Matthew Lillard Talks Juicy Role on 'The Bridge'


Initially known for playing goofy sidekicks, Matthew Lillard's has gradually been able to showcase his versatility. Take, for instance, his role in 2011's The Descendants, in which he played the love interest of George Clooney's character's fatally injured wife or his guest stint on The Good Wife, as a folk musician loosely based on indie musician Jonathan Coulton. But the Michigan native's most career-transforming portrayal has been Daniel Frye on “The Bridge.”

Lillard has breathed such life and humility into Daniel, that he has gradually become more essential to the overall plot line - prompting TV Line to conclude, "Shaggy's no joke anymore." That's impressive when you consider the fact that his character was initially set to appear in a finite number of episodes. The actor, 44, exemplifies a growing TV trend in which supporting turns are garnering just as much attention as lead roles.
Based on the Scandinavian series I Bron, the FX drama centers on a pair of detectives, Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir) and Sonya North (Diane Krugar). While Sonya works on cases in El Paso, Ruiz hails from just across the Mexican border, thus making for a tumultuous pairing when the two begin working together to solve cases.

During a recent conference call, Lillard spoke about the genesis of his character, veering into dramatic territory and his relief upon learning that Daniel wouldn't be killed off.

The-Bridge-Matthew-Lillard-images1Q: 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.


Q: The Bridge is obviously 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 do you try to inject a little bit of extra humor at times on the page that’s not already there?

I think what I bring is energy and, yes, I generally find opportunities to be funny in really high stakes; Scream is a great example of that. When 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.

I think that it’s a combination. I think that the writers and Elwood have found a great way to use me in the show. I think that Emily 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. Yes, I think it’s a combination of both. I think that they lean into me for that, and I tend to find it on the day.


Q: 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?

Daniel has no scruples. I feel like there’s no end to what he’ll do and where he’ll go. The great thing about playing this guy is that he doesn’t really care. At the end of the day it’s all about the story. He’s got a great line, I think, in Episode 4 where he says, “All I care about is how to fix the story, I don’t care if the guy blew his brains out.” That kind of drive to him, that kind of single-mindedness, that’s fun to play. This season he stays relatively within the bounds.

Q: 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.


Q: 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.


Q: 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.

 The Bridge tv show Matthew Lillard and Emily Rios

Q: 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.


Q: 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.


Q: What’s your favorite aspect about the character of Daniel, and how does it compare to your own personality?

Oh, good question. I think my favorite aspect of the personality is that I like the fact that he’s tragically flawed. I like the fact that a modern drama on cable even has characters that are really intricate and deep and have multiple layers. I love the fact that he is a character that is tragically flawed and is continually trying to rise up and do his best; that he hasn’t given up, and he’s not living in a hotel room in Juarez just getting drunk and high all day every day. He’s still on this pursuit of redemption and that’s what I love about the character is that he’s incredibly broken and still trying to get back. There’s a resiliency that I love.


I think that that is the part that I can relate to as a man, and as an actor in this industry, being resilient. Look, there are a lot of people in ‘90s films that just never came back. Having been a guy that didn’t work for a year and didn’t have a job and downsized his life and sold his house and his cars and just tried to figure out what the heck I was going to do if I never had a chance to come back. Looking into that kind of abyss of being cooked in this industry and sticking with it and finding myself in the place I am now, which is a place I’m, again, proud of my work and proud of where I’m at and on a great show, I think that that resilience I understand in a really great way.


Q: Do you ever get to sit down and speak to the writers about how you would like them to develop your character?

No. I do not do that. What I do do is, I go in and say, “Why are you doing this to my character?” I think that was one of the things, and Elwood said this is the past, is that he is an open door. I believe in the idea of being an advocate for your character. It does not happen on every show, I know that for a fact, but his door is open and I’m one of the guys that uses it to walk in and say, “Why is this happening? Why are you doing this?”


I definitely don’t tell them what to do with my character, but I certainly help shape what’s happening to the character in the moment. I have strong opinions; they’re not always listened to. There’s some times that I go in and pitch something or ask to change something and it doesn’t happen, and there are a lot of times that they listen to what I’m saying. One of the things is that look, I walk and I talk and breathe and I walk in that skin of Daniel Frye in every episode. I know him better than anyone.


Our writers come in and they have to service 20 different voices, and all I do is service one. I have a clear sense of who he is, and the decisions I’ve made about being an addict and trying to rise from that and finding strength in that and being the smartest guy in the room. There are all these choices that I’ve made, so they write something that’s completely contrary to who he is I’ll go in and say, “How does this track with Episode 4 of Season 1? It doesn’t make sense.” Together, we’ll try to find a good way to bridge that gap that sometimes happens between the writers and Daniel Frye.


The best way I would describe me is being an advocate for my character. I’m really lucky that we have a writer whom and a show runner who is gracious enough and humble enough to say, okay, and will at least listen.


Now in it's second season, “The Bridge” airs Wednesdays.

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