Ryan Phillippe had an important phone call to make before anyone set eyes on his new TV show. “I had to keep a lot about it secret, but I did have to tell everything to my mum,” he explains, with an aww-shucks grin. “I needed to prepare her. She doesn’t like to see anything bad happen to me.”
Phillippe’s character in the new Disney+ series Big Sky faces a number of violent calamities, none of which I’ll reveal here. But it’s nothing new for the actor, whose regular proximity to carnage leaves you wondering how much of his work his mother’s even seen. In I Know What You Did Last Summer, he was slashed to death by a crazed fisherman. In Cruel Intentions, a taxi splattered him across a Manhattan sidewalk. In Gosford Park, his English countryside holiday played host to a bloody murder. Considering he’s one of Hollywood’s most eternally photogenic stars, Phillippe really can’t catch a break.
The 46-year-old actor is at home in Los Angeles, fielding questions from a roundtable of international journalists, with a face that looks like it was cryogenically frozen in 1999. That was arguably his A-list peak, when Phillippe was the pouty jock in a troupe of actors rocketed to fame in the era’s teen movies. Comprising the likes of Neve Campbell, Rachael Leigh Cook, Matthew Lillard and Freddie Prinze Jr, they embodied a New Millennium Brat Pack – beautiful twentysomethings all playing 17, who seemed to date one another and appear in each other’s films. Today, many of them have found a home on television.
“The types of movies I made early in my career are virtually gone,” explains Phillippe. “I tended to exist in that $25m to $45m budget range. The way the film industry has [shifted], there’s just not as many movies being made outside of the tent-poles or the big action movies and Marvel and all of that.” Television, he says, gives you “more time to explore”. “It seems to be where the most interesting and layered stories are these days. It was certainly not that way when I began my career.”
Unusually, one of the major figures drawing movie stars to television is someone who’s been there all along: David E Kelley. The prolific showrunner, who became a household name via Ally McBeal, The Practice and Boston Legal in the late Nineties, has shifted away from frothy courtroom dramas in recent years. In their place has been a steady stream of elite limited series: The Undoing, the forthcoming Nine Perfect Strangers, and the juggernaut that was Big Little Lies – which happened to bolster the career renaissance of Phillippe’s ex-wife Reese Witherspoon.
Big Sky, which is designed to be a multi-season serial rather than a short-term event series, isn’t exactly Phillippe’s Big Little Lies. But it’s soapy and propulsive all the same, with Kelley proving a dab hand when it comes to jaw-dropping plot twists.
Phillippe plays a private detective operating in the lush Montana rockies, who becomes embroiled in a series of grisly abductions. Joining him in solving the mystery are a troubled cop (Katheryn Winnick) and his work partner (Kylie Bunbury). The former happens to be his ex-wife, the latter his current lover. It was the show’s unconventional tone, rather than its central love triangle, that most appealed to Phillippe.
“There are elements of Twin Peaks to it,” he explains, “where the characters are a little bit ‘off’, and you’re not really sure who you can trust or what’s going on behind their eyes. I also want to be part of things that I myself would like to watch. I love mysteries and I love thrillers. You want to be a part of something that gets people talking.”
It’s also just nice seeing Phillippe again. Like many of his late-Nineties peers, he never truly got the credit he deserved. As a master manipulator in Cruel Intentions, he was just as gloriously camp as his co-star Sarah Michelle Gellar, who drew the lion’s share of kudos as his ruthless step-sibling. He was also very good at playing dewy and sensitive souls who find themselves in uncharted territory, as in the overlooked disco drama 54, or the Oscar-winning Crash.
After that, Phillippe’s star seemed to dim. There were a couple of juicy supporting roles, such as his deadpan secret agent in the cult comedy MacGruber, but there was also a lot of guff – films with 50 Cent in them, or action thrillers that pitted him against tired icons of yesteryear like Bruce Willis or John Cusack. He’s at least aware of it. Catch Hell, Phillippe’s 2014 directorial debut, is a wildly entertaining satire in which he plays a faded actor named Reagan Pearce (ahem) who is kidnapped by Deliverance-style rednecks while shooting yet another go-nowhere indie. Barely anyone saw it, but it’s one of the weirdest, most self-deprecating Hollywood send-ups in years. He wants to step behind the camera more often.
“I’ve been in some discussions about doing [another movie],” he says. “I really loved that experience. I’ve been lucky to work with Robert Altman and Clint Eastwood and Ridley Scott, and those people have taught me so much that I feel like I’m capable and prepared to do it, too.”
Altman, Eastwood... Ryan Phillippe? It’s easy to poke fun. But beyond the cheekbones and *NSYNC hair, Phillippe has always been a deceptively brilliant film presence, and smart enough to seek out movies that have by and large stood the test of time. His mother should really give some of them a chance.
Big Sky begins on 23 February on the new Star platform, which is available via Disney+.
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