned once, and [co-writer/director Alexander Payne] said it was the best audition he’d ever seen. I still said, ‘No way I’d get the part,’ and I said ‘No way George Clooney’s wife cheats with a guy like me.’ They said, ‘Get out of the room, and four months later I got the call to do it.”
“The Descendants” centers around the emotional struggles that Clooney’s character faces after his wife enters a coma and he has to tell their friends and daughters that she wants to be taken off life support. When his oldest girl tells him his wife had been having an affair, he sets out to find her lover, both to quell his maddening curiosity about the man and to give him a chance to say goodbye to her.
The film renders the lover as a mystery figure for much of the film, however, with Clooney and Lillard only facing off in the final half hour of the film. But those scenes are so critical to the essence of the project that a lesser actor in the role of Speer could have sunk the film.
“The good news is, there’s a lot of hype built up around that part, as the whole movie is a ticking clock about when Clooney’s gonna confront that guy,” says Lillard. “The climax of the movie is that scene between them, and I knew there’d be a lot of pressure on that moment, because if you suck at that scene, you destroy the whole movie. But it goes back to the genius of Alexander Payne, in casting a guy like me, a really normal guy. Every time you think it’s going cliché or melodramatic, he makes a left turn and is simply human.”
Lillard grew up in Detroit and moved to Orange County when he was 10 before heading off to New York City at the start of his acting career. He caught the performing bug at age 13, when his salesman father asked him to take either a typing or an acting class –– he felt both skills were essential to success in the business world. Acting, his dad thought, would teach him to be comfortable in front of strangers.
“It was the first time in the world where I didn’t suck at something, and adults said ‘You did good.’” says Lillard. “I studied at New York’s Circle in the Square, and then in Pasadena at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. They taught me to try to stay busy and endure the downslides that come.”
In the meantime, as he basks in the attention that has included an audition for filmmaking titan Clint Eastwood, Lillard is grateful for the charms of the Crown City. He moved to Pasadena 10 years ago, picking his house just five minutes after he and his wife, a La Cañada Flintridge native, finished touring the premises.
“We were considering the Westside of Los Angeles or East LA, but I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” says Lillard. “It’s got everything every family in America could want: great schools, restaurants and incredible culture with the Pasadena Playhouse. You just can’t beat it.”
“The Descendants” is playing at the Arclight Pasadena, 336 E. Colorado Blvd. Call (626) 568-8888.
I won the title of "America's Funniest Reporter" in a national contest at the Laugh Factory club in Hollywood.
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