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Ryan Phillippe - The thirty-something teen star clicks at last

As Reese Witherspoon's husband, Ryan Phillippe hated being a target for paparazzi. So it took a change of heart to play a snapper in his latest role. By Kaleem Aftab

My daughter has turned 11, it's crazy," says Ryan Phillippe in a typically fatherly comment. Yet this seemingly everyday statement also serves as a reminder that, despite his boyish looks, the actor is now 36 and his career has yet to progress, from the adolescent roles through which he first gained fame, to the type of meaty roles that gain one credit as an actor.

He entered US consciousness by playing teenager Billy Douglas in the ABC daytime drama One Life to Live. There was a big fuss made about it in 1992 because Douglas was the first gay teenager on a daytime soap, and it was the first lesson for Phillippe that private lives are topical fare in the entertainment business.

The actor's own private life became the subject of much gossip when he was dating his Cruel Intentions co-star Reese Witherspoon. It seemed a match made in heaven and the two stars got married shortly before the birth of the first of their two children, a girl and a boy, in 1999.

Yet, while his wife began winning parts that get awards notices, Phillippe seemed to get stuck playing boy-men. It didn't seem to make much difference to his stagnating career that the actor was working with considerable directors, including appearing as the valet Henry Denton in Robert Altman's Gosford Park, and playing real-life Navy corpsman John Bradley in Clint Eastwood's Second World War movie Flags of Our Fathers, while he also had a turn in Paul Haggis's Best Picture-winning ensemble Crash, in which he played an LAPD officer who watches wide-eyed as his partner abuses his office.

Unfairly, the general opinion on the Delaware-born son of a chemist and day-care worker was that, career-wise, he was living in the shadow of his wife. Reports of marital discord became rife, so much so that it seemed no surprise when the couple announced that they were to be divorced in 2006.

He was soon in a relationship with another blonde star, Australian Abbie Cornish, which ended in early 2010, yet if anything his career seemed to regress after breaking up with Witherspoon. He appeared in a series of films that failed to take off, including playing a returning Iraq soldier in Stop-Loss, an FBI agent in Breach and in the misguided sci-fi thriller Franklyn opposite Eva Green.

As if having paparazzi intruding on your private life was not bad enough, the problem of living life at the end of a lens almost stopped Phillippe taking the lead role in The Bang Bang Club. He plays photographer Greg Marinovich, most famous for the revealing photos he captured in the 1990s, detailing South Africa's transition to democracy after apartheid.

Phillippe explains: "Well it wasn't so much that I had reservations of taking the part, because I loved the script and I loved the story, but I just had to get over my own personal resistance of what photographers meant to me.

"Every actor and celebrity is different, but personally for me, over the years, because of negative things which have come out from those situations, I tend to flinch or look over my shoulder for cameras," he explains. "So, I think, initially the idea of playing a photographer who you know, some people might say that was exploiting people in peril, and not to compare that to being famous and pursued by the paparazzi in any way, but that feeling of being an unwanted presence when something should be private, that's something I really struggled with."

It helped that Marinovich is not a paparazzo. He co-authored the book The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War with fellow club-member Joao Silva. They were photographers who were active within the townships of South Africa, particular from 1990 to 1994, from when Nelson Mandela was released from jail until the first free democratic elections.

Marinovich was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1991 for his pictures of African National Congress supporters murdering a man they believed to be an Inkatha spy. The man played by Phillippe in the film was also chief photographer for the Associated Press in Israel and Palestine during the 1990s.

The extent of the actor's distrust of photographers is revealed as he says: "It took some time for me to realise that, if these photos were not taken during times of peril in history then a level of ignorance would grow. Particularly in South Africa, the white press tended to ignore the problems of those with different skin-colours."

He continues: "There was all this going on in South Africa that the rest of the world tended to ignore until these guys went over there and started taking these photos which were wired all over the world. In those days, without the immediacy of the new media, with no internet it was the only way to get the message out.

"The Vietnam image [of Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked after a napalm attack] galvanised people in terms of engendering feelings and passions which might not have been stirred up was it not for that photograph. So I began to realise how much of an important role these combat photographers played in war and struggle. I think then I found a real appreciation for the potential impact of the job."

Once Phillippe got over the obstacle of playing a snapper, he began seeing the lure of the job and why so many are fascinated by taking pictures.

"I had the luxury of spending time with Greg Marinovich, who I play in the movie, and Joao Silva, and they are – something that pricked my interest in the film originally – thrill seekers. They are adrenaline junkies, who put themselves in positions that no other rational person would put themselves in. That aspect was really interesting to me; you know, their blind commitment to their job."

Not that Phillippe could ever see himself becoming a war photographer. One of the rules that the Bang-Bang Club had is that they should just take pictures and not try to get involved in the disputes that they documented. Steven Silver's film has a scene in which Marinovich struggles with the implication of trying to be an onlooker.

Maintaining distance is something that the actor says he cannot imagine doing if he ever sees anyone in danger. "From a personal aspect that was something I did struggle with because I cannot imagine, as a father and as a sensitive person, not getting involved or taking some sort of action. That was sort of a difficult thing for me to understand psychologically. That was definitely the hardest part for me, to understand how you could just let something happen. I can't imagine just being able to stand back but I guess it's just part of the job."

A slight career reorientation that is taking place is that Phillippe is now trying his hand at being a producer. "I have a surfing documentary, I'm doing that and also I've sold a show to Showtime which we're about to do the pilot for. It's about a limo driver in New York, it's kind of a doc-comedy called Heavy and Rolling."

Phillippe insists that his interest in the TV series is as a producer only and doesn't imagine appearing in front of the camera in the show. It's likely that we shall be seeing the surfing documentary, called Isolated, first.

"The concept of Isolated is that this group of pro-surfers go to Papa New Guinea, which is essentially still presided over by a cannibalistic tribe of people, and they go and surf this break that has never been surfed before," says the Bang Bang Club star. "They end up spending time with the locals and they leave their boards there for the kids. So we go back five years later and these kids are on waves and surfing better than like anybody in the Western world. It's sweet because they have this impact on these people who are so remote, but it's not for any personal gain or anything. It is a sharing of cultures thing."

The next time we shall see the actor on our screens is in The Lincoln Lawyer, an adaptation of Michael Connelly's book about a successful criminal-defence lawyer working in Los Angeles County out of a Lincoln car driven by a former client working off his legal fees. Matthew McConaughey plays the lawyer, and the movie revolves around a case in which a wealthy Los Angeles estate agent, Louis Roulet, played by Phillippe, is accused of assault and attempted murder, but seems to have been set up by his victim.

'The Bang Bang Club' is released later this year. 'The Lincoln Lawyer' is out on 18 March