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Matthew Lillard has made a career of portraying goofballs and delivering funny dialogue in such films as Scream, Thir13ten Ghosts, Scooby-Doo and Without a Paddle. However, his latest role, on the FX crime thriller The Bridge, is no laughing matter.
Based on the Danish-Swedish series Broen/Bron/The Bridge, the drama picks up in its second season with a body of a cartel member discovered on American soil, leading El Paso police detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) to reteam with her Mexican counterpart Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir) to solve the case. Lillard plays Daniel Frye, a newspaper reporter struggling with sobriety as he and a colleague investigate the origins of the “money house” from Season 1.
During a conference call to promote the series, Lillard spoke about crafting his self-destructing character, escaping death, and the backend of the second season.
Can you talk a bit about how you got involved in The Bridge?
Matthew Lillard: Like most of my jobs, I had auditioned for it. There’s actually a funny story behind this. I got a phone call one day from Annabeth Gish, who I had done a movie with years ago. She said, “You should go in and audition for this character on this show called The Bridge.” I was like, “I don’t know what that is. What is it?” She said, “Diane Kruger and Demian Bichir. It’s this adaptation of a Swedish show.” I immediately called my agents and said, “What’s the deal with this gig? Why isn’t it in my world?” They said, “Well, they basically have no money and it’s only six episodes. The character dies after six episodes.” I’m like, “I’m not doing anything, so some money is better than no money.” Agents’ idea of no money and my idea of no money are usually quite different. I said, “Why don’t you just send me the script. Just let me see it anyway.” They sent it to me and I read it. The pilot was unbelievably well-written. You kind of fly through it, and you get to the last scene in the pilot and you’re like, “Oh, my God. What an amazing scene.” And the more I talked about it, the more I was convinced that I’d rather do something, than not do something I’ve never done on TV.
This is one of the things actors sometimes struggle with. I was like, “I would love to do this, even if it is no money. Why don’t you see if they will have me,” expecting some kind of offer. They were like, “Yeah, they like you. They want you to audition for it.” That’s the thing. There’s no money. The guy dies Episode 6. It feels like you’re fighting for something someone doesn’t really want you in. The more I delved into it, the more I realized they tested a bunch of guys for it. None of the guys had gotten the job.
The point is, I went in and auditioned for it. The audition was great. Elwood [Reid] called me in his office and was like, “You know, there’s no money. This guy dies in Episode 6.” I was like, “Yeah, but look at the part. Look how amazing this scene is. I get to do this scene. I would love to do it.” In Episode 6, I lived. In episode 10, I was supposed to die, and they rewrote it after I fell off the bridge. I made it to Season 2. This is the longest story I will tell in this entire conference.
Your character Daniel is an embittered, chip-on-his-shoulder-type journalist. Did you channel any particular journalist that have interviewed you in the past, or any Hunter S. Thompson aspects of the character that you are using? How did you put Daniel together?
I just dipped into my own angry bitterness that I possessed and I created it from a wealth of anger that lives within me. It’s not built on anyone specifically. There’s an aspect of the drug use and alcoholism and being an addict that I’ve drawn on in my life, in terms of how they acted. I’m very clear of who that person is when I get into that kind of state.
In terms of the journalist, no, I trust the writers. We also have a New York Times writer on our staff. Early in both seasons, last season and this season, I sat with him. He covers all of South America for The New York Times, so he and I have sat down a couple of times to talk about what it’s like to be on that drive, that hunt of a story. It’s trying to figure out where the passion is. What is the motor that drives that person? Is it winning a Pulitzer Prize? What is that thing that motivates that guy? He’s been great to give me that kind of insight as to what it means to him.
Even though The Bridge is a very heavy dramatic project, you always seem to provide some kind of comic relief in your roles. Do you seek out those roles or just try to inject a little bit of extra humor into the page?
I definitely bring an energy that’s different than other people on the show. I don’t really have a lot of jokes. It’s not like Elwood and our incredible writing staff gives me a lot of jokes. Yeah, I get to say more funny things on the show than anyone else. I think what I bring is energy. And, yeah, I generally find opportunities to be funny in really high stakes.
Scream is a great example of that. You’re running for your life and you’re at the end of your rope and the stakes are really high. To be able to make people laugh in that little sweet spot, I like doing that. But I think Elwood and the writers have found a great way to use me in the show. Emily [Rios] and I do a lot of solving the case, but on top of it, we can add a little levity to a world that’s so ripe with drama.
Daniel has his eye on the prize with this big story he’s pursuing. What is he willing to do to find the truth and solve the case? Does he ever go too far?
I think Daniel has no scruples. I feel like there’s no end to what he’ll do and where he’ll go. This season, I don’t think he really goes to that end. The great thing about playing this character is he doesn’t really care. At the end of the day, it’s all about the story. A great line in Episode 4 was, “All I care about is how it affects the story. I don’t care that the guy blew his brains out.” There’s that kind of drive to him, that kind of single mindedness that is fun to play. This season he stays relatively in the bounds.
Can you give us any teasers for what’s in store for Daniel in the upcoming episodes?
Leading into the first episode of this season, he ended up having this two-beer rule, or two-beer limit. It’s pretty ripe with drama. He struggles with his sobriety. One of the great things I love about playing the character is he’s this incredibly tortured soul and he happens to be a reporter. So, he struggles with his sobriety and as he’s on this journey, he may fall into that pit somewhere along the line.
Daniel, at his best, is a high-functioning addict. There has to come a point where he self-combusts. How long will it be before we get to that point and could you hint at some of the consequences?
In the past, Elwood has said he likes writing for me because he can give me anything. He gave me an episode, 2.07, that is a really great episode for me. I remember reading 2.07 and thinking to myself, “This is what he promised when I came back. Episodes like these.” In 2.07, he starts self-destructing.
What have you enjoyed about the Daniel/Adriana partnership and where is it heading in the remaining block of episodes?
The thing I really like about it is the writers trust us and know we are going to be around. I felt like part of the problem last season was they were beholden to what was happening in the Swedish show. They weren’t creating their own story. Last year, I don’t feel like they had a clear sense of what they were doing with us. The thing I like about us this season is that the writers are using us in a really great way to help solve the case. Marco and Sonya are off doing their thing. One of the great things is Emily and I can help piece together the story in a different trajectory. They are working on their story while we’re working our story. We’re more active this year in the main storyline.
We get connected to the case and start to help solve it. Without giving away spoilers, we’re in the last episode and we’re part of answering part of a big riddle of the season. As it expands, we expand with it instead of being left behind.
Talk to me a bit about working with Emily Rios. You two are really good together on screen.
She’s great. We’re a little bit like the Wonder Twins. I form of, shape of. We’re very simpatico in how we approach the work. On set, we have developed a great shorthand in the last year. Together, we work on scenes before we ever get to set. We’ll bring scripts to set. Together, we have a rhythm in terms of how we work and I love her to pieces. I think she feels the same way about me. We’re great friends. Between having the same approach to work, and caring deeply about her, makes work a real joy.
On top of that, I think we are really proud to be on the show. You can’t always say that for every show you are on or every movie you do. I’ve been in, God knows, some horrible films. When you are doing those movies, you understand that you are just trying to make your rent and feed your kids. With this show, we both appreciate every day we are on set and have fun doing it.
Daniel has dodged death once, and it looks like he’s getting into a little bit of trouble again. Do you think Daniel has it in him to keep dodging death and stay on the show longer?
I will say there’s an episode that comes up that is mind-blowing with the things that happen. No character is safe on our show. I will tell you, I’ve seen a script where I died. In Season 12, I got the script that says, “Daniel lies dead.” I’ve seen it and I know how it happens and I know the look on Elwood’s face when he hands you the script. I’m not beyond that. I don’t think anyone on our show is beyond that, except for Diane and Demian. Everyone is up for grabs and I think there’s an episode coming up that will surprise people with what happens to characters.
What are your thoughts on Scream becoming a TV series and if that is a good format to continue those stories?
I feel old any time that they remake what you appeared in, in a completely different format. It generally means you’re ancient. As far as the format is concerned and whether it works, I don’t understand how Scream rolls into a TV series, but there are very smart writers in the world. I’m sure they can figure it out. I’ll be interested in seeing the first episode and how they do.
You’ve wrapped for the season. Do you have another project in the pipeline already?
No, I would like one. Can you please get me in Guardians of the Galaxy 2? I would love to be in that movie. I’d like to be in any movie, actually.
I’ll email James Gunn right now.
That would be fantastic. I’ve already emailed him multiple times.
The Bridge airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.