Whether it was imbuing a teenage murderer with comic timing and wit in Scream, or waxing poetic to the camera as blue-haired punk rocker Stevo in SLC Punk!, Matthew Lillard has always helped transform his characters into vibrant, fully developed people. His impassioned, spazzed-out performances were a hallmark of the ’90s, even in films that haven’t stood the test of time.
There were hints of dramatic potential scattered throughout his roles, but only in recent years — in 2011’s The Descendants and now on FX’s The Bridge — has Lillard been given a platform to fully explore his acting range. Still, Lillard, now also a screenwriter and director, regrets nothing about his trajectory. At 44, he knows that who you have been shapes who you are now.
“My career has never been a career of, ‘We need Matthew Lillard,’” the actor said, seated in a small neighborhood market in Pasadena, Calif., near where he lives with his wife and kids. He suggested the meeting place, an intimate locale where he is a daily fixture. “My career is, ‘We can’t find the guy. I guess bring in Lillard,’” he said. “I’m not the guy people go looking for. I’m the guy that ends up getting the job and makes the part good.”
Throughout Lillard’s career, he has rarely been directly offered roles but has always proven himself in the audition room. Until the past few years, when he got the gig of alcoholic journalist Daniel Frye on The Bridge and began actively pursing screenwriting and directing, Lillard has been the “best friend,” the joke-cracking second gun to the leading man. But Lillard’s ability to passionately embrace any opportunity presented to him resonates throughout his entire filmography, even in the films he can now say weren’t any good.
“There’s nothing in my past that’s too terrible,” he said almost proudly, his lanky body curled into a chair by the market’s counter. As he spoke, he chewed his way through a pulled pork sandwich with added bacon (despite the waitress’s insistence that he was going to die). “Look, I did In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. It’s the worst movie I ever made. But I turned in one of my favorite performances. My wife is like, ‘I can’t even watch it,’ but it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.”
Acting wasn’t a childhood dream for Lillard, who grew up in Orange County, Calif. It was something he fell into at age 13, primarily because he wasn’t good at anything else, but it became an overwhelming passion. He acted throughout high school and after a short time at a junior college called up his parents and told them he needed to quit school. “I distinctly remember saying to my mom, ‘Look, I can always go back and get my degree,’” he said. “But I never want to look back at my life when I’m old and say I wish I’d given it a shot.’”
Lillard was so intent on pursing acting that he took the advice of a photographer in the Valley and changed his name. “I’ll never forget,” he laughed. “When I got my first headshots, they were like, ‘You should change your name. What’s your middle name?’ My first three credits on IMDb are ‘As Matthew Lyn.’ It’s more a porn star name than anything else.”
Lillard’s first ever onscreen appearance was a commercial for now-defunct clothing store Miller’s Outpost, but his big break came in 1990 when a 20-year-old Lillard scored a gig as the host of a Nickelodeon skateboarding show called SK8 TV.
“I remember saying to my mom and dad, ‘We should go to Disneyland because when this hits I’m going to be so famous that I’m going to be swamped and my safety is going to be an issue,’” Lillard said. “I took them out to breakfast at Denny’s as a celebratory gesture. I was like, ‘I’m going to be super famous after this.’ They looked dumbfounded, like, Really?”
Fame didn’t arrive until later, despite Lillard’s eagerness for recognition. He scored his first movie role in John Waters’ 1994 film Serial Mom. When it was released Lillard would walk around outside movie theaters hoping to be identified as its star. He didn’t realize at the time that success as an actor comes gradually rather than all at once, ideally building up to longevity rather than transient celebrity.
“You think if you’re famous then you can do another movie,” he noted. “The reality is that no matter if you get a job, that job will never satisfy you. Because the minute you get that job, you need the next job. It’s really about the endurance of a lifetime of being an artist.”
Lillard developed a habit of earning his roles almost accidentally, often because he went in to audition for a role other than the one he eventually got. It was at this point that his perpetual “best friend” label, bestowed on him by the casting directors he read for, began to stick. For better or worse, that sensibility followed him for years.
For the 1995 movie Hackers, which he jokingly described as “the one where kids hack computers while wearing Rollerblades,” Lillard was brought in as a reader, someone who sits in the auditions and runs lines with the actors. But he got to know director Iain Softly so well that Softly offered him the role of Cereal Killer, a student hacker with a notably eclectic sense of style.
“I had this whole thing early in my career that I wanted so desperately be a chameleon,” he explained. “A big part of that was the way I looked. So I continually did things with my hair or made these big, bold choices … Nine times out of 10, the director wants you to take your little part and make something awesome. Nobody said no. Nobody ever stopped you.”
Shortly after the release of Hackers, Lillard went in to audition for Scream, an independent horror movie helmed by Wes Craven. He read for the part of Billy, which eventually went to Skeet Ulrich, but the casting director was so taken with him that she asked him to come back later that afternoon and read again for Craven.
“In the audition, the casting director said, ‘You’re going to win the Academy Award someday,’” Lillard recalled. “I said, ‘Oh yeah? Can you call my mom and dad and tell them that?’ She picked up the phone and called them, which I thought was very funny. I told Wes Craven and he said, ‘Yeah, I agree,’ and he called my mom and dad.”
Lillard’s electric performance in Scream as Stu, the (once again) best friend of Ulrich’s Billy, is one of the most memorable in ’90s horror. The movie’s lengthy climatic scene, which was shot over the course of several days, was exhausting and often improvised, leading to a high-voltage combination of complete terror and wide-eyed humor. It became clear that Lillard’s energy could be channeled into deeply compelling performances.
The late ’90s brought a string of additional best friend roles, including in college thriller Dead Man’s Curve, Penelope’s Spheeris’ comedy Senseless, and sci-fi action flick Wing Commander. When Lillard auditioned for SLC Punk!, James Merendino’s movie about counterculture kids living in Salt Lake City, he was called in to read for Heroin Bob, a sidekick role that later went to Michael Goorjian. Instead, Merendino cast Lillard in the lead role of punk rocker Stevo, which excited him as an actor. “I grew up on punk rock music and [Stevo’s] got these six speeches to camera and the director said I could bring whatever I wanted to bring,” Lillard noted. “It was like, ‘Why the fuck not?’”
The movie shot for three weeks in Salt Lake City, a time period Lillard called “one of the great creative experiences of my life.” The film, which grapples with what it means to rebel against societal expectations, represents what may be Lillard’s most prominent role. He appears in nearly every frame of the film, and his blue spiked hair is visually synonymous with SLC Punk! itself. Despite that, he will not appear in the sequel, which recently wrapped shooting. “I wanted to,” he said reluctantly, in response to why he wasn’t involved. “I think there’s a lot of things to say. But it just didn’t work out.”
After SLC Punk!, Lillard didn’t suddenly find himself transformed into a leading man. He continued to be given secondary roles, while still upholding a reputation for strikingly high-energy performances. He played Brock Hudson, a parody of a Real World cast member, in 1999’s high school romantic comedy She’s All That. Lillard gave it his all: His dance sequence in the film, choreographed by Hairspray and Step Up choreographer Adam Shankman, surged with boundless enthusiasm. “That was a full-on choreographed sequence,” Lillard explained of the scene, which involved him wearing head-to-toe silver clothing. “But I think the sequence became bigger when I did it. This is a recurring theme in my life.” (It’s worth noting that Lillard also danced — and sang — in Kenneth Branagh’s 2000 musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost.)
Lillard’s predilection for big performances carried over into his portrayal of Shaggy in James Gunn’s 2002 live-action adaptation of Scooby-Doo (and its 2004 sequel). “Early in my career there was no such thing as delicate choices,” Lillard noted. “There were just full-throttle choices all the time. I still do that to a certain extent.”
Lillard isn’t embarrassed by any of these performances, no matter how silly. “I’ve always liked me as an actor,” he said. “I’m that guy who doesn’t hate the fact that I look ugly in films or that I do stupid shit in films. I look back on those performances and they’re so spazzy. I’ve always held this theory that energy is what’s electric. But as a kid, you’re hurling it all around and you’re making people laugh with no kind of shepherding of your career. There’s a little bit of a one-trick element to me as a kid.”
In 2008, Lillard took over the voice of Shaggy in all the animated incarnations of Scooby-Doo — that gig represented his only consistent income for several years in the mid-’00s when very little work was coming in. As Shaggy, he earns $900 per week.
“There comes a time in your life where you will take any job to pay the rent,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’d call my agents and just say, ‘I need a job desperately.’ [My wife and I] were a product of the ’90s. We had really big cars, a really fancy house. I had all those movies where I’d worked. I got to this stretch where I was not working. I was this boy from the ’90s. Most people from that time went by the wayside. I changed my life. I sold our big house. I sold our cars. I didn’t work for a year at one point. We had to figure out what to do if I never worked again.”
In the 2000s, Lillard all but disappeared as far as many moviegoers were concerned. In reality, he was working, but not in anything people were talking about. He had roles in films you’ve probably never heard of — All’s Faire in Love and Messages Deleted — and small guest appearances on House M.D. and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
When his agents called and asked him to go audition for Alexander Payne for The Descendants, Lillard assumed he’d never get the role. They needed someone to fill one of the audition slots after another actor dropped out, so he went in with no expectation of being taking seriously, even telling Payne that he needed to hurry up and get through the reading so he could be with his kids.
“[Payne] was like, ‘That’s the best audition I’ve ever seen,’” Lillard remembered. “I said, ‘Too bad I won’t get it.’”
In the 2011 film, which earned five Oscar nominations, Lillard played Brian Speer, a man who was having an affair with the late wife of George Clooney’s Matt King, a role that presented him in a new light. It was a revitalization for Lillard’s then under-the-radar career. Critics took note of his re-emergence. Reelviews’ James Berardinelli remarked, “Even Matthew Lillard, not known to be a hefty dramatic actor, is shown in his best light.”
But even after The Descendants, Lillard still struggled to get roles and decided to turn his focus to directing. A few years earlier, he had optioned a young adult book by K.L. Going called Fat Kid Rules the World, and he was determined to adapt it into a film.
The movie adaptation was small, but successful. It drew rave reviews, particularly from Roger Ebert, who wrote, “Lillard deserves more time behind the camera.” It was an overwhelmingly gratifying experience for Lillard, who said, “I have a pretty good sense of who I am. I am not the best actor in the world, I know that. But I am certainly a better actor now than I was when I was a kid. How was I supposed to know what I was doing in Senseless or Scream or Wing Commander? They say you need 10,000 hours to be a master. I’m rounding 30,000 hours in here somewhere, just in terms of the time I’ve done it.”
Lillard’s passion mingles with awkwardness: He seemed to constantly rearrange his position as he spoke. But he’s consistently sincere. When he concluded, “I have a sense that I’m a better director than I’ll ever be an actor,” it came from a place of self-awareness rather than ego.
He hopes to bring his directorial skills to the small screen on The Bridge, assuming the show is picked up for a third season. Lillard was initially meant to appear in the first six episodes of the show before being killed off like the character in the original Swedish series on which it’s based. But the producers were so impressed with his performance as Daniel Frye that they tossed out that storyline and added him as a series regular for the current season. The Bridge has offered Lillard, who shot the children’s movie Return to Nim’s Island just before he got the offer, a chance to showcase his skills in a more complex role.
“I could show people I’m not this kid,” Lillard said. “I’m a man. I’m 44 years old. People think of me in a certain way, this spazzy kid.”
Moreover, the series, along with Lillard’s role in The Descendants, has shifted the narrative of his career, transitioning him away from comedic best friend roles to more complex opportunities that reflect his range. His upcoming work reflects this: Lillard has Match, a movie he stars in with Patrick Stewart and Carla Gugino, coming out later this year, and another with Abigail Spencer on the horizon. He has also been working on new material to direct in the future, including a script about marriage that he writes every day in this neighborhood market. “Now all I want to do is direct,” he said. “But I keep acting.”
Acting, for all its hardships and its continual struggles, is something Lillard just can’t quit. “What would I do?” he responded when the question of giving up acting arose. “My life now is not about being famous. My life is about writing a script that means something emotional to me. My life is about teaching and trying to grow as an artist. My life is about trying to cultivate my craft. There’s no quitting because you could get a job at any time even if you haven’t worked in 10 years.”
He paused, then added, “Or Dancing With the Stars will come along.” He has dancing experience, after all — whether or not he remembers his She’s All That choreography perfectly. “I cannot wait,” Lillard said, laughing. “I’m coveting that offer. They’ll be coming around soon.”