Ryan Phillippe On Stunts, A Different Type Of Action Role, And Biggest Challenges (Exclusive)

After an extremist militant group threatens their lives, Prey sees a young couple (Ryan Phillippe and Mena Suvari) forced to flee their Christian missionary post in the Kalahari Desert. After being granted passage aboard a rickety plane, piloted by a corrupt smuggler (Emile Hirsch), their escape to safety is nearly in reach.

However, when their aircraft loses power and crash lands, they discover a bigger threat awaits them as they find themselves stranded in the middle of an animal preserve populated by maneaters: lions, leopards, and hyenas. Injured, frightened, and being tracked by the extremists, this ragtag group of passengers must fight for survival from both man and beast where only the strong will survive.

This week, we spoke with Phillippe about his role as Andrew, an out-of-his-depth doctor who ends up fending off a deadly lion that’s hunting down him and his fellow survivors. 

The actor talks to us in detail about his approach to bringing this character to life, including how the role differed from his previous action projects, the dynamic he formed with co-star Emile Hirsch, and the immense challenges the cast and crew faced telling such an ambitious story on an indie movie’s budget.

We also hear from him on how he got into Andrew’s mindset and the process of shooting Prey‘s plane crash and lion scenes. Finally, Phillippe reflects on once meeting with Marvel Studios to discuss playing either Captain America or Iron Fist.

Check out the full interview in the player below.

I had a great time watching this movie as it keeps you hooked from start to finish. I’m curious, though, what was it like shooting that plane crash experience when you’re not dealing with a massive budget? It’s a really effective piece of filmmaking. 

That’s awesome, man. Thanks for that. I think a lot of our budget went into that plane crash sequence [Laughs]. We were in a fuselage on a gimbal at a soundstage that was on hydraulics. It would shake and do what it needed to do. It’s always fun to shoot those sorts of sequences. Even after as long as I’ve done what I’ve done in this industry, I still get a thrill out of the movie magic of it all. Who knows that’s gonna last with AI [Laughs] but it’s an amazing thing when you do have such a small budget for an independent film and such a short shooting schedule. To see it come together in an effective manner is really rewarding. 

It goes without saying you guys aren’t fighting off a real lion while shooting, but those attack scenes are filmed in a really effective way. What were those like to shoot and is using your imagination like that part of the fun of being an actor?

It absolutely is. It’s become more of a requirement to act opposite something that isn’t there in certain regards. The reason why I wanted to do this film, I had worked with Mukunda once before and when he pitched it…it’s such a simple concept in some ways. The idea that you’re on this plane that goes down in this reserve for big game and no one knows you’re there. It’s one of those concepts that you can easily put yourself into when you think, ‘What would I do in that situation? What would that be like to actually experience?’ I think if there’s some kind of relatable aspect to it in that regard where you can think about it being you or anyone who would be out of their depth in a situation like that. I’ve always liked survival movies. The challenge…I think it’s why we’re all a little bit crazy, us actors. It’s because we do have to use the extreme reaches of our imagination at times when there’s actually nothing really there.

Andrew isn’t an action hero, and while you’ve done a lot of those roles in the past, how does the physicality differ for a character like this compared to something like Shooter?

It’s actually really difficult to have that kind of restraint. Often, I’ve played the protagonist and the guy who can kick some ass. I had to keep that part of my past in check. There’s the scene where the warlords come across us and they’re smacking us around and stuff. I’m used to playing Bob Lee Swagger [Laughs] and throwing somebody over a balcony! It’s an adjustment. There is a theological thread of sorts in this film and conversations with God in some ways with my character. His wife is a missionary and because that was part of her life, she urged him to leave Western medicine and go be a doctor in Africa. I think, in the past, he probably wasn’t religious and it was his wife that led him down that road. Filtering some of those moments through those prisms…your average doctor is not a fighter and he’s a man of peace and a man of God at this point in his life. I think restraint is the answer there. I had to play that on screen and as the actor used to mixing it up and fighting. 

Emotionally, Andrew goes through a big trauma early on in the movie which reverberates throughout the rest of the film. What was it like delving into that side of things?

Mukunda, who I worked with once before, is a very spiritual guy himself. He’s an author as well as a writer and director in film. He was even a monk for seven years in India, so a lot of conversations that he and I have and a core part of our friendship is discussions about those sorts of things. Theological things, metaphysical things, and ontological things. I think dealing with or addressing the notion of horrendous loss, there is a point in the film where you clearly see my character has gone numb and decided to check out. He says to God, essentially, ‘I’m going to sit under this tree and see what happens. If I get eaten by a lion, I get eaten.’ There’s a surrender there and it was one of the emotional things that really appealed to me about this. 

Faith is really important to this character, so was delving into that something you really enjoyed and did it tie into your personal beliefs at all?

It absolutely did. I study so much about spirituality, religion, and metaphysics. I find it the most interesting and most worthwhile place to spend my time in regard to reading and learning. I think we are all connected. I have a strong belief in God and so I love exploring those themes. It was interesting when we made this film, it was sort of at the beginning of the spiritual quest I’ve been on for the past year. Not to say this instigated or motivated that, but in retrospect, it was interesting timing because a lot of this last year has been very much about personal spiritual exploration for me.

I saw Mukunda say this film was “extraordinarily difficult” to shoot, but what were some of the biggest challenges for you?

My friend, it was a very, very difficult shoot. You read a script and you have nothing but the best intentions and hopes for not only how it’s going to turn out, but what the process of shooting it will be like. We had a lot of issues behind the scenes and weather issues that made it difficult. It’s interesting because we were surviving the shoot as we’re playing part of a survival story [Laughs]. Luckily, all the actors were very like-minded. I had always wanted to work with Emile Hirsch. I always enjoyed him on screen and he and I hit it off so quickly and so completely. We approached the work in a similar way and had there been attitudes among the cast or otherwise which weren’t positive, I think it would have been even more challenging. I’ve worked on every size of film. Flags of Our Fathers with [Clint] Eastwood was a $100 million movie. This certainly wasn’t. With everything in between, there are always challenges you have to face and overcome, but it was a difficult shoot for Mukunda. 

You spend a lot of this movie beaten up physically as well as emotionally, but when you’re in that makeup and have the torn-up leg, does that help better get into the mindset of a character like this? 

It does. We had none of the creature comforts you’re used to on a film set. Our trailers were so far away from where we were shooting because you needed these long views of nothing because that’s the whole point of us being in the middle of nowhere. We spent the majority of our time, or all the time between takes, on set. You’re dirty and you’ve got the fake, sticky blood all over you, and it wears on you. It’s not pleasant necessarily and not glamorous but it does feed the situation in some superficial senses. It does put you in a mindset where you do feel desperate in some ways. I remember our food was not very good. Water was hard to come by [Laughs]. People think movies are a walk in the park and you’re being treated like a King or Queen, but that was not the case on this one!

I’m glad you survived the experience! You mentioned Emile, and there’s a great underlying tension between your characters. Did you have a lot of time to work on that back-and-forth, or were you thrown into the deep end to some extent?

It was much more the latter, but we’d known each other socially a little bit. We had some friends in common. I don’t think there was a lot of mystery over whether we’d get along or connect that way. We did do a fair amount of what you’re talking about in breaks and between set ups. We’d discuss how we’d handle certain scenes and things. More and more these days, man, these producers don’t want to pay for rehearsal time. So many important aspects of filming are being exiled for cost. It’s really sad for me as I love rehearsal and I love finding the essence of the material with the actor and director beforehand, but it’s becoming less and less the way things are done. 

I came across an interview with you in 2015 where you talked about meeting with Marvel and there was speculation at the time it might be for Iron Fist. Is there anything you can say about that and might we see you in a superhero role now?

I don’t think will be, ultimately. I don’t know. I enjoy those films at times but I don’t know if it’s a world I need to inhabit. I think it’s something I can enjoy as a fan. At one point, there was a discussion about meeting on Captain America and there was a discussion about Iron Fist. You never say no to something like that necessarily, but I don’t know, it didn’t work out. I tend to think that was maybe for a reason and maybe I wasn’t in the right place or it wasn’t the right place. I enjoy those as a fan but it doesn’t necessarily mean I need to be in them [Laughs].

I remember your name coming up a lot with Captain America and a lot of fans wanted to see that. No regrets at all about missing out?

Going back to the spirituality of it all, I do think things happen for a reason. Who knows what has transpired in my life…the other thing is, things have changed drastically for me personally as a father. I have three children. That really takes a lot of your time, effort, and focus. And deservedly so. I’m a lot more free in regards to when something doesn’t work out. I try to give them as much time as I possibly can, certainly when they were even younger, but I’m able to take things as they come and I harbour no disappointments for very long and I guess that’s a healthy thing. 

I’d say your Shooter character was even more badass than a lot of superheroes, anyway!

I agree with you! And he was real. Well, ‘real.’ [Laughs]

You filmed in South Africa, but was that a fun thing? It might be the magic of filmmaking you mentioned, but it looks like you really were out in the wild. 

It was a bit of the magic of filmmaking. I have shot in South Africa a couple of times. My first movie with Ridley Scott was based in Cape Town and then I did The Bang Bang Club which was a true story about war photographers during Apartheid. I was shooting in Johannesburg. I have a great deal of love for that region and I’m looking forward to going back in the next year or so on a personal vacation. I’ve not done a safari and I’m dying to. We did shoot some of this in California and it was composited, believe it or not. If you drive 40 minutes north of Los Angeles, that’s what they use as a double for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa. There are these ranches out there where you can’t tell the difference. They’ll show you one of the plains in Africa, tell you to look in a direction, and it’s nearly identical. It’s cool. That part of it, even after thirty-plus years, I still get a kick out of it.  

Prey arrives in theaters and on demand starting March 15.