If you ever get a chance to talk with Matthew Lillard, I highly recommend it. Every question he’s asked, he’s got a thoughtful, smart and always interesting response. Even when asked a ridiculously dumb question!
Lillard plays the arrogant Daniel Frye on FX’s The Bridge, a reporter with the El Paso Times who’s got a history of drug abuse. He and his partner Adriana (Emily Rios) are hot on the trail of a huge story that could make both of their careers.
Lillard, I think, is a really terrific actor who’s doing some wonderful work on the show. I talked to him on a recent conference call where he talked about the show and his role, how he got involved and tons more. Seriously, read the interview. He talks about acting and being an actor, his career and a highly emotional scene he had to re-shoot for the pilot of The Bridge.
The Bridge airs Wednesdays at 10pm on FX
Could you just talk about how you got involved in the project?
Matthew Lillard: Yes. Like most of my jobs, I auditioned for it. There actually is a fun story behind it. I got a phone call one day from Annabeth Gish, who I’d done a movie with years ago, and she said, “You should go in and audition for this character on the show called The Bridge.” I was like, “I don’t know what it is, what is it?” She said, “It’s Diane Kruger and Demian Bichir and it’s this adaptation of the Swedish show.”
I immediately called my agent and said, “What’s the deal with this gig? Why isn’t it in my world?” They said, “Well, they basically have no money, and it’s only six episodes.” The character dies after six episodes. I’m like, “Well, I’m not doing anything so some money is better than no money.” And agent’s idea of no money and my idea of no money are usually quite different. I said, “Why don’t you send me the script? If it’s not something I want to do—just let me see it anyway.”
They sent it to me, and I read it. It’s one of those scripts—the pilot was unbelievably well read. You kind of fly through it, and you get to the last scene in the pilot and you’re like, oh my, God, what an amazing scene. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that I’d rather do something than not do something.
I had never been on TV, and I said—this is one of those things that actors sometimes struggle with, because I was like, “All right. I’d love to do this even if it is no money. Why don’t you see if they’ll have me?” expecting some kind of offer. They were like, “Yes, they like you. They want you to come in and audition for it.”
The thing was like, there’s no money; the guy dies in Episode 6; he’s barely in the pilot. I have to audition for it? Then it just feels like you’re fighting for something that somebody doesn’t really want you in. The more I dug into it the more I realized they had tested a bunch of guys for it, and none of the guys had gotten the job. Now I’m just rambling.
The point was that, I went in and auditioned for it, and the audition went great. Then, Elwood called me into his office and said, “There’s no money, and he dies in Episode 6.” I was like, “Yes, but look at this part, and look at how amazing this scene is; I get to do this scene. I’d love to do it.” So I did it. On Episode 6 I lived and in Episode 10 I was supposed to die and they re-wrote it after I fell off the bridge, and I made it to Season 2, which is the longest story I’ll tell this entire conference. I’m sorry it was so long.
The Bridge is obviously a very heavy dramatic project; you always seem to provide some kind of comic relief in your roles. Do you seek out those roles, or do you try to inject a little bit of extra humor at times on the page that’s not already there?
Matthew Lillard: I definitely bring an energy that’s different than other people on the show. I don’t really have a lot of jokes. It’s not like Elwood and our incredible writing staff; it’s not like they give me a lot of jokes. I certainly get to say more funny things on the show than anyone else.
Then, I think what I bring is energy and, yes, I generally find opportunities to be funny in really high stakes; Scream is a great example of that. When you’re running for your life, and you’re at the end of your rope and the stakes are really high, to be able to make people laugh in that little sweet spot; I like doing that.
I think that it’s a combination. I think that the writers and Elwood have found a great way to use me in the show. I think that Emily and I do a lot of solving the case, but on top of it, we can add a little levity to a world that’s so ripe with drama. Yes, I think it’s a combination of both. I think that they lean into me for that, and I tend to find it on the day.
Since you mentioned Scream, we’re big horror fans. What are your thoughts on Scream becoming a TV series, and if that is a good format to tell those stories?
Matthew Lillard: Oh, I feel like it makes me very old. Any time that they’re remaking something that you’re in in a completely different format it generally means you’re ancient. As far as the format’s concerned or whether it works, which I don’t understand how Scream rolls into a TV series, but there are very smart writers in the world, and I’m sure they can figure it out. I’ll be interested to see the first episode, and see how they do.
Talk to me a bit about working with Emily Rios, you’re really good together onscreen.
Matthew Lillard: Oh, thanks, man. She’s great. I think that we’re a little bit of the wonder twins. I think—I [indiscernible] shape up, she and I are very simpatico in how we approach the work. On set, we have developed, over the last few years, great shorthand. Together, we work on scenes before we ever get to set; we’ll bring scripts to set. I think that together we have a rhythm in terms of how we work. I love her to pieces, and I think that she feels the same way about me. We’re great friends. Between having the same approach to the work, and caring deeply for her and loving the woman, it makes work a real joy.
On top of that, I think that we both are really proud to be on the show. You can’t always say that on every show you’re on or every piece of movie you do. I have been in God knows some horrible films, and when you’re doing those movies there’s a lot of that. You understand that you’re just trying to make your rent and feed your kids. This is a show that I think that we both appreciate every day we’re on set, and are having fun doing it. I think that that comes out in the work we’re doing, and I think it’s translating to the writers room and I think that they like writing for us. All in all, I can’t imagine a better situation to be in as an actor. That’s how goo-goo, ga-ga I am over her and what’s happening with us on the show.
Your character, Daniel, is an embittered chip-on-your-shoulder type journalist, which I’ve been accustomed to work with. Did you channel any particular journalists that have interviewed you in the past, or any Hunter S. Thompson aspects of the character that you’re using? How’d you put Daniel together?
Matthew Lillard: I just dip into my own angry bitterness that I possess, and I created it from a wealth of anger that lives within me. You know, not really. It’s not built on anyone specifically, so to speak. There’s an aspect of the drug use and alcoholism and being an addict that there’s somebody that I’ve drawn on in my life in terms of how they acted, and I’m very clear as to who that person is when I get into that kind of a state. In terms of the journalist, no, I trust the words of Elwood and the writers.
We also have a New York Times writer on our staff. Early, in both seasons, last season and this season, I sat with him and I got a chance to—he covers all of South America for the New York Times. He and I sat down a couple times and talked about what it’s like to be on that drive, to be on the hunt of a story trying to figure out where the passion is. What is the motor that drives that person, because I didn’t really get it?
What’s your favorite aspect about the character of Daniel, and how does it compare to your own personality?
Matthew Lillard: Oh, good question. I think my favorite aspect of the personality is that I like the fact that he’s tragically flawed. I like the fact that a modern television and modern drama on cable even has characters that are really intricate and deep and have multiple layers. I love the fact that he is a character that is tragically flawed and is continually trying to rise up and do his best; that he hasn’t given up, and he’s not living in a hotel room in Juarez just getting drunk and high all day every day. He’s still on this pursuit of redemption and that’s what I love about the character is that he’s incredibly broken and still trying to get back. There’s a resiliency that I love.
I think that that is the part that I can relate to as a man, and as an actor in this industry, being resilient. Look, there are a lot of people in ‘90s films that just never came back. Having been a guy that didn’t work for a year and didn’t have a job and downsized his life and sold his house and his cars and just tried to figure out what the heck I was going to do if I never had a chance to come back. Looking into that kind of abyss of being cooked in this industry and sticking with it and finding myself in the place I am now, which is a place I’m, again, proud of my work and proud of where I’m at and on a great show, I think that that resilience I understand in a really great way.
Do you have a favorite memory from the show?
Matthew Lillard: Well, I think that I do have a favorite memory. What is it? There are a couple things, but I think the first thing that jumps to my mind is the fact that in the pilot episode where I’m losing my mind in the front seat of the car because I’m on the bomb. When I did that scene the first time, I think that I surprised people. The reason I wanted to do the show so bad is, I saw an opportunity in that scene to do really amazing great textured work. And look—I haven’t had a chance to do a long time in my career; not since SLC Punk! actually have I had a chance to do a scene like that in something so well written.
I took the opportunity and I relished it; I loved it and I felt like in that scene, in the car, was some of the best that I’ve ever done as an actor on screen. The crazy thing is, is that after seeing that scene the network and the studio loved it so much but there’s something that—we’d shot it initially outside so outside in the middle of this parking lot. In the original version of The Bridge, the Swedish version, it was underground in this parking garage. The guys at FX, they loved the scene, it was great, but something was missing in that it wasn’t in the dark, foreboding kind of area, which is underground in the parking garage.
They went back and asked me to do the scene again. Some of the best work I’ve ever done in my life was—I walked away going, wow, that was great. Then they came back to me and they said, “Can do you do it again?” I’ll never forget; we were at dinner. We were at a celebratory dinner, and we’d just gotten picked up. It was Carolyn Bernstein and myself, and Emily and Denny and Bashir and Annabeth Gish and Elwood Reid and Diane Kruger and we were all sitting around a table. Elwood leaned over to me and said, “You know that scene that you did at the end of the episode?” I’m like, “Yes, you know the best scene of my life?” He’s like, “Yes. Do you think you could do it again?” I was like, “Yes, of course I can do it again,” because it’s my job. I’m a professional. I’m a professional actor, that’s my job, I could do that s*** again.
There was a part of me that was like, oh he’s kidding, or oh he just wants to know about the craft. Then I sat there and I thought about it, and it was like the next day I called him up. I’m like, “You’re kidding right? You don’t want me to do it again do you?” He was like, “Yes, they want to do it again.”
For the next two months was sh****** my pants, quite frankly, because I was like, what if we go back and do it again—that moment’s very elusive for me and actors and in defying that and be connected with something real. What happens if I get back there and I can’t do it again? We got to that scene and we started to do the work, and it happened again. Again, now I’m even doubly more proud of that scene. That’s not proper English. That, I think, is the most memorable moment for me, is having to do that scene twice.
You were talking about how it was rare for you to get those kinds of roles. You’ve been known for comedy, and this is a chance for you to mix comedy and drama together. Would you like to maybe do more of that; that special mix where you get a little bit of both? We obviously just lost one of the masters of being able to mix those two art forms. Do you think that’s something that you might be interested in doing more of?
Matthew Lillard: Yes. I think that every actor is interested in doing that. There’s not a comedy actor out there who doesn’t want a chance to do drama, and vice versa. As actors, we’re always looking to be pushed and to do the other side of the coin. Look, for me, I would love to do both. I’d love to just continue to work in great things.
Having worked with Alexander Payne in Descendants; that kind of tone where you’re laughing one moment and the very next moment you’re crying, speaking specifically when he says goodbye. Judy Greer comes into the room in Descendants and she’s going off on his wife. Then, he throws her out and it’s very funny then she leaves and then you’re crying because he’s saying goodbye to his wife. I think that’s real life. I think that comedy and drama live a breath away.
For me, if I’m doing really great work and I can be connected to the words and being “dramatic” and real and then immediately make people laugh, I think that that’s a fantastic place to live. I agree with you, we did lose a master at that. I feel like there are not a lot of people that deal in that nuance.
Not to get too crazy and blither off too long, but film and television has been pushed in extreme directions having extreme horror and extreme comedy, extreme—I don’t think that that reflects real life. I look at some of the gals in the [indiscernible] in the movie [indiscernible], that’s the world I think is really exciting to live. Yes, I would love to do those jobs, and I would love to have great jobs; that’s what I’d love to have.
This show’s obviously a really dark show, and we’ve been talking about how you added a comedic element to the character, and the show. But, do you ever take any of the darkness from the show home with you, or do you find you don’t have too much of a problem separating yourself from your character?
Matthew Lillard: I know it’s so funny is, we just wrapped two weeks ago, and I have been in this absolute funk. I’ve been in this weird kind of really sad, morose kind of mellow place. Normally when I wrap I’m immediately, what’s next and I start writing something and I start directing; I’m always going.
After the wrap of the show I’ve found myself to be in a really different, quiet place, and personally I think it’s the effect of the show, it’s had on me, endearing in this—certainly towards the end of the season Daniel goes to a darker place, and living in that space on a set all day and having to deal with that and the tension of that and the really high stakes of that, I feel like it has left an impact on me. There’s been kind of a re-entry period.
When you are on location for two months or something and you come home and you immediately are expected to be a dad again and a husband again, and you’re picking up from school and your whole world is upside down. There’s a re-entry period; that’s what I call it with my wife. Generally, there’s this moment where you have to recollect yourself and re-attune to who you are as a man back in the real world. This season—because I know I’m on the show all season and there’s a darker place, and from the beginning of the season I had a very clear sense of where we were going to start and where my character was going to finish, I felt like this year has definitely left its mark on me in a really great way. I just want to clarify, I don’t think I’m a comedic element, I think I bring some levity, but I still think that he’s dealing with these really high stakes. I don’t think he’s a piece of comedy. It definitely left an impact on me this season for sure.
I just wanted to clarify for a second, I don’t think that your character is the comedic element to the show. I just meant that you, as an actor, are able to bring a little bit of lightheartedness to such a dark themed show. To me, that’s a really good quality to have in an actor, because not a lot of people can do that.
Matthew Lillard: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much. I appreciate that. I’m super proud of that. I like the actor I am. I’m not just saying this in an egotistical, arrogant way, but I like being able to be funny and to bring drama and to be able to do both sides of those energies. Sometimes I feel like I get labeled—I’m not saying that you’re doing this, but sometimes I think people label me as a comedian, and I don’t feel like I am. I just felt like, for a moment there, protective of something you were not asking.
You were talking about having a rhythm with Emily. What have you enjoyed about the Daniel/Adriana partnership this season and where is it heading in the remaining episodes?
Matthew Lillard: Well, the thing I like about it is that the writers trust us, and they know that we’re going to be around. A lot of the problems were last season, so like they were beholden to what was happening in the Swedish show and they weren’t creating their own story. Last year, I don’t feel like they had a clear sense of what they were doing with us.
The thing I like about us this season is that the writers are using us in a really great way to help solve the case. Diane, Marco and Sonya are off doing their thing, and I think that one of the great things is Emily and I can help piece together the story, and they’re different trajectories. They’re working on their story; we’re working on our story. The great thing is that I think we’re more active this year in the main storyline.
Sometimes if you’re third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh on the call sheet you get relegated to one or two scenes, and I feel like towards the end of the season we start to get more work, and we start to answer that riddle a lot for the writers. The writers like writing for us, and that’s one of the great things I like, is that they like putting words in our mouth, so we get great words and we great opportunities to do good stuff.
Where we’re going, I think that we get connected to the case, and we start to help solve it. Not to give away spoilers, but we’re in the last episode and we’re part of answering part of a big riddle of the season. As it expands, we expand with it instead of getting left behind so that’s been pretty great.
Your character has dodged death once, and he looks like he’s getting into a little bit of trouble again on the show getting into some danger. I know you can’t give away any spoilers, but do you think that Daniel has it in him to keep dodging death and stay on the show a little longer?
Matthew Lillard: Look, I will say that there’s an episode that comes up that is mind blowing the things that happen. No character is safe on our show, and I will tell you, I’ve seen a script where I died in Season 1. I got the script and it said Daniel Frye is dead. I’ve seen it and I know how it happens and I know the look on Elwood’s face when he hands you the script. I’m not beyond that, I don’t think anyone on our show is beyond that. Saving probably Diane and Demian, I think that—everyone is up for grabs, and I think there’s an episode coming up that will surprise people on what happens to characters.
The truth of the matter is, I would love to be a character that they use and use and they dig him deeper and deeper into a pit of despair, and then they have to kill him because there’s no way out. I’d love to be that kind of character; that means that they’re using you in a way that’s full of muscle. As an actor, that’s what you want. I’d love to go out in a blaze of glory if you’ve given me an entire season of work that gets him to a place where you have to kill him; that’s the truth. If you can build a great story around it and it supports Season 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 of the show and you have to kill me, then God bless him. Kill me good.
Just exhaust the character.
Matthew Lillard: Yes. That’s the thing, you dig a character into a hole and you’re like, well, what are you going to do? You can’t come back from that. To write a character that you can’t come back from, to be that character would be really exciting.
Do you ever get to sit down and speak to the writers about how you would like them to develop your character?
Matthew Lillard: No. I do not do that. What I do do is, I go in and say, “Why are you doing this to my character?” I think that was one of the things, and Elwood said this is the past, is that he is an open door. I believe in the idea of being an advocate for your character. It does not happen on every show, I know that for a fact, but his door is open and I’m one of the guys that uses it to walk in and say, “Why is this happening? Why are you doing this?”
I definitely don’t tell them what to do with my character, but I certainly help shape what’s happening to the character in the moment. I have strong opinions; they’re not always listened to. There’s some times that I go in and pitch something or ask to change something and it doesn’t happen, and there are a lot of times that they listen to what I’m saying. One of the things is that look, I walk and I talk and breathe and I walk in that skin of Daniel Frye in every episode. I know him better than anyone.
Our writers come in and they have to service 20 different voices, and all I do is service one. I have a clear sense of who he is, and the decisions I’ve made about being an addict and trying to rise from that and finding strength in that and being the smartest guy in the room. There are all these choices that I’ve made, so they write something that’s completely contrary to who he is I’ll go in and say, “How does this track with Episode 4 of Season 1? It doesn’t make sense.” Together, we’ll try to find a good way to bridge that gap that sometimes happens between the writers and Daniel Frye.
The best way I would describe me is being an advocate for my character. I’m really lucky that we have a writer whom and a show runner who is gracious enough and humble enough to say, okay, and will at least listen.