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Interview: Actor Lou Diamond Phillips talks ‘Sanitarium,’ anthologies, and more

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In the middle of some last-minute Christmas shopping, veteran actor Lou Diamond Phillips took a break to do an over-the-phone interview with the Chico Movie Examiner about his new film, “Sanitarium,” which releases to DVD on Dec. 31.

This anthology film is in the same vein as “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” “Creepshow,” and others. Narrated by Dr. Stenson (Malcolm McDowell), three stories are told about some of the patients at the institution. Phillips’ story revolves around a professor who is convinced that the Mayan Apocalypse will occur and builds a bomb shelter to protect him and his family.

Phillips talked about the film; some of the classic television anthologies; and some of his past projects. Check out the full interview below.

David Wangberg: I was doing some research, and I noticed that from the 1950s to the early 2000s, anthology series were pretty much in every corner – from “The Twilight Zone” to “The Outer Limits” to “Tales from the Crypt.” Nowadays, we have “American Horror Story,” which is like a miniseries/anthology, and then we have limited release films like “Sanitarium” and “The ABCs of Death.” Do you think [anthologies] are more appealing to a niche crowd now than they were about 50-60 years ago?

Lou Diamond Phillips: Yeah, you know, everything kind of comes in waves. You got your rom-coms, and you got your true stories. It’s interesting, because it’s a genre that I’ve loved forever, and every one of those shows that you mentioned, I not only appeared on in the reboots, but directed an episode of “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” I grew up on those things, man, and I absolutely love them. And when the offer came in, that was the first thing that caught my eye. I think you can have a lot of fun with a short form story and do some amazing things. Every few years… it was actually more in the 80s and 90s, when you had the “Twilight Zone” movie and a couple of the Stephen King installments. I think it’s a genre that people will come back to, but it’s not one that is lending itself to the big budget, tent pole things that the studios are doing these days. I certainly think we have been overtaken by the comic book installments.

DW: If you could resurrect one of these anthology series, whether it’s one you’ve done or one you haven’t done, which one would it be?

LDP: I’m a little surprised that the “Twilight Zone” reboot didn’t go much further than it did. I think they did a couple seasons with that, as they did with “The Outer Limits.” What we’re seeing now is kind of an evolution of that. Back in the 70s and early 80s, you had “Night Stalker” – that sort of thing that told interesting stories. It’s hard to say if you were going to get a brand name to revive. They might need to come up with something different. Certainly, those stories have evolved into something like “Grimm” or “Sleepy Hollow” or even the “Once Upon a Time” [series]. The idea is still there to tell a different story every week that may or may not revolve around lead characters, but to have that guest star, you need to come up with a concept.

DW: In “Sanitarium,” your character is obsessed with the Mayan Apocalypse, so much so that he goes into financial ruin; becomes mentally unstable; and ruins his relationship with his family. Is there a conspiracy out there that you want to research – one of which you want to get the full truth – but you feel that you might turn into this character?

LDP: I’m intrigued by conspiracy theories – obviously JFK, Marilyn [Monroe], and a bunch of other things like that, where you just go, “Wow.” And then, obviously, there are some outlandish ones surrounding 9/11. The thing about conspiracy theories is most people can’t keep a secret to save their own lives. If you’re going to do it by committing, that can be kind of rough. As far as “Sanitarium” goes, I was incredibly, incredibly intrigued not only by the commitment to a guy who doesn’t believe he’s insane – but the more I read the script and the more I got into the actual story, the more that you have to reflect on the fact that none of it may be true. Absolutely all of it may be taking place in his mind. And you don’t know if he’s sane or insane. Did it happen? Did he make all the preparations in his life and had he committed, and the bunker is only in his mind?

DW: Now that the Dec. 21, 2012 date has passed, do you think that there still might be people out there who don’t know that the world is completely fine?

LDP: I don’t know. It’s interesting. There was that evangelist preacher [Harold Camping], who was claiming the dates for the resurrection. I’m of the mind that there are certain things we are not supposed to know – whether they are messages from God or messages from the beyond. I certainly think there are certain people who have an input into that, and God bless anybody who is that fanatical about anything.

DW: [“Sanitarium”] has three different directors for three different stories. Did you guys all film them at the same time, or was it film one; film the other; and then film the last one?

LDP: It was incredibly spread out. I think my sequence was the last one to actually film. They had completed the first two, so much so that Malcolm McDowell was not even present for my sequence. We appear in a room together, thanks to the magic of CGI. I never even got to work with the guy, which was such a huge disappointment. [laughs] He was one of the reasons I said yes; I’m such a huge fan. But for [the directors], it worked out great, because they were able to offer some main actors the opportunity to come in for just a week – not have to make a huge time commitment – and knock out their individual stories.

DW: Before this interview, I mentioned to my friends that I was going to be talking to you. And I got a lot of people wanting me to ask about “Longmire,” “Stargate: Universe,” “Young Guns,” and all of these other past projects that you have done. Whenever a fan approaches you, what is the one project about which you are asked?

LDP: Sometimes, it’s regional, man, and a lot of times, it depends on the person’s background themselves. Many times, it’s “La Bamba.” That one is alive and well and continuing to flourish on cable, and new generations are introduced to it all the time. I get eight-year-olds coming up and screaming “Not my Ritchie!” at me. In the South and Southwest, especially around Santa Fe where we’re shooting “Longmire,” “Young Guns” is absolutely huge. “The Big Hit,” with more of the slacker crowd, is a lot of fun; people really responded to that. And then, the older generation are more apt to bring up something like “Stand and Deliver” or even “Courage under Fire.” I’ve been really, really fortunate in the respect that I’ve crossed a lot of demographics, and I’ve been able to do work in a lot of different genres that appeal to me. Especially something like “Stargate: Universe” with such a rabid fan base, it was nice to have that following, and people still follow it, which is still wonderful.

DW: And a lot of people were asking me, “Do you think they’re going to have a proper ending to the series, or is what happened a couple of years ago the last of it?”

LDP: Sadly enough, I think it’s pretty much done. They got about 17 years out of the “Stargate” franchise in general, so I don’t think “SGU” is going to have a proper burial. I think they’re going to be floating in limbo for the rest of TV history. Although, I have heard rumor – and as far as I know, it’s just rumor – that my friend, Dean Devlin, is looking to reboot the “Stargate” feature film.

DW: If you could take any characters that you’ve played before, and you could put them in an anthology like “The Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits,” which three would you choose?

LDP: Wow! That’s interesting. I mean, Chavez in “Young Guns” is kind of an iconic figure, and there is a lot you could do with that. If they ever remade “Westworld,” I would hope they consider him as the villain, because he’s pretty lethal.

Wow! It’s hard to say, because a lot of the characters stand alone. I mean, their stories are complete. You know, “First Power” – I love that film. It’s kind of a cult film that kicked my ass, but that’s a character that you could certainly build cult occurrences around.

DW: To become James [in “Sanitarium”], did you have to do anything out of the ordinary?

LDP: First of all, it’s kind of a one man show, so I didn’t have a whole lot of people to work with. But with a role like that, how do you do the research? Do you go check yourself into a sanitarium for a week?

A role like that, you just have to commit to emotionally. You have to wrap your head around the “What if?” and decide that you’re going to go where this guy takes you and not make apologies for it. I’ve often told young acting students, “You have to adopt somebody’s world view, and you can’t judge them – whether you’re playing an axe murderer or a priest.” For somebody like James, it was literally just understanding where he was emotionally; what pushed his buttons; and how I, myself, might behave given those parameters.

DW: And I saw that you are coming out with another film called “Tao of Surfing,” which you are also directing. I was wondering if you could tell me about that.

LDP: We’re about 40 percent done. It’s a little film. We’re scraping together money as we go. I’ve got an amazing cast. I act in it, as well as direct it, and it’s based on a Pulitzer-nominated novel by the same name. I’ve got a lot of friends in that cast, and it’s really a passion project and one that I hope to complete sometime this year.

This concludes the interview, but the Chico Movie Examiner would like to thank Lou Diamond Phillips for taking the time to speak about “Sanitarium” and his other work.

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