Actor Lou Diamond Phillips on 'Sanitarium,' conspiracy theories and the 25th anniversary of 'La Bamba'

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Actor Lou Diamond Phillips on the set of "Sanitarium" in downtown San Antonio.

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In San Antonio last week to shoot his segment for the thriller Sanitarium, actor Lou Diamond Phillips (La Bamba, Stand and Deliver) took some time to sit down with the Current and talk about the new film anthology. Directed and written by local filmmakers Kerry Valderrama (Garrison), Bryan Ramirez (Mission Park), and Bryan Ortiz (Doctor S), Sanitarium follows three separate stories in the same vein as Twilight Zone: The Movie. For his part, which is called Up to the Last Man and directed by Valderrama, Phillips plays a Mayan professor who has found the secrets of the Mayan calendar and believes the end of the world will come with an alien invasion and the abduction of his family.

Nice to meet you, Lou. So, you’re in San Antonio just for the week?

Yeah, since it’s a trilogy – an anthology – like Creepshow, we all have separate stories. Mine is literally taking me five days to shoot.

People are describing these stories as Twilight Zone-esque?

Absolutely.

And you were in a Twilight Zone episode when the series was rebooted in the 80s.

I was not only in a Twilight Zone episode, I directed one. I was in an Outer Limits episode and directed one, too.

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Phillips as Ritchie Almares in an episode of "The Twilight Zone" in 2002.

And Tales from the Crypt. It’s obvious you love this genre.

Yeah, I love this kind of storytelling. It’s classic. It goes back to the original Twilight Zone. That’s one of the first things that caught my eye. I also loved that I would be shooting in San Antonio. I grew up in Corpus Christi. Just knowing that these were three San Antonio-based writers/directors who are trying to create a film industry here and that it was a homegrown production, I was very happy to support and be a part of that. This is where my roots are.

You’ve worked with amazing directors like Edward Zwick, Errol Morris, and Steven Soderbergh. Is it important for you to support projects from up and coming directors like Kerry Valderrama, Bryan Ramirez, and Bryan Ortiz?

It’s job security. (Laughs) I’m doing this one now. Hire me again when you get a lot more money. (Laughs) I love new, young filmmakers. And I love independent films. Some of my biggest successes were independent films. Stand and Deliver was an independent film made for less that $1 million. I just did Filly Brown with my old buddy Edward James Olmos. It got into Sundance. Gina Rodriguez and I won the Best Actor and Actress awards at the Imagens. I still have this passion for guerilla filmmaking – for getting down and dirty and forgetting about all the trappings of Hollywood. You kind of always roll the dice when you're dealing with a new, young filmmaker. You’re hoping they have a vision and a plan, especially when they don’t have money. It’s been incredible working with Kerry. He’s as good as a lot of the directors I’ve worked with. What he lacks in toys and tools, he makes up for with imagination and a real vision. I feel very much like I’m catching this guy on the way up.

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Phillips as Angel Guzman in 1988's "Stand and Deliver."

What are you hoping to get out of this specific character you are playing? What do you want audiences to know about him as they watch him on screen?

Well, first of all the script Kerry wrote is fantastic. It really engages the audience, pulls them in, and really keeps them guessing. The set up is really intriguing. I really want people to be able to relate to him. I think there is a great amount of poignancy and pathos in the story. This is an average guy. He’s not an action hero. He’s not bigger than life. He’s just a hyper-intelligent man whose brain may have gotten the best of him. There are some twists and Kerry is going to play with people’s minds a little bit. I really hope this is one of those stories that is not only entertaining and fun to watch, but one that people will be moved by a little bit. There is some real sadness to the character.

What do you think about conspiracy theories yourself? There have been quite a few in your lifetime.

I think anybody who has ever tried to keep a secret with more than two people know how hard it is to do. (Laughs) Mind you, we don’t know everything that goes on behind closed doors and in the hallowed halls of power. A lot of these conspiracies, sadly, deal with money and power. It’s not hard to imagine people pulling strings and orchestrating events to happen because it’s going to benefit them in the long run.

Have there been conspiracy theories you think might have any truth behind them?

For the longest time, the whole JFK thing, most definitely. Were there dark forces behind the scenes that needed to get him out of the way? When you look at a conspiracy like that – whether it was the Cubans or the mob or is it tied to Marilyn [Monroe] - it’s plausible. There was a spider web of deceit going on somewhere in there.

You've been quoted in the past as saying, “The only power an actor has is the ability to say, ‘No.’” Can you explain that idea a bit more?

(Laughs) It’s funny because I said that early in my career and since then have realized the world is a little greyer than that. Yes, once you choose to go down a certain path, you’re in the hands of the machine. The machine consists of the studio, the producers, the distributor. That’s before the critics and the public gets a hold of it and anyone else who can judge your work. After that, you are really out there to be discussed and dissected. The only moment of power you have is to say whether or not you’re going to do something. It used to be I felt a great responsibility when a film wouldn’t come out as good as I hoped it would. But now I realize I’m only responsible for my role and what I bring to the set by coming in with a good attitude and a professional work ethic and enjoying the experience and making sure everyone I work with knows I appreciate and value them. I would extrapolate what I said 20 years ago. I think the power is in what you can achieve personally.

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Phillips as Officer Jim Chee in 1991's "The Dark Wind."

If someone asked you which of your movies they should go back and watch that you feel didn’t get enough attention when it first came out, which one would you point them to?

There’s a bunch of them. The Dark Wind I thought was under-seen. It was a lovely little film, but it was done by Carolco [Pictures], which was going bankrupt at the time and decided to put all their money into Cliffhanger with Sylvester Stallone because it was an action film. So, this really good little mystery, which was a Jim Chee story, got overlooked. They brushed it aside. I did another movie called Shadow of the Wolf, which was a huge hit in Canada and overseas, but in this country the distributor just didn’t know what to do with it. They kept thinking it was Dances with Wolves, but it wasn’t. The protagonist wasn’t the white guy this time. It was by a French director (Jacques Dorfmann), so it had more European sensibilities. It’s a beautiful film. Toshiro Mifune (Seven Samurai) played my father. It has this amazing scope and heart to it. I was sad it didn’t get the support it should have.

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Phillips as Ritchie Valens in the music biopic "La Bamba," which first hit theaters in July 1987.

La Bamba is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Where do feel that film fits in the music biopic genre? Do you think it laid the groundwork for others that came after it like Ray and Walk the Line?

Not to pat myself on the back, but La Bamba is still relevant. It holds up. It’s not trendy or of an era like other 80s films. La Bamba is timeless. The Chicago Columbia School of Film is throwing a retrospective, a 25 year anniversary in October. I’ll be there with Esai Morales and Elizabeth Peña. They’re going to screen it. We’re going to do some panels. Ray was directed by Taylor Hackford, who was an executive producer on La Bamba. I think with his success on La Bamba, it truly affected how he told the story of Ray [Charles]. I say La Bamba is one of the five best biopics of all time. It’s a classic and new generations are discovering it all the time.

What are your plans for Dec. 21 (date the Mayan calendar ends)? Are you going to be in a bunker like your character in Sanitarium?

(Laughs) On Dec. 21 I’ll probably be hanging lights and figuring out what Christmas dinner is going to be. I don’t have plans to get massively drunk and spend all my money on Dec. 20.

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