Matthew Lillard may be best known for his work in front of the camera, but directing and teaching seem to be more important to him now, writes Siobhan Synnot
PLAYWRIGHTS don’t come much more polarising than Neil LaBute. When Filthy Talk for Troubled Times made its noisy debut in 1989, with LaBute himself appearing off-off Broadway, a diatribe onstage about Aids prompted a member of the audience to stand up and shout: “Kill the playwright!”
LaBute was thrilled by the response, then concerned that the cast might have to be ushered out of the nearest exit for their own safety.
Filthy Talk hasn’t had many outings since its American debut, but this month it finally gets its European premiere in Edinburgh. A yoga studio on Hill Street has been transformed into the Basic Mountain theatre venue, with Phantom Owl Productions performing six works including LaBute’s dark and dangerous drama.
I’d like to report that Filthy Talk’s director, Matthew Lillard, had already mapped out every escape route from irate audiences. Or that he rubbed his hands and cackled with glee when reminded that Filthy Talk is as controversial as keeping piranha at the bottom of your garden. Instead, the affable south Californian looks a little startled.
“It’s funny, I forgot how awful they are until you started talking about it. The first time I read the LaBute play I was horrified. And the second time I read it… it was still horrifying. But in the process of working on the plays you find the humanity in it. And because you’re working on uncorking it, you start to fall in love with the play and the characters. The really interesting thing about LaBute is that his horror isn’t a Seven style killer, or a Scream serial killer. It’s about the horrible things that normal people do.” He does a theatrical groan. “And now I’m going to have to go back to the theatre and remind everyone how horrible they are.”
Lillard has been directing plays since high school, but he’s still best known for his work in front of the camera in films ranging from Shaggy Rogers in two live-action Scooby-Doo movies, to the serial killer of Scream, to wife-stealing from George Clooney in the comedy drama The Descendants. He’s also done serious stints on the stage, including the London production of LaBute’s play Bash at the Almeida, but this is his first professional engagement in Scotland.
A lanky 45-year-old with an easy smile, he has folded his frame into a corner of a basement coffee shop a few yards away from the studio for a chat. When we meet he’s been in Edinburgh a few days, all of them spent in the rehearsal room from ten till midnight. Last night they had their first run-through of Filthy Talk. “We’re still fighting through, and there are bits that aren’t working yet,” he says, with remarkable candour.
As well as Filthy Talk, Lillard is directing Fault Lines by Stephen Belber, another European premiere. “The Belber feels like a straight play. It goes A-Z with a beginning, middle and end, though with a lot of amazing twists.
“However the LaBute has six main characters, all with their own lexicon. That’s something we’ve built and crafted.”
If men are from Mars and women from Venus, then Filthy could be an account of interstellar war, with intimacy as the collateral damage. “Neil sent a great e-mail to the cast which was ‘You’re not there to be liked, you’re there to be interesting – so interesting they can’t look away’. That’s Neil in a nutshell.”
In a topless New York bar, there’s plenty of booze, boobs and barbs as Lillard’s actors deliver their stories without a prick of conscience. “There’s some nudity; yesterday some of the actors started working topless, or rather they are in stuff so thin that they might as well be. The play was written topless, but I had said ‘we won’t do that’. And they said, ‘No, we are going to do this.’”
LaBute hasn’t seen this new production yet, is he tracking it? Lillard nods vigorously, “Oh yeah, sure. He’ll read this interview at some point.” He grins: “And I have to tell him that I’ve taken some artistic liberties with the piece that I haven’t really informed him about yet.”
The challenge as a director is to present the monologues so that “it isn’t just a bunch of people delivering speeches”.
Lillard is gleeful about his production’s ingenuity here; there will be calls and responses, Greek choruses, and during each performance one lucky audience member will be singled out for a monologue delivered directly and entirely to them.
Lillard won’t be appearing on stage, and increasingly he’s been moving behind the scenes, teaching drama in New York and at the Vancouver Film School, and directing a film, Fat Kid Rules the World, which had a very positive UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival in 2012. His recent acting jobs include an American series called The Bridge that he’s rather proud of, and a nice turn in The Descendants as the other man (“yeah, I blast George Clooney’s wife”). I tell him I’m surprised that working in a successful Alexander Payne/Clooney movie didn’t bring him more film work.
“Yeah, and before The Descendants I didn’t work for a whole year,” he says. So has he moved away from acting? “Well, acting has certainly moved away from me,” he says, evenly. “I feel like the industry found me, went through a whole generation of me and then went on to other things.”
Films like Scooby-Doo have also dogged him: “When they are casting there’s a stigma attached to what you’ve done. Scooby-Doo comes up a lot and while I’m superproud of that movie, you lose your street credibility to a certain extent with a movie like that.
“Acting is as hard now as it has ever been. There’s a lot of television, which is great but more and more acting is about names, brands, Twitterfeed, Facebook and social relevance. There’s so much money in the production side that there’s no money for chances on the casting side. And I feel there’s not a golden era of film-making right now. You’ve got a lot of superhero movies and a lot of great abs right now. Tom Cruise probably has a different experience than I do, but when you’re number five on a call sheet, it’s not that rewarding.”
Working with Sir Kenneth Branagh as Longeville in Love’s Labour’s Lost seems to have crystallised some of this dissatisfaction with film. The movie was a critical and commercial disappointment, but the experience of working on it was never forgotten by Lillard, who felt energised and repurposed by it. “He was trying to make a 1930s musical out of Love’s Labour’s Lost, a play that no-one cares about, and I loved how he led people.
“In most films there’s no control, and you are a tiny cog. Ken had us all on the same page, and we all were sent into three weeks of Camp Branagh before we started shooting. It was Shakespeare-meets-Fame with all kinds of different classes, like dancing and singing, and he’s the single best director influence in my life; a guy I respect and want to emulate. I loved the democracy, and the great thing about theatre is that it still has that camaraderie. We’re all equal under the floodlights.”
• Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, Hill Street Theatre, various times, until 31 August.