"YOU felt like a monster," says Ryan Phillippe, describing how he felt barging into Muslim homes on Ramadan, one of the holiest holidays. "We were there in full gear, with these assault rifles, on what's akin to their Christmas. We were barging into people's actual homes to shoot those scenes. I felt incredibly uncomfortable and ashamed at the time."
They weren't really looking for insurgents in Morocco, which was doubling for Iraq, just acting. For his role in "Stop-Loss," directed by Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry"), Phillippe spent a lot of time talking to soldiers, studying soldiers, and acting like a soldier. The 33-year-old actor plays a young Texan who's served two tours in Iraq and, just as he thinks he's getting out, gets stop-lossed -- or ordered back for a third tour, against his will. Of the recent spate of Iraq war films, it's the first one that directly addresses the young soldiers on the ground and the fear and conflict they face fighting a war in which they've lost faith.
The loss-of-faith part wasn't hard for Phillippe. "I can't wait for [this war] to be over, and our troops to be home," he says. "We're occupying a territory we don't belong in. We're there under [grounds] that were not truthful or warranted." That's different than how he feels about WWII, where his grandfather served and where he'd have happily gone if called.
In a way he was called. Phillippe, a onetime blue-collar kid from Delaware, still looks as young as a college student, and he's recently played a lot of young men caught up in the machinations of the military-industrial complex. Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" opens with a young Phillippe hurtling around in the darkness of Iwo Jima like a cornered rat -- fear flickering across his moon-shaped face. In "Crash," he's a rookie cop watching his racist partner with quiet dismay, before tumbling almost by accident into his own dark side. In "Breach," Phillippe plays a young CIA analyst sent undercover to take down double agent Robert Hanssen.
TWENTY years ago, any of these parts would have been played by Tom Cruise, who specialized in brash American youth, as cocky as a superpower nation during the heyday of Ronald Reagan. Given America's shaky sense of itself, Phillippe has a different ratio of arrogance to vulnerability. In these performances, he's a manly-enough guy who dutifully wants to do the right thing, though the pathway is hard to find. His tumult is internal. He thinks and observes -- his brain whirs away as his innocence is slowly shredded.
Phillippe didn't plan this sojourn into playing young men struggling with authority and themselves -- but that's the way the parts fell, particularly after a career-making role in "Crash," the polarizing Oscar winner for best picture. And going forward, he says, with a laugh, "I'm done with suits, and uniforms, and the government."
IN person, Phillippe looks less like an earnest young man ready to enlist; he's more the sophisticated Angeleno, dressed in slacks, a smoky-colored T-shirt and a cap. He never went to college but has the brimming curiosity of an autodidact. He recently spent the writers strike writing a script in his home office -- which he's decked out to look like a "post-apocalyptic Oval Office," complete with a copy of the rug with the official seal (he ordered from a White House website), a print of George Washington, an American flag juxtaposed against a black flag, and a funky metal desk.
Despite having appeared in 30-odd films, Phillippe the leading man is in some strange way a newbie in the public eye. He's suffered from what one might call the Nicole Kidman syndrome, where a talented person's entire identity gets dwarfed by the fame of their spouse, until the moment the marriage fails, and suddenly the haze lifts. Until Phillippe's marriage to Reese Witherspoon ended in 2006, almost every article written about him focused primarily on his relationship with his celebrated wife. The couple and their two children were catnip for the paparazzi. Now Phillippe's out on his own for the first time in a decade, and there's a dollop of hard-won wariness in what appears to be genuine sweetness.
He didn't work for a year and a half after the split. "It was hard to make that [his career] seem important enough to spend my time on. . . . Now, I'm out of the woods and ready to focus and ready to create and excited about that. I feel a lot more OK than I did. This time last year, I was a wreck."