Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Ryan Phillippe

"Crash" Testing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Writer/director Paul Haggis and actor Ryan Phillippe are more than willing to talk about their new film Crash. That's precisely what they made it for; and they hope that what they have to say leads to more talking.

"Most of the time it's a chore to promote a movie. But I want to be here. I want to talk about it. I want people to see it. I just do," says Phillippe, the good-looking, intense actor best known for Igby Goes Down and Gosford Park. Both Phillippe and Haggis wear black suit jackets over casual shirts; Phillippe's thick, leather wristband protrudes from his sleeve. Haggis speaks in excited, jagged sentences while Phillippe is all business.

"There were no egos. Everybody came ready to work," Phillippe, 30, says of his co-stars. Haggis pulled together an amazing ensemble cast for the film, including superstar Sandra Bullock and recent Oscar nominee Don Cheadle, as well as Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton and rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges.

"Everyone did it out of love," adds Haggis, 52, a recent Oscar nominee for his Million Dollar Baby screenplay. "We certainly didn't make any money on this. We all waived our fees and did it because it was important to us."

Like a smaller, tenser Magnolia or Nashville, Crash tracks a handful of Los Angeles residents over the course of an unusually cold December day. A wealthy white couple gets car-jacked by a couple of young black thugs, and the camera follows each of them afterward. We meet several other characters from all races and classes. Each person begins the film secure in his or her beliefs, but each learns that life is more complicated than that. No one is good or bad, and everyone's experience adds shades of gray.

The Canadian-born Haggis originally found work in television, writing such shows as "The Love Boat" and "The Facts of Life," before creating his own shows such as "Due South" and "EZ Streets." He met Phillippe on an early episode of "Due South."

"I was on the set a lot," Haggis says. "But during the cutting, I really saw his performance. He's such a skilled actor. You never see the training or the mechanism or how he got there. That's a wonderful thing for an actor. You want to be able to look at an actor and see right through their eyes into their soul."

Phillippe, who plays a young beat cop in Crash, describes one of his more intense scenes. He must confront a frustrated black television director (Terrence Howard) who has been victimized both by white cops and the black carjackers.

"My place in that scene is to diffuse the tension, to mediate and try to solve the problem. It was very real to me. I got caught up in it. And those are the moments as an actor that you live for. That's our equivalent to hitting the 3-pointer at the buzzer."

Crash began, in a strange way, after Haggis was car-jacked. "I never intended to write this movie. It just crept into my psyche," he says. "At 2 o'clock in the morning one day, I just woke up and started writing. And by the morning I had these stories."

Haggis's theory of writing is that if you put yourself in your story, cast yourself as the villain. That way you're forced to see things from an outside perspective. This technique allowed him to "revisit" the carjackers and to understand them better. "It really helped, creating those characters as full and wonderful characters, like my Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It was liberating for all of us to be able to talk about these things during the process of shooting. Because once the truth comes out, whether it's a beautiful or an ugly truth, it's the truth, and it's liberating."

April 29, 2005

Movies Unlimtied