Even under a dark hoodie jacket and behind the tinted windows of his black Lexus, Ryan Phillippe attracts attention. The paparazzi have followed him from his L.A. home this afternoon to the Viceroy Hotel, where he is sipping a cocktail on the back patio.
"I've gotten to a point where I can rationalize not caring about it," says the very tired and slightly congested actor. After this interview, Phillippe, 33, is headed straight back home to climb in bed and catch up on the latest episode of Lost. But first he must contend with leading the cameramen back home once more.
As annoying as it is -- particularly when it frightens his 8-year-old daughter, Ava -- Phillippe knows his problems are small in comparison with what others face. Acting in two war films alongside real American soldiers has provided a lesson in appreciation.
After a well-received 2006 performance in Clint Eastwood's World War II epic Flags of Our Fathers, Phillippe returns to combat again Friday in Stop-Loss, from writer/director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry). He plays Sgt. Brandon King, a squad leader to fellow enlistees (Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
Growing up in New Castle, Del., Phillippe heard his share of war stories. Both his grandfathers fought in WWII, and his father and two uncles served in Vietnam. When Phillippe was 17, he considered following in their footsteps, taking it so far as sitting in a recruitment office with a high school buddy.
"I didn't have the best grades, and I don't come from money," he explains, "so it was a potential option."
While the friend ended up serving one tour in Iraq during the first Gulf War, Phillippe headed to New York to try his luck at acting. He has faced war twice on screen but is careful to differentiate that "we as actors will never even pretend to know what it is like to be a soldier in a combat zone."
In the film, Phillippe's character completes his second tour in Iraq and returns to the States before learning the military is sending him back once more. Furious over what he sees as an injustice, he goes AWOL, with the help of Tatum's character's girlfriend, Michelle (Abbie Cornish).
Phillippe bonded with the guys. "If we were in the trenches (for real), he would definitely be our squad leader. He's more of a man than us. He's a dad and a natural-born leader," says Gordon-Levitt, 27. And, says Tatum, also 27: "I learned more about preparing for a film from him than I ever have from anybody I've worked with."
But it is Cornish who is of most curiosity -- and the primary incentive for Phillippe's pursuers. There was talk of real romance blossoming with Cornish, 25, during the shoot, coinciding with the collapse of his eight-year marriage to actress Reese Witherspoon.
Asked point-blank whether they are a couple, Phillippe is polite if not revealing. "There's no good to come of making any definitive statement about your personal life in that regard," he says. "It's just something I would really rather not address. It has to be a 'no comment.' "
Still, it is obvious he likes the blond Aussie. Calling her a "cool chick," Phillippe says Cornish grew up "on a farm. She's kind of a tomboy, so she was like one of the guys a lot of the time."