When Ryan Phillippe lifts up his shirt in the middle of the bar at SoHo’s Crosby Street Hotel, it’s surprising that no one faints. He is, after all, a movie star—with taut muscles, smooth, caramel-colored skin, and a chiseled, ready-for-my-close-up mug. To think that someone might walk by, catch a glimpse, and collapse in excitement is not out of the question. Surely it’s happened before. But not today. Today everyone remains calm.
To be fair, it isn’t as tawdry as it sounds. Ryan has lifted his shirt simply to show off his tattoo—an image of his son Deacon’s hand gripping Ryan’s grandfather’s hand—from the beloved artist Mister Cartoon. Like his career, Ryan takes his tattoos very seriously. “It’s really beautiful and soulful,” the 35-year-old actor says. “I went in there with this idea, and Cartoon loved it. He’s a soulful guy, and I have a connection with him that’s personal. I was so excited because he’s the top hip-hop artist, and I’m such a hip-hop head. He’s literally done everybody … Kanye West, Xzibit. You go into his studio and there’s a picture of him tattooing Eminem’s skull. It’s sort of like a brotherhood. Cartoon said, ‘You’re part of the family now.’ It’s a cool family to be a part of. He’s done three on me now.”
For most people, Cartoon’s waiting list is months long, but it helps if you’re a famous actor who’s appeared in more than 20 movies, including Flags of Our Fathers, Crash, 54, Cruel Intentions, and this month’s MacGruber, a big-budget comedy based on Saturday Night Live’s popular MacGyver spoof.
Ryan’s show business beginnings are the stuff of Hollywood legend: He was discovered as a teen while getting a haircut in a Delaware barbershop. Soon after, he was starring in the soap opera One Life to Live, as the first gay teen ever to appear on daytime television. It was a risky career move—one of many ballsy chances he would take over the next two decades. “I was shunned by the church after I did it,” Ryan recalls. “Ostracized, in a way. It was a nerve-racking job at 17, when you’re just kind of understanding your sexuality. I didn’t know any gay people. I was nervous and insecure. The other actors were like, ‘You’ve got to speak up.’ But it was an amazing learning experience. It grew me up.”
At 19, while on location in England for his first big movie, White Squall, Ryan had another coming-of-age moment: He got his first tattoo. He takes a sip of his tequila cocktail and points to a Japanese character that stands for spirit or soul on his right arm.
“I went to this shady, dirty tattoo parlor because I wanted to commemorate my first major role,” he says, smiling. “I grew up with no money or connections to the business. My family struggled, and finally I’d gotten to the place where I was making a film with Jeff Bridges. I felt like I’d arrived.” Of his six tattoos, Ryan says his first is the most embarrassing. “It’s kind of bleeding and looks like a butterfly. It’s cliché. But I was 19—it should have been a cliché.”
So would he ever get it covered? “No, but I did have a ladybug on my foot covered up. Its significance was with an ex. I put a stingray over the top of it. When people ask me why, I say, ‘Any animal that could take down the Crocodile Hunter deserves my respect.’”
“An ex,” he says, looking uncomfortable.
You can’t blame the guy for shifting in his seat. The ex in question is Reese Witherspoon, who Ryan was married to from 1999 to 2006 (they have two children, Ava, 10, and Deacon, 6). Theirs was a high-profile romance, and when they broke up, amid rumors of his alleged infidelity with his Stop-Loss costar Abbie Cornish, The Golden Couple’s personal business was suddenly splashed all over the tabloids.
It was rough for Ryan, who was being put through the wringer in the press. Around that time, he asked Cartoon to change the blue cross tattoo on his leg into a sword with a Latin saying that means, essentially, “words cannot harm me.” “I was in this place where I was tired of being talked shit about,” Ryan says. “No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. But I am a decent person. I got so sick of being told how shitty I was. I like the fact that it feels like I can just take [the sword] off my leg.”
Unfortunately for him, the gossip rag chatter and Internet coverage didn’t stop with his ex-wife: In February, Ryan was involved in a he said-she said breakup with the aforementioned Abbie Cornish. It was not a clean split: Her publicist released a statement that said she broke up with him and moved out of their Los Angeles home. The next day, his publicist released a statement that he broke up with her and asked her to move out.
Not wanting to reveal the details of their relationship, Ryan does offer some broad strokes: “Those things are tricky, man. In this business, it’s like, I don’t know how people make it work—and they don’t for the most part. You can cite very few examples of people who do. Very few. It’s a challenge. There are long periods of separation, and there’s lots of interference and speculation. It just makes it hard.”
Adding insult to gossip fodder, the paparazzi have been relentless ever since he first stepped out with Reese. “In L.A. they are awful,” Ryan says of the paps. “I don’t understand. I am not Brad Pitt. I am not one of the biggest stars in the business. But for some reason they have it out for me.” Some people buy motorcycles because they’re fun to ride; Ryan bought his so that when the photographers chase him, he can lose them in traffic. “My mother hates it. She said, ‘You promised me you would never ride motorcycles.’ I’m like, ‘Mom, if I need to go to a doctor’s appointment, and I don’t want it written about …’”
But it’s not only Ryan the scummy photographers are after: It’s his kids. “I live in fear of the day my daughter searches her name [online],” he says, shaking his head in disgust. “She could see her entire life, from baby until 10 years old. I understand that there’s this curiosity, ‘Let’s see how the famous people made a child!’ But it’s incredibly creepy. Reese and I were really great at explaining all that stuff to them—they will never touch them or hurt them, and that the reason they’re pursuing us is because a picture of Mommy is worth a lot of money.” He breaks into a proud smile. “Our kids are brilliant, they’ve lived with it long enough. They’ve seen billboards of Mom on Sunset.”
As for Reese, they are officially on good terms. “She and I have a great friendship related to them now. They’re our focus, and I think we’ve done a really good job raising them and transitioning from what our life was to what it is now. I guess I haven’t been that guy who’s, like, loving attention. My thing always was, I love movies and I want to be an actor. That’s where it begins and ends with me. Now I’m realizing, yeah, I’ve got to play the game a little bit more.”
To that end, Ryan signed on to star in this spring’s MacGruber, the first big-budget comedy of his career. The movie, starring SNL’s Will Forte and Kristen Wiig, and helmed by The Lonely Island’s Jorma Taccone, is a huge departure for Ryan, who has appeared in his share of downers. “MacGruber is to ’80s action movies what Austin Powers was to Bond movies,” he says. “When you do dramas—and a lot of the movies I’ve been in, I wouldn’t say they’re, like, message movies or political movies, but the themes are heavy: racism, war, espionage—the mood pervades. If it’s a dramatic scene, there’s tension on set. This was the exact opposite. I would get there and laugh from morning until night. I was out of my element in a great way.”
Still, many are skeptical that Ryan can pull it off. “When Val Kilmer and I signed on to do the movie, the Internet haters said it was the end of our careers. They were like, ‘Look how desperate … they must need money.” The irony is I didn’t [do it] to get paid. I did it because I loved the script. It’s the movie I’m most excited for my friends to see.”
MacGruber star Will Forte has been an inspiration, he says. “Will is the most fearless actor I’ve ever worked with. He’ll do anything. He’ll get naked at the drop of a dime and spread his butt cheeks. He does not give a fuck. He’s very rock ‘n’ roll. … I wish I was more like that.”
Taking a bite of a beet salad, Ryan continues explaining how MacGruber was just the antidote he needed. “After the things I’ve been through in my personal life, the struggle that can be this industry, and all the bullshit that you deal with—people attacking you in the press and being hounded by paparazzi and then people shitting on whatever they estimate your talents to be—it can be really self-consciously heavy. You learn to ignore a lot of the negativity on the Internet. I don’t search myself anymore. It can really spin you out, the shit people write. So it was fun to go into a silly and fun job.”
Ryan’s third and most recent tattoo by Cartoon, a phoenix on his forearm, signifies a rebirth. It sums up his life of late: He feels optimistic. He’s in a good place. And he’s been trying new things, like sitting front row at Calvin Klein’s recent Fashion Week show, and, well, starring in big-budget comedies. “Now that I’m getting older, I’m a little more open. I used to be like, ‘Fuck going to a fashion show—it’s superficial.’ But now I have a different appreciation for it. Plus, there are business decisions you have to make in my industry. You need to be relevant, because otherwise you will be forgotten. I’m not seen as that guy who opens a movie. So I’m a lot more open to doing types of movies I wouldn’t do in the past. Like, if I’m not known as a commodity, to some extent I won’t get to make the films I want to make.”
Even though he’s made two dozen movies and worked with some of the best directors in the business, including Robert Altman, Kimberly Peirce, and Clint Eastwood?
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “It’s out the window. It’s a very strange thing, and it’s incredibly frustrating. I used to model my career after a guy like Sean Penn, and those careers don’t exist so much anymore.”
As he gathers more life experiences and his career continues to evolve, Ryan says he will continue to get tattoos to chronicle his journey. He wants to finish the 9/9/99 on his shoulder (it commemorates his daughter’s birthday), and eventually he might turn his left arm into a full sleeve. “Tattoos are like a map to your life,” he says. “Permanence is bravery. So many things in our lives aren’t permanent. Nothing lasts forever.”