How Matthew Lillard Learned To Grow Up Without Leaving The ’90s Behind

Though he’s earning recognition as a serious actor on FX’s The Bridge , to many, Matthew Lillard is still Stu from Scream or Stevo from SLC Punk! — and that’s fine with him.

Matthew Lillard as Daniel Frye on FX's The Bridge.

Jordin Althaus/FX

Whether it was imbuing a teenage murderer with comic timing and wit in Scream, or waxing poetic to the camera as blue-haired punk rocker Stevo in SLC Punk!, Matthew Lillard has always helped transform his characters into vibrant, fully developed people. His impassioned, spazzed-out performances were a hallmark of the '90s, even in films that haven't stood the test of time.

There were hints of dramatic potential scattered throughout his roles, but only in recent years — in 2011's The Descendants and now on FX's The Bridge — has Lillard been given a platform to fully explore his acting range. Still, Lillard, now also a screenwriter and director, regrets nothing about his trajectory. At 44, he knows that who you have been shapes who you are now.

"My career has never been a career of, 'We need Matthew Lillard,'" the actor said, seated in a small neighborhood market in Pasadena, Calif., near where he lives with his wife and kids. He suggested the meeting place, an intimate locale where he is a daily fixture. "My career is, 'We can't find the guy. I guess bring in Lillard,'" he said. "I'm not the guy people go looking for. I'm the guy that ends up getting the job and makes the part good."

Throughout Lillard's career, he has rarely been directly offered roles but has always proven himself in the audition room. Until the past few years, when he got the gig of alcoholic journalist Daniel Frye on The Bridge and began actively pursing screenwriting and directing, Lillard has been the "best friend," the joke-cracking second gun to the leading man. But Lillard's ability to passionately embrace any opportunity presented to him resonates throughout his entire filmography, even in the films he can now say weren't any good.

"There's nothing in my past that's too terrible," he said almost proudly, his lanky body curled into a chair by the market's counter. As he spoke, he chewed his way through a pulled pork sandwich with added bacon (despite the waitress's insistence that he was going to die). "Look, I did In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. It's the worst movie I ever made. But I turned in one of my favorite performances. My wife is like, 'I can't even watch it,' but it's one of my favorite things I've ever done."

As Stu in the gruesome but darkly comedic climax of Scream.

Dimension Films

Acting wasn't a childhood dream for Lillard, who grew up in Orange County, Calif. It was something he fell into at age 13, primarily because he wasn't good at anything else, but it became an overwhelming passion. He acted throughout high school and after a short time at a junior college called up his parents and told them he needed to quit school. "I distinctly remember saying to my mom, 'Look, I can always go back and get my degree,'" he said. "But I never want to look back at my life when I'm old and say I wish I'd given it a shot.'"

Lillard was so intent on pursing acting that he took the advice of a photographer in the Valley and changed his name. "I'll never forget," he laughed. "When I got my first headshots, they were like, 'You should change your name. What's your middle name?' My first three credits on IMDb are 'As Matthew Lyn.' It's more a porn star name than anything else."

Lillard's first ever onscreen appearance was a commercial for now-defunct clothing store Miller's Outpost, but his big break came in 1990 when a 20-year-old Lillard scored a gig as the host of a Nickelodeon skateboarding show called SK8 TV.

"I remember saying to my mom and dad, 'We should go to Disneyland because when this hits I'm going to be so famous that I'm going to be swamped and my safety is going to be an issue,'" Lillard said. "I took them out to breakfast at Denny's as a celebratory gesture. I was like, 'I'm going to be super famous after this.' They looked dumbfounded, like, Really?"

Fame didn't arrive until later, despite Lillard's eagerness for recognition. He scored his first movie role in John Waters' 1994 film Serial Mom. When it was released Lillard would walk around outside movie theaters hoping to be identified as its star. He didn't realize at the time that success as an actor comes gradually rather than all at once, ideally building up to longevity rather than transient celebrity.

"You think if you're famous then you can do another movie," he noted. "The reality is that no matter if you get a job, that job will never satisfy you. Because the minute you get that job, you need the next job. It's really about the endurance of a lifetime of being an artist."

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