Matthew Lillard rides an acting career wave while casting an eye toward directing with ‘Fat Kid Rules the World’
By Carl Kozlowski 10/25/2012
Growing up in the Orange County city of Tustin, actor Matthew Lillard considered himself an outsider. In fact, it was precisely that feeling that drove him into the profession he’s been successfully working in for nearly two decades.
But after riding the rollercoaster so many other actors face — bursts of stardom interspersed with periods during which parts are a little less meaty — Lillard, who now lives in Pasadena, has developed a reputation as a highly energetic performer, one who’s now determined to build a new career as a director.
Lillard’s debut feature film, “Fat Kid Rules the World,” opened in two Los Angeles theaters two weeks ago. It will receive much wider exposure via cable TV systems’ Video On Demand (VOD) services nationwide starting today.
“You don’t become an actor in high school because you’re an unbelievable football player, but because you’re lost,” Lillard says. “Drama was a haven, a place to be. I’m glad it took 10 years to make this movie. All kinds of other movies could have been my first directing job, but I wanted this.”
It did, in fact, take a decade for Lillard to bring his adaptation of K.L. Going’s highly popular and critically acclaimed novel of the same name to the screen. He related to the book’s tale of a misfit fat kid in high school who suddenly has his world opened up when a punk rocker classmate gives him a chance to play drums in his band. That is, until the fat kid’s dad tries to interfere because he’s afraid of the influence the punk is having on him.
Lillard discovered the book when he was hired to record the audio-book edition 10 years ago and thought that Going “is just a great writer.” He had been selected for the job partly because of his own cult-favorite role in a 1998 indie teen film called “SLC Punk!” in which he delivered a stunning performance encompassing pathos, pissed-off vigor and occasionally sheer joy in that film’s tale of a blue-haired Mohawked kid trapped inside Salt Lake City, the squarest major city in America.
“Right now, in terms of my career, ‘SLC Punk!’ is the one thing I can hang my hat on and is my crowning glory as an actor,” says Lillard, who’s nonetheless much better known to the general public as one of the two teen killers in the original “Scream” film, and for playing Shaggy as both a live-action character and his cartoon voice for the past decade in “Scooby-Doo” films and cartoons. “I don’t get a chance very often to be in every frame of a film. Ninety-nine times out of 100, if I get to do that, it’s not that great of a film. But we made the most of that movie,” he says of “SLC Punk!”
“(Director) James Merendino is a huge influence on me as a director because of his energy and ability to think outside the box,” Lillard continues. “I was a young actor, had some money, though I’ve never been rich, but I was just coming off a hit with ‘Scream.’ It was the purest part of my life. I was young, dumb and full of all the wrong kinds of stuff, but it all came together perfectly.”
Lillard was forced to make “Fat Kid” on an extremely low budget of just $750,000. He raised $158,000 for its marketing budget via the online crowd-funding service Kickstarter. But Lillard was determined to do the book justice, because he feels there are far too few teen books and movies these days that even aspire to the level of emotional resonance that propelled the late writer-director John Hughes’ films to perpetual-favorite status.
“I definitely am a product of the ’80s, and grew up on John Hughes films,” recalls Lillard, now 42. “I remember where I was when I saw ‘The Breakfast Club’ the first time. They’re definitely gems and definitely influenced me, but I didn’t watch them before making this film, because they’re really part of my DNA. I think there have always been movies made for teenagers, and some are wonderful, but some have werewolves, some are condescending and just focused on sex.
“Every once in a while you’ll get a script that respects what kids are — respectful storytelling with truthful stories,” he continues. “I can’t think of another group more important to tell the truth about. They need great stories more than anyone, because they’re still being shaped. And we’re, unfortunately, not making those films very often.”
The key to the power of “Fat Kid” as a film hinges not only on a moving story and Lillard’s solid direction, but on the affecting lead performance of Jacob Wysocki, a genuine overweight teen who made an equally impressive debut last year starring opposite John C. Reilly in another micro-budget film, “Terri,” shot in Altadena.
“I think that Jacob’s a fantastic actor,” says Lillard. “He happens to be a big kid, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that he really holds the screen and is pound for pound a movie star. He is funny but also has a unique stillness in his performance. He brings a skill and depth to his performance that I’d put against anyone in movies now. He’s incredible and totally defies the clichés of the fat clown.”
Lillard scored his first feature-film role in yet another cult favorite in 1994, writer/director John Waters’ “Serial Mom,” playing the teenage son of the titular killer played by Kathleen Turner. His wired energy in that production immediately caught the eye of one of cinema’s greatest horror directors, Wes Craven, when Craven was looking for a charismatic actor who would shock audiences if revealed to be a killer.
His combination of sarcastic charm, vibrant energy and brilliantly catchy way with the now-famous line “Baby, it’s a scream!” landed him the role. But while he made “SLC Punk!” as a result, few of his other choices — often playing against one of his real-life best friends, Freddie Prinze Jr. — resonated with critics or audiences.
His work as Shaggy has been the closest thing to a steady gig most actors can hope for, as Lillard has spent the past three years recording new animated adventures every Wednesday afternoon. But while that role has paid the bills during a relatively dry stretch of small indie gigs, Lillard is currently riding a second career wave as an actor after turning in a stellar supporting performance as the secret lover of George Clooney’s wife in last year’s Oscar-winning film “The Descendants.”
“I think ‘The Descendants’ was the best film of last year, and that [co-writer/director] Alexander Payne is the best director we have in America,” says Lillard. “In going with Alexander, he says he hired you to be you. He doesn’t really add a lot or guide you too much. He steps back and lets you do your thing. He takes a long time in casting, but by the time you get there, he wants you. He’s pretty keen to let you do your thing.”
Lillard parlayed that role, in which he managed to make what could have been a simple jerk into a surprisingly sympathetic one, into a spotlighted turn in the recent Clint Eastwood film “Trouble with the Curve.” In it, he plays a baseball executive eager to find any excuse to cut an octogenarian baseball scout played by Eastwood from his team’s payroll, yet winds up getting cut instead.
“It’s definitely fun any time you get fired in a movie at the end of a film and the audience cheers, so you know you’re doing something right,” Lillard chuckles. “I worked with Clint and see how his set works, and even though he didn’t direct, he had a lot of say in how the set runs. He says it’s his last film, and it’s exciting to be a part of that. It’s nice to be in a film you know people are going to see and will be out there for a long time.”
Looking toward his own ever-brightening future, Lillard says “directing is all I want to do.” As such, he’s currently “on the run” with his film and “using every single aspect of social media to promote it.”
“I’ve been in plenty of movies, terrible movies, and it’s part of my job to sell those films, and you do it because it’s your job,” says Lillard. “But this one, there’re kids who need this movie, about somebody on the outside looking in, and they need to respond to it. It’s business; make enough money so I can come back and make another one. That’s really the goal.”
Starting today, “Fat Kid Rules the World” is available on ITunes and Video On Demand.