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Phillips Finds Success With Versatility

Photography: Shelle and Michael Neese

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“The experience truly opened up my eyes,” Phillips says. “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 Rosebud and Pine Ridge, so I was familiar with these worlds and it was interesting to find the differences between the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Navajo.”

His turn as a Cheyenne man is the latest in a series of roles that have taken advantage of a hard-to-place handsome face that has allowed Phillips to play a rainbow of ethnicities. With his coal-black hair, almond-shaped eyes, and angular cheekbones, he could come from any number of backgrounds. Phillips is, in fact, half Filipino-Hawaiian and has some Cherokee (one-eighth), Spanish, and even Scottish-Irish blood. This remarkable blend has led to his being cast as Native Americans, Latinos, and even as the King of Siam in the 1996 Broadway revival of The King and I, a role that earned him nominations for a Tony Award and a Theatre World Award.

The ability to cross over racial lines and portray a wide array of characters from diverse cultures “has been a huge honor for me,” Phillips says. “I’ve been able to represent the Mexican-American and Latino communities, playing a Bolivian in Che and a Puerto Rican in Stand and Deliver, as well as delving into aboriginal nations — Cherokee, Navajo, Lakota, and even Inuit in Shadow of the Wolf, a portrait of Inuit society in the mid-1930s, when outside influences were first arriving. It’s gratifying to have played some white guys as well. This diversity is our country’s quilt, and I’m certainly a representative of this ever-changing multicultural landscape.”

On the subject of diverse roles, Phillips likes to tell a story that goes back more than 20 years, when he was directing Cecilia Peck, the daughter of legendary actor Gregory Peck, in the independent film Ambition, which Phillips wrote. “I experienced one of the great moments of my life when Gregory Peck invited me over for a glass of wine and he told me, ‘You put me in the mind of my good friend Tony Quinn.’ ”

Peck was talking about acting great Anthony Quinn, who was known for playing a wide range of characters, from a Greek peasant musician in Zorba the Greek to a Mexican revolutionary in Viva Zapata! to an Arab leader in Lawrence of Arabia. Phillips took the compliment and ran with it. More than two decades into his wide-ranging career, there are plenty more diverse roles left to tackle. “Hopefully,” Phillips says, “there will always be guys like me to fill those spots.”

You'll find the rest of the feature about the life and career of Lou Diamond Phillips (as well as more photos) in the new issue of Cowboys & Indians, on newsstands this week. Subscribe to print and digital versions by clicking here.