Ron Lester Reminisces with Varsity Blues

The actor who played Billy Bob talks about his fond memories on the set and his dramatic 300-pound weight loss

Ron Lester had one of those overnight success stories that most actors dream of. After making his film debut in Brian Robbins' Good Burger, the director hired him for his next film, a little football movie that became a huge success: Varsity Blues, which was recently released in a new Deluxe Edition DVD and also made it's Blu-ray debut on September 15. While the film, and his delightful portrayal of the jovial offensive lineman Billy Bob, opened a lot of doors in Lester's career, he ended up taking some time off to tend to his health. Lester underwent the highly-dangerous gastric bypass surgery that almost took his life, but after recovering from the operation, the actor lost 348 pounds and you can see the results of his harrowing journey in the Billy Bob Without the Bacon feature on these Deluxe Edition discs. I had the chance to speak with Lester over the phone about his experiences with the film and his weight-loss journey, and here's what he had to say.

So I know you worked with director Brian Robbins on Good Burger, so did he approach you for this role while you were working on that film, or how did Billy Bob come to be for you?

Ron Lester: Yeah. I got Good Burger then Brian came to me one day and said, 'Hey, I'm going to be directing this football movie in Texas.' He said to read the script, and the character's name is Billy Bob and, basically he said 'It's your role to lose.' I said all right and we did screen test after screen test, even though I was really the only person going out for the role, Paramount still wanted to know. I think there were like eight all in all, but they gave me the scene where I was in the back of the truck and I'm crying, and I did it on my mark, over and over and over, and I guess it proved that I could act a little, and they gave me the role.

This was one of those Dazed and Confused where all these people like Amy Smart and Paul Walker really blew up after this movie. So what was the energy like on the set, with all these young up and coming stars?

Ron Lester: I've got to be honest. It wasn't even like a job (Laughs). The funny thing is I have never worked on another set where - even with all the TV shows and everything - I've never worked on another set where it felt like that. We had all grown up together. It really was exactly like you saw on screen. Everybody was together and the bad thing about it was when you roll out, the first movie to really make you famous, you keep looking for that formula on every other thing that you do, and I have yet to find another group of people to work with like that, even with the crew. The crew on Varsity Blues was phenomenal.

I know you guys filmed in Texas, but did you actually talk to any of these football guys that you might have based your characters off of, like players or people who were really obsessed with the sport in Texas?

Ron Lester: I know that Van Der Beek did and I know Paul (Walker) did a bit and I'm sure Scotty Caan did. Me, however, all I had to do was to roll up and be the funny fat guy, you know. The thing about it was that role was me. Don't get me wrong when I say this, because I'm not trying to discredit my abilities, because I had the same feelings that my character had. Jon Voight is like a father figure to me and after doing this movie, he's just the greatest mentor I had. There were times, like in those scenes where he was chewing me out, I allowed the emotion to come out, because it was real. The only thing I really had to act was the lines. Unfortunately for me, I didn't have a football person that this thing was based off of. It was really just me. Although, I will say this, I wish someone would've gave me some pointers in the strip club scene.

(Laughs) Yeah, I suppose.

Ron Lester: I wish I would've known how to work this moneymaker a little better. I don't think I'd get to do the worm or anything, but when you're 475 pounds, you're not doing a whole lot of break dancing. Break sh*t, but not dancing.

I loved the featurette on this new Deluxe Edition, Billy Bob With No Bacon, so can you talk about this whole journey you went through with the surgeries and everyone getting behind you for this amazing journey you went on?

Ron Lester: Absolutely. See, I was on the TV show called Popular. Brian directed it and he brought me in on that gig as well. I was only supposed to be in the pilot, but when they got done testing, they kind of had to keep me, which was great and that made Brian even happier. I was doing a scene where I was supposed to get in a car, and I couldn't really fit in the car. I was up to 508 pounds and there was just a lot going on, personally and mentally. That one day I just ended up breaking down. I had a couple of days off and I saw these TV commercials on Entertainment Tonight with Carney Wilson. I didn't really know who she was, but all I knew was she lost all this weight. So I said, 'All right. I'm going to do that.' Because I was famous and had a lot of money and all that kind of stuff, unfortunately I didn't have to go through what normal people had to go through to get the procedure that they did. On December 12, 2000 I made the decision to do this and on December 19, I was on a plane to New York. I met the doctor for the very first time and on the 21st I was on a table, with the first of the gastric bypass surgeries. It would've been the whole thing but I flatlined during the operation, so they made me come back six months later for the rest of it.

Wow.

Ron Lester: The thing is, the TV show Popular went off the air that year and I was just going through ups and downs, chemically-wise. It was almost like being bi-polar. I took time off and I came back and was going to try to do something - by the way, you can go on my website, RonLesterOnline.com and we have the Montel episode on there and other little things like that. Anyway, I ended up doing four and a half years of plastic surgery, 17 surgeries altogether and I came back. It was really weird, because I was no longer 508 pounds and the first gig I got was CSI: NY. I was supposed to do several episodes, but my mother developed ovarian cancer so I quit again to take care of her. When she passed, I came back last year, out of retirement, and of course, there was the writers strike, SAG strike, now we have the economy and I'm going, 'This is awesome.' The funny thing is one of the only guys I kept in touch with was Eliel Swinton, the guy who played Wendell, and I hadn't seen Brian until that one day when we did the behind-the-scenes thing. I know that (DVD producer) Tim King was really trying to get everybody together in one room for that behind-the-scenes stuff and I felt really grateful that Swinton showed up when Brian and all those guys were doing voiceover stuff. They found an EPK of me standing by my old truck from the movie and the interview was a lot longer, but with the time, it is what it is, but it was actually a lot of fun. Oh, Jon Voight, like I said Jon is very dear to me and the day after I made the decision to do this and found the doctor, I went and I had lunch with him and told him what I was doing. I told him I was scared about what this can do to me and my career and all this other stuff and he goes, in very Jon Voight fashion, 'Ronnie, you have to do what you think is best for you, and that's that.' I was just like, 'OK' (Laughs). To be honest, the only person I was really seeking any approval from when doing the surgeries, was Jon Voight.

So when you first had these surgeries, they were more experimental at the time, so was that one of the big concerns going through?

Ron Lester: You know what, I'll be honest man. You know I do a lot of motivational speaking and stuff, trying to help kids with their weight and the obesity. I'll be honest man. That surgery is dangerous. A lot of people die from that. I mean, it saves a lot of lives, but you go through all of the stress and all of the pain that goes with the surgery. It really is just a tool. It's not a fix-it, it's a tool. I did this all the wrong ways and on top of that, I was the first in Hollywood to lose, what, 340 pounds, that was a so-called "celebrity."

So I see you have a movie coming out called The Fat Boy Chronicles, so can you can you talk a bit about that and what your role in that is?

Ron Lester: Yeah. Now make sure you title it The Fat Boy Chronicles, because apparently there is a gay website called Fat Boy Chronicles.

Oh, really?

Ron Lester: Yeah. I have enough chubby-chasers as is. I don't need anymore (Laughs). The funny thing is, when I lost weight, you have no idea the amount of people that got upset when I lost all that weight. All these gay guys are going, 'What? No!' But, yeah, I play a doctor. A friend of mine in Georgia knew these people who were making this movie, so he gave them my number. They sent me the book first and I read the book, then they sent me the script. The character Jimmy, he's 14 and he's battling obesity and the thing is I was so much better than the kid in the book, at his age. The book was written really well and of course I could really relate to the character. Then the irony is that I would be the doctor and tell Jimmy he has to lose weight, so I said yeah. I didn't really have to do a lot of preparation to play the doctor, because I've had that conversation. It went in one ear and out the other when I was growing up. Playing the doctor and being able to tell Jimmy - and these guys made me the co-executive producer on the film - and I actually rewrote the scene to make it more personal. I was able to sit there and get the point across to Jimmy. It's like Billy Bob, in that I wasn't necessarily acting. I've been there, I lived it. I'm not sure about the release date for that movie, but I know it was fun to be a part of.

So, finally, the new Deluxe Edition and Blu-ray of Varsity Blues just came out, so what would you like to say to all of the fans who have supported this film and about what they can check out on this new DVD?

Ron Lester: Yeah, I hope they do check it out. Also, every Thursday I have a radio show and it's open, so if they want to call in, we don't screen them. We don't care. Anybody that wants to can call in. It's (646) 929-1466 and the website is going to be changed up a little bit, but you can go to http://www.ronlesterradio.comRonLesterRadio.com} and it's every Thursday from 8 PM to 10 PM ET. It's great because you can listen to it on the Internet over the next several days. It's fun, dude. We get music from all over the world and, not only do we not screen calls, but, I don't care if you're an 80-year-old man sitting on his porch, or a produced band, if you send us two songs and a bio, we'll play both songs. One week it can be completely s*&^ty and funny and the next week we'll be going, 'Holy hell, I can't believe we just got them on our show' (Laughs). That's one of the things we're talking about, this Varsity Blues thing, so if you want to call up, ask me anything you want to know. I don't care.

Excellent. Well that's about all the time I have, Ron. Thanks so much for your time and the best of luck with your show and new movie.

Ron Lester: Thanks man. Good talking to you.

You can watch Ron Lester as Billy Bob on the brand new Varsity Blues Deluxe Edition DVD and Blu-ray, which are available now. You can also visit RonLesterOnline.com and RonLesterRadio.com to learn more about Lester, his radio show and much more.

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