“Oh, that’s just semen.” Matthew Lillard is trying to put me at ease about a mysterious glob on the chair I’m about to sit in. As I express my comfort with this substance and take a seat, I stare across the table and look directly into one of the most unforgettable faces of my teen years. Between Serial Mom, Hackers, and Scream alone, Lillard is arguably one of the key cult actors of that greatest of decades. Throw in SLC Punk!, She’s All That, Mad Love, and even If These Walls Could Talk, and we’re talking about a bona fide generational icon. By the time he hit paydirt with his uncanny embodiment of Shaggy in the 2002 blockbuster Scooby Doo and its 2004 sequel, Lillard seemed unstoppable. Then, after a decade of steady and successful work, Lillard entered a lengthy fallow period that tested his personal and professional resolve. But with two high-profile acting gigs over the last year and the victorious release of his long-gestating directorial debut, Fat Kid Rules the World, Lillard is back on the scene in a big way.
Based on the novel by K.L. Going, Fat Kid Rules the World first came to Lillard’s attention when he recorded the audiobook a decade ago. He fell madly in love with the story in the middle of the recording session, and immediately made a call about acquiring the film rights. Fat Kid is the story of Troy (an indelible Jacob Wysocki), an obese teenager living in Seattle with his sternly protective father (the stellar Billy Campbell). Troy’s life changes forever just as he is attempting to end it; when he steps in front of a bus in an attempt to kill himself, he is tackled out of the way by Marcus (Matt O’Leary, as much a force of nature as he was in Natural Selection), a transient punk rocker Troy knows from high school. The two become unlikely friends with a symbiotic relationship; in exchange for giving Marcus food and shelter, Troy receives an education in punk rock that gradually brings him to life. But all is not as it seems with Marcus, and it gradually becomes clear that Troy will have to return the favor Marcus paid him when their lives first intersected.
It is a gritty yet optimistic film, imbued with palpable compassion and depth of feeling by Lillard and his cast, and has been winning over audiences at film festivals around the country since its premiere at SXSW earlier this year, where it collected the Audience Award. Fat Kid marks an auspicious directorial debut for Lillard, reconnecting him with the spirit of defiant and proud otherness that has infused his best-known work as an actor. Below, Spinning Platters chats with him about handling his critics, his ’90s legacy, and some very real talk about the career struggles that preceded his current triumph.
How has it been promoting this film you worked so long to put together?
You know, I have to say it’s been amazing. It took ten years to get it done, and the fact that the world is seeing it now and loving it or at least relatively accepting it… I think that in general, the more we give it away, the more people fall in love with it. It’s just nice. You tell people you’re a director, you tell people you directed a movie, and it’s “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” But people are seeing it now, and maybe they’re seeing me in a different light.
This all began when you recorded the audiobook. How did that come to you?
I don’t know! Nobody had ever asked me to do one before that, and nobody has asked me to do one since. I just think — and not to sound too esoteric and crunchy-granola — but things happen for reasons. The book was the first time I actively went after something to direct. And it took ten years, but we finally got it done.
Were you involved with the script development?
Oh yeah, sure. I optioned the book and found the guys [Michael M.B. Galvin and Peter Speakman] to write it. They wrote it on spec, so they sort of wrote it in the abyss. They were writing big project after big project, and they just wanted something they could fall in love with, to do for all the right reasons instead of just making money. So when it came up, I just empowered them to write the movie they really wanted to make. That’s been my M.O. all the way through the process: just keep empowering people so they can be validated as artists. I think within that, you access pride in somebody’s work. You’re validating them in the process, and that’s been really powerful.
Were there any aspects of the book you had to change to make more movie-friendly?
We added elements. Lili Simmons’ character Isabel [a beautiful punk girl Troy develops a crush on] is not in the book. To me, she becomes a really useful symbol of playing with stereotypes in these kinds of stories. She’s part of the form of quote-unquote “teenage movies” where the guy ends up with the girl, so we wanted to use her as a foil. It’s funny because some reviewers have referred to her as “the cliché girl in the movie,” and I’m like, “Yes, of course she’s in the movie! Yes, it’s part of the cliché! And then we don’t ever fall into the cliché!” [into mic] So if you’re the idiot… [laughs] You know what I mean. It’s literally like someone calling your children fat. Like, “Dude! Don’t fucking call my kid fat or I’ll punch you in the mouth!” It’s just so frustrating.
So you’ve been reading the reviews?
Fuck yes! You can’t take the good and not take the bad. And look, my entire career, I’m the first one to slag myself off. I’m the first one to say, “That movie’s terrible, I’m terrible, I’m fat, I’m ugly,” whatever. I’ll be the first to take the piss out of myself. And I’m also the first to say, “Yeah, I’m good in that.” But sometimes I think the reviewers are wrong. And I think if you sit in the audience and people are having a really great experience, then that counts for something.
Have you read any criticism you actually found to be constructive or helpful?
That is a great question. [pause] Not really? To be completely honest, we’re [currently] at 83% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But I think there’s been criticism of the performances that is bananas. That’s the other thing: if you don’t like the film I directed, I’m totally fine with that. If you think it’s too simple or too sweet or right down the middle or doesn’t really push its buttons, that’s fine. You may not like the tone of the movie that I shaped. That’s fine. If you go after Jacob Wysocki? If you go after that fucking kid, I want to literally punch you in the nose. Because I think he turns in such an incredible performance. Someone recently was like, “He’s too understated,” and I was like… I don’t know why I keep talking about this, because it’s so frustrating on that level. If you go after Matt O’Leary or Jacob or Billy Campbell, then I have a real problem. You can go after the movie, you can go after me, you can go after how it looks or if it’s too slow or fast or whatever. That’s fine. But those boys are amazing in the movie. We built the movie around them. [pause] It’s so funny that I’m talking about the bad reviews. I should be happy! We’ve gotten love letters across the board, and all I can think about is the one guy in New York who doesn’t like Jacob.
There’s always that one asshole in New York.
It’s always just that one guy who doesn’t like something. And that’s me in a nutshell! In my life I could hear a hundred great things, and I’ll only remember the one bad one.
I think that’s everyone.
Yeah, I think that’s just people. People being people. I might start singing.
Had you seen Jacob’s other work in Huge or Terri prior to working with him?
No, and I still haven’t. I watched part of Terri [in which he also plays an obese young loner] recently because it came on while I was in Australia, but I felt like I was cheating on my wife! I was looking at it like, “This doesn’t feel good. Click!” I can’t watch it, because he’s not in the right clothes and all the words are weird and his hair is gross and it’s just not him! I distinctly made the choice to not watch Terri, because no matter what, it’s still about an outcast in high school, and I didn’t want to go anywhere near that topic.
I really have to recommend Huge. It was kinda revolutionary.
And it only lasted one season, huh?
It never found much of an audience. That was the first time I saw Jacob, and he was playing such a different character than in your film or Terri. In the social microcosm of the camp, he was one of the popular guys.
Sure, and I think that’s what’s funny, because as a man he is effervescent. We’d be on set and I’d have to reign him back in between takes or shots, because he loves people and is always the center of attention. And that comes from a sense of security in who you are. I think that’s why he’s so good in the movie. He does own that space; he is able to take his shirt off in the opening frames and be like, “Here he is.” It lets him be dramatic so he’s not always schticky and funny.
In your pre-production director’s statement, you said you wanted to rehearse a lot with your actors so they could improv during the shoot. Was there any improv that made the cut?
Did I say rehearsal?
That did not happen.
Not enough time?
Yeah. It’s an independent film. I was like, “I’ll for sure work with them.” And it’s funny, because as an actor, I always marveled at the fact that directors didn’t hang out more. And now I know why. [laughs] I was like, “Why aren’t we rehearsing these guys?” And then we’d be rehearsing and I’d be like, “This isn’t what I need to be doing.” You’re always on a million different things. I learned a lot about that. What I said to them every single day was, “All I ask, what I’m begging you to do, is just to know the lines pat. Just be 100% secure in the lines so that we can throw them away, and you can be available to whatever strikes you because you’re not thinking about the words.” And to their credit, they came in every single day on point. And that was a big deal. I think there is freedom within form, and I think they exercised that in the movie.
Have any of the directors you’ve worked with over the years played a particular role in shaping you as a director?
It’s really a collection of everything in your life. The dad I am as a father is a collection of my life as a man. As a kid, my parents influenced me, and in the way you go through it all and just become the man you are, you’re also just the director you are. It’s not like I sat there and considered, “I’m gonna take this aspect…” Directing for me is very visceral. Lots of hard work goes into being in the moment and available. Just like with my actors, if I’m completely ready to go each day, I can find freedom within form. So for me, that is how I approached it. I will say that there are people like Alexander Payne [on The Descendants], obviously. I respect his work in a huge way. I sat there and quietly watched the way he worked a set, what he was doing. Kenneth Branagh [on Love’s Labour’s Lost] is somebody else I always talk about in terms of one of the great experiences I’ve had with a director. You don’t seriously sit there and think, “Okay, what is he doing?” But you have a sense of what they did.
How long were you on the Descendants shoot?
I was there for 10 days. Not very long.
I interviewed Judy Greer on that press tour, and she mentioned how interesting it was flying back and forth between Alexander’s set and the Jeff, Who Lives At Home shoot for the Duplass brothers in Mississippi, observing the differences between their directorial approaches.
For sure. That’s the thing: as an actor, you are a product of whatever you’re thrown into. So if we’re open and free, I’m open and free. If we’re word-perfect, I’m word-perfect. On the Trouble with the Curve set, they did just one take! That’s a totally different mindset and approach to the work. So your job as a professional actor is to fit in, be like, “Yes, and…”, and then here we go.
Is it funny to you that you’ve suddenly had this renaissance over the last year playing smug yuppies in The Descendants and Trouble with the Curve?
Isn’t that funny?
Where do you think that’s coming from?
Well, I don’t think that Brian Speer in Descendants is smug. I think he’s a really authentic character. He’s a guy who’s really effed up and scared to death. [He just seems smug] by virtue of what he does and the fact that he’s kind of cheesy. I’m a good bad guy. If you laugh with your bad guy, then you’re having fun. And in Curve I get to play that kind of Snidely Whiplash kind of guy. You see him being bad from the beginning, and a clear definition of a bad guy is fun.
They’re like the kinds of adults your ’90s characters wouldn’t have wanted to grow up and become. That’s one of the things I love about Fat Kid, it seems like a continuation of the the outsider roles and cult films you did in the ’90s.
It’s funny. I never think about this stuff, but when you say that to me… I was gonna say, “Well, I’m really not responsible for those roles, and I got lucky to be in Serial Mom.” But the reality is that I’m a guy outside of the box. I do not look like Taylor Lautner. I am not Mark Ruffalo, all dramatic and smoky. I’m this weird kind of quirky cat, and that quirkiness is then put into movies. In general I bring a level of obtuseness, and sometimes I’m there because those movies are weird and outside the box. But this movie is really the first movie where I’m like, “Oh, this is our film.” I always say it’s our film, it’s not my movie. It’s a collection of people’s movie. But it’s a movie that I directed, and that kind of quirk is celebrated. Our kids are very idiosyncratic in the movie. I love those performances because they have this crazy depth of humanity.
I guess it just felt like personally, as a former ’90s teen outsider who was drawn to cult films, it seemed like you were always popping up in the movies I was most excited to see.
So whether intentionally or unintentionally, there seemed to be a pattern.
Definitely unintentionally. But I like the fact that over the course of fifty movies, people still like me. Because it hasn’t always been easy. My life has ebbed and flowed. I didn’t work for a year and a half. We had a big house; we downsized our house. We had nice big cars; those cars are gone. We made a lot of choices that really redefined me as a man, and within those things I was thinking to myself in a very serious way, “Am I done? Am I never coming back? Will I never get a chance to act again? I never did anything wrong to anyone. I’ve never been late in my life. I’ve never been a jerk. I don’t do drugs. Should I just sell out, take the money from Dancing with the Stars, and get out?” So it’s always nice to have these moments where people are like, “I like your work.” It’s not always easy in my job, and it’s nice to hear that I shouldn’t quit. I mean, I’ll never quit–
What do you think you would have done if you’d stopped acting for good?
I would have taught acting. I mean, look: I wasn’t acting for a year and a half. It’s not like I’ve ever made a lot of money. Yes, Scooby Doo 2, I made a lot of money without a doubt. But everything else, it’s not like I’m getting paid huge amounts of money. That’s the misconception of so many people. Like if you see somebody have a CD, you think they’re a rock star and have tons of money. You see someone in a movie… I mean, not for nothing, but The Descendants? I got paid $1,600 for the entire film. And it’s the best $1,600 I’ve ever made, I’m super-proud of it. But after taxes, manager, agent? You’re clearing $400. And if you eat cheeseburgers every day while you’re there in Hawaii, you’re gonna eat your way through that $400. It’s a hard way to make a living. But even if I’m not acting and making money, I’ll still be teaching acting. I’ll still be associated with acting at a college or high school level. Whatever happens with my career — and when it did happen — I was like, “Alright, what am I gonna do?” And that was the answer I came up with, which was, “Do what I do.”
You’ve said that when you discovered drama as a teenager that it changed your whole life.
Yeah. I was that kid who was very lost in high school. And then I found acting, and it gave me definition. I found a place that I fit in. And some adults somewhere along the line — my mom, my dad, teachers — were like, “Oh, you’re good at that.” And that encouragement changed everything.
One of the things I love about your film is that it’s very compassionate.
I watched it a few days after South Park aired an episode that skewered the rise of obesity in American culture as evidenced by Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and big people on scooters at Walmart. It suggested that this meant we’d somehow lowered the bar, that being overweight had suddenly become acceptable. The whole thing struck me as a mean-spirited exercise in fat-shaming. So I think that made me appreciate your film that much more.
Well, it’s obviously in your life somewhere. You’re identifying with it in an emotional way, and the problem is that a lot of people don’t. I identify with it. My mom’s obese, my dad’s obese. I come from fat Michigan stock. I was a heavy kid growing up. I understand how hard it is, I understand the shame. I mean, Troy hides food. That was a big thing for me and him to put in the movie. I’m proud of that, and I’m proud of the respect we give those kids. But our movie is not about fat kids, it’s about a kid on the outside. It has nothing to do with obesity, we don’t talk about obesity. We talk about a kid who’s lost who finds punk rock music. And I like the fact that we’re never like, “No! Don’t eat that!” I don’t give a shit. At the end it’s not like, “Here’s how you get skinny.” We never say that, because that’s not what we’re about.
We had a girl in Toronto stand up at one of the screenings — like that thing we were saying earlier about those things you remember? We had this girl stand up and be like, “I’m a fat activist, a fattivist.” She was a heavy woman. And she was like, “Why do you have to have these stereotypes of people squirreling away food, and why does he have to have shame about it?” And my whole thing is, “He doesn’t have to, but he does. He does have that. And that’s what he does.” We’re not judging it. It’s not a point of discussion. It’s just who he is, it’s the truth. And if we’re making a piece of art and you want to affect people and change them, you have to look at it honestly. If you’re making a bunch of hype and bullshit, then no one’s ever gonna get anything from it. But if you tell the truth, then all of a sudden there’s room for growth from people. And that’s the idea of art. I think.
Fat Kid Rules the World opens in San Francisco today.