For the past 40 years, Lou Diamond Phillips has been a consistent presence in the film and TV industry. From his most well-known roles in La Bamba and Stand and Deliver to guest spots on TV shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Fear the Walking Dead, Phillips is an actor who embraces the nuances of every character he takes on.
In the midseason finale of NBC’s Quantum Leap, a revival of the sci-fi series from the early 90s, Phillips plays Shepherd Barnes, a station chief for the CIA who makes contact with Ben Song (Raymond Lee) when he leaps into the body of an undercover agent caught in a dangerous game of international espionage in 1961 Egypt.
During a recent interview with MySA, Phillips, 61, who was raised in Flour Bluff, Texas, and attended the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), talked about what drew him to the guest spot on Quantum Leap and the challenges he faces as an actor of color in Hollywood. We also discussed his ties to the Lone Star State and what makes him a Texan.
The midseason finale of NBC’s Quantum Leap airs on Wednesday, December 13 at 7 p.m. CST on NBC.
Thanks for taking the time, Lou. I’m talking to you from San Antonio, Texas.
I was just talking about San Antonio. I love San Antonio. I was there a month ago for the [Big Texas] Comic Con. It was very cool.
You were in San Antonio the first time I met you. It was on the set of ‘Sanitarium’ in 2012. Kerry Valderrama introduced us.
Man, I couldn’t even wrap my head around [his death]. Somebody gave me a message. I didn’t believe it at first. I got a hold of his dad and his daughter and was able to speak with both of them. It’s such a sad thing because he was a ridiculously talented director and an amazing producer. He did so much for San Antonio. But beyond that, he was just an incredible human being.
Something you and Kerry shared is your passion to give back to the younger generation who wants to break into the film industry. I know you went back to your alma mater (UTA) this year to do a teaching residency.
You know, there are so many aspects to my career that are about passing the torch. I’m very cognizant of that. I want to support and encourage and hopefully inspire people with the work I continue to do – whether that’s in front of the camera or behind it or as a writer. I think there needs to be an injection of respect for the arts. It isn’t just about getting famous and rich and well known on TikTok.
During your residency, did you discover the next Lou Diamond Phillips in any of your classes?
(Laughs) Hopefully not. I mean, I still need the work! That’s the thing, too, is that you always tell people to be their own person. For me, that was being a character actor. It’s like this role in Quantum Leap. Once again, I’m at the point in my career where I’m trying to create [a character] who’s unique and different. When I was back at UTA, I pulled a couple of students aside and told them, “You need to do this. You need to believe in yourself because you have the goods.” Oftentimes, artists aren’t told enough that they’ve got it. So, they need to hear it from somebody whose opinion they respect.”
You were raised in Texas and went to high school and college here. What would you say is the most Texan thing about you?
Confidence. Work ethic too. When I got to Hollywood when I was 24 and made La Bamba, I had been raised in Texas. I had been raised with manners. My dad was in the military. I had respect for work. Those are qualities I learned growing up in Texas. I carry those with me.
What drew you to the role of Shepherd Barnes in ‘Quantum Leap’?
I was familiar with [the original series]. It’s great that somebody like Raymond Lee is the new lead. I think it’s wonderful. We’re talking about representation. I worked with Raymond before on [the 2019 TV series] Prodigal Son. My character [in Quantum Leap] has this gravitas. He has this mystery. It was intriguing right off the bat. Stepping onto a show that is such a success was very exciting.
Would you like to find another TV show like ‘Longmire’ where you can play a character for a few seasons or do you like one-episode turns like the one you have on ‘Quantum Leap’?
You know, I love the guest spots. They’re great. But I also loved doing Longmire and Prodigal Son. I really wish [Prodigal Son] had gone on for years. I loved that character. Both of those characters were unique and iconic and challenging to me. I would love nothing better than to get on a series that went for [many] seasons. At this point in my life, being a carny can be very wearing. So, to find [a series] that was a little closer to home and consistent and have that kind of stability would be really wonderful.
A current debate in Hollywood centers on who should be allowed to tell certain stories. For example, can a non-Latino direct a Latino film? Do you think you would say yes to your roles in ‘La Bamba’ and ‘Stand and Deliver’ today knowing there would be people who believe that you shouldn’t play those roles because you are not Latino?
It’s interesting that you put it that way. I would have said yes to those roles in a heartbeat. The question is, would the powers that be say yes to me? I’m in a peculiar place being an actor of color and being of mixed heritage. Sadly, sometimes inclusivity becomes exclusive. They’re making our boxes smaller. They’re saying, “Unless you have the absolute DNA to play this role, [then you can’t].” Interestingly enough, that doesn’t apply to Caucasian actors. They hold actors of color to a different standard, which I think is ridiculously unfair. Some people will either accept my ability as an actor and accept me at face value or not. But at what point do we draw a line? I have to face that conundrum much more often than any of my peers.