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Matthew Lillard Rules the World!

Updated: May 21, 2023


Matthew Lillard Rules the World

by Jay S. Jacobs

photo by Mark Doyle

Copyright ©2012  All rights reserved. Posted: October 4, 2012. 

Ten years is a long time coming, but for actor Matthew Lillard, the urge to direct had been around long before that.  Not that his acting career hasn’t kept him busy — amongst the iconic roles he has taken were a horror-film expert in the original Scream, Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo! movies, the real estate agent who cheated with George Clooney’s wife in last year’s acclaimed The Descendants and a corporate baseball man in the current Trouble With the Curve.

However, for a decade now, he has been crafting his directorial debut, the film version of KL Going’s popular young adult novel Fat Kid Rules the World.  The film is about Troy, an overweight and depressed high school student who finds new meaning to his life through forming a band and a friendship with a drug-addicted and unreliable homeless singer played by Matt O’Leary.

We recently had the opportunity to have this exclusive chat with Lillard when he was visiting New York to promote the opening of Fat Kid Rules the World.

How long have you wanted to make the jump to directing?

It’s been a part of my life my whole life.  When I was in high school, I started to direct there.  It just has been a natural progression for me.  I optioned the bookten years ago and have been trying to get it made ever since.

How did you learn about KL Going’s book and why did you think it would make a good film?

I was offered [the job of recording] the book on tape.  When I was doing the book on tape and I was reading it for the first time, I found myself very drawn to the characters and the story.  I had a really significant emotional connection to the whole thing.  I think that what I saw in it was the story of an underdog.  It’s the story of a kid who is lost.  For me in high school, I didn’t find punk rock music [like the hero of the book], I found acting.  That discovery in my life changed my life.  It gave me hope and a direction in life.

Jacob Wysocki is obviously not the average leading man type, but he was very good in Terri and of course Fat Kid Rules the World.  When did you know you found your Troy?

It was funny, we had three people walk in the room.  While the other two actors were just fine, it was really the potential of Jacob that excited me.  I had met Jacob the first time when we did a short two years ago in Ontario.  He was a kid that walked in the room and said, “You know, I’m normally funny, but I’d love to try to do this.”  He had the right attitude and passion that makes it happen.

Possibly the most surprising character to me was the dad played by Billy Campbell – he starts off as a hard-ass but eventually shows a lot more layers.  Why did you find the character interesting and what do you feel Campbell brought to the role?

I found the character interesting, because I think that’s the real character.  (laughs)  I think that any kind of one-dimensional “I’m the angry dad” character just doesn’t reflect anything real.  For me, Billy Campbell was a little bit of a Godsend.  We had started the movie and we were looking for a dad, but we couldn’t convince anyone with any kind of street credit to come on board, because we were a tiny movie, we had no money to offer.  No matter how many times I said, I promise you, the part is going to be worth it, we couldn’t get anyone’s attention.  So, at the 11th hour, I got a call from an agent saying that Billy just got done doing The Killing, what about Billy Campbell?  We jumped at the opportunity.

Why was the setting changed from New York in the book to Seattle in the movie?

Because we were a $750,000 movie shot in 22 days.  There was no way we could have done that in New York City at that budget and the amount of production value we ended up getting in Seattle.

Music played a huge part in Fat Kid, as well as some of your older work as an actor, like SLC Punk!  How important is music to your life and what things do you tend to listen to?

To be honest, to me music is not a big part of my life at all.  I know that there are a lot of people that live and die by what comes out next and have an emotional connection to music.  I’m just not one of those guys.  I happened to be cast in SLC Punk! and I’m super happy I was.  And this book that is really about an underdog is set in the world of punk rock music.  It’s not about the music, per se, as much as it is that the kid IDs with it.

Young adult novels seem to be a fertile ground for film ideas.  Why do you think that world is exploding as it is?

It’s exploding because the emotions are in high in books like that.  A lot of times adults are a little more pat in the response.  We’re a little more used to the ebb and flow of life.  Young adult books are rich in stakes.  There is nothing that happens in a YA book that isn’t of the utmost importance.  Those are ripe grounds for telling stories.

You’ve worked with some great directors over the years like Wes Craven and Alexander Payne and even Eastwood, though I know he didn’t direct Trouble With the Curve.  What did you learn from them that you were able to use as a director?

Well, I learned everything from them, to be honest.  The collection of men and women that I’ve worked with as directors helped define me as an actor.  It helped shape me as an artist.  The reality is that influence plays into the director I became.  There’s lots, but nothing specific.  It’s not like I can go back to a moment when I was with Payne and I was like, oh, I’m going to take that.  But his influence on me is definitely palpable.

A large part of Fat Kid Rules the World shows that we are not necessarily the people that others think we are.  What about you would tend to surprise people?

Good question.  That I’m a father of three.  That I consider myself a very normal human being, a very down-to-earth guy and my job happens to be acting.  I take my craft seriously.  I don’t take my celebrity, or notoriety, fame, whatever that word is you want to use [too seriously].  (laughs)  Really, I take the piss out of myself more than anyone else.  Those things are not things that I hold dear to.  I’m the assistant coach of my ten-year-old’s soccer team.  And I play Dungeons and Dragons every two weeks.

Fat Kid is obviously so much about the experience of growing up.  What were you like in growing up and in high school?

I was an overweight kid.  I come from overweight parents.  I think that insecurity defined me, in a big way, until I found drama and I found something that I was good at.  Once I found something I was good at, it really changed me.  I was a kid way more inclined to get in trouble for being funny that to say something intelligent at all.

How did you first get involved with acting?

My dad said I could take an acting class or a typing class.  I thought I had a way better chance of passing an acting class.  (laughs)  What sucked was the next semester he made me take typing class anyway.

Other than acting, what were some things you were passionate about when growing up?

I love soccer.  I’m crazy [about it].  I’m a soccer fanatic.  I played Dungeons and Dragons growing up.  Still do.  When I was a kid, we would leave at 8:00 in the morning and you’d run around all day.  You’d be on your bike.  You were playing with your friends.  Playing football.  Playing basketball.  Everything.  It’s funny, but true, we would do that.  But I started making these neighborhood movies, with my friend, when I was ten years old.

Who inspired you to take filmmaking up?

One of the kids I was with was a movie fanatic.  He had learned how to make a stop-action film.  We started making stop-action films.  We really made kind of Star Wars films with beginnings and middles and ends.  It was him, he had a camera, this little 8mm camera and we shot these movies.

The first time I remember seeing you – and most people do – was in the original Scream.  How did you get that role and what was it like being a relative unknown when your movie explodes like that one did?

Originally I went in to audition for Billy – Neve Campbell’s boyfriend in the movie.   The casting director came to me and said, “You’re fantastic, but you’re never going to be this guy.  What do you think about this role?”  I said yeah and she said “Come back in an hour and a half.  [Director] Wes [Craven] is going to be here.  Audition for Wes.”  I came back an hour and a half later and auditioned for him and the rest is history.  No one expected that movie to be the kind of cultural phenomenon it was.

Possibly the role that most people know you for now is Shaggy in Scooby-Doo!, which you did in the two live action movies and now you are doing in the animated films.  Oddly, I’ve interviewed all your co-stars in the movies that and I’ve tried to ask: generations had grown up with those characters.  How important was it to you to be respectful to the originals while at the same time putting on your own stamp on it?

Oh, huge.  That defined every choice I made.  (laughs)  Nothing about that character wasn’t motivated by how the cartoon was and how to do it right.  I don’t think there is in general a way to “act right” but for that movie and that character, making that kind of iconic figure into a real person, I took really seriously.

Have you ever gotten to talk about how to play the character with Casey Kasem [who played him in the cartoon series]?

Yeah, Casey plays my dad on the animated series (Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated) so I see Casey about once every couple of months.

How does it feel now that you’ve finally hit the point in your career where Hollywood sees you as the kind of guy that women would cheat on George Clooney for?

I don’t know if Hollywood sees that, but certainly I think that Alexander Payne saw that.  But the reality is if it comes down to me and Taylor Lautner making out with some woman in a movie, it’s probably not going to be me.

Seriously, The Descendants was a very different kind of role for you.  What was that film like to be a part of?

When you are working with who I think is the best director in the world, that is awesome.  It’s one of the three top film experiences of my life.

You have also just done Trouble With the Curve.  What was that like – to be with a talented cast like Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake and of course a legend like Eastwood?

Good.  Again, you realize that you are working with part of the Hollywood pantheon of great actors.  Between Clint and John Goodman, you don’t want to be the kid in the movie that sucks.

Both as an actor and perhaps as a director, what are some movies that you most wish you had been a part of?

Every movie I’ve ever seen.  (laughs)

What was the first movie you ever saw that really blew you away?

Well, Star Wars kind of defined my life from very early on.  From an early age.  The idea of playing with Star Wars action figures really sparked my imagination and kept me going throughout most of my life.

Is there a certain movie that if you are in a bad mood it automatically cheers you up?

Not really.  I do like flipping through channels occasionally and finding movies that I love.  But if I’m in a bad mood, I don’t go to movies.

Is there something you watch when you need a good cry?

No.  (laughs)

What movie do you think you have seen more than any other?

The Princess Bride.  Or Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

What kinds of things bring you back to the old days?  What makes you nostalgic?

Looking at my kids and going I used to be young.

Now that you’ve gotten your feet wet in directing, do you want to eventually move in  that direction or do you want to continue to balance between acting and directing?

I’d like to move in that direction.  We’ll see what happens.  The good thing is I don’t think I have to choose, per se.

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