Under the Radar

Ryan Phillippe Talks About the Military Influence on 'Shooter'

Ryan Phillippe stars as Marine veteran sniper Bob Lee Swagger in USA's series Shooter, now in the midst of it second season (new episodes on Tuesdays at 10/9c on USA). If you only saw the 2007 movie with Mark Wahlberg, you might not realize that Swagger is the lead character in a series novels by Stephen Hunter, who based Bob Lee on Vietnam-era USMC scout sniper Carlos Hathcock.

Phillippe's Bob Lee Swagger is less of a loner than Wahlberg's version. He has a wife and daughter, he has close relationships with other characters played by Omar Epps and Shantel VanSanten and, this season, he's living life in the open after clearing himself in season one's conspiracy.

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We spoke to Phillippe about the show just a couple of days before the "freak accident" where he broke his leg. We talked about the show's military themes, his work with Elizabeth Dole's Hidden Heroes charity and what it was like to have the first season delayed by a series of gun attacks in the summer of 2016.

You can catch up with Season 2 with your cable or satellite's on-demand service or in the USA app for Roku, Apple TV or whatever mobile device you're using. Season 1 is currently available on Netflix. Both seasons are available to purchase digitally from iTunes, Vudu and Amazon.

SHOOTER -- "The Hunting Party" Episode 201 -- Pictured: Ryan Phillippe as Bob Lee Swagger -- (Photo by: Isabella Voskmikova/USA Network)

What inspired you to get involved with reviving the Bob Lee Swagger character?  The movie with Mark Wahlberg came out a long time ago.

A lot of people don’t know that there are eight novels written about this character. We chose to use Mark's movie as the basis for the first season.  For every season after, we're taking a different book and using that as the basis for the subsequent stories.

When I was first approached, I didn’t know that the books existed or that this character had such a great following.  Once I learned that, I started to see the potential for a new action hero that was military-connected and very patriotic, but still had those elements of Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan.

SHOOTER -- "Remember the Alamo" Episode 202 -- Pictured: Ryan Phillippe as Bob Lee Swagger -- (Photo by: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network)

There are other characters who've succeeded in novels who haven't worked on screen as well as yours has. The excellent Quarry series was on Cinemax last year and that's been cancelled.  You've made it through to a second series and obviously it looks like you're going to have a long run with this show. Why do you think it's working?

I think it’s the attention to detail.  It starts at the top with our show runner, John Hlavin.  Early in his career he was on The Shield and he's a stickler for authenticity and detail. Omar Epps and I put in the training time.  We trained this summer, even in-between seasons.  We went out to Utah and trained with Buck Doyle, who is a former Force Recon Marine. He took us through some live ammo moving and shooting courses.  We really take the time to learn the tactical aspects of our characters.

The action is very visceral.  I do my own stunts, so you're seeing me actually jeopardizing myself.  It's not the stuntman. The show also has some heart. Bob Lee has a wife and daughter. They are the center of his world and the people he would do anything to protect and provide for. I feel like we have a multifaceted show that way, where it's got some elements of heart, but it's also got very gritty and realistic action.

SHOOTER -- "The Man Called Noon" Episode 205 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ryan Phillippe as Bob Lee Swagger, Shantel VanSanten as Julie Swagger -- (Photo by: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network)

Mark Wahlberg’s Shooter movie is a great action picture but your TV series presents a closer-to-reality version of Bob Lee Swagger.

That’s what we're trying to do. From the very beginning, we wanted there to be a separation. In Mark's movie, he doesn’t have a wife and daughter.  We wanted to make sure that the audience knew we weren't telling the exact same story and that we were going to take it in different directions.  You didn’t see much of his military career in the movie. That’s become a primary focus of our show, particularly with season two.

This season you really get to know the guys that Bob Lee served with. Flashbacks are essential to our main storyline this season.  You see us on operations in Afghanistan and there's talk of even going deeper and further with that. We'd love to build a universe around this Bob Lee character and maybe have different types of shows that have the same feel and the same respect for the military and pay the attention it deserves.

If you're going to tell these stories, you want it to feel like you're truthful and honest.  I work with Got Your 6. That's a big edict of theirs.  They don’t want to see vets portrayed as the Teflon heroes and they don’t want to see the wheelchair needing a handout. Got Your 6 wants to see a balanced individual. We try to put a picture in people's heads that’s a little more fair and accurate.

With Bob Lee Swagger, we want to show you a guy who isn't necessarily perfect.  He has a skill set that very few people have, but he's a human being.  During this season, when you get to know some of our vets, you’ll find that they're regular guys.

SHOOTER -- "Don't Mess With Texas" Episode 203 -- Pictured: Ryan Phillippe as Bob Lee Swagger -- (Photo by: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network)

Have the producers brought in a lot of veterans to work with you on the show?

We've got quite a few on our crew, about 25 percent of our crew is comprised of vets.  A lot of us, myself included, come from military families. Both my grandfathers served in World War II and saw action, one won a Bronze Star.  My dad was in the Navy during Vietnam, my uncles were Seabees and Infantrymen, so all of the stuff matters to me.

You started your career at a young age and you’ve been at it for a while now. Have you seen changes on the set over your career as to how people approach the military in Hollywood?

I don’t know.  What I have become more aware of is the people in our industry who are making it a point to hire vets.  Judd Apatow is one. When he's making a movie, that’s part of his hiring process. There are others like him. That’s something that I wasn’t aware of early in my career, and it's nice to know that that’s happening now.

SHOOTER -- "The Man Called Noon" Episode 205 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ravil Isyanov as Alexi, Ryan Phillippe as Bob Lee Swagger, Omar Epps as Isaac Johnson, Patrick Sabongui as Yusuf Ali -- (Photo by: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network)

Where do you film Shooter?

California. It’s primarily Santa Clarita, although lately we've been out near the Mojave Desert in Palmdale and Lancaster. I’m telling you, our cast and crew, we go through it on this show.  This is not an easy show to make.  We're in temperatures of like 110, 115, no lie, when we’re doing action sequences.  And it's tough.

We're very near the end of the production season and it feels like it.  Everybody is kind of banged up and burned out in some ways, but it all adds to what we're trying to make.  Mostly we shoot 40 minutes outside of LA, but lately, last few episodes have been a little further away in the desert.

Not many shows are filmed in California these days. You get to go home after work.

That was one of the main requests I had in negotiating the contract. I have two teenage children and I don’t want to be away for great lengths of time.  You only have them for so long and time goes fast, so I don’t want to be on location too much right now. I'm so thankful that we can shoot it close to home.

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You’ve been involved with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation for a while and it seems like the rest of the case is joining you this year.

Elizabeth Dole is an inspirational woman.  She’s become a hero of mine over the last couple of years.  I recently visited the Senate floor in DC with her and that’s an experience that I'll never forget.  We went on behalf of veterans and military caregivers and we also were accompanied by vets and their spouses. I gave testimony along with Senator Dole on behalf of this bill that’s going to help provide more resources and funding to military caregivers.

A lot of our men and women come back with TBI and the disorders that aren't as visible on the outside. Their spouses are struggling because they're not prepared to deal with it.  That’s exactly what Hidden Heroes is about.  It's about making sure that the people who take care of our vets have what they need to do it the right way.  And it helps keep those families together and hopefully helps lower suicide rates.

SHOOTER -- "Across the Rio Grande" Episode 206 -- Pictured: (l-r) Lexy Kolker as Mary Swagger, Ryan Phillippe as Bob Lee Swagger -- (Photo by: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network)

Another idea that’s taken hold in the last few years is that an entire family serves when one member is deployed to a war zone. That seems like  something that goes into the idea of how you portray your family on the show.

It does. Even though he's no longer in service at present, we get glimpses into how it's affected his relationship with his wife. There’s also the fact that my character ends up embroiled in these conspiracies.  That gives you a window into what it would be like to see a wife and child dealing with a loved one whose life is in danger.

I think there will be opportunities in other seasons to do that.  Maybe not as much with my character, but maybe with one of the others.  But it's the absolute truth, a lot of these are young couples who aren’t prepared to deal with the repercussions that come from combat and what people bring home with them. I think it's important to put a light on that.

SHOOTER -- "The Man Called Noon" Episode 205 -- Pictured: (l-r) Patrick Sabongui as Yusuf Ali, Ryan Phillippe as Bob Lee Swagger, Omar Epps as Isaac Johnson -- (Photo by: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network)

There seem to be a flood of new military-themed shows this fall. Do you think Shooter inspired some of them?

I take it as a compliment because I do feel like it's very much related to the fact that our show is a success. I heard there were something like five military-themed pilots this season.  That definitely was not the case last year or the year before that.

But I'm not threatened by it at all.  I think what we have is unique and it's established at this point.  It's only getting better.  This season is bigger and the scripts are really exciting and I'm just not worried about other ones popping up. It is funny. That’s what Hollywood does every time, right?

When something works, everyone wants to try to make something similar. We're lucky that we're on cable.  USA has been really great with our creative vision and allowing us to get a little gritty and have the language be a little salty.

I want to keep the show a family show.  I love the fact that like fathers and sons are watching it.  And I'm hearing this feedback a lot, that there's a lot of bonding over the show.  I want to keep it that way, but you also want to show the way guys talk to each other when they're in situations.  You want it to be close to the truth. The networks aren't going to be able to do those things the same way that we're able to after 10:00 on a cable network.

SHOOTER -- "The Man Called Noon" Episode 205 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ryan Phillippe as Bob Lee Swagger, Omar Epps as Isaac Johnson -- (Photo by: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network)

USA decided to delay your show after the series of high-profile gun attacks in the summer of 2016. That would’ve been a death sentence for a lot of shows but you managed to find an audience when the show premiered late in the fall.

I'm absolutely appreciative and aware of that.  It's a weird thing because, throughout my career, I haven't really complimented the studios and channels I've worked with, but the way they handled last season turned out to be the right way.  And the way that they're supporting us now is exactly  right. You want your network people working as hard as you are in 115 degree heat.

SHOOTER -- "Across the Rio Grande" Episode 206 -- Pictured: Federal Agents -- (Photo by: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network)

What should fans of the show expect this season that’s different than what they saw last season?

This season there's very much a theme of brotherhood.  As I was saying earlier, you get to know some of the guys that Bob Lee served with in his unit. There's a whole new side to the show.

Also, I'm not on the run anymore.  My character is out in the open.  He's a minor celebrity after what happened last season and after he was exonerated, so it's a different kind of Bob Lee. He's not in hiding and I'm not having to disguise myself.

The biggest thing is that he's up against his #1 nemesis.  Our season is basically the world's greatest sniper versus the world's best assassin. They're both pretty genius and they're both incredibly skilled and it turns into an insane cat and mouse game.

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