‘The Descendants’ Star Matthew Lillard Gives a Bracingly Honest Interview About Life After ‘Scream’
"I’ll be right back." With those four words, Matthew Lillard carved out for himself a tiny, bloody morcel of horror movie history. It was after all, the a stand-out line from Scream, one of the most influential films of the last twenty years. And like the rest of the Scream cast (except for maybe poor Skeet Ulrich), Lillard got a fair shake at playing the Hollywood game. At a time when teen-oriented fare seemed like the only thing studios were interested in making, aka the late ’90s, Lillard was cast in movies like Summer’s Catch and She’s All That, cementing him as a go-to for the hero’s lanky best friend. Then Scooby Doo came along, and as Shaggy, Lillard became the star of his very own franchise. Which is why seeing him suddenly show up opposite George Clooney in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is so jarring. The first thing that comes to mind is, Oh yeah, that guy!
When we met up with Lillard last month to talk about the film—where he plays a real estate agent who was having an affair with Clooney’s now comatose wife—the 41-year-old actor was ecstatic about finally being able to promote a good movie. Those were his words, and just a preview of how refreshingly honest he would be over the course of our conversation.
How did you score this role?
Did it come to you?
Oh God no, dude. Nobody ever comes to me. Nobody in the history of filmmaking has ever gone, ‘You know who we need for this? Matt Lillard.” That’s the truth. It was an audition. I read the audition and I was like, ‘Dude, there’s no way I’m going to be this guy. There’s no way I’m George Clooney’s wife’s lover. That’s not happening.’ But I’m a huge Alexander Payne fan, and any chance you get to audition for a guy like that, I’m in. I actually tried to cancel the audition, for a lot of reasons. I was taking my kids to see a Scooby Doo screening of a DVD movie at Warner Bros., and you can’t reschedule. Anyway I walk in and there are like five guys who are all Adonises, like the Hollywood stud guy. And so I’m like, Okay, no one will really see me. There’s five fucking gorgeous guys, and I’d rather be taking my kid to a movie anyway.’ But then I just walked in and I said ‘Look, to be honest with you, I’m a charming guy. I could sit here and bullshit with you, but I’d rather just do it. If you want me to do it again and take adjustments, that’s my favorite thing to do. But if it’s all right with you, I’d like to get this done so I can take my kid to see this movie.’ So I auditioned and Alexander was like ‘That’s the best audition I’ve ever seen.’
Yeah, and I said to him, ‘Too bad I’m not going to be the guy fucking Clooney’s wife.’ And he was like, ‘Why would you say that?’ The casting director’s like, ‘Just get out of the room, just go away.’ And for three months I knew that he liked the audition, but they saw hundreds of guys. So to get the role at the end of the day was crazy.
This is obviously a different role for you.
Yeah. To be in a good movie is pretty weird. It’s weird to go from Uwe Boll to Alexander Payne.
Does Uwe Boll deserve his awful reputation?
I love Uwe Boll. He’s one of the most charismatic guys around. But he literally directs like this: (In a German accent) ‘Action! Cut! Was good, let’s move on!’ That’s what he does. And you’re like, ‘Fuck, dude.’ And I’ll go up to him and be like ‘Dude, that was terrible.’ And he’s like ‘Who cares? I don’t care.’ But I will tell you everyone loves the guy. Great guy. He raises 20, 30 million dollars. You can’t do that if you’re a douchebag.
Do you hope this role leads to other serious work?
I don’t know. It hasn’t done anything yet. Nothing would make me happier for this film role to translate into other opportunities that I haven’t gotten in years. For whatever reason, I did Without a Paddle, it was a big success, I was the romantic lead. It did a lot of box office. And I never have done a studio movie since. And I’m not really sure why. Scooby Doo was a huge part of that. It really kind of tainted who people think I am.
How does Scooby Doo taint you?
I don’t want to defend it too much in the light of an Alexander Payne movie—but the work I did, I’m super proud of it. It’s a two-dimensional character that everyone knows. It’s not like I fucking walk around like Shaggy all day. I think the character holds up and it works for what it was.
Hasn’t that lead to a bunch of other work in Scooby Doo movies?
I’m the voice of Shaggy. It was Casey Kasem, and now it’s me. So it’s this little piece of history that I get to do for the next forty years, and I love that. I don’t want to not be working in films anymore, you know what I mean? I’ve had to do a lot of really bad movies to pay rent. It’s not like I make a shitload of money. I made great money in Scooby Doo 2, but that was ten years ago. I just thought, ‘I’ll make a lot of money.’
Did you think that at one point?
Sure. I was like, ‘Oh dude, I’ll always work.’ And also, I’m fun to work with and I’m not a guy that’s hard to get a long with. I’ve never had a bad experience with anyone, I’ve never been late, I don’t do drugs. You know, I wish I did. I wish I would beat a woman, do drugs, get arrested, kill a dog.
Then you would have starred in Iron Man!
Yes dude! And then do something really amazing and people are like, ‘Oh, it’s a come back.’ Look, I’ve just been disenfranchised for a while.
Did you get turned off from the whole industry?
No, not at all. I’m turned off that if it was about talent, I feel like I would work. If it was about just going into an audition, I’d have a better chance. But I feel like a lot of things go into it other than those decisions.
What do you think happened?
Somehow I just got off the radar, off the cool radar. I became a product of the nineties. It became this kind of like, ‘Oh, he was a star in the nineties.’ Which is hilarious, because I was never a star.
But after Scream, you were lining up studio films, like Wing Commander.
Yeah, but it was sd Freddie Prinze Jr.’s sidekick. I’m like a side character. It may have felt like being a star, but I was never a star. I’ve always considered myself a blue-collar actor, except when I first started. When I first started, I was like, ‘I’m going to be a star.’
After Scream’s success, it was probably easy to think that.
Well, just in general. As you go into this business and you find success—after I did Serial Mom, I thought I was going to be huge. You have that concept. I’ve gone to my agents a hundred times and been like, ‘Please just stick me in independent films. I don’t need money, I can live.’ We had a big house, but we sold everything, down to a smaller house. We had big cars, now I drive a Prius. I made big choices in my life to not have to keep doing bad movies to pay the rent. And I think that’s a really common story. If you think about it, there are twenty guys you and I could put together in less than thirty seconds that have never been heard from again, or end up on a shitty sitcom, and then are never heard from again. And that’s the last thing I want. I want to be around forever. I want to be an actor for the rest of my life. I don’t have a choice. So in this transitional period, where I can either go sell pharmaceuticals and make a lot of money, I just directed a feature instead.
What’s the feature?
It’s called Fat Kid Rules the World and it stars Jacob Asaki, who was in Terry, and Billy Campbell, who was in The Killing. It’s about this obese teenager that finds punk rock music and it changes his life. I did it for under a million, and Mike McCready from Pearl Jam is doing our score, and it’s a kick-ass little script.
What’s it like sharing scenes opposite George Clooney all of a sudden?
It’s great. You want to be great. Nobody goes into this business going ‘You know, I want to be marginal and shitty for the rest of my life.’ You want to be great. So when you get a chance to do a movie like this and to work with Alexander and to do a scene with Clooney, you want to step up and carry the game. You want to forward the game. It’s like going one-on-one with LeBron. If you’re a basketball player and you think you’re a good player and you get a head-to-head with Lebron, you want to be great. And that’s what it feels like.
Did you see Scream 4?
What’d you think of it?
I actually thought it was good. I didn’t think it was bad. Hats off to the Weinsteins and Miramax, that wanted to stay with the franchise instead of rebooting when everyone’s rebooting. I was shocked it underperformed so dramatically. When I saw the box office number I was like, ‘Whoa.’ I really thought it’d be huge. But for what it was and how they did it, I was shocked at how good it was, to be honest.
Why were you shocked?
I was surprised that they got away with stuff. To outdo three movies is hard to do, and I think they did an admirable job. And I don’t think it was easy working conditions, I think they had a hard time.
Was it strange seeing your old castmates reprising their roles?
You know, there was a piece of me that was like, I would have loved to have been Jamie and been in the next couple movies. That’s kind of the way you make the money. But look I like being a little piece of that franchise, a piece of the history.