The actor explains why the show started with a bang.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
November 17, 2020 at 11:00 PM EST
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Credit: Sergei Bachlakov/abc

Warning: This article contains spoilers about the premiere episode of Big Sky.

On Tuesday night, David E. Kelley made his long-anticipated return to network television with ABC's Montana-set drama Big SkyAnd let's just say things started (or rather, ended) with a bang.

Based on a series of novels by C.J. Box, the show introduces us to its three core characters: private detective Cody Hoyt (Ryan Phillippe), his partner Cassie Dewell (Kylie Bunbury), and Cody's estranged wife, cop Jenny Hoyt (Katheryn Winnick). Things get off to a rocky start for the trio as Jenny discovers that Cody's been using their "separation" time to get cozy with Cassie, while still having feelings for Jenny.

But their hot and heavy love triangle is interrupted when they get word that Danielle (Natalie Alyn Lind), Cody and Jenny's son's girlfriend, and her sister Grace (Jade Pettyjohn) never arrived for their planned visit. Meanwhile, we've watched Danielle and Grace get abducted by a creepy truck driver named Ronald (Brian Geraghty) with mommy issues. He's also already kidnapped a sex worker, Jerrie (Jesse James Keitel).

Cody springs into action in the hunt for the girls, piecing together that it might have some connection to a string of disappearances in the area. The tip comes from Montana highway patrol officer Rick Legarski (John Carroll Lynch), who agrees to meet with Cody to assist on the case. Cody raises the possibility that the disappearances might be connected to a sex trafficking operation, and the two decide to go investigate a local cult.

But before Cody can even pull out of the driveway, Legarski shoots him point blank in the head. That's right, Ryan Phillippe, star of the show and face on countless billboards, doesn't make it past the pilot. So, we called up Phillippe to get the details on this Hitchcockian twist, when he knew his time on the series was short-lived, and whether this is the last we'll see of Cody Hoyt.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your reaction when you first found out the big twist that was coming here?

RYAN PHILLIPPE: It was presented to me as such. I kind of wish they didn't, [but] my agents did give me the heads up about the character's fate. But even as I was reading it the first time, I had kind of lost myself and forgotten that. It really seemed like this guy was going to be [the focus]. Because I hadn't read the books either. There are many fans of the series of books by C.J. Box, and they would know the fate of the Cody character. But I'm slightly worried about my fans being upset with me, I gotta be honest.

Did it make it any easier for you to accept the role knowing it really wouldn't be the same commitment as an open-ended series run?

That is what I was thinking. We were meant to shoot this before the pandemic. We were in pre-production and got shut down. For me, it was like a couple weeks with a good group of people, working with David E. Kelley. I'm like, this will be a cool little job to do. Then, you have to wait six, seven months to get back there; you have to do the two-week quarantine in Canada. I was up in Canada for a total of three months; it turned into much more of a commitment. Then you start seeing all the advertising and people are like, "Oh, I'm so excited for your new show." I'm having to bite my tongue in the back of my head: It's not really my show.

This is like a Psycho-level twist. People don’t expect Janet Leigh to die in the first 20 minutes of that movie — and your fans aren't going to expect you to die in the pilot of a big splashy new show.

They won't. But here's the thing: I feel like so much in entertainment today is redundant, or you can see the twist coming a mile away. Network television in specific is often remiss to be too shocking or surprising. So there's part of me who enjoys, from a playful standpoint, being part of that reaction because it's unique. And it's not the last you'll see or hear of my character, but it's a shocking ending to that first episode.

So is there a bit of joy or excitement for you then in knowing your level of fame and the use of your name in promoting the show will really help pull the rug out from under people?

Yeah, absolutely. And it's not as if I vanish completely and totally from the series. There's the ghost of Cody or flashbacks, that type of thing. You still get a sense of him. But I'm equally excited to see the reaction, and fearful of what my poor little fans are going to be [feeling] when here they're all gearing up for a full season of me back on television. What I keep trying to thread into some of my conversations is I do have a lot of stuff coming out this year, and my hope is that they'll continue watching this one because the scripts are riveting, each episode ends in a cliffhanger. There are so many twists that you don't see coming and that's a good show.

How difficult has it been to keep it secret? Do you feel like you had any near misses or slip-ups?

There were a couple of things early on in talking about the show [where] we had to be careful about the tense in which you spoke of the character and that sort of thing. I did have to tell my mom so she wouldn't be too terribly disappointed. But I've been in this business a long time and I'm pretty good at keeping a secret. I'm not an overly social, verbose person as it is, so it was not that hard for me.

It seems fairly obvious, but can you confirm that Cody is one hundred percent dead, with no chance of resuscitation? 

[Laughs] I think when you get shot in the face, it's hard to bounce back from that.

Can you tease some of the flashbacks and how your presence will figure in the rest of the season?

The flashbacks all have to do with Kylie and Katheryn's characters and their stories associated with Cody. You see a couple of flashbacks with me and Kylie, and get a glimpse into what that relationship was starting to become. You also get a look at Katheryn and my character and their son in a brief moment, so you get a sense of what that family structure was like.

How long will it take Jenny and Cassie, or any of Cody’s other friends or family, to find out the truth about what’s happened to him?

You're going to have to watch to get that answer in full, but they don't find out right away. There's a bit of a chase and a discovery that takes place over a couple of episodes.

Obviously, Rick Legarski is not who he seems and is up to something very bad. How much more dangerous might he get after murdering Cody?

That's going to be the fun for the audience — peeling back those layers and finding out whether or not there's a larger operation afoot that the ladies are going to have to shut down. It's done in a very masterful fashion by Mr. Kelley's design.

Do you think Cody was nervous or suspicious or in any way saw this ending coming?

No, I think he thinks Legarski is a little bit of a goofball, like a weird small-town cop. He's dealt with those before. I don't think he sees any of it coming because of how good-natured, or homespun, the Legarski character appears to be. This all happens very early into the story, so I'm woken up that night by my son saying my girlfriend's not here. I go out to find her. I'm connected to this guy; none of it seems suspicious.

Is there more to Cody and his involvement in this case than it might seem?

I doubt it.

Was there a scene that was particularly challenging or fun for you to sink your teeth into?

I enjoyed the opportunity to work opposite John Carroll Lynch. I had been a fan of his for years and seen him in many things. It's always fun to work opposite such an incredible actor. With the ladies, I was raised by women; I have three sisters. I was very comfortable with that dynamic and being on a show that is so much about these strong, developed female characters. That's going to be what dictates the success of the show is these interesting women that David E. Kelley has written.

Often with twists like this, there are a lot of hoops to go through to keep the secret. Did you have to film in a remote, secret location? Anything like that?

We were in a remote location. We are up in the mountains in Vancouver for that scene. Sometimes on a project, the crew is very familiar with the material. Sometimes they're not. In this case, it was hard to tell either way because everyone's covered in PPE, so there wasn't a lot of interaction. But with a scene like that, you want to play the opposite of the ending. You want it to come out of nowhere, so you don't want to tip the hand. You want that payoff to be the shock, so you want the rest of the scene leading up to it to feel very normal, matter of fact. But there wasn't an effort to hide from the crew or anyone else what was happening.

Can you tease the next episode?

The best way to tease the next episode is to say that this is where Katheryn and Kylie decide they've got to join forces and they really start digging to find these girls, to find out what's happening to them, and to find out what the fate of Cody is because he just kind of disappears. He's had somewhat of a troubled past, so they're a little concerned that maybe he fell off the wagon. In each episode, they'll get closer to cracking this operation.

Any last words, since we won't really hear from you about the show again?

Just that I'm sorry to my fans. [With the] social media notifications [I'm likely to get], I'm gonna super promote the show, but then I might go dark for a little while. [Laughs] I hope they continue to watch and love the show because I will be.

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