Lou Diamond Phillips Has Worked His Whole Life to Play a Filipino-American Character
Lou Diamond Phillips showed up for our Zoom interview from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, during the filming of the movie Easter Sunday, starring comedian Jo Koy. Based on Koy's life and stand-up comedy, the film is about what happens when he joins family to celebrate Easter. It was an emotional day for Diamond Phillips; Prodigal Son, his most recent TV project, was airing its final episode. Wearing a dark blue long-sleeved shirt, black-framed glasses, and sporting a clean-shaven face, Diamond Phillips was ready to talk about race and ethnicity, and what he's dealt with in Hollywood, in a way he never has before.
He is known as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood (watch out Tom Hanks!) as well as on Twitter where he often interacts with fans, much to their amazement. Diamond Phillips has been known and loved by audiences since his breakout role playing Ritchie Valens in La Bamba. For more than 30 years since, he's continued landing complex roles such as Henry Standing Bear in Longmire and Chilean miner Don Lucho in The 33. He's only played a character who has shared his actual ethnicity, Filipino-American, twice. He tells me just that morning, he was turned down for a role. “I lost a role to somebody who was more ‘authentic' than me,” he says.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Esquire: You've only played a character of your own ethnicity, Filipino-American, twice. What was the first role?
Lou Diamond Phillips: The first role was one that I wrote in the movie Ambition. To be able to play someone of Filipino descent especially then  in Hollywood–you know, I had to create that content because I was being cast as everything but. Then again, there wasn't a lot of call for Filipino stories or Filipino-infused stories or characters that reflected that sensibility.
I was coming at it from the point of view of being the child of an immigrant. I stood next to my mother when she took her oath of citizenship. I helped her study for her tests when I was 16 years old. Having “made it” in Hollywood, I was very grateful for the opportunity of being a first-generation American, and one of mixed race.
By the time I wrote that script, I knew that I was representing different communities and different cultural influences on the American zeitgeist.
Do you think movie makers would have done that for another Filipino-American who hadn't been successful in Hollywood?
No. They're just now getting ready. We're only now seeing projects being made that are very personal and very niche. Minari, for instance, about the Korean American experience in the 1980s. Only now is that film getting made and then getting nominated for a Best Picture.
So, that's been 30 years, man. That's a long freaking gestation. And, yes, I do realize that [Ambition] got made because I had some box office clout at the time. But even so, it was an independent film made for a million and a half.
How did Gil Arroyo, your character on Prodigal Son, become Filipino-American?
I absolutely asked. He was originally written as Gil Martinez, which was fairly down the middle [ethnically]. I said, “Can we do something to make him a little bit more unique? I'm Filipino; I very rarely have ever played Filipino.” Chris Fedak [the show's co-creator] happened to have grown up with a bunch of Filipinos. I gave them a list of, I believe, five Spanish-infused names that I also know were widely used in the Philippines, and Arroyo I actually took from [former Philippines'] president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who gave me a lovely presidential award back in 2004 for my work with the Filipino war veterans.
I love the ambiguity of things. People go Lou Diamond Phillips? You don't look like a Lou Diamond Phillips. Well, that's my real name. I was actually born Lou Diamond Upchurch, so more Anglican than you expected. I changed my name to my adopted father's name. But I changed it from a white name to a white name.
Have you ever asked to have a character made Filipino-American before?
No. That opportunity wasn't really there. There wasn't any reason to tailor-make it to me because I had been cast for certain reasons. I mean, you certainly couldn't have made Chavez Filipino, you couldn't have made Don Lucho in The 33 Filipino. They are who they are, and I was representing a different community.
There might have been other opportunities. Who is to say that Russell Logan in The First Power wasn't part Filipino? Just look at my face. What was Monfriez' background in Courage Under Fire? When I look at my characters in those films, I appreciate the fact that I'm being taken for face value, and it doesn't matter who they are in the background. They are who they are in the moment in the context of that story, and I think that's where I have felt privileged to a certain extent that I've crossed over and played roles where ethnicity did not matter.
Has it been frustrating not being able to play your own ethnicity?
No. Because in many instances, that's a false flag. I grew up as an American kid. I grew up traveling around the world on Navy bases, spending most of my time in Navy schools with multiethnic classmates. It was never an issue for me. I was shocked by the racism that I experienced when I got to college.
All of a sudden, I was put in a box that I didn't know existed. I had always been just accepted for who I was, which was being a good student, being an athlete, being in drama club, student council.
I ate Filipino food and had Filipino relatives, but I was very Americanized. When I got older, first in college and then quite honestly, in Hollywood, it was like—explain yourself. What are you? Where are you from?
And so now, why would I limit myself by waving Filipino-American—that's all I am.
My aim from the beginning was to be an Actor with a capital A, and you're hearing this from other actors now who are being given the mantle of responsibility of representation. A lot of them are going, hold on a second, I'm an actor. You keep trying to put the hyphen in front of me, you know? Whether it's Steven Yeun who says, hey, can I just be an actor? Do you always have to categorize me this way? Or Ava DuVernay who says, do I always have to be the African-American woman director, you know?
I'm an American and everything that that means.
I'm here right now in Vancouver [working on] the first Filipino American comedy made by Amblin Entertainment. This will be one of the first representative films of the Filipino diaspora in America, with a largely Filipino cast, and that's how long it's taken since I wrote Ambition.
You have played so many different ethnicities—Mexican, Native American, Chilean, I'm sure you've played others.
Oh, yeah. Once again, it's amazing because when I look at the people who played my parents, it's stunning. You know, Dr. Haing S. Ngor in Ambition. In Shadow of the Wolf where I play Inuit, the great Toshiro Mifune is my father. Rita Moreno has played my mother. I've had an impressive list of parents.
You have to wonder why certain people want to draw such harsh lines on authenticity when it comes to the ethnic community. When it comes to authenticity or trying to justify yourself in a role these days, it's almost like you have to have your American Kennel Club card. I'm not Latinx, but Louis Valdez and I did a number of interviews recently because La Bamba was put back into the movie theaters 34 years later, and once again, he was justifying his casting of me. He cast the actor he thought was best for the role, and some people go, well, he's Filipino, he's not Mexican-American. But those same people don't go, Esai Morales is Puerto Rican, not Mexican-American. Elizabeth Peña was Cuban, not Mexican-American. So, where do you draw the line?
I happen to agree that casting Caucasian people in what are supposed to be ethnic roles is not kosher, mostly because there is an authenticity issue. But also because it's a matter of opportunity. You cannot compare the level of opportunity that we get, you know?
For instance, for La Bamba, Louis Valdez introduced me to Cesar Chavez. I marched with Cesar, and I fasted with him. I go straight to the community, and I ask for their blessing. And I got the family's blessing.
With every Native role that I've played I've tried to do the same thing. For Longmire, even before we filmed the pilot, I contacted our technical advisor, Marcus Red Thunder, who became a very dear friend of mine and still is, and said, “I need to go to the Rez. I need to go hang out a little bit.” So I flew up on my own dime to the Lame Deer Reservation in Montana, and sat with the tribal chief and did ceremony with the elders and visited the high schools and visited the old-age homes.
So I think that when people look at my body of work, when I'm given a role, I think that they know I am not looking to exploit that role. I am looking to amplify that role for a community and to try to bring some respect and some dignity to the characters that I play.