Lou Diamond Phillips is back! The “La Bamba” star—who received a Tony Award nomination in 1996 for “The King and I”—has been working consistently, if quietly, for the last several years. But with his role as Native American Henry Standing Bear on A&E’s hit Western drama “Longmire,” now in its third season, Phillips is finally getting the attention he deserves.
On connecting with Henry Standing Bear.
“When ‘Longmire’ came along, it was a breath of fresh air. Not every script that is up for pilot season is worthy, in my opinion. And ‘Longmire’ was the best script I’d read not only in that season, but that I’d read in many years. It had so much to appeal to me; not only that it’s a contemporary Western, but it was just smart. It had a soul. It was about people you had an instant kinship with from Page 1. Henry Standing Bear felt like it was my role.”
On still auditioning.
“Sometimes you wonder if your body of work has an effect at all, but the truth of the matter is the competition has grown so fierce out there these days. I definitely audition, and I discovered maybe in the past decade that it’s the only way you’re going to secure the role unless you’re one of the handful of people who’ll get the green light. You’ve got Oscar winners headlining shows, multiple Emmy winners returning after successful runs. I discovered long ago that though I might be on the short list, the short list is comprised of people just as famous and talented as me. So I embrace the process. And, to be honest, I appreciate the philosophy that says, ‘Let’s find the right person for the role and let’s be certain about it.’ ”
On doing his homework.
“Even before I went into the audition I started reading the books [by Craig Johnson, upon which the series is based] and that excited me. Many times, when you’re creating a fictional character, you have to create the backstory yourself. Craig’s books filled in all the blanks for me prior to the role, and I was able to bring that sense of history, that depth of experience to the pilot without having to search for it. Henry is a laconic character to begin with. He fills in the blanks with his inner life, and that inner life is presented to me on a silver platter. The only thing left for me to do was go up to Wyoming on my own dime and visit the Cheyenne Nation up there. The devil is in the details, and it was incumbent upon me to find those details. And I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have spent time on the reservation, but also the outpouring of love and support I got there.”
On trying to avoid pigeonholing.
“There are those who, because I’m a very specific type in the face, say, ‘Brooding ethnic look? OK, where’s Lou Diamond Phillips?’ I would constantly try to expand the perception of what I’m capable of doing. And as a result, my manager puts me up for things that are not automatically a slam dunk. So they’ll send me in on stuff and they don’t always go the way I hope they would. They were resistant to me going in [for ‘Courage Under Fire’] for a long time and didn’t want audience members to go, ‘Oh, that’s Lou Diamond Phillips playing a soldier.’ But they eventually realized that was hypocritical, because Denzel [Washington] and Meg [Ryan] were playing soldiers. It was my responsibility to go in and change minds knowing it was not necessarily a friendly room—and I did.”
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