Since portraying television’s first gay teen on the daytime soap One Life to Live in 1992, Ryan Phillippe has displayed as much talent as toned torso in movies including I Know What You Did Last Summer, Cruel Intentions, and Stop-Loss. The single father of two now flexes his comedy muscles as Lt. Dixon Piper in MacGruber, an ’80s action flick spoof based on the popular Saturday Night Live sketch, which explodes into theaters May 21. Phillippe, who played bisexual in Gosford Park and the director’s cut of 54, gives us his gayest look — Leno be damned — at his own life and livelihood.
The Advocate: It blows my mind that you’re 35.
Ryan Phillippe: I know. Me too, dude. It really blows my mind that I have a 10-year-old daughter, because a lot of times I still feel like a child myself.
What’s your secret to eternal youthfulness?
People always ask if I’ve made a deal with the devil, but no, not to my knowledge. I’m health-conscious in a lot of ways, but I do drink and have fun. I guess exercise is a huge part of it, and I do a lot of saunas and steams.
Yes, the paparazzi often catches you jogging or hiking—and usually without a shirt. Do you have an exhibitionist streak?
I don’t think so. That’s really a comfort factor, and I also love getting sun. One of the few situations where no one wants to be photographed is when you’re working out, because you’re not at your most attractive when you’re all red, sweaty, and out of breath. That aspect of celebrity is very strange because I’m just a guy out trying to go for a run.
Maybe you should just let yourself go.
I won’t always be as extreme as I am now, but I don’t think I’ll ever fully let myself go—unless it’s for a part. Feeling strong and healthy is important to me in terms of my relationship with my kids and with myself. Being active and relieving stress in the gym is a very important part of my mindset. I also find that it fights depression.
You frequently appear shirtless in your films. Do you ever feel sexually objectified?
Maybe earlier in my career, like when I did 54 and felt like I was naked the whole time. But I’m at the stage in my career where I have more control. If it doesn’t make sense to me, now I won’t do something that I would’ve just gone along with before.
Your shower scene in I Know What You Did Last Summer was also pretty gratuitous.
Completely, yeah, but I see that for what it is now. You have to get comfortable with it and realize that sexuality and finding actors attractive are a big part of the entertainment industry.
I guess that’s why White Squall looked like The Perfect Storm meets an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. Did you know how homoerotic it was while you were shooting?
[Laughs] Not at all, but I can see that now. I was only 19, so my sense of those things wasn’t that evolved yet. But it’s about a bunch of boys on a boat in the Caribbean, so being half-naked seemed somewhat organic to the story.
It’s no secret that filmmaker Mark Christopher clashed with Miramax over the final editing of 54. At Outfest 2008 he held a secret screening of his director’s cut, which featured 45 minutes of unseen footage that explored your character’s bisexuality and included your kiss with costar Breckin Meyer. Do you wish the studio had honored Mark’s original vision?
I absolutely do. I understand the reasoning from a business standpoint, but artistically I’m against the changes that were made because I feel like there was a better movie there to begin with. We thought we were making something like Boogie Nights because it was about a time of complete sexual abandon, but the studio watered it down. They had Mike Myers from Austin Powers and Neve Campbell from Scream, so they felt they could make a mall movie out of material that was a lot more edgy and honest. I did hear about that secret screening. I don’t know how big of an appetite there is for it, but I would certainly support a DVD release of that version. Breckin and I were a bit sad that nobody got to see us kiss.
Those films in the ’90s certainly earned you a big gay following.
And thank God for that. I’m very aware and appreciative. Because I started my career playing a gay teenager on One Life to Live when I was very young, I’ve always had a heightened sensitivity to that response, and I’m definitely considerate of that audience.
One Life to Live recently aired daytime television’s first gay sex scene. How much same-sex affection could you show when you played gay teen Billy Douglas?
Me and the guy who played my boyfriend might’ve held hands once or twice, but that was it. The age of those characters had something to do it, but things also weren’t as liberal in 1992. Still, I felt lucky to play the first gay teenager on television—not just daytime but television, period. What was so amazing about that for me was the response I got through fan letters that my mother and I would read together. Kids who’d never seen themselves represented on TV or in movies would write to say what a huge support they found it to be. One kid said he’d considered suicide before seeing a character like him being accepted. I also heard from a father, a mechanic, who hadn’t spoken to his son since he came out. When our show came on in his shop, it gave him some insight and understanding as to who his son was, so it opened up communication between them. As much as you can write off how silly the entertainment industry can be, it can affect change and make people see things differently. That’s beautiful.
You attended a Baptist high school in your hometown of New Castle, Delaware. Did you have an understanding of homosexuality before One Life to Live?
It was really my first exposure. Until I moved to New York to do that show, I didn’t have any gay friends. Coming from a religious school and being 17, I did feel weirdness from the church, and I felt ostracized by people I knew back home who were uncomfortable with that subject matter. But not only did I have this whole awakening about humanity, the fact that I started my career doing something so provocative also gave me strength as an actor to make choices of value and substance as my career went on. I know that’s funny because I’m promoting MacGruber right now, but most of the movies I’ve done—Stop-Loss, Crash, Breach—are films that matter and mean something.
While promoting Stop-Loss in 2008, you discussed your One Life to Live role on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Those were two very different interviews, huh?
[Laughs] Yes, they were. One was very sensitive and one was not. That was such a strange, incredibly awkward moment with Jay. I didn’t understand what a “gayest look” was or why he would ask a guest to do that, so I was more shocked than anything. I just thought about the gay friends I have and how potentially offensive that whole direction would be to them. I don’t feel there was any malice behind it, though, and I know Jay regrets it.
Leno also teased you about your sexy Armani jeans commercial shot by David LaChapelle. That was David’s directorial debut, so I’m surprised you were so trusting when he said you’d have to run naked through a rainstorm while being chased by Amanda Lepore.
Which could be someone’s nightmare. [Laughs] He literally saw me at a diner, came over to talk to me, and I ended up being in the commercial. He didn’t even know I was an actor. I’d done one or two movies, but I wasn’t famous by any stretch. I trusted him because he showed me his portfolio—back then he was doing a lot of work for Detour—and he had such a heightened, surrealistic, Dali-esque eye that was so interesting to me. David’s a genius, and I’ve worked with him a few times since then.
There aren’t that many gay jokes. I took my best gay friend with me to the screening and he loved it. The funny thing about MacGruber is that he’s a deplorable human being—he’s sexist, a little homophobic, a bit racist, and a bumbling idiot—but somehow, and it’s a testament to how good of an actor Will Forte is, you still like him. The only source of any gay joke comes from what an asshole MacGruber is. When you see the WWE wrestler Big Show kiss another dude, it’s pretty awesome.
The MacGruber screenwriters are writers on SNL, which also has a tendency to rely on gay jokes — like when MacGruber’s son, played by host Shia LaBeouf, came out of the closet armed with a vibrator and anal lubricant. As a recent SNL host yourself, where do you draw the line when it comes to homophobic humor?
I have my own meter as to what is and isn’t offensive, but I might bounce something off of my gay friends to get another perspective. You’re right, SNL does do that, but it’s all in a decent spirit. I know a lot of those writers who are incredibly liberal and supportive of gay rights.
What else did you and your gay buddy do in Austin?
We ended up going to a gay bar there, but I don’t even think anyone noticed me. I was kind of shocked. Maybe my gay fans are just better behaved than my straight fans.
You weren’t worried about sparking gay rumors?
Who cares, man, in this day and age?
You were a major contender for the lead in The First Avenger: Captain America, but the part ultimately went to Chris Evans. Are you bummed?
It’s something I would’ve loved to do, especially for my 6-year-old son, who would’ve thought it was the coolest thing in the world. The child within me really loved the idea of it too. There are very few things I’d get that excited about, but as an actor you have to move on. At some point I’d love to do something action-oriented like that because I’ve been in martial arts since I was eight.
You’ll be wearing spandex tights in no time.
I hope so, man. Before I get too old.