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Lou Diamond Phillips: From Young Gun to Young Writer

August 19, 1990|KIRK HONEYCUTT

At the side of a tenement building near MacArthur Park that serves as a key location for Lou Diamond Phillips' new film, "Mind Game," is a billboard promoting the just-released "Young Guns II," in which he stars with Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Christian Slater.

Already this year Phillips has appeared in the supernatural horror film "The First Power" and the political thriller "Show of Force." Since his film career was launched three years ago with "La Bamba," in which he played the late rocker Ritchie Valens, Phillips has made 10 films.

Too much exposure? Too many roles?

"I haven't had any regrets yet," says the 28-year-old actor, during a break on the "Mind Game" set recently. "A lot of films have come along that appealed to me for a variety of reasons. Yet I still turn down many more than I accept."

Clearly, one reason for the flood of offers is the actor's "crossover" status: in the eyes of Hollywood dealmakers, Phillips is one of the few ethnic actors who can carry a film. And his ethnicity is sufficiently vague--Scots-Irish and Cherokee Indian on his father's side and Filipino with strains of Chinese and Spanish on his mother's--that Phillips jokes, "I can play what's in me the rest of my life and never do the same role twice."

So far, he's made a good stab at exactly that, playing Mexican-American in "La Bamba" and "Stand and Deliver," Lakota Sioux in "Renegades," Navaho-Mexican in "Young Guns I and II," Irish in "The First Power," Puerto Rican in "Show of Force," plus non-ethnic roles in the feature film "Disorganized Crime" and the made-for-TV movie "The Three Kings."

In "Mind Game," a psychological thriller that Phillips wrote, he deliberately created his character as a Filipino. "I figured this was probably my only chance to play what is a large portion of my (ethnic) makeup."

Phillips plays a struggling novelist discouraged by numerous publishers' rejections. Looking for an instant best-seller, he strikes up a friendship with a mass murderer (Clancy Brown) newly released from prison. As their relationship evolves into something darker, the film hopes to raise questions about ambition and what people will do to gain success.

These questions were certainly on Phillips' mind the night four years ago when he conceived the story. This occurred, he says, while waiting for a traffic light to change at an intersection in Beverly Hills.

" 'La Bamba' had been finished but it wasn't going to come out for a year," he says. "I made little on 'La Bamba' and was worried about money running out. Casting agents liked me but I had no jobs. They wanted to wait and see how 'La Bamba' did. At the same time people were whispering in my ear, 'This movie is going to do it. "La Bamba" is your big break.'

"So waiting at that light, I started thinking about what I was going to do when this movie finally did open on a Friday night and the next day I'm a known entity. How is this kid from Texas going to deal with that? Those themes went into the character of this writer, who wanted success and was willing to compromise to achieve it."

Phillips says he had been writing plays and film scripts long before he came to Los Angeles. He makes a point to explain that not all his scripts have roles for himself and none of them are typical mainstream Hollywood films.

"I came up in the Texas independent film industry, where you don't write in car chases because you can't afford them."

Although he was always committed to a career as an actor, Phillips says he wrote and produced plays throughout his high school and college days in Texas and after his graduation from the University of Texas at Arlington's drama department, he spent three years in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area writing and performing with a comedy troupe called "The Zero Hour."

"We were pretty much an uncensored 'Saturday Night Live.' We did some rude things, not all of which went over. We started in a punk club in 1980--an hour show at midnight--then later made the rounds at other night clubs. This was my introduction into professional theater."

Phillips began studying film technique with the man he describes as his mentor, Adam Roarke, an actor who has appeared in such films as "The Stunt Man" and "Play It as It Lays." Soon, Philips worked as an assistant director and instructor at Roarke's Film Actor's Lab. During this period, Phillips received his first screenwriting credit.

"It was on an independent film I'm not going to name because it's in video stores. A group had made a film in Texas that they hadn't been able to sell for two year. So they came to Adam and me. We had a reputation in Dallas as people who knew film--and we were cheap.

"We looked at this film and Adam asked if I could fix it. I spent a month studying the film, the script and outtakes. I rewrote 40 pages of dialogue and rerouted the plot. Then we reshot for about two weeks.

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