Sitting Down with This Iconic Actor at Garden of the Gods
Living Well caught up with actor Lou Diamond Phillips at an exclusive photo shoot for the magazine at the Garden of the Gods Collective in Colorado Springs. The day was beautiful and Phillips was relaxing in the make-up chair, sipping Colorado made bourbon.
A success on the big and small screen for almost thirty years, the diverse performer is perhaps best known for his starring role as the Latino rocker Richie Valens in the iconic film La Bamba; and more recently on the six-seasonrun of the beloved Netflix series Longmire, playing Lakota Native Henry Standing Bear. A ‘melting-pot’ of races and cultures including Filipino, Native American, Chinese, Hawaiian and Spanish, this versatile actor has successfully stepped into many diverse roles.
Phillips was in town as the guest of the annual Colorado Springs ComicCon, where well-knownactors and comedians get a chance to meet their fans on a one-to-one basis. He has nothing but great things to say about the city. “I give a thumbs up to Colorado Springs; such a beautiful place to live,” he says with enthusiasm.
“Comic Con was really wonderful as I got to meet many of the people who have followed me for many years. The weekend gave me an opportunity to give back to my fans, by shaking hands, signing autographs, and taking pictures with them. Also, the view from the Garden of the Gods Collective was amazing, such a beautiful place for a photo shoot. The landscape is amazing and the view of the mountains from the patio was incredible.”
Bornatthe Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines, Phillips was raised in Flour Bluff, a small town near Corpus Christi, Texas. Passing up the opportunity to attend Yale University, he opted to enroll at the University of Texas atArlington, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre with a minor in Honors English. He wrote three plays in college while performing in comedy shows at night with the Zero Hour. After graduating, Phillips spent the next four years performing with the Front Room Troupe at the Stage West in Fort Worth, tackling such classics as Hamletand Faustwhile appearing in several made-in-Texas independent films including Trespass, about a brutal rape on a Texas ranch; where he also wrote the script.
So, when the fairy tale happened in 1987 and he was “discovered in Texas,” earning the lead in La Bamba.Phillips was well prepared. This was the role that made him a star and the young actor worked nonstop for the next five years.
In perhaps his most beloved performance, Phillips played the ill-fated rocker in the biopic turned cult classic. The film is the true story of Ritchie Valens, a young Mexican American teen and his meteoric rise to rock‘n’ rollstardom before perishing in a plane at the age of seventeen, along with Buddy Holly and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson Jr. The plane went down in a blinding snowstorm on February 3, 1959,near Clear Lakes, Iowa and this horrible night wasnamed “the day the music died.”
“That was a very exciting and interesting time for me,” explains Phillips. “This was my Cinderella story and the success that was happening to Ritchie was happening to me in real life, so I just opened up my heart to what he must have been going through and played it on the screen. But I did my research, reading the stack of newspapers stories from the 1950s about his career and the plane crash. I also had fifteen songs to learn, even though they were performed by Los Lobos, as well as playing the guitar.”
The one downside was that Phillips was paid scale for La Bamba, which back then was a thousand dollars a week and within six months he was out of money and entertained the thought of moving back to Texas. “The film was in the can, but I was an unknown in the lead and the story centered around a then, relatively obscure Mexican-American rock star,” he says. “Nobody was beating down my door.”
However, as luck would have it, he immediately landed a guest-starring role on Miami Vice, “appearing with both Viggo Mortensen and Annette Bening, “which basically paid me as much as I made on the six-week shoot of La Bamba,” he remembers. Next cameStand and Deliverwhere he gave a remarkable performance as a gang member whose life is changed by a tenacious and caring math teacher, played by Edward James Olmos. His intense performance would go on to garner him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
In 2015 he starred with Antonio Banderas in The 33 about the Chilean mine disaster.
The next year he played another type of outlaw in Young Guns.Co-starring with the young acting posse that included Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, andKiefer Sutherland, Phillips played Jose Chavez y Chavez, a Navajo-Mexican, in the retelling of the adventures of Billy the Kid (Estevez) during the 1877-81 Lincoln County War, which took place in New Mexico Territory. Written by John Fusco, who went on to pen Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,Young Guns is thought to be the most accurate portrayalof the Lincoln Country War ever brought to the screen.
Switching gears, Phillips went on to star opposite Meg Ryan and Denzel Washington in Courage Under Fire, playing helicopter gunner Monfriez during the Gulf War. “My father did two tours in Vietnam, and would tell me the stories of serving in combat,” he remembers, “and I try to support the USO whenever possible.”
For the last six years,Phillips has been ensconced in the beautiful city of Santa Fe, NM, filming the contemporary Western seriesLongmire, based on the best-selling Craig Johnston series of novels. While filmed in Santa Fe, Longmiretakes place in the mountains of the fictionalAbsaroka County, Wyoming. The series also stars Australian actor Robert Taylor as Sheriff Walt Longmire, a widower battling personal demons, and Katee Sackhoff, best known for Battlestar Galactica, as deputy Victoria Moretti, who has more than a professional interest in the handsome, yet troubled sheriff.
Phillips plays the sheriff ’s oldest and closest friend and confidant, Henry Standing Bear. The two go back decades: Henry and Walt served in Vietnam together and Henry is the godfather to Walt’s daughter, Katie. The owner of the Red Pony Saloon, Standing Bear has his own scores to settle and relies on his local pipeline at the bar and on the reservation — bringing a keen sense of intuition to Longmire’s dutiful police procedure.
When Phillips was sent the Longmire pilot script more than six years ago, he strongly felt that the project was “very right” for him and immediately knew he wanted to play the role of Henry Standing Bear. “I fell in love with the script as the story had an amazing amount of depth,” says Phillips, “As a contemporary Western, there’s nothing like it on television today.
When Phillips was sent the Longmire pilot script more than six years ago, he strongly felt that the project was “very right” for him and immediately knew he wanted to play the role of Henry Standing Bear.
“The experience truly opened up my eyes. I’ve played Lakota before and was adopted by the Lakota nation after Young Guns,and given a Native name by the tribe, which translates to Star Keeper. During that time, I went to South Dakota and saw the conditions in Rose Bud at Pine Ridge; so I was familiar with these worlds and it was interesting to find the differences between the Cheyenne, Lakota, andNavajo.”
Transitioning to the small screen twelve years ago, Phillips has had a busy decade in TV with some compelling story arcs on popular series, including 24 (he remains good friends with Sutherland from Young Guns days), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, SGU Stargate Universe, and most recently Blindspotand Hawaii Five-0.
Constantly working, in 2015 he starred with Antonio Banderas in The 33 about the Chilean mine disaster, and as the despicable mass-murderer Richard Ramirez in the true story of The Night Stalker.Both of these true-story dramatizations were directed by women, “who were always looking for a different approach to these characters – two men with almost debilitating baggage,” Phillips explains. Recent projects include co-starring in Filly Brown with Edward James Olmos, a starring role in the independent film Created Equaldirected by Bill Duke and the contemporary Western Urban Country.
“The character of Don Lucho in The 33 was the foreman who took the miners into the mine on that day. Initially thought of as a villain, director Patricia Riggenhadme bring in a sense of real guilt to Lucho as he had reported safety concerns to the mining company that werenot heeded by the supervisors. Richard Ramirez, portrayed inThe Night Stalker, wasalmost destined to be a mass murdereras he was exposed to violence, perversion, andneglect most of his young life and so desperately wanted to be ‘someone.’”
In addition to an ongoing and well-respected film and television career, Phillips is starting to brand himself as a celebrity chef who has created a solid foundation in the food world and has the chops to move forward to create his own brand. In 2012 and 2013 he was a celebrity judge on Iron Chef Americaand the next year he competed on the Food Network series Rachel vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Offand Sauce Boss,emerging as the winner on both series.
Reflecting upon the many “blessings” that Longmire has created for him, Phillips decided to host 'Thanksgiving in July,’ at the end of the second season of filming, a tradition that continued until the end of production. “I tend to bring together near strangers into the warmest, most welcoming place I can think of - the kitchen,” Phillips says with pride.
Story by: Wendy Wilkinson
Editor-in-chief: Nancy Kay White
Cover and inside photos: Don Jones, Studio 9 Commercial
Set photo credits: Netflix