Almost 30 years ago, the opening night feature of the Seattle International Film Festival was “La Bamba,” a hugely popular bio-pic about teen crooner Ritchie Valens. That film rocket-launched the career of the then-unknown actor Lou Diamond Phillips.
It seems more than fitting that Phillips, after all these years, is back in Seattle with another SIFF film — coincidentally playing another real-life guy named Richard. The two characters could not be more different, however.
Phillips plays serial killer Richard Ramirez in Seattle director Megan Griffiths’ new film “The Night Stalker.” Ramirez terrorized Southern California in the 1980’s with a rape-and-murder crime spree that included many more victims than just the 13 he was convicted of.
Phillips plays a 53-year-old Ramirez who had been on Death Row for decades by then.
Phillips — who happened to also be 53 at the time of filming — has an uncanny resemblance to the killer at that age. And although the actor has a very buoyant, almost boyish, personality, he’s absolutely convincing and chilling as Ramirez.
“You have within you, as a human being, the range of emotion that would allow you to sit on a mountainside and become a monk or to become a serial Killer,” Phillips said. “And as an actor you have to shed all of society’s restraints and open yourself up to that and go, ‘OK, I will embrace this and I will go there.’”
He said that when given difficult lines, dark lines, you have to “embrace them with a full heart.”
“Because the audience will see cowardice, a lack of commitment,” Phillips said.
While filming “The Night Stalker” Phillips would arrive on set every morning already in character, thanks to a particular morning ritual he developed.
“I know that Richard, when he was hunting — I hate to use that phrase but it’s the truth – he would listen to AC/DC; he would listen to ‘Night Prowler,’” Phillips said. “I blasted that in the car, on the way to work every morning and put myself into that mindset.”
“Also, before I left the house, I had downloaded the San Quentin prison interview which was about eight minutes long and I would watch that three or four times with my coffee before getting into the car,” he said. “Just looking at him, every blink of his eye, every tilt of his head, and absorbing that every single morning – then listening to ‘Night Prowler’ on the way to the set. By the time I got there I was ripe.”
It wasn’t just rock music. Phillips says he also studied three particular movies to prepare for the killer role: “Silence of the Lambs,” “Monster,” and “Taxi Driver.”
“To me, Richard Ramirez was a non-entity, a shadow of a human being who so wanted to make a mark in the world,” Phillips said. “He wanted to be somebody. It reminded me of the character arc of Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver.’”
The three films Phillips cites should tip off prospective audiences that “The Night Stalker” is not after cheap thrills. Phillips says the movie is, at heart, “a chess game” between a determined woman attorney and a cold-blooded murderer, both alternating between being the predator and the prey.
“That is going to be a surprise to some people, because they think, ‘OK, it’s a movie about the night stalker Richard Ramirez.’ They’re expecting ‘Friday the 13th,” they’re expecting a slasher thriller – no,” Phillips said. “It is this elegant and intelligent psychological drama that is just as frightening on different levels.”
“The Night Stalker” had its world premiere at SIFF last weekend. If you miss its screenings at the festival, you don’t have long to wait. It premieres on the Lifetime Channel June 12.