In ABC’s upcoming drama Secrets and Lies, Ryan Phillippe plays Ben Crawford, a regular guy who finds the body of a neighborhood child during his morning run. By the end of the day, he’s somehow become the police’s number one suspect for the crime. Co-starring Juliette Lewis as the straight-laced detective determined to get to the bottom of the child’s death, the show is set for a 10-episode run starting on March 1; the end of season one will wrap up Ben’s storyline and reveal the young boy’s murderer.
So what was it about this show that intrigued Phillippe, an actor known mostly for film? Sure, the brief, 10-episode commitment was helpful—Lewis’ character is the only one who could carry through to another season. (“It’s so far from anything [she’s done],” Phillippe said of his costar. “It’s really interesting. I want this to succeed for her.”) But the actor also found that the story had a few interesting parallels to his own life.
“My initial reaction to it when it was presented to me, before I read anything, was I felt like I was too young for it in some ways,” Phillippe said, laughing. “Even though in real life I have a teenage daughter, it’s not the way people tend to think of me.”
But after getting an official pitch and meeting with the director of the show, Phillippe was intrigued. “I got a little more curious, and I asked to read the Australian scripts”—Secrets and Lies is based on an Australian series of the same name—”and I went home that day, and I read all of them back to back to back, and couldn’t put them down,” he said. “The feelings that they fostered in me were pretty scary in some ways. What happens to Ben’s daughters as he’s accused was something that really struck me. It really made me feel a little physically ill.”
Phillippe did have reservations about acting in a series shot from a forced perspective. “The show never leaves me. It’s 10 hours of this guy’s life falling apart. There’s no relief for me an an actor,” he said. “But there was something about the project that really challenged me in a way—that scared me. So that ultimately is why I said yes.”
To get into character, Phillippe looked toward a French documentary titled The Staircase, which explains what it’s like to build a defense for someone who’s claiming innocence. But as someone who knows what it’s like to be in the public eye, the actor could also relate to Ben on a more personal level.
“There are elements that relate to living as a celebrity, or at times in the past where there’s been way more outside pressure on me—where you’re being followed or chased or slandered,” he said. “There were elements of that that I definitely connected to personally.”
Most importantly, “I wanted to be as stripped down and regular as I could be, and then allow the audience to transpose themselves into this guy’s position,” Phillippe said. The show’s grueling production schedule made that the easy part of the job. “I remember day one, once the series got picked up and we were in Wilmington [North Carolina], just considering the enormous amount of work [ahead]. There was part of me that wanted to run, frankly. It’s 15 hours a day, 5 days a week. I had close to an 80-hour work week once. Those hours will land you in the hospital potentially, so it’s difficult to sustain. And you see me kind of degrade over the course of the series. You see me lose a ton of weight. The toll that the production was taking on me actually mirrors what Ben is going through as his life falls apart.”
As Ben’s world crumbles, one question remains: Is he guilty? But Phillippe, for his part, didn’t ask for the answer.
“I kind of said ‘no,'” he said, when asked if he wanted to know whether Ben committed the crime. “I found it out at some point towards the end of our shooting, but it didn’t matter—because I’m playing a man who, 95 percent of him believes he’s innocent,. There’s a 5 percent window of doubt that will come to light as people watch the series, but I was playing a guy who does not believe he could’ve done this. Whether or not it ends up that he did, he wouldn’t be cognizant of it. So even once I found out, it didn’t change at all my approach to the guy I’m playing, a man who believes he’s innocent.”
As for fans of the Australian series: Phillippe is confident that the show’s American team captured the “core and the spirit” of the original—but much as the English version of The Office and the American version of The Office are very different shows, the same caveat applies here. He will say, though, that the two do not share “the same ending.”
Secrets and Lies debuts Sunday, March 1 at 9 p.m. on ABC.