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How Ryan Phillippe Transformed Himself From Bad Boy to Bad Ass

Set beneath the towering red rock of Utah’s Capitol Reef, the scenic backdrop for my interview with actor Ryan Phillippe looks like something out of an old Hollywood western. Complete with its own herd of bison and log cabin-style lodge, the property sits where the rugged cliff bottoms intersect with the sandy banks of the Fremont River, its water transforming the landscape from dusty orange to green. The sprawling Red River Ranch in Teasdale, Utah (pop. 191) is as “un-Hollywood” as it gets, which is fine by Phillippe, who isn’t here for the Hollywood treatment. 

Preparing for his second season in the role of Marine sniper, Bob Lee Swagger, on USA Network’s action thriller “Shooter,” Phillippe and co-star Omar Epps have come to this middle-of-nowhere mountain ranch for some intensive firearms training courtesy of combat veteran and former Reconnaissance Marine, Buck Doyle. 

This morning Ryan arrives in camouflage pants, a layered black t-shirt, hiking boots and his favorite Phillies ball cap. He’s dressed to get back out on the range and shoot with Omar. Omar is already out there “running and gunning.” 

Friendly and without any hint of celebrity pretense, Ryan sits down and leans in to our conversation — much like, I would soon learn, he leans in to every aspect of his craft — pushing his own physical and emotional limits in order to capture the characters he portrays.  

During my candid sit-down with the actor, we discuss not only his preparation for the upcoming season of “Shooter,” but also topics ranging from veterans’ charities to hip-hop and tattoos, and even his new fitness app. Here are some of the highlights:

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Skillset: “Shooter” Executive Producer Mark Wahlberg (who played Swagger in the 2007 film version) considered you his “first choice” for the lead role of Bob Lee Swagger. That must have felt great. However, did you ever worry about comparisons with the popular novel or movie versions of your character?

Ryan: Mark himself pursued me to do it. And after our initial meeting, once I was into the idea, his only advice was “Make it your own.”  And so, having that support, I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to go kill this thing, you know? I’m going to go work my ass off and do the best job I can.”

Skillset: Heading into season two of “Shooter,” you’ve already put yourself through some intense training on your own. You’ve done that training with current and former members of the military. How has your training and experience with these “real life” shooters helped to prepare you for your role as Bob Lee Swagger?

Ryan: For season one, Steve Seapker [“Shooter” technical advisor] took us to Camp Pendleton to train with the Chief of the Marine Sniper School, as well as with some guys from the Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) unit there. We also incorporated some Thai boxing, but it was mainly the sniper training because that’s the skillset Bob Lee was using in season one. Season two is going to be different in terms of the weapons we use and the types of action.

Skillset: Which is what brings you and Omar out to Utah to work with with Buck Doyle, a former Recon Marine and Marine sniper. What kind of training are you doing with Buck, and how is it going to prepare you both for season two?

Ryan: When Steve first proposed the idea of us coming out to see Buck, the thing that made the most sense about it for me was that you can always see when actors are comfortable or proficient with weapons on-screen, and you can see when they aren’t. Season two is going to put us in situations — Omar and myself — where our characters will be clearing buildings and reverting to some of our [military] training from Afghanistan. I really wanted for us to experience operating together, working with live ammo, and being in a partnership. 

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Skillset: What’s been the hardest part of Buck’s training, or the most fun for you?

Ryan: The most fun for me has been the moving and shooting, where we go from barricade to barricade, and the targets are at varied distances. I did a lot of long-range, bolt-gun shooting prior to last season, but I hadn’t been able to do a lot of this type of training.

Several years ago, when I did “The Way of the Gun,” I was trained by a Navy Seal. Then for “Stop-Loss,” I was trained by Sergeant Major Jim Dever, who also trained me for the movie I did with Clint Eastwood, “Flags of our Fathers.” I’ve played an FBI agent, so I’ve been trained by FBI agents in the basement of the FBI building. And even up to yesterday, having worked with the best, the best teacher I’ve ever been to is Buck. I was reading his bio on the way here and was just blown away by who he is, how he served, and the experiences that shape his training approach — it’s endlessly fascinating to me.  

Skillset: Not only have you been getting your firearms skills locked down, you’ve also been doing your own stunts on the show. I think you even fell off a building in the first episode, right?  

Ryan: At the start of the first season of “Shooter” I sat down with [writer/producer] John Hlavin and said that I think I should not be doubled the entire season. I want the audience to see me putting myself at risk. I think it makes you lean in a little bit closer; Audiences are savvier now, and they’re looking for that switch where it’s not the actor.

I’ve been training my whole life to be physically fit and strong — so any and everything they would allow me to do, barring insurance concerns, I was going to do. The entire season I only doubled for one shot. I jumped off a four-story building, ten times. It was scary as hell! Every fight scene was me, and I often helped with choreographing. The sicker moments, the ones that made you cringe, were usually my ideas — like when I fishhook [Jack] Payne (Eddie McClintock) and he stabs me with the pencil — that was all my idea. I love that stuff; I get into it. 

Skillset: You mention the military movies you’ve done — you’re no stranger to playing the military role. But you’ve also got a military pedigree, so to speak, having several family members who’ve served. Has that caused you to be drawn toward those types of characters? 

Ryan: Absolutely, it has. Both my grandfathers fought in World War II. My mother’s father earned a Bronze Star for action on the ground in Germany. My dad’s father was in the Navy. Also my dad was in the Navy, and two of my uncles were Seabees during Vietnam.

At 19, I sat in a recruiter’s office right before Desert Storm with a buddy of mine from high school who ended up going over. I ended up deciding not to and became an actor instead, but my buddy Jason went over to serve, did three tours and came back. Since I was 13 or 14, all I ever wanted to do was be in movies. But when I was a young boy and thought about what that might be like — having the opportunity to honor my grandfathers — working alongside Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood and doing a World War II movie about Iwo Jima was probably the ultimate scenario I could have imagined.

Skillset: You’ve played the military roles. You do your own stunts. You shoot. You’re a black-belt in taekwondo — yet there are still people out there who might see you as the perpetually-young, privileged, good-looking Hollywood guy they remember from some of your earlier roles.  Do you find that you have to work harder than most to be seen as the tough guy or the action star? 

Ryan: I’ve never had a male audience until “Shooter” (laughs). And there’s a lot of misconceptions about me — about a lot of people in the industry, really. I grew up lower-middle class; my family struggled. I have three sisters and my parents worked really hard to keep the lights on, you know? Early in my career I wanted to play these rich, stuck-up dudes because it was my way of getting back at them. So, I would do movies like “Cruel Intentions” and play these elite guys, and people thought that’s who I was. It’s so funny how that stuff happens, since I am the opposite of that. 

Skillset: I’ve heard you say you want to do more action roles “before you get too old.” But then you look at actors like Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Will Smith, Matt Damon and Robert Downey Jr. — over 40 has become the standard for a top action billing these days, rather than the other way around. With “Shooter,” you could end up having a whole generation of younger viewers who’ll know you first as Bob Lee Swagger. 

Ryan: It’s funny, the kids in my son’s class — he’s 13 and in middle school — they love Bob Lee! Most of my career I’ve done R-rated movies that my kids can’t even see. There’s been very few projects that would have appealed to them or would have been appropriate for them. So, I get a kick out of how much he likes it. That’s the other thing I love about “Shooter”; it’s got some balls and it’s got some bite, but it is somewhat something that families can watch. Fathers and sons can watch it together, or husbands and wives. There’s something about that that really appeals to me. The fact that it’s about a hero; it’s about a patriot; about a family; it’s about action — all of those elements play to both young and old in my opinion.

Skillset: OK, changing gears now, I have to ask about your tattoos. You’ve got several; do they all have a specific meaning or significance?

Ryan: Definitely. You know, initially [for “Shooter”] the network wanted me to cover them every day. But I’ve spent so much time with soldiers, guys in the military, and almost every single one has tattoos. So I said, let’s keep them and embrace them.  

As far as the ones I’ve got, Dr. Woo, who’s a really famous guy right now, did this one on me (an arrow on the inside of his forearm). Mister Cartoon is my main dude — he’s done four pieces on me. Cartoon is the preeminent hip-hop tattoo artist. You go into his studio and there’s a picture of him tattooing Eminem’s skull. He did 50 Cent’s back and tattoos for Xzibit and Kanye — he’s done everybody. When Cartoon does work on you, you become part of a family — that’s the way he sees it.

The very first one he did on me is on my back. My grandfather, who’s my hero and served in World War II, passed away before my son was born, and I wanted to symbolically put the two of them together. So, the first tattoo Cartoon ever did on me was my grandfather’s hand holding my son’s hand. It was a way to connect them. Then he did this phoenix on my arm that I got after my divorce — you know, a “rise from the ashes” kind of thing (laughing). He did the alligator on my leg when I wrote and directed my first film, “Catch Hell,” in Louisiana.

I got my first tattoo, a Japanese symbol, when I was 19 in London on my first movie.  Also, my daughter’s birthday is Sept. 9, 1999, so I have an artistic tattoo of her birthdate. I feel like tattoos are sort of a map to your past — for me anyway, I know some people don’t care; they don’t put a lot of thought into it and that’s fine, too. However each and every one I have has definite symbolic importance to me.  

Skillset: I also heard you are going to be launching your own fitness app — is that right?

Ryan:  I am! I’m really excited about this. The app, called “Become,” is the first of its kind. It’s a health-and-fitness monthly subscription service. “Become” lets you choose an athlete or celebrity and his or her fitness program, and the products this person uses will show up at your house once a month. You won’t have to dig around through the nutrition store and sift through all the misinformation. If you’re a 42-year-old guy and you want to get my regimen, you’ll get my grocery list and you’ll see what I’m having for dinner that night. You’ll also see workout videos and clips. Every month you’ll get this box that will include a fitness-related gift, my skin care products, and my supplements. But it’s not just me; there will be a number of different celebrities and athletes on the app to choose from.

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Photo by @straight8photo

Skillset: What other projects are you working on now? What are you looking forward to these days?  

Ryan: I’m an entrepreneur — I’ve got two restaurants I’m involved with in LA. I’m maybe opening a lounge in Miami, and I’ve got a movie coming out in July. I’ve been directing hip-hop videos lately, and the next thing I want to do is direct my second film that I co-wrote, which is a dark comedy based on a true story that has an early Coen brothers’ vibe.

Lastly I just want to keep playing Bob Lee as long as I can. I love playing this character. It gives me a lot of opportunities to shine light on things that matter to me. I mean, who gets to be out in Utah running and gunning with the best guys in the world? I’m grateful for that stuff. It still makes me feel like a little kid. That’s part of how I retain my youth, that zest for what I’m doing. I love doing this shit — I really do love it.  

Story Links:

Shooter: shooter.usanetwork.com, IG: @shooter_usa

Ryan Phillippe: IG & Twitter: @ryanphillippe 

Buck Doyle, Follow Through Consultingwww.followthroughconsulting.com, IG: @followthroughbuck

The Lodge at Red River Ranch: www.redriverranch.com

Sidebar/box:

Veterans’ issues, veterans’ stories are near and dear to my heart. It’s important to me that when you tell those stories you do it accurately and with respect. That also carries over into my personal life — I am a supporter of veterans’ organizations and charities” — Ryan Phillippe 

Hidden Heroes: Phillippe was recently named an Ambassador for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s Hidden Heroesorganization, which provides education and support for the tremendous challenges faced by military caretakers each day.

www.hiddenheroes.org

Got Your 6: “Shooter” has the distinction of being certified by Got Your 6, an organization promoting the accurate and responsible portrayal of veterans in the entertainment industry.  According to Phillippe, 30 percent of the production crew for “Shooter” is made up of men and women who are veterans of the armed forces.www.gotyour6.org

This article is from a previous issue of skillset magazine, for subscriptions please visit outdoorgroupstore.com and make sure to listen to our podcast Skillset Live.

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