UT Arlington Grad Lou Diamond Phillips Shares How He Nabbed His Breakout Role in La Bamba

Actor Lou Diamond Phillips in 1987
Actor Lou Diamond Phillips in 1987
Wikimedia Commons
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He cut his teeth in Arlington. And after three decades in film, Lou Diamond Phillips will return for a heart-to-heart about life and acting at the school where he once built sets.

The Lou Diamond Phillips Film Festival, which will feature four films — Filly Brown, La Bamba, Courage Under Fire, and The 33 — kicks off Thursday, Aug. 31, at the University of Texas at Arlington. Phillips will take center stage Thursday, Sept. 7, during the Maverick Speaker Series.

“We felt like those four films were the strongest of what Lou’s agents suggested,” says UT Arlington senior video producer Teresa Schnyder.

The actor spoke with us about his life and perspective. Because he was a good student growing up, some thought he was destined to become a lawyer, a doctor or a politician, he said. But at age 15, he dug in to become an actor.

Phillips graduated from UT Arlington with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. While there, he spent most of his time hanging around the theater department.

It was the 1980s, and his passion consumed him. He didn’t have money to go out to restaurants or clubs, he says. So if he wasn’t acting, he might be found building a set.

He also played a little poker, which he says requires luck and the ability to “quickly ascertain what you’re up against” and imparts important life lessons.

“People,” he says, “they act around the [poker] table the way they are in real life.”

During that time, he also became aware of Stage West Theatre and other local acting opportunities. “The Texas film industry was booming,” he said. “And the Dallas series was there.”

Before long, Phillips landed what he called a “huge, breakout, Cinderella role” as Ritchie Valens in La Bamba.

“I was actually cast out of Dallas,” he says. From there, he “moved to Hollywood and sort of never looked back.”

Since 2012, Phillips has played Henry Standing Bear, a Northern Cheyenne, in the Netflix TV series Longmire, which wraps up this fall. Although he has embraced diverse roles, Phillips says characters like Henry Standing Bear and Ritchie Valens remind him of the kind of person he wants to be.

“Every actor, because you’re a human being, has the range of emotion inside them,” he says. “You could be a monk sitting on a mountain contemplating God, or you could be a killer given the right circumstances.”

“You have to embrace your character's world view,” he continues. “You can’t judge your character. You can’t look down on your character.”

Phillips can understand and embrace a role without carrying his character home, he says, which allowed him to play serial killer Richard Ramirez in the 2016 TV movie The Night Stalker without having night terrors.

From La Bamba to his more recent The 33, which tells the true story of 33 Chilean miners who were trapped in a mine for more than two months, UT Arlington’s film festival offers a good sampling of Phillips' work, he says.

Phillips is looking forward to sharing some film techniques, which he says were developed in Dallas and are both simple and profound.

He’s interested in seeing “what’s going to come down the pipe next" in his career. In some ways, he feels like his biggest challenges lie ahead, he says. After 30 years in the business, some things come to him, “but a lot of the really great roles, you know, you have to go after.

“There is competition there,” he says. “You cannot sit back and be complacent. You have to continually hit the bricks. You have to be looking for that next thing … or it’s going to pass you by.”

The art of acting, Phillips says, also requires a great deal of self-awareness.

“You’re not trying to become somebody else,” he says. “You’re trying to access what it is about you that makes you relate to that character.”

Lou Diamond Phillips Film Festival, 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 31, through Wednesday, Sept. 6, Lone Star Auditorium – MAC, 500 W. Nedderman Drive, Arlington. All screenings are free and open to the public. For more information, visit uta.edu.  

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