When asked how a successful 42-year-old actor might relate to an overweight, depressed high school student — the topic Matthew Lillard tackles in Fat Kid Rules the World, his first film in the director’s seat — we undeniably hit a nerve. Teenage alienation, it turns out, is near universal — something that even established Hollywood types like Lillard never forget.
“I was an overweight kid with a severe learning disability, I had glasses and braces, and I was in the drama department,” says Lillard. “I was never suicidal, but I wasn’t what you’d call a popular kid. And the insecurity [from that time] infuses your life in a big way.”
Evidently so. Lillard says, in fact, that he was so impacted by Fat Kid’s plot, that he’s waited 10 years to direct the film after first discovering the young adult fiction title by K.L Going. “I recorded the voiceover for Fat Kid’s audiobook. While I was doing it, I had this emotional epiphany,” he says. “I fell in love with it, and I had tears running down my face. I had this awakening. I thought, ‘I have to make this story into a movie.’”
Note: Lillard never uses the word “inspiring” (or any of its synonyms) to describe the film. And that’s because Fat Kid isn’t particularly inspirational or motivational; rather, Lillard says, he was aiming for realism. It is, perhaps, why Fat Kid opens with the plainly tortured, overweight Troy (Jacob Wysocki) stepping in front of a bus. When Marcus (Matt O’Leary), a scruffy punk rock dude from a broken home, comes to his rescue, the two — warts and all — become tightly intertwined.
Don’t call it a friendship, though. Rather, Marcus forces Troy to join his band as a drummer — even if he’s never stepped behind the kit. To make matters worse, he books the band a gig in five weeks. Then, he forces his way into Troy’s home life, sleeping on his floor, covering his walls in graffiti and encouraging him to skip classes. A wave of painfully awkward sequences and cartoonish suicide attempts follow — which are less humorous, more heartfelt.
“We had a bible in terms of tone for the film [in Going’s book],” he says. “It’s a story we wanted people to relate to, in that we never paint a bright and shiny picture with the movie. Hollywood can be one-dimensional; films always end with the hero getting the girl. But we treated the movie honestly.”
Elaborate, we ask. “I love Troy’s character, and really respect him. I wanted to show his pain in a real way, not a schticky way. He self-medicates with food, for example, and that’s a real way people deal with problems. But we never make jokes at the expense of his size.”
Then, there’s the film’s evident love affair with punk rock. (It was, in fact, scored by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, who, despite his leanings in his musical career, spent plenty of time in Seattle’s punk scene.) Lillard mentions his own role in teen classic SLC Punk — a punk rock coming-of-age story rivalling Hard Core Logo in influence — frequently in reference to Fat Kid. But, he cautions, fans shouldn’t confuse both movies, even if they share common musical origins.
“I know, and love, how much SLC Punk meant to people,” he says. “And I do have a soft spot for punk rock.” But, he says, Fat Kid should be approached from a theatrical perspective. “The thing I love about punk is it has this energy, and I love that energy. And good acting requires energy, too. What draws me to punk is that people have a visceral reaction to it, and I want people to have a visceral reaction to the movie, too. The punk rock world sets a perfect backdrop for Fat Kid.”
So, we suggest, the film’s about the transformative power of punk. “Punk rock saves lives!” he laughs. “I love that you took that from the movie, but it’s not really [the point]. It’s about the transformative power of finding something you love and committing to it.”