- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

For the sake of accuracy, two things are useful to remember about the young actor Ryan Phillippe: double "L" and double "P" in the last name, which should be pronounced "Fill-uh-P" rather than "Phil-eep."

At age 25, he looks as promising as anyone else who is self-evidently attractive and earnest and has a couple of successful titles to his credit. They are the frantic, but absurdly lucrative, horror thriller "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and the clever, moderately successful update of "Dangerous Liaisons" called "Cruel Intentions," which casts Mr. Phillippe as a prep-school variation on the self-defeating seducer Valmont.

Good things seem to happen to Mr. Phillippe when he portrays depraved characters. He married his "Cruel Intentions" co-star, Reese Witherspoon. The two had a baby girl last September, a day after Mr. Phillippe finished shooting the new picture he was promoting recently in Washington: a nihilistic crime thriller called "The Way of the Gun," which opens today.

He plays a penniless mercenary, partnered with Benicio Del Toro. They conspire to kidnap a hugely pregnant surrogate mother portrayed by Juliette Lewis.

This ransom caper leads to shootouts and reprisals, leaving few characters in a condition to derive much benefit from reflection about the folly of greed and violence.

Although shot on locations in Utah, "The Way of the Gun" has no fixed fictional locale. It seems vaguely Southwestern, with episodes that stray over the Mexican border. Mr. Phillippe found the state and Salt Lake City to be good working environments.

"There aren't that many distractions," he says. "If you shoot a movie in New York, people are tempted to stay out all night, carousing and whatever. Utah seems to shut down at 10 o'clock, which is when you should be getting to bed if you're due on a movie set the next morning. It's a great place for the producers."

The shooting schedule and Miss Witherspoon's due date threatened to overlap, so Mr. Phillippe had a contractual arrangement to fly home to Los Angeles as soon as his wife headed for the maternity ward. Their timing was so good that he finished his role on a Friday and arrived with ample time to attend the birth on Saturday.

"It all seems perversely ironic in a way," he says. "My wife was very pregnant. I would fly home on weekends, since it's only about an hour and a half between Salt Lake and L.A. On the movie, Juliette Lewis was pretending to be pregnant every day, so it was kind of strange.

"The understanding was I could catch the first plane or grab a charter flight at a moment's notice. It was too important to miss. The unit continued to shoot for about a week after I left. There wasn't much front-loading of my scenes. We did have a lot of rehearsals, because we spent a lot of time working on the tactical stuff."

By that he means the gunfights, which placed an abundance of weapons in the hands of Mr. Phillippe, Mr. Del Toro, Taye Diggs, Nicky Katt, James Caan and several other make-believe hard guys. "I've used guns in a couple of other things," Mr. Phillippe says, "but never to this extent. We trained with a SWAT team member that Benicio knew and a Navy SEAL. They took us through countless drills and manuevers.

"Guns jam and that sort of thing. We spent a lot of time getting comfortable with and respectful of the firearms. Even with blanks, things happen. You can tell that the Brandon Lee accident during 'The Crow' hasn't been forgotten. It's always in the back of people's minds."

• • •

Ryan Phillippe was born in Delaware but "spent a lot of time growing up in Philadelphia." His father was a chemical technician with DuPont. His mother operated a day care center in their home while raising a son and three daughters.

"I was surrounded by women," Mr. Phillippe says. "It made perfect sense that I would have a daughter first. I don't think anything about girls fazes me. I feel I've been through every female problem possible. Which I think will be good, because sometimes fathers get uncomfortable about certain aspects of their daughters' growing pains. Or whatever. Anyway, I think you get a different perspective with sisters. It seems to me that men get more hung up with posturing, women not so much."

Mr. Phillippe recalls that one sister had "a vague interest" in acting before "growing out of it." He took the obsession seriously. "I was drawn to the idea of being different people," he says. "Trying to be things I wasn't, I suppose.

"I was also very affected by certain films early on. Paul Newman in 'Cool Hand Luke' made a really big impression, and Robert De Niro in 'Raging Bull,' especially the metamorphosis he pulled off. It amazed me how different he could look and behave. I wanted to investigate how actors arrive at the emotions they portray."

He found guidance in books by Constantin Stanislavsky, Stella Adler and Uta Hagen, among others. Because his high school lacked a drama program, he graduated without being able to put his reading into practice. "I was flying blind when I went to New York," Mr. Phillippe says. At the age of 17, he stayed with the family of a friend who belonged to a theater group. He started to audition and ultimately got one substantial but short-lived part, as a homosexual character on "One Life to Live."

Curiously, he didn't enroll in classes while also competing for jobs. "I was going about it for the wrong reasons," Mr. Phillippe says. "I came from humble beginnings and was pursuing money and fame. Now it's a completely different thing to me. I'm an adult. When you're in your teens, the influences are different.

"I wanted to get to L.A. If I had grown up with money, I would have been more inclined to do theater. At the time, I didn't understand the dedication of friends who could be content making $25 a week in an off-Broadway show. I was looking for a hit TV series, I guess. There aren't a lot of great roles for young people on the stage."

Arriving in the promised land of Los Angeles, he auditioned systematically, did occasional guest spots on established series and got a lead in a pilot that failed to become a series.

His major break was the Ridley Scott seafaring saga "White Squall" in 1995, which anticipated much of the spectacle and pathos of "The Perfect Storm" but somehow failed to establish the right balance or footing with the movie public.

Nevertheless, Mr. Phillippe was part of a young ensemble destined to attract attention, and he got to participate in a great filmmaking adventure.

"We were five months out of the U.S.," he recalls, "and visited eight different countries in the Caribbean area. I'd never been outside the U.S. It was the most amazing experience. I worked with really, really talented people."

Mr. Phillippe says he has promised himself not to play characters younger than 21, although "If I shave, I can still look pretty young. But I'm a father, and married and just not interested in playing any more teen-agers."

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