Lou Diamond Phillips on Prodigal Son Season 2 and Directing for TV

From show creators Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver, the Fox series Prodigal Son is back for Season 2 and finds Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne), a criminal profiler with the talent for getting inside the minds of killers because his father, Dr. Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen), was one, covering for the shocking actions of his sister Ainsley (Halston Sage). But protecting her and their mother Jessica (Bellamy Young) weighs on him and threatens to tear their already fractured family further apart.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays NYPD Lieutenant Gil Arroyo, talked about turning up the dial on everything for Season 2, the show’s hybrid blend, why the Prodigal Son pilot script stood out to him, what he enjoys about his character, his favorite twisted crime this season, and directing an episode of the show. He also talked about expanding his career as a director, writing a novel, and why it’s important to be the captain of your own ship in this business.

Lou Diamond Phillips in Prodigal Son
Image via Fox

COLLIDER: I was a big fan of the first season of Prodigal Son, so I was very curious about what Season 2 would be like.

LOU DIAMOND PHILLIPS: Right? It’s like, how do you top yourself? First of all, [co-creators] Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver are brilliant, and they have assembled an amazing writers’ room. Fox and Warner Bros. have been behind the show from the beginning, so they allowed them to put together the writers’ room early and they were able to get their pick of some of their favorites. What I will also say that I think we’re all very proud of is the fact that the writers’ room is primarily female. The women outnumber the men in the room by quite a bit. They’re very smart and they’re very ingenious, with the crimes of the week, the interpersonal relationships and the dynamics. We turn it up to 11 this season, not to outdo, but to keep the flow going.

It’s certainly a show that has a very definite creative edge to it and it does some things that I haven’t seen on shows like this before.

PHILLIPS: That’s the challenge that they set for themselves. From the jump, the show has tried to be a hybrid. It’s a procedural, but it’s a thriller. It’s a black comedy, but it’s got the serial aspect of it. In some ways, it’s This is Us meets Silence of the Lambs. It’s a lot of disparate and unlikely elements coming together to form what I hope is a very unique and original show.

You’ve been a working actor in this business for quite some time now, and even though you can’t predict how something is going to turn out with viewers or audiences, I would imagine that you get a certain sense for things. When you read a script, what is it that really grabs you, and what was it about this show that originally grabbed you?

PHILLIPS: Every pilot season, you read a ton of scripts and there’s always gonna be cop procedurals, legal shows, and medical shows. It’s always when something comes along that’s a little different and that is attempting to do something that is unique, that it becomes very, very self-evident. Longmire was that way for me. It was the best script I’d read that particular pilot season. That it had literary roots and was a contemporary Western, I thought, “Okay, this is new and different.” And then, the year before Prodigal Son, I didn’t do a pilot because there just wasn’t anything out there that felt new or fresh. From the beginning of Prodigal Son, you could tell that it was trying to be something different and that it was trying to take the expected and turn it on its head. I really appreciated that. What you can’t always know is how it’s gonna play in execution. First of all, everybody has to be on the same page and trying to make the same kind of show. Otherwise, it just becomes this stew that’s badly seasoned. It all has to be pulling in the same direction. You have to execute that vision very, very well, and then you have to hope that people like it. I’ve seen and been involved in shows that I thought achieved what they set out to achieve, and yet just didn’t spark with an audience. That’s the kind of thing you really can’t predict.

Just because something does bad at the box office, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie, just like doing really good at the box office doesn’t mean it’s a good movie. Something can do really well at the box office and be terrible, or do really terrible and be great. If nobody tunes in to your TV show, you don’t get to make any more of it.

PHILLIPS: Exactly. The factors that go into that are timing, what’s going on in the country, and what’s going on people’s lives. People talk about Wolf Lake, which was a show that I did that I loved and thought it was fantastic. It was so ahead of the curve. Twilight happened a couple of years later, and Supernatural and all of these other things started happening that were big hits. We were supposed to premiere on September 12, 2001, and nobody wanted to see a show like that. It was dead on arrival, just because it was not part of the national appetite at that time. A movie I did called The 33, which I think is a beautiful, inspirational, aspirational film about the Chilean miners, came out against James Bond and Peanuts, so it was very underseen. Maybe the marketing didn’t find that exact sweet spot in people’s hearts. It’s so hard. So many things have to go right for things to actually click.

Lou Diamond Phillips and Frank Harts in Prodigal Son
Image via Fox

Because the first season of a show is when you get a feel for the world and the characters, and you learn about what the relationship dynamics are, how well do you feel you got to know your character in the first season, and how fun has it been to come back for Season 2 knowing a bit more about who he is and feeling like he’s a little bit more lived in?

PHILLIPS: It’s interesting, the way you put it. I felt that he was lived in from the beginning, and that’s one of the reasons I said yes. He automatically was a guy with baggage and history. By the time you get to the end of the pilot and realize that he’s had this long relationship, not only with Malcolm but with the Whitly family, that was just right. That just had so many possibilities. I was so proud and gratified by the way the writers leaned into that throughout Season 1. The relationship with Jessica blossomed when that was not something I anticipated from the pilot. It just got more rich and more complex. That’s the gamble you take. You wonder, “In success, I’m gonna be doing this for a long time. Am I gonna get bored? Am I going to keep jumping up and down in the same spot?” The writers, not just with me but with every one of our characters, have fleshed everybody out and given them more to do and really played upon the inherent chemistry that we all have in this cast. It’s exciting to think of Season 2 and just continue barrelling down that road that is twisty and turny, and has speed bumps and roadblocks and detours. They’re having a blast, and now that they’ve really established everybody, they’re playing to everybody’s strengths. It’s more of the same, but with emphasis on the more.

Your character is somebody who cares very deeply for Malcolm and for the Whitleys, but do you feel that also creates a blind spot for him where they’re concerned?

PHILLIPS: Interesting that you say that because that is exactly an issue that we bring up in the first episode. It’s lovely because we get to see Gil’s dynamic with the rest of his team, and Aurora Perrineau’s character, Dani, is the one to point that out. She says, “You are a by the book cop. You’re the best cop that I know. You trained me, and you’re letting your emotions cloud your very pristine procedural mind.” He’ll have to deal with that and wonder if he maybe made a mistake. It’s about how he figures out how he’s gonna behave moving forward, but also how that affects this burgeoning relationship that he may or may not have with Jessica. So, if it’s obvious to our audience, it’s obvious to our writers and they don’t shy away from that.

Because Malcolm is keeping a secret this season, does your character gets a sense that something is not quite right with him?

PHILLIPS: The problem is that Malcolm is constantly struggling with something, and everybody knows it. We’ve had the line, “He’s being more Malcolm than usual,” a couple of times now, so how do you differentiate between the other little bits of secretive horror that he’s dealing with? There’s just so much that Malcolm has internalized. Even though we may see it, I don’t think anybody can put their finger on. That’s one of the mysteries that’s gonna play out throughout the season. Malcolm has, once again, put so much on himself to try to handle, and we’ll see the ramifications of that.

Everybody feels like Ainsley is the together one, but that’s clearly not the case this season, after what happened with her last season.

PHILLIPS: Oh, they’re messing everybody up and fraying the edges on everyone, and I’m thrilled. We have a murderer’s row, so to speak, of a cast, and if they throw the ball to anybody, they’re gonna score. What’s wonderful is that you’re gonna see a lot more screen time for Halston [Sage]. You’re also gonna see more screen time for Keiko Agena. Frank Harts has a wonderful storyline that’s gonna be dealing with some very relevant issues that our country is facing right now with systemic racism. Everybody always hoped that things work out the way that they did, but I think the writers have discovered that this cast is uniformly capable of holding the screen and being dynamic, and they’re really writing to that.

The cast of Prodigal Son
Image via Fox

Have you had a favorite twisted crime so far this season?

PHILLIPS: Yes, and it’s the one that I’m directing. The crime is just delicious. It’s twisted and it’s dark and it’s jaw-dropping, and that’s saying that when they’ve delivered up a feast of insanity. It’s fun to be able to get behind it and not just watch it, but to try to create it and elevate it, to where it’s at its most entertaining and shocking. It’s a lot of fun working with [cinematographer] Tony Wolberg and bringing in a lot of Lynchian, Hitchcockian and Kubrickian influences with our production designer, Adam Scher. I will say that my episode will involve a lot of special effects makeup, which is gonna be a lot of fun.

Since you had directed an episode of Longmire, did you know from the beginning of signing on for this show that you wanted to direct an episode at some point?

PHILLIPS: Yeah, but that’s not one of those things that you lead with, so they don’t go, “Okay, stay in your lane.” But the creators were very, very aware that I’ve directed many things. In addition to Longmire, I’ve most recently directed Fear the Walking Dead and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which are very, very iconic shows with a very strong visual signature, much like our show. And so, the discussions of me directing happened literally from the beginning. It was decided in the first season that I would direct, but that we would wait until this season to do that. So it didn’t really come out of the blue. I have to give so much credit to Sam and Chris, not only for being forward-thinking and so supportive of the writers’ room, but open to the cast’s input, suggestions and thoughts. They’re very trusting and they truly are collaborators. It’s inspirational that we have this level of interaction with our showrunners.

It’s cool that the episodes of TV that you’ve directed have all been very different kinds of shows, whether you’ve been in them or not. Is there another show that’s currently on TV that you’d love to go in and direct an episode of?

PHILLIPS: Oh, my gosh, yeah. There’s a bunch. I’m a fan of so much TV, it’s ridiculous. They continue to raise the bar. This is another Golden Age of Television, with the writing and the cinematography. Just the level of cinematic achievements on the small screen is better than ever. I’m a big fan and I came very close to stepping in when they lost a director on two shows, The Good Doctor and Better Call Saul. As far as cable goes, I’ve always been a fan of Outlander, mainly because of the period aspect of it and I think that’s a beautiful cast. I think they only hire out of the UK, which is understandable. In that vein, Killing Eve is so much fun and would be a ridiculous show to direct. Here in the States, but unfortunately I think our schedules conflict, something like Succession would be a blast, just to watch that cast though. There’s a lot of great television out there and a lot of amazing casts of people that I would love to work with.

How do you feel that working in such different kinds of genres has really helped you evolve as a director? Do you feel that it’s made you grow in ways that you might not have had the opportunity to do, if you were just directing films?

PHILLIPS: I’ve never really looked at it that way. I go back to my theater training. If you look at my career, as an actor, I’ve rarely done the same thing twice and I jump genres. I’ve done dramas and comedies. I’m Emmy nominated for comedies, which I don’t get to do a whole lot of. I’ve done horror and sci-fi. I apply my directing to that, as well. I don’t wanna just direct one kind of show. Going back to my training, where I not only performed in, but directed and wrote for the stage, I’m a fan of so many things. What’s wonderful about directing for TV, especially, is that you’re visiting somebody else’s playground and you’re using their toolkit because they have established the look and feel of the show. You’re coloring within their parameters, but hopefully you’re bringing a little bit of your own personal touch to it. I think that’s interesting. It’s about adapting to the form, which I think is a challenge in and of itself, and elevating that and creating it, and yet still trying to do it on a personal level and do it the way that you would do it and not just do a paint by numbers.

Lou Diamond Phillips in Prodigal Son
Image via Fox

And then, on top of everything else, you wrote and published a novel, called The Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira. How did that come about?

PHILLIPS: That’s been a long time coming. I’ve written as long as I’ve acted. The very first thing I ever acted in was a little drama rip-off of Charlie Brown, when I was in elementary school and I played Linus. I co-wrote that with some of my sixth grade friends. Our teachers were really smart. They gave us something to focus on, and then we got to see it through and write it and perform it and produce it. That really set the bar for me at an early age. I wrote a very, very, very bad novel in high school, that was terrible and disgustingly bad. It was a Stephen King rip-off because I was a Stephen King fan, and still am. And I wrote something in college that actually might be worth revisiting, which my wife read. So, writing has always been a passion of mine, but the acting thing worked out in such a great way that I had a little time for it. A number of my screenplays have been produced, but I drifted away from narrative writing. When my wife, Yvonne, and I first started dating, she was looking at a lot of my writing and some of my screenplays that haven’t been produced, and she was showing me a lot of her art. She’s an amazing artist and she’s on Instagram now. She had done these beautiful studies of the manga style, as a precursor to a graphic novel that she never finished, which was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Tinderbox, and that totally sparked my imagination. It was a post-apocalyptic fantasy fairytale and I said, “This would make a great movie and something that we could do together.” So, I wrote the screenplay, and then realized it was gonna be ridiculously expensive and nobody would give us the money to make the movie. We decided to do it as a novel, so over the course of 10 years, whenever I had time, I would work on the novel and bounce it off of Yvonne. Because I had set it in space because I thought it would be more commercial as a movie, I basically backed Yvonne into the corner of having to illustrate a sci-fi novel, which was not what she wanted to do. But I have to say, the hardcover version has 30 of her illustrations and she really just got out of her comfort zone and did some incredible stuff. That’s how that came about. It was circuitous and unexpected. Like Prodigal Son, or so many of the other things that I do, it does not fit neatly into a category. It’s part sci-fi, part fantasy, part fairy tale and part YA, and hopefully it succeeds on all levels.

La Bamba was the first big high profile project that you did, and you went on to do Stand and Deliver and the Young Guns films. As your career started to evolve and you had some success, how did you hope to translate that into other projects and roles, and how did the reality compare to what you had hoped for?

PHILLIPS: Wow, that’s a deep question. It’s interesting, I think I’m only now realizing, and by that I mean actualizing, dreams that I had way back when, and that is directing more and writing more. I set out to do that, early on. Dangerous Touch, which I co-wrote, was in 1990 for HBO and Miramax. I had intended to do what I’m doing now all along, but unfortunately I had varying degrees of success. The great wake-up call was that you don’t get tenure in this industry. You can have a number of successes, and then turn around one day and realize that you’re not the flavor of the month and you’re not seeing every script, or being offered every project. I had to take the bull by the horns at one point, and realize that my agent had made me “offer only,” which meant that a lot of stuff was not coming my way. I finally had to go, “Hold on a second, man. I need to continue moving forward. I can’t wait for stuff to come to me.”

We had to beat the bushes for the good roles. The good roles take competition, and sometimes to win those good goals, you have to go into the room. It was a real analysis of why things work and why things don’t. Courage Under Fire was a turning point. I went into the room for that. They didn’t want to cast names for that role, and I said, “But Meg Ryan is a name and Denzel Washington is a name. Why aren’t they casting names for the other roles?” And they said, “Well, you’ll have to read.” I said, “Fine, I’ll go in and I’ll audition.” So much of this industry is about swallowing your pride. As the years have gone on, even though there is more opportunity, there’s more competition. There are more people that are famous. There are more people that are really, really good at what they do. If you want it, you’ve gotta fight for it. That is as true today as it was then, and even more so. It’s just a matter of saying, you’ll hit the pavement and keep your ear to the ground. If you’re gonna continue to grow and find those challenges, you have to be the captain of your own ship.

Prodigal Son airs on Tuesday nights on Fox.

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