Back in 2006, when Ryan Phillippe was 32, he flew to Costa Rica in the hope of escaping a media maelstrom. He and his wife of seven years, Reese Witherspoon, had announced they were separating, and the Los Angeles paparazzi, then at its peak madness, pursued him everywhere. So he left the United States in search of anonymity. No such luck: when he landed, some people excitedly approached him.
“They said to me, ‘Excuse me, are you Justin Timberlake?’” Phillippe, who is now 48 years old, recalls with a self-deprecating chuckle.
Phillippe is talking to me by video chat from his home in Los Angeles. With his blond curls and naughty satyr face, he looks remarkably unchanged from his 1990s and 2000s heyday, when films such as I Know What You Did Last Summer and Cruel Intentions turned him into a teen idol. He was more talented than that term suggests, which is why he has worked with Robert Altman (Gosford Park), Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers) and Ridley Scott (White Squall). But he certainly had the look that was popular back then, the blond baby face, as redolent of the late 1990s as Kris Kristofferson’s beardy ruggedness is of the 1970s, or Chris Hemsworth’s chiselled Marvel appearance will be of this era. As well as Phillippe, there was Timberlake, most obviously, and Hayden Christensen, and he got cast as the dodgy seducer in Gosford Park after Jude Law – his English Doppelgänger – dropped out. Did it seem weird to be surrounded by so many lookalikes?
“Not really. Although there’s a great clip from Jay Leno’s Tonight Show [in 2001] when Reese was on and so were ‘NSync, and Justin talks about how he’s often mistaken for me. Then Reese says something like, ‘Well, I think Ryan’s much better looking,’” he says, grinning. Yet just five years later Witherspoon and Phillippe would split up, and instead of Timberlake talking hopefully about how he looked like Phillippe, Phillippe would be getting mistaken for Timberlake. The celebrity world is a cruel one. “This business is tough, man,” he says. “You really get beat up in a lot of ways.”
My kids are so much more worldly and better educated than I was. I mean, they’ve met Obama
Back in the 2000s it looked as if Phillippe would tread a similar path to the one Kevin Bacon had the decade before. Unlike so many of his contemporaries – Freddie Prinze jnr, Selma Blair, Jennifer Love Hewitt – he was making that tricky transition from teen heart-throb to serious adult actor by parking his ego, working in ensemble films (Crash) and taking supporting roles (The Lincoln Lawyer). Bacon grasped early on that there’s no shame in playing the smaller role in a film of big names, and Phillippe got that, too. When I mention Gosford Park, he says: “I couldn’t believe who I was working with on that. Everyone except me and Bob Balaban were dames and knights, mavens and lords of the British cinema and theatre, and I had a full respect for that going in.”
But times changed: the parts got smaller and the films less consistent. “You go into any project with the hope that it will be good, and maybe a few of the films I’ve done have turned out pretty crappy,” he says, smiling. Today we’re talking because Phillippe is in Summit Fever, an independent film about a bunch of climbers in Chamonix, in the French Alps. It’s an ensemble film, like Gosford Park, but this time Phillippe is by far the most famous person in it. Which is a less ideal situation, because it’s always better to be the small fish in an ocean than floundering in a puddle. But he’s good in it, and Summit Fever is very enjoyable if you like to watch people risking their lives on icy mountains for no obvious reason.
Phillippe signed on because he liked the script, he says, plus he wanted something to do during lockdown and quite fancied learning how to climb. “On an independent, there’s no money to fake it, so it’s all real. There was this ice climb that we did, and there were times when I looked down and it was a sheer drop beneath me. Your life is in the hands of the guide who’s teaching you and it was, like, ‘Yeah, I can’t believe I’m doing this,’” he says.
Does he mind that he’s in a relatively small supporting role? “You know, the leads are always there. But supporting roles are kind of fun. It’s less pressure.”
I don’t know what my value is now. And I don’t care what my value is now
Phillippe is a very easy-going conversationalist, charming and chatty. Unlike most celebrities, who focus purely on what they’re promoting, he is very happy to reminisce about the old days, such as recalling his friendship with Altman on Gosford Park:
“I was about 25 years old and had just had Ava [his daughter with Witherspoon], but I was in Britain without my wife and young child. So Bob and his wife took on extra responsibility for my welfare and I got very close to them. And when we got back to America, Reese and I would go and spend time at their house. Also I helped to get the financing for Gosford Park, because after Jude Law dropped out I had enough bankability back then to suffice that deficit. So I think they were grateful to me for signing on.”
Is he saying he doesn’t have that bankability now?
“The media landscape has changed so much I’m not sure who has that now,” he says, and before I can say, “Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson…” he continues: “Also, Gosford Park was shortly after Cruel Intentions, I Know What You Did Last Summer and 54. So I had a value then. I don’t know what my value is now. And I don’t care what my value is now,” he says firmly.
If an actor’s value were quantified by how busy they are, Phillippe’s would be very high indeed. It’s true you probably haven’t seen his name across your local multiplex, but he has been working pretty much nonstop since his heyday. When I ask what he has planned for the rest of the year, he grins. “Are you ready?” he asks, and reels off a long list of projects, including shooting a pilot, directing a horror movie and making a podcast about stuntmen. He credits his working-class background with his impressive work ethic: “I didn’t grow up with a lot of means or connections.”
Phillippe has been working since he was 13 years old, when his mother signed him up with an agent in Philadelphia, not far from their home. “Then I started going for auditions in New York, which was a two-hour drive away, which my mother would sacrificially make to get me those opportunities. She just believed in me so much,” he says.
Was it weird, when his children were 13, to realise how young he was when he started doing commercials and catalogue shoots?
People were always trying to pit us against each other, and any time there were rumblings that we were going through a rough patch, they would make it seem like it was because I was jealous
“Not really, because my kids are so much more worldly and better educated than I was. They’ve travelled everywhere because of Reese and myself. I mean, they’ve met Obama!” he chuckles.
As every Gen X-er knows, Phillippe and Witherspoon starred together in Cruel Intentions, the enjoyably schlocky teen version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and married the year after, shortly before the birth of Ava, followed later by their son, Deacon. Phillippe was 25 and Witherspoon 23 when they married: the Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston of the slightly younger generation, with, alas, a similarly unhappy end. Things looked so golden for them at the 2006 Oscars, with Witherspoon winning best actress for Walk the Line and Phillippe appearing in the best film, Crash.
“We had some great, great moments, and that might have been the peak of our marriage, kids aside,” he says. Seven months later they announced their separation – due, it was rumoured but never confirmed, to infidelity on Phillippe’s part. There had been signs that things might not be going great four years earlier, when the two of them read out the nominees for best make-up at the 2002 Oscars. Witherspoon jokily asked him if she could open the envelope to read out the winner.
“You make more than I do. Go ahead,” he replied.
Witherspoon later said that she was flummoxed by his unscripted comment.
Phillippe was definitely famous during their marriage, but Witherspoon was the bigger star, and he has always said he was fine with that: “People were always trying to pit us against each other, and any time there were rumblings that we were going through a rough patch, they would make it seem like it was because I was jealous. Man, I am so pro-woman. I have three sisters, I was raised by women, so I never felt that way. But that’s the way people wanted to paint me. And that was unfortunate at times, but if people project a broad-brushstrokes image on to you, what can you do about it?” he says.
He and Witherspoon have stayed friends. Last year, Phillippe posted a photo of them at Deacon’s 18th birthday and he mentions her with surprising frequency during our chat.
“We did a good job as co-parents, and I knew that we would even back when we were very young. We met at her 21st birthday party, and then she was with child, but – knowing how volatile Hollywood relationships can be – I knew that even if we didn’t make it, she would be a great person to raise kids with. I’ve never said a bad word about her or our past, and I never would. I respect and admire her, and we made some pretty great and beautiful kids,” he says.
A few years after the divorce Witherspoon married Jim Toth, an agent, and they had a son in 2012. Phillippe’s romantic life has been more chequered. He had a brief relationship with the actor Alexis Knapp, then 21 years old, and after they split she found out she was pregnant. Their daughter Kai is now 11. He mentions Ava and especially Deacon often in conversation, and I ask if he has a relationship with Kai.
“I do. It’s different, but it exists,” he says.
From a vanity standpoint, I’m not thrilled with the idea of ageing on screen, because I’m a harsh judge and I’m very critical of myself
His private life became even more complicated. First, he was engaged to a law student named Paulina Slagter, who in 2017 filed a harassment report against him, before dropping it shortly after. Later the same year, another ex-girlfriend, Elsie Hewitt, accused him of beating her and throwing her down the stairs, and was granted a restraining order against him. Phillippe strongly denied all accusations, and he was not charged with domestic abuse. The suit was later settled.
Phillippe has never spoken publicly about these allegations, but given how much other people have written about them, I ask if he’d like to say something now. “Nah. Let bygones be bygones. I think people can assess situations and see them for what they are without my commentary,” he says with a shrug.
We move on and I ask if he worries about his kids reading about him in the press.
“No, because they happen to be very intelligent kids, and going back to what you were asking me about the incident, if you’re smart enough, you can see why certain things go a certain way.”
Given that these allegations were rumbling on during the rise of the #MeToo movement (for which Witherspoon was a leading light), did they affect his view of that movement?
“No, no, it’s totally separate. All those ugly aspects that incited that movement have nothing to do with my character so I wouldn’t connect them,” he says.
Phillippe has said that people painted him as the villain after his split with Witherspoon, and maybe that played a part in his career trajectory, while hers has only gone more stellar. But Witherspoon is the exception and Phillippe closer to the norm: most young stars do not sustain their A-list careers, and it is to Phillippe’s credit that he is still out there slugging it out, not minding how far down the casting list he is or how small the film.
But doesn’t he ever think, forget this, I don’t need to be giving up my summers to be the third guy in some random film? He nods with enthusiasm and talks about how he is “diversifying my retirement plans”, opening restaurants here and there, maybe even one day a bed and breakfast. “I’ve tried to be smart about it. Also, from a vanity standpoint, I’m not thrilled with the idea of ageing on screen, because I’m a harsh judge and I’m very critical of myself. I don’t want to be an older guy going from location to location. I want to have a little more stability in my life.” – Guardian
Summit Fever is available digitally on Monday, October 17th