By DONALD PORTER
SALT LAKE CITY -- Lou Diamond Phillips sat in a chair against the wall of his Little America Hotel suite, in the shadow of a lamp that wasn't turned on.
The 25-year-old actor was dressed smartly -- tan sports coat, shirt with two buttons open at the neck, blue jeans and cowboy boots. Longish black hair fell over his collar. Without a trace of cockiness, Phillips acknowledged that he's on the verge of something that may be very big -- big with a capital B.
Test audiences have been indicating that his new film is "hot." That's a good word to have connected with a movie. Almost as good as "big," as in box office. Those two words spell success in Hollywood. They're the ticket to the big time. Yes, if indications are correct, big things could be happening to Phillips soon. Then he would be -- that's right -- hot.
The film is "La Bamba," the biographical account of singer Ritchie Valens' brief career and death in 1959. It's Phillips' first part in a major motion picture, and he's the star. He's young, obviously a very talented actor and has looks that are tailor-made for fan magazine covers. What else could he be but a movie actor?
He remembers, though, that his parents were skeptical: "My Mom and Dad used to say, 'Oh, Lou, you want to be an actor? You're going to starve to death. Go to college and have something to fall back on.' "
Then he smiles, happy that all the hard work has paid off, and so early in his career.
"Basically, my butt's all I had to fall back on, because this is all I've ever wanted to do."
The call came last year, when Phillips -- whose family tree includes not only Hispanic ancestors, but Cherokee Indian and Filipino heritage, as well -- was at home in Dallas. Some casting directors had come to town on a search for someone to play a rock singer from the '50s.
"There was a little miscommunication because I thought I was going up for the Frankie Valli story -- you know, ugh!," Phillips recalled. But in a couple of days the misunderstanding was cleared up and Phillips read for the part of Ritchie Valens.
"I was familiar with Ritchie; I was familiar with his music and the fact that he'd died (in a plane crash) with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper in '59. But I didn't know much about the man," Phillips said as he plucked a pack of cigarettes out of his jacket and lit one up.
"I fully expected to just get an opportunity to be seen by the L.A. casting directors because this sort of thing doesn't happen in Dallas. It seemed an impossibility at the time."
It wasn't. Two weeks later Phillips was in Los Angeles to begin rehearsals as the star of "La Bamba," one of the first films to depict Hispanics as average Americans searching for success. Phillips has been active in independent and Christian filmmaking in and around Dallas for several years, but most of his roles have been unlike Ritchie Valens, who comes off in "La Bamba" as an average nice kid equipped with an enormous musical talent. In Dallas filmmaking circles, Phillips was regarded as the in-house heavy, playing gang members and tough guys.
"Ritchie was actually more of a challenge for me," the tall, lanky actor said as he nervously brushed the dust off his pant leg. "And by the same token, (he was) closer to my own personality because I'm not a tough guy, I'm not a gang member. I was honored to play somebody who stood for things and lived his life closely to the way I want to in the long run."
Although the character of Valens was familiar to Phillips, the actor said there were elements that remained completely foreign to him.
"The world was very different then -- I think much more innocent," he said. "And things were fresher and newer, and I think Ritchie came to embody that. Luis Valdez (the film's writer and director) immediately had my hair cut, and I wore that hairstyle for the two weeks we were in rehearsal, even though we weren't in front of the camera. That works on an actor's psyche."
Also a help to Phillips was the opportunity to speak with the Valenzuela family. (Valens was Ritchie's stage name.)
"It's been a very emotional process for them, and very painful, at times, having to relive the whole experience," Phillips said. "This wasn't a fictionalized account; this was somebody's life, something people lived through. It was important to me, as an actor, to do it justice. His family is still so emotionally attached to him.
"So when I received their blessing and when they accepted me into their family and started calling me Ritchie ..."
Calling him Ritchie?
"Oh, yeah. 'Twilight Zone,'" Phillips responded, setting down his coffee cup and leaning forward in his chair. "There were a lot of times on the set when things were just very strange. The precedent was set the very first day of rehearsal when Luis Valdez took me to the San Fernando Mission, where Ritchie is buried. I knelt beside his grave, and at that point I realized this is something that stands out because here I am, this is where this man ended and I'm beginning. A huge sense of responsibility came down on my shoulders. I'm bringing him back to another generation, and I care what they think about him."
The emotional weight on Phillips' shoulders' was compounded by the technical demands of the role. He was required to learn to play the guitar -- or at least the fingering of specific songs for concert sequences -- and to lip-sync the words to the Los Lobos-recorded sound track.
"I was given the soundtrack, and Luis Valdez told me I had to live with it. He said if he saw me with the Walkman, off my neck I'd be a dead man," Phillips said, chuckling. "There were times when I wished I was singing; it would have been so much easier.
"Concert days were intimidating and frightening," he continued. "And I'd have to get up and follow people like Brian Setzer (the former Stray Cats guitarist who portrays Eddie Cochran in the film), who is so phenomenal. And to get up and go, 'My God, I'm an actor, not really a rock star but I've got to make these people believe it.' I understand what it's like now -- the rush of getting up in front of those people -- it's just electrifying."
Aside from his performance, though, Phillips said he is most happy with the positive portrayal of Hispanics in the film.
"It is a real breakthrough. And, quite honestly, I think that 'La Bamba' may become a ground-breaker for Hispanic films crossing over into the mainstream," he said, lighting another cigarette. "You look at, say, the Jewish/New York kind of thing, or the Italian thing that (Francis) Coppola's brought to the screen -- they're so much a part of Americana now that they're almost not considered ethnic.
"I mean, everybody knows about that sort of lifestyle and that sort of experience. But there has not been an Hispanic film that's accomplished that yet, and I feel that 'La Bamba' may be that sort of breakthrough."
That doesn't mean the film has the potential to wipe the slate clean of negative stereotypes, he said. "I don't think it'll do away with it. I don't think one year's going to make a difference. It's got to be an ongoing process. It took something like 'The Godfather' to make Italian life a slice of Americana, to make actors like (Robert) DeNiro and (Al) Pacino.
"Who knows what's going to solve the problem? I think there are very positive steps being taken and that there are very positive people in the industry who are" helping dispel racism.
"There are wonderful steps, being taken, like Robert Redford doing 'Milagro Beanfield War' and people like Jimmy Smits ('L.A. Law') and Eddie James Olmos ('Miami Vice') and Luis Valdez -- people who are making a difference, getting out there and showing that it's Americana anyway."