Why you don't hear much from Matthew Lillard anymore

Matthew Lillard was among the most promising young actors of the late '90s, but his career trajectory seemed to hit a snag before he could become a full-on A-lister. Although the Scream star hasn't disappeared from the spotlight altogether, he's definitely seen more than his share of professional setbacks. How and why did Lillard's star fall so fast?

He'll always be Psycho Stu to some people

Arguably Lillard's most memorable role of all time came by way of Wes Craven's 1996 classic slasher pic Scream, which featured him as the (spoiler warning) serial killer sidekick Stu. Although he'd already earned some audience favor by way of his role in the 1995 cyberdrama Hackers, Scream was what made him one to watch. But it's the long-lived fan following of the movie that's also caused Lillard to struggle in establishing a new identity with those built-in fans.

He told The A.V. Club, "I get people on my Twitter account, 10 comments a day, about Scream and—I said it once—'Talking about Scream is like talking about the first girl you ever kissed.'" Lillard added that while he's got nothing but fond feelings for the people he worked with on the film, he simply doesn't understand the lasting fandemonium that still surrounds the pic, decades later. "It's this big point in my life, being a part of that moment and that cast. The cast and I shared this incredible bond and I love Wes Craven. He changed my life. He's a fantastic human being and a fantastic director—and the cast and I are still good friends. And the idea that people are still obsessed with it, it's so bizarre to me. I can understand why people are obsessed with Hackers—it's kitschy kind of fun attached to an era and the beginning of something on the internet. But the Scream thing, the obsession with Scream, I just don't get it. It's something that kids are still obsessed with, 20 years later."

To be fair, he's not the only actor from the franchise who is inextricably associated with it (his co-star Skeet Ulrich is another example), but it's obviously still strange all the same.

He's also Shaggy eternal

While he might be best-known for Scream in some circles or SLC Punk! in others, the movie that's proven to be his most career-defining of all is Scooby-Doo, which has turned into a decades-spanning mainstay for his work history. After starring in the 2002 live-action movie as Shaggy—a role previously popularized by radio personality Casey Kasem—he returned for the 2004 sequel Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed and circled back to the character in 2010 for the start of a slew of mini-movies, video games, and TV series. In that sense, it's been a blessing. On the other hand, Lillard also counts the first Scooby-Doo as costing him a lot in the way of credibility.

He told the A.V. Club, "Of all the movies I've ever done, that movie probably put me behind the eight ball more than any other film. It was a huge franchise, a big hit, but a little like The Flintstones—nobody gives it any kind of credit or respect. Which is fine, but it definitely took my indie credit from being in SLC Punk! and a lot of those independent films and threw it out the window, because you 'sold your soul' to be in this huge blockbuster." Even so, Shaggy has provided a consistent paycheck source. "If it wasn't for Scooby Doo, I wouldn't still be in California acting, I'd be somewhere else doing something else. Scooby Doo the movie saved my bacon, to be honest—and it still does. That show is still around and it's the constant job I have and I love doing the voice," Lillard admitted.

He's played the wingman a lot

Lillard has often been relegated to secondary character status in his films, especially ones featuring Freddie Prinze, Jr. in the lead. Lillard starred as Prinze's right-hand man in a whopping five films, including She's All That, Wing Commander, Summer Catch and the two Scooby-Doo movies. Not only has Lillard since vowed not to co-star with his frequent collaborator again, but he believes it has been a detriment to his résumé, even once dubbing himself the "Guy Who Was in a Freddie Prinze, Jr. Movie Too Many" as a nod to what others might think of him.

He didn't gain the reputation of being the Goose to Prize's Maverick by design, of course. "I don't think anybody in their right mind gets into an industry like this and goes, 'You know what I want to do? Be a second fiddle,'" he explained to MovieLine. "I just don't want to be that guy who gets lost in the lexicon of Freddie Prinze, Jr. movies. I'm glad to have them, and I'm glad I did them. I learned a lot in that process of my life. But I was 23 years old—and now I'm 41."

The consequence of his constant accomplice placement is that those few films which have given him a chance at the lead have been rather regrettable. He told A.V. Club, "The more lines I have, in general, the worse a movie is. It's very rare that I get say great things in fantastic movies. So if you see me as like, number one on a call sheet? In general, that movie is pretty bad. … I will say that I am usually the best thing in that horrible movie. I signed up with an agency and an agent came up to me and said, 'Dude, you are the best actor in every terrible movie ever made.' And his thought was to get me to better movies and more lines in better movies, but we're still waiting for that to happen."

He's been in some heavily disliked movies

Lillard's gone back and forth over which film ranks his absolute worst—in conversation with BuzzFeed, he pointed to In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale ("it's the worst movie I ever made, but I turned in one of my favorite performances"), while he told the A.V. Club that Home Run Showdown was among the worst ("it's one of the ugliest, fattest children that I have").

Critics, meanwhile, universally panned his 1998 comedy-horror film Dead Man's Curve, awarding it a scathing 0% on Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer. The same year, he starred in the widely panned comedy Senseless (which boasts a tragic 6% on the site), and he's since racked up another near-dozen films that were given a 25% or less rating by reviewers. While Lillard has starred in a few films that film experts did like, including 1998's Without Limits, Alexander Payne's 2011 hit The Descendants, and his own 2012 directorial effort Fat Kid Rules the World, the vast majority of his movies have been met with critical scorn.

He never quite reached heartthrob status

Unlike other actors in his peer group, Lillard wasn't a regular of the Teen Beat magazine scene, despite earning initial popularity around the same time that the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Josh Hartnett, and Andrew Keegan were being plastered all over every tween's room in America. It wasn't the fact that he emerged as a maniacal baddie in Scream that held him back from claiming young hearts across the country—Ulrich's character Billy was much worse and he still made a few key cover stories. But despite even The New York Times pegging Lillard as an inevitable heartthrob coming off of the movie, he was rarely ever promoted to leading man in any given rom-com or drama despite some ephemeral popularity and good looks. (He did have a romantic arc in 2004's Without a Paddle, but that film was still a buddy comedy above all.)

Lillard instead spent most of his screen time providing comic relief. "Somehow I just got off the radar, off the cool radar. I became a product of the '90s," he told BlackBook. "It became this kind of like, 'Oh, he was a star in the '90s.' Which is hilarious, because I was never a star,"

He's getting way more interesting projects on the small screen

With the exception of The Descendants, the lion's share of Lillard's more impressive recent work has come on TV. Not only was he a series regular on FX's ambitious crime drama The Bridge, but he's also appeared on State of Affairs, The Good Wife, and Halt and Catch Fire. He's also among the impressive cast of TV's Twin Peaks revival, due to debut in 2017, and revealed that his character in the show will be "epic." Moral of the story: He might not be a marquee name at the local theater, but TV is giving him some meat to chew on with his performances.

Lillard told Collider that The Bridge was his first real experience regularly working on a TV show and didn't pay as much as a movie might, but there was a lot for him to play with in the character material. "I thought, 'There's no money. The guy dies in Episode 6. He's barely in the pilot. And I have to audition for it?' … I was like, 'Yes, but look at this part, and look at how amazing this scene is. I'd get to do this scene. I'd love to do it,'" he said. The character ended up outliving his expectations, and that experience gave him a new perspective on the medium.

"TV is the s*** right now!" he told Rolling Stone. "You get great directors, great actors, great things to say, and you get to work all the time. You do a movie … I did The Descendants. A year later I did Trouble with the Curve. That's two jobs in two years. That's a really terrible way to make a living." Considering how many great actors got their long-overdue big breaks on TV—including Mad Men's Jon Hamm, Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, and Scandal's Kerry Washington—this new leg of his career might prove a little sturdier than the last.

He can also pursue more work behind the lens

Lillard's 2012 directorial debut Fat Kid Rules the World may not have been a commercial success, but the film did garner some respect with reviewers. He told BuzzFeed he has an itch to reclaim the director's seat, even as he continues to take acting work. "My life now is not about being famous. My life is about writing a script that means something emotional to me," he explained. "My life is about teaching and trying to grow as an artist. My life is about trying to cultivate my craft. There's no quitting because you could get a job at any time even if you haven't worked in 10 years."