Matthew Lillard has graduated from Shaggy to burned-out reporter

Staff WriterJuly 18, 2013 

Matthew Lillard knows luck has played a part in his acting career.

“My story is literally one in a million. My story is as lucky as it gets. I’m absurdly blessed in crazy ways,” Lillard said.

Perhaps the Hollywood veteran is selling his talent a bit short.

Lillard’s career took off straight out of acting school when he was cast as Kathleen Turner’s son in 1994’s “Serial Mom.” Other career highlights soon followed: 1996’s “Scream” and 1999’s “She’s All That.”

But it was bringing a cartoon character to life that propelled Lillard into the stratosphere. After being cast as Shaggy in the 2002 adaptation of the beloved 1960s Saturday morning cartoon “Scooby-Doo,” Lillard hasn’t had to look back.

Now Lillard has landed a recurring role in television. In the new FX Network’s crime drama “The Bridge,” he plays Daniel Frye, a burned-out investigative reporter at the El Paso Times. The show premiered its 13-episode run July 10 with solid ratings and mixed reviews.

Lillard, 43, grew up in Michigan and California but he has deep ties to Washington state. His parents live in Gig Harbor, and his sister Amy is executive director of Washington Filmworks, a Seattle-based non-profit that supports film production in the state.

Recently Lillard has had small but high profile film roles. He played a philandering real estate agent in 2011’s “The Descendants” opposite George Clooney and a smarmy front-office executive in the 2012 Clint Eastwood baseball film “Trouble with the Curve.”

Lillard lives in Pasadena, Calif., with his wife and their three children, just beyond the influence of Los Angeles. “We are definitely not in the rigmarole and life as you have it in Hollywood,” he said.

A TYPICAL BEGINNING

Lillard discovered acting at age 13. It was a natural fit for him.

“I was that oddball kid that would rather be in drama class than anywhere else in the world,” he said.

Like countless other aspiring actors, he made the move to New York City after high school, and ended up balancing waiting tables with acting classes. His first break — and it was a big one — came when auteur director John Waters plucked him from obscurity and cast him in the dark comedy “Serial Mom.”

“Literally, I was in school one day and the next day I was off making a movie,” Lillard recalls.

At the time he was a waiter on the upper east side of Manhattan. “I walked in and pulled the proverbial ‘I quit.’ The guy looked at me and said ‘You can’t quit. You have a shift on Saturday.’ That was the last time I waited tables.”

After “Serial Mom” he played the killer role himself in the self-aware and genre-redefining slasher film “Scream.” His profile rose again in the 1999 teen romantic comedy “She’s All That” with Freddie Prinze Jr. Lillard played a has-been reality TV star in the movie that went on to be one of the most successful of its genre in the 1990s.

A GAME CHANGER

And then came Shaggy.

In 2002 Lillard teamed up again with Prinze Jr. to bring “Scooby-Doo” to the big screen in live action — with one exception: Scooby Doo was still in cartoon form. The film grossed $275 million worldwide. It was a turning point in Lillard’s career.

“That job changed my life. Without that job I’d be doing porn by now. It got me through a rough patch in my career,” he said.

While some actors would take their money from a role opposite an animated dog and run, Lillard still embraces Shaggy.

“That’s one of the proudest performances of my life. (Critics) can slag the movie off all they want. But to take a two-dimensional character that everyone knows (Shaggy) and make it real.” And, Lillard points out, he was acting opposite the star of the movie, Scooby Doo, who never set foot on the set.

Part of Lillard’s pride in his work as Shaggy is rooted in the fact that the movie was a comedy. Comedic acting requires different skills, and few dramatic actors have the humor muscle, as he calls it.

“If you make people laugh, it doesn’t nearly get the respect you get when you make people feel,” he said. “The sad thing is, it’s harder to make people laugh.”

Lillard still voices Shaggy for current incarnations of the cartoon. “It’s the job that keeps on giving. That’s my waiting tables job now.”

TRYING TV

Lillard won’t be returning to a real waiter job anytime soon. He’s too busy with “The Bridge.” The FX series stars Diane Kruger (“National Treasure,” “Inglourious Basterds”) and Demian Bichir (“Weeds,” “A Better Life”) as American and Mexican detectives, respectively, who investigate the death of a woman found on the bridge between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico.

Complicating matters is Lillard’s character, who receives the attention of the killer in more ways than one. In the show’s premiere, Lillard’s journalist character finds himself trapped in his car while a bomb counts down. The ticking bomb plot line usually gives way to clichés, but the scene in “The Bridge” has novel touches, not the least of which is that Kruger’s character keeps calling the journalist to ask him questions unrelated to the immediate danger. The scene teeters between comedy and heart-pounding tension.

“I’ve never been so proud of a scene,” Lillard said. That comes despite having to film the scene twice. In the initial pilot, the bomb scene was filmed in an outdoor location. Later, the producers decided they wanted it to be inside a parking garage to better create an isolated mood. The outdoor shoot is probably the best Matthew Lillard acting you’ll never see, he says. “The first version was way more powerful. It’s a big reason why I’m on that show, because of that scene,” he said.

Originally, Lillard’s role on the “The Bridge” was set for six episodes. Now, he’s on for the entire season. When first approached for the guest role, he wasn’t interested. At the same time, he knew the wide reach of TV and the power it has to change images. While Lillard doesn’t regret any of his earlier roles, he knew that he had to bring his public image up to date. So, he reconsidered.

“I knew if I got on TV, people would say, ‘Oh, he’s no longer that Shaggy dude.’ Everybody thinks they know me. Or they remember me from ‘She’s All That.’ ”

Lillard also was keenly aware that some of the best quality work is happening on cable TV.

“TV is where it’s at. They are doing more of it and making good stuff. The writing is great, the directors are great, the crews are great.”

He has no regrets now.

“The fun thing about being on ‘The Bridge’ is that I have the role of my life. I get to be a jerk. I get to beg for my life.”

‘BLUE-COLLAR ACTOR’

“The Bridge” also offers something that most jobs in acting don’t: quality work and a decent salary. Many times Lillard has to chose one over the other.

“About two years ago, I came up with this idea of a blue-collar actor. I think that’s what I am. I work a lot. I work hard at what I do. And when I get a chance to do it, I do the best that I can. Blue-collar actors are in a lot of really bad movies and TV shows. You’re trying to make ends meet. You’re a working actor.”

Every now and then Lillard sacrifices pay for a chance to work on a memorable project. This year he wrapped filming on a drama with Patrick Stewart (“X-Men,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) and Carla Gugino (“Night at the Museum,” “Sin City”). Adapted from the Tony-nominated play by Stephen Belber, “Match” will hit theaters in 2014.

“I love it, and I’m proud of it, and I get to act my ass off,” Lillard said of “Match.” But he wasn’t in it for the money.

“I got paid $900 a week. Out of that you pay your agent, your manager, your lawyer, your taxes,” Lillard said. In addition he was hired as a local for the New York City production. He paid for his own airfare, lodging and meals.

A NEW DIRECTION

That drive for quality is what led him to take a turn behind the camera. He made his directorial debut with the 2012 film “Fat Kid Rules the World” starring Billy Campbell and Jacob Wysocki. It might sound like a Disney title, but the movie explores themes of drug abuse and body image while set in a realistic but comedic Seattle of 2012.

“I’m so proud of it, it’s ridiculous,” Lillard said.

With his sister as a resource Lillard made the film in Seattle.

“The crews are amazing. Everyone up there is a movie maker,” he said.

He calls the directing experience “way more satisfying than being an actor. You are the story teller. You are inspiring people. You are putting out fires.”

The film won the Audience Award at South by Southwest but didn’t get much play in theaters and was a financial loser. Lillard says the film suffers from a marketing challenge.

“If they look at the title and the artwork, it looks trite. And you think this is going to be a fart movie with fat jokes,” Lillard said.

“It’s a lot better than it sounds like it has any right to be,” the late film critic Roger Ebert wrote in a November review. “It’s not a smarmy feel-good movie, and it’s not another dumb teenage comedy. It’s smart and observant, and when its laughs come, they’re of the dark humor variety.”

For a while it looked as if Lillard might switch entirely to directing, he says. But with “The Bridge” on a track to success, it might be awhile before Lillard gives up acting. And he’s OK with that.

“At 13 I found what I loved to do and I’ve done it ever since.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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