The World According to Lou Diamond Phillips
The 58-year-old actor on what he learned about himself from playing poker with Brad Pitt and Dave Schwimmer
Welcome back to “The World According To,” series in which InsideHook solicits advice from people who are in a position to give it. Our latest subject is Lou Diamond Phillips, who has been acting on television and in movies for nearly 40 years. Among his classic roles: Ritchie Valens in La Bamba, Angel David Guzman in Stand and Deliver, and John Monfriez in Courage Under Fire. At 58, Phillips continues to act, in the TV drama Prodigal Son, and has now published The Tinderbox, a sci-fi novel. The actor talked to InsideHook about the agony of exercise, the ennui of Bruce Springsteen and poker.
InsideHook: I found this Fort Worth Star-Telegram story from 1982, about a play you’d written during college called The Unicorn Song. You were working in a daycare center and wrote the play in a matter of days. What is it about writing that appeals to you?
Lou Diamond Phillips: I’ve always been drawn to it. The very first thing I ever acted in was something that I co-wrote in elementary school. We had two very lovely teachers, and they set us to writing a Christmas play. Not only did I get an early stab at writing, I got bit by the acting bug and I was taught you put your mind to something and you complete it. That’s held true for a long time. I wrote plays in high school and in college that I produced professionally. I raised the money myself and sold ads and rented the theater space. Then, when I came to Hollywood, that turned into screenwriting and I drifted away from writing narratively.
It’s been a circuitous route to the finished novel. Early on, I considered myself to be a storyteller, a communicator, an interpreter of stories and tales and the human condition. This is just another branch of that particular creative tree.
Do you have a favorite curse word?
I like them all [laughter]. Which, these days, you got to be a little bit more careful about on set. My mentor was a guy named Adam Roarke, who was from Brooklyn. Very salty. Very salty language, Lou.
[Fuck] comes to mind a lot, only because it’s not just a curse word. There’s always shit. But I’m from Texas, so sheeeeeeeeeeit, you know? Those could actually be very good things. You can use them to express joy. When I’m cursing at someone or about something, then yeah, I tend to go fully-leaded, but for everyday use — it’s a dessert topping or floor polish — the F-word is very good.
How has the pandemic altered your routine?
In the film industry, we didn’t work for six months, which, in some years, is not out of the ordinary. You just can’t seem to get a gig. You have that gypsy life, feast-or-famine kind of thing. The fact that I knew we were going to get picked up for season two of Prodigal Son put me in a much better head space than not knowing what the next job is going to be.
It’s not as if some routine of mine had been upended. My routine is that there is no routine. Knowing that I had a job to go back to, I was able to focus on the edits for The Tinderbox. I started getting a slew of notes while I was still filming season one. I would keep a notebook on set, so I could jot down ideas and then go back and write them over lunch. That kind of writing on the fly is something I’m used to. I’m not one of those guys who sits down at seven in the morning and writes until four in the afternoon. That’s just not the way I’ve ever approached it. But when the pandemic hit, and I had a lot of time on my hands, I could sit down and fine-tune it for four or five hours a day.
Did you go through editing hell?
I’m not going to say it was a walk in the park, that’s for sure. I had not written something of this size, narratively, in 30 years. There were some fundamental mistakes. I have to say, the editor was great, man. He cracked the fundamental whip, but it made the book better. There was definitely some fine-tuning of point of view and world-building.
Are there days when you actually regret being in such good shape, because that means you just have to keep exercising? Do you ever wake up some days and think, Fuuuck?
100%, bro. No names, but there’s some guys in my generation who’ve let themselves go — the hair’s gone and there’s an extra 50 pounds — but they continue to work, because they’re really, really character-y. Number one, I’ve never been able to do that, having been an athlete in high school. But number two, I don’t trust that I’m going to get to work, because there’s a lot more roles for pudgy white guys than there are pudgy brown guys. So I’ve got to stay within striking distance.
Even at my age, I do a lot of action. I do my own fight scenes. I just had a wardrobe fitting the other day and the supervisor was very complimentary about the fact that I’m so off the rack. She can buy a jacket and just throw it on me, and it’s going to look good. Part of that is practicality, part of it is vanity, and part of it is job security. There have been times, especially during the pandemic, where it’s like, God, do I break out the yoga mat or the strap, or do I run up and down the stairwell for a half an hour?
What is a one piece of art — whether it be a song, painting, book — that changed the way you viewed the world?
Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and Paul Simon, too, because I was a middle-class kid growing up in Texas. All of a sudden, here were these guys who were thinking these ridiculously deep thoughts, but there was such melancholy to it, such an ennui. But in that melancholy, there was such pain, but also joy, and I thought, Wow, this is what it’s like to have complicated emotions. This is what it’s like to dream big, and yet walk down the gritty streets at the same time.
What does it take to be a good poker player?
Like everything, man, it’s discipline. In the movie business, they say, “Right place at the right time,” but if that break comes along and you’re not ready for it, it just won’t happen. You really have to have the goods when the time comes. There are two things that can’t be taught: patience and discipline. That is very much a key to tournament poker. Everybody’s seen the movies and they like all the big braggadocio moves and the flare and, Oh, I was bluffing, and, you know, Cool Hand Luke. He beats you with nothing. [Paul Newman voice] Well, sometimes nothing’s a real cool hand.” But the reality of it is, you have to have the patience and the discipline to wait for the right hand, then the wherewithal to know how to play it.
Beyond that, you’re playing the players, you’re not playing the cards. Seven-deuce can be a winning hand if you’re playing it right against the right player. I love that about the game; it’s constantly changing. I get a six-seven suited and I flop a straight, and then on the turn, somebody could possibly have a flush and beat me.
You have to constantly be gauging your odds and the shifting possibilities. The biggest mistake I ever made in my acting career was to think I’ve got some tenure, back in the early ’90s, and thinking, Okay, I’ve made it, and I stopped auditioning. Well, I missed a lot of opportunities, because I didn’t keep my nose to the grindstone and my feet on the bricks, man. It’s important to stay ever vigilant and disciplined. It’s been said before, but you look at the people around a poker table and how they play the game is very often how they live their lives. Are they brash? Are they full of it? Are they patient or are they too cautious? Personalities really do get reflected in how they play. The more you sit around a table with somebody, the more you learn to read them.
What’s your tell?
Back when I had a home game, which I had for 20 years, man — and it was penny-ante stuff, because most of my friends were out of work actors —Dave Schwimmer was there before he got Friends, and Kiefer and Brad Pitt before Thelma & Louise. It was a ridiculous group of actors. Finally, my friends told me if I was bluffing, I used to take a drink of beer. It sucked, because obviously my mind was saying, Look, nonchalant. Look nonchalant. I’d pick up the beer, take a sip, and look away or something. They finally told me that and I stopped doing it.
What words would you like on your tombstone?
The obvious ones, I think: “Good husband, good father.” But also “Good human being, tried to make the world a better place.” That’s something to live by, if not die by.
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