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."
And it's not hard to see what women like about him. Even his director was impressed by his assets. After instructing him to get in tip-top shape, Phillippe showed up on set and took off his shirt. "He just shows me his chest and says, 'Are you happy?' " Peirce recalls. "And I said, 'Yeah. That's pretty good.' I love him for his talent and mind, but I don't mind him for his fantastic physique."
Phillippe and Cornish were to have reunited on another film, Last Battle Dreamer, but Phillippe says that is now off, a casualty of the recently wrapped Writers' Guild strike.
Phillippe has spoken about the emotional toll his divorce took on him. During that time, he leaned on his own personal brotherhood, which includes three close male friends he has had since age 19. One of them is actor Breckin Meyer, another works as Phillippe's assistant. "They got me through the tougher times," he says. "I've definitely spent periods of time in a very limited state of mind based on whatever I was going through in my life. At this point in time I feel in a pretty good place."
He avoids magazines featuring photos of Witherspoon with her new love, actor Jake Gyllenhaal. "It's bizarre," he says. "There's plenty of times when I say, 'What a strange situation I've found myself in.' But at a certain point you know it's going to happen, so you are prepared in some fashion."
Focusing on his children with Witherspoon (Ava and son Deacon, 4) helped. During the shoot, he brought them to Texas, where he was staying in a lake house outside Austin. Peirce remembers them on set. "They are literally the spitting image of him," she says. "He's so concerned about them. And I think the fact that he's a great father shows through in his performance, because he ends up being a father to the guys."
While in London shooting his next role as a masked martial artist in the futuristic film Franklyn, he spoke with his kids via computer webcam. "It's difficult, but at least it's something," he says. "When they can see you, there's a more visceral reaction."
He is fiercely protective when it comes to shielding his kids from the paparazzi and violent television shows and toys.
"My mother never really let me play with guns -- which I hated," he says. "But I could understand her logic. Because my mom's family fought in wars, she didn't like the idea of that being made into some sort of play ritual. But little boys will make a gun out of anything."
Deacon, for instance, does battle with his daddy's sunglasses. "It's just in their nature," he says.
At the moment, Deacon's fascination extends to trucks, machinery, Power Rangers, Transformers and electronics, while Ava is all about all things Hannah Montana. Dad worked his magic to get Ava tickets to the Miley Cyrus concert, and just last week after a long day of press duties, he made the kids dinner before curling up with them in bed and watching Nancy Drew.
"I love those moments," he says. "All the other guys in the movie went out to hit the bars, but my night was just what I wanted. It was perfect."
And what of some day adding a wife to the mix?
"I can see doing it again, yeah," he says. "And I can certainly see possibly having children again. I'm pretty young, and there are many beautiful things about that idea of marriage and family. It just doesn't always work out perfect for everybody. But I've done all I'm going to do in terms of talking about that part. It's fair to her and fair to myself to move on."