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Lou Diamond Phillips: From Young Gun to Young Writer

August 19, 1990|KIRK HONEYCUTT

"Is it a good film? No. But I'm proud that (the new footage) doesn't look like it was tacked on two years later. The plot works better and it was a wonderful lesson in screenplay structure for me. Also I achieved what I set out to do as a writer: We made a cohesive movie that the producers sold and got their money back."

"La Bamba," of course, did make the kid from Texas a known entity. Writer-director Luis Valdez used the life story of the Chicano rock star to create one of the few positive images of Latinos in American films. Valdez and Phillips portrayed Valens as the boy next door who achieved success through spunk and ambition. Some critics found the film overly sentimental. But audiences responded and the film became a hit.

Which, of course, resulted in the flood of movie offers. "I pretty much approach acting as I do my writing." says Phillips. "I try not to do the same thing twice."

Re-creating the role of Chavez Y Chavez for the "Young Guns" sequel was, in Phillips' mind, less of a repeat than a chance "to fix things I didn't like about the first film." In these two Brat Pack Westerns, Phillips found himself in the company of other young actors who face the pressures of early success.

"Being in that fish bowl at a fairly early age carries certain baggage, either in the press's or the public's eye. I mean, whoever deserves to be as lucky as this? You can become extremely bitter about trying to prove something to somebody. So you do the best work you're capable of and hope that it speaks for itself.

"It's all about choices and tenure. I don't think any of us have tenure yet. Certain guys establish themselves at the box office or establish themselves as artists beyond what the box office dictates. None of us are at that point. We're all working like maniacs but, personally speaking, I don't feel like I'm there yet. And maybe I never will be."

Another of the sequel's enticements was a chance to recreate a role that Phillips says he likes more and more. "A lot of that has to do with my involvement with the Native American community. I'm Cherokee by blood but I've just been adopted by the Sioux tribe. On Labor Day, I'm going to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for my naming ceremony."

Philips, whose Sioux name is Star Keeper, is also organizing a benefit concert in Santa Fe this October, called "The Winds of Life," which he plans to emcee. The concert will benefit Native American causes.

But the main reason for the Texas native's involvement in "Young Guns" was the simple fact that they were Westerns.

"That was the most fun I will ever have on a film set," he says. "I was thrilled to death to be in a Western."

During the shooting of a lynching scene for "Young Guns II," Phillips got more thrill than he bargained for. The scene called for Phillips' character to be saved from a lynching when Billy the Kid (Emilio Estevez) shot the rope in half just as he was about to be hanged. But when Estevez fired his gun, the horse beneath Phillips--whose hands were bound behind him--bolted.

The rope around Phillips' neck snapped before it could do any damage, but the actor's foot got caught in the stirrups of the saddle and as he was being dragged alongside the spooked horse, his right forearm was shattered in four places.

Phillips holds the arm out at a right angle to his body. "It's not entirely straight," he says. "In softball the other day I hit one over the fence. But I can't throw yet. One nice thing about 'Mind Game'--I don't have to break a sweat, I'm not beat up and I do no stunts. I'm playing a writer."

"Mind Game" producer Richard E. Johnson admits that normally he would have "great trepidation" about producing a film whose star also functioned as the writer. "You might wind up with a vanity piece. But Lou is extremely level-headed and professional. He can really separate the functions. On the set, he responds like an actor, not a writer."

"This is probably the most complex character he has done on screen," adds director Scott D. Goldstein. "Lou's using aspects of characters he's played before in films and molding them together into a new form."

Phillips himself notes: "Usually, you do research to assume somebody else's personality. But I created this guy for me. I know what my motivations are."

A smile crosses his face.

"Right before this film began, I received a batch of rejection letters for a novel I've written. We got clearances to use the (publishers') letterheads for a scene where the character throws his rejection letters into a fire. Just before filming, I read over one letter and said, 'Guys, there's no question about my motivation for this scene. I know what it's about.' "

Once "Mind Game" wraps, Phillips gets even busier. First on his schedule is "The Dark Wind" for executive producer Robert Redford and director Errol Morris. Phillips is negotiating to play mystery writer Tony Hillerman's American Indian detective, Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police. He then heads to Canada for "Agaguk," a film directed by Jacques Dorfman, which finds Phillips cast as--yes, an Eskimo.

"When I got the script, I had to laugh. For years I've been saying, 'Hey, maybe one day I'll play an Eskimo.' Then here it is. But then I stopped and thought, Well, gee, who else are they going to send this to?"

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