Saturday, February 28, 2015

Talking to Julian Richings "That guy in that movie"

Julian Richings in SUPERNATURAL

By way of introduction:
Hailed as Canada’s Greatest Actor by people more prestigious then myself, Julian Richings may very well be exactly that. Actually if you look back on his huge body of work it could be argued that he is simply one of the greatest actors working today anywhere. On the other hand he will be the first to tell you he is probably best known as "that guy who was in that movie"

It is not hyperbole to call Richings great, it’s the truth. All you need do is watch several of his films or TV appearances in close order and you’ll realize how good he is since he disappears into his roles so completely you don’t realize that it’s the same guy. That’s what happened when I saw PATCH TOWN and EJECTA last year back to back at Fantasia. Two of the earth shaking roles of the festival were played by Richings and I didn’t realize it until I looked at IMDB.

With the release of EJECTA to American theaters and on VOD I was gifted with a chance with the actor via phone. The interview was supposed to run about 15 minutes and instead it ran just under three times that length. Actually It wasn’t so much an interview but a glorious talk where one of the most charming people I’ve ever spoken to talked about his life as an actor. I said very little, stumbling through a few questions, preferring just listen as the great man simply talked. I was bowled over by his intelligence and warmth.  It was the sort of thing that I didn’t want to end and as the supposed end time approached came I hoped that it wouldn’t stop, and it didn’t for another 25 minutes. When it ended, as I knew it would, I was both sad that the conversation ended and thrilled at having talked to an amazing individual.

If you're coming into this interview for a long discussion of  EJECTA you will be disappointed since we only spoke a little about the film However if you are a fan of Julian Richings work you should be delighted at a chance to peer behind the mask of a man who usually ends up playing in horror movies. This is not a typical interview where the actor talks about his roles in detail, rather its the hows and whys of what he does.

What follows is probably 95% of our conversation. I removed some of the stuff at the beginning and end that didn't relate to our talk, a line or two of repetition and about three comments/questions I made. There was nothing in the material removed that you'd want to read.

I want to thank Ted Geoghegan for setting this up, John DiBello for proof reading my transcription and of course Julian Richings for taking the time and then some to do this (and all photos other than the EJECTA still are courtesy of Mr Richings.)

The Interview

STEVE (S): How are you?

JULIAN (J): Fine. Thank you. How are you? (laughs) I hope you can hear me okay. I have a pair of headphones but I'm not going to put them in cause it will probably collapse or something will go wrong —but can you hear me okay?

S: I can hear you fine; can you hear me?

J: Yeah, yeah.

S: The reason I'm asking is the thing I have to record is not for this phone, so I have you on speaker.

J: That’s fine. I have you on speaker. Nobody can hear you, but you're on speaker too.

It's one of the ironies, I'm in a lot of sci-fi and stuff and I often play crazy scientists and I'm the worlds worst person for this kind of thing so I have to come get my daughter to help me from time to time. "Plug this in," "Can you do that?"

S: Yeah? “How does this work?” I know how that goes. I can't do anything myself.

J: Yeah.

S: I have to thank you for blowing my mind last year, between EJECTA and PATCH TOWN.

J:: Oh wow, great! You saw them both?

Julian Richings in PATCH TOWN

S: I had seen you in PATCH TOWN and I had fallen in love with the film. And then I saw EJECTA, and I was like, what else was he in? I went to IMDB and was like "Oh my god he was the Child Catcher in PATCH TOWN!” and then I'm going through all your stuff and I'm like "Oh my God."

J: Yeah. I get around. I do a lot. I mean, that's the thing. I'm an ongoing working actor, and I'm lucky enough to have done a lot of stuff and theater and diverse amount of things too. Because I'm weird looking, I get pigeonholed into specific genres, but I have fun doing it, and I try to push the envelope as much as I can.

S: I can't understand how you haven't been carried off somewhere because you're so good. When you look at your body of work its amazing.

J: Part of it is I do a lot of independent film. I'm also here in Canada; we have a much smaller demographic here. Now you're down in the States, so it's not as if its not available to folks down in the states. Our market reach is smaller here and it keeps us independent. Unless you're going to go the LA route...

Speaking personally, I work with a lot of interesting emerging independent filmmakers here, and there's theater, and a whole bunch of different stuff, so I'm pretty happy. I'm originally from the UK so I've already kind of moved and settled, and the prospect of settling again into a bigger film center is not so appealing at the moment.

S: You'd go for a role or something but you wouldn't necessarily...

J: Yeah, not go down on the off chance of something happening. You know I just follow the work around and I'm happy, honestly.

S: I'm just amazed at everything you've done. The first thing that comes up when you look at your IMDB is MAN OF STEEL, then you go through all the TV shows and the films and everything else. Its like “WOW.”

J: I've enjoyed working with a lot of directors and writers and actors. Some famous, some not so famous. My thing is that's what I do. I'm proud being an actor, a working actor. I take every project seriously. I mean shooting EJECTA on a budget that's a fraction of MAN OF STEEL — I still take it absolutely the same. I pour everything I can into it. And by the same token, I don't have an inverted snobbery to some bigger pictures X-MEN 3, or stuff like that.

You basically go in and embrace the beast. You try and figure out what it’s about, and that to me is the joy of being an actor — you can actually parachute into things and have a very different challenge. I take each one seriously, and whether it’s film or theater or TV or whatever, I don't have a kind of hierarchy of values if you like.

I'm an actor and that's what I am. I think a lot of people confuse the business of acting, the work of acting, with fame. And its an interesting thing. I think some of my best work isn't my most famous work or my most far reaching work. For something to be effective if you reach ten people in an audience, maybe that's as important as reaching millions who could just take it or leave it.

I always talk about The Velvet Underground, early Velvet Underground — nobody ever bought their first album, but there was probably a hundred people in the room that saw them but they influenced the future of rock and roll.

I sort of challenge the notion of fame and fortune.

S: You challenge it and manage to make a living as an actor...

On set shooting "The Rainbow Kid" with Dylan Harman (left) and director Kire Paputts. Feature film to be released in 2015..

J: I'm lucky I found a way of finding my niche.

One of the things as I've gotten older and more mature, I guess younger filmmakers are aware of my work and I've made a point of working with a lot of young filmmakers. These guys at Foresight Features and Craig Goodwill with PATCH TOWN are good examples of people who are incredibly ambitious and whose vision isn't compromised by budget. They have extraordinary reserves of faith and ideas, and that rubs off on me too. I don't ever want to be a jaded kind of guy who goes "Oh yes, another one of these."

Another example is I've done a couple of movies with a young director his name is Kire Paputts. I guess he's in his early 30s. I did a short feature  that was accepted at TIFF — The Toronto International Film Festival — and it got a bit of play. Because of that now he's done a feature and the main character is a young man with Down Syndrome. Its a fabulous, uncompromising movie that's totally from the perspective of our hero who has Down Syndrome. It doesn't patronize, it doesn't have a token "isn't he cute, isn't he noble" type of approach. Nor does it feature an able-bodied actor getting accolades for being a disable-bodied actor.

You know what I mean? This is a movie with specific disabilities, a whole spectrum of autism. That to me is thrilling: that kind of vision and courage to explore the medium of film. That's what we should be doing.

That just feeds me and that takes me into other stuff, and I can kind of do traditional entertainment and be quite happy about it, and try and figure out what is needed in that kind of formula. But also inject a little bit different: a little bit new that I've learned from guys like Kire.

S: I love the stuff that's not typical. The idea that someone with Down Syndrome, you don't see that...

J: Exactly. We tend to put them in this small compartment and make them noble or make them sad or make them victimized. This guy is a very real complex guy on a difficult journey. That's very exciting.

Now it's also got the courage — when you work on smaller productions they have courage and bravery, but they can also fail, and that’s what makes great work. You know if you start out knowing it might be a failure but it’s going to be a magnificent failure — then it’s great for the actor because the actor can do the same thing and really make brave choices and true choices, rather than think of "God, the producers here and they are watching the clock, and they've already invested thousands and thousands of dollars, so I better get this right."

So there is a freedom born of economy. I think all of the movies I've worked on could use a few more dollars, but there is a kind of liberation of thought

Coming back to EJECTA, that's something I experienced with that. I don't know how much you know about the making of that. We started one summer and we did all the found footage material. You know seeing the alien stuff, myself, the Adam Seybold character, talking on the porch and talking about things, running through the woods. All of that was done and achieved and we felt pretty good about ourselves. And we were pretty ingenious: we saved ourselves money by having the camera hand held. We avoided the need to have really slick special effects for the alien — we just embraced that and went with it.
With "Ejecta" writer Tony Burgess at a  screening in Montreal

And when all that was done, Tony Burgess, the writer – to his credit wasn't just left as some anonymous writer in the background, but was very active and participating in the process — looked at what we were doing and said it needed another dimension. And he went away and he created a whole second layer to the film, which is the interrogation side of the film.

And to me, what's great is that it's a film that's grown organically, and realized its need for a different take. And because of the budget we couldn't film until a year later, so it's a film that was shot in two different segments. But we used that to our advantage and each section had a very different feel. It was the realization of the storytelling and the kind of collaboration where you have a small nucleus of people who are on the same page.


S: Did you have a problem going back to the character a year later?

J: Not really, because it was pretty clear.I had been part of the evolution of my character to begin with, and I sat through a lot of sessions with Tony and Matt and Chad, and we kind of figured out who this guy was…and what was kind of cool about it in many ways a year later, he was the same guy in a different context, so it didn't matter. So there was a gulf and a separation between one set of experiences and another, and it goes to the heart of the film, too. It’s like a guy that is invaded by a hostile ideology, so it kind of — or hostile presence, I should say — so, no I really didn't find it difficult.

And I'm a theater actor too. I've done a lot of shows where I'll rehearse a show, put it on and then do a remount one year or two years later. As long as you've gone through the ABCs of the creation in the first place, you're okay.

S: Let's go back slightly: how much input do you have into your roles? With Cassidy you developed it with the writer...


J: It depends on the project. MAN OF STEEL, Superman, obviously I'm going to be a very specific character and it's mapped out for me. I'm gonna go and give it all I can, but there is not a lot of room for exploration. Although even there it's an actors job to bring as much to the table so that the director can say "Wow, I like the idea, let's go with that."

Obviously with shows like EJECTA, with PATCH TOWN, I have a lot more input and I feel comfortable making suggestions that I know the director is going to listen to. We've already evolved an understanding through rehearsal or discussion so it's going to be an appropriate suggestion. It’s not coming out of left field. That’s another reason I'm quite excited by doing a lot of independent work.

And I feel that young emerging directors can learn from an actor too. I'm not being egotistical about it — there are certain ways of executing a scene or shooting a particular angle I know are going to work. Or I know, using the dimensions of my face, what is going to look scarier in a particular way if you're going to shoot me with the light from a particular direction, or the camera placed in a particular angle. It’s all part of the vocabulary.

S: I know you do all the genre stuff, but do you watch it? Do you like....

J: No!

Actually I will watch it but it's not my first choice. I like good scary movies....but I'll give you an example — I think probably my all time favorite film…or its hard to say all time, but it's up there…is NIGHT OF THE HUNTER by Charles Laughton. [It] embodies what I like, there's a darkness and stylization and it's an actor’s movie with great performances… but it has this incredible film noir element to it, and it's difficult to classify as a particular genre because it’s terrifying and it’s psychological and it's visual. It’s almost like a fairy tale. That kind of movie to me is exciting.

So I guess I'm kind of eclectic in my tastes but if I had an option of going to see a whole bunch of films, I wouldn't necessarily go to a horror film first. But it’s part of the palate.

And now it's become interesting for me because I've become identified with particular characters as I've gotten older and more recognizable, I guess, or I have a higher profile — people do approach me with certain things...

...SUPERNATURAL was a pretty big turning point for me, because here you have a mainstream TV show which has got very well developed story line or narrative world, with a massive fan base which is now part of the show. The fan base and the conventions — the audience is as important as the product. That's a kind of fascinating development in our industry over the last five years.

S: Do you go to conventions?

J: I was horrified the first time I got invited to one in Toronto. I was kind of a late fill in, so I thought "Oh my God, I can't do this. What's this all about?" But I went to it.

It was an extraordinary opportunity to meet fans and not just fans of SUPERNATURAL per se. but genre fans. And it blew my mind at how knowledgeable they were, and how opinionated they were about the script on a really intelligent level.

So my appetite for this started — I did a bunch of movies with special effects. I did CUBE, I did WRONG TURN with Stan Winston — and these movies require that I was in makeup for four hours. So I'm there and I'm the actor in the special effects truck and guys are prodding and poking me for four hours, so I had an opportunity to see it from a practitioner’s level, from guys who are special effects animators who will see the same movie over and over again for one segment that has a really cool effect, and it kind of introduced me to a whole way of looking at film and realizing that it means different things to different people.

And SUPERNATURAL, going to these conventions made me realize that wow, here is an opportunity to actually talk to people about the show, about choices that were made from an intelligent place.

You know, I know, that there is all kinds of fangirl and fanboy stuff that goes on, but the basic relationship between audience and actor is really kind of democratic and it's really interesting.

S: One of the things I love when I cover a convention is that I get to talk to fans of various films and you get to see thing you never thought of.

J: Absolutely. Absolutely.

So with SUPERNATURAL, you get moms bringing daughters to a convention for a weekend. So you have a double generational reason for watching the show. There's a kind of safety — Mom's thinking it's kind of cool but a little bit edgy, a little bit sexualized but not too much — but they were both coming from very different positions.

There was one instance where a mom said "I really like you in HARD CORE LOGO."

"Really, you saw me in HARD CORE LOGO?" That’s where I play an aging rock and roll star, and that was made before her daughter was even born.

There's a kind of carrying on, a recognition of a television and film culture out there, and it’s become more democratized in a way. There is a way of accessing directly the people involved in the process with Twitter. I said at the beginning of our talk that I'm the world's least-connected guy, but I have figured out through meeting a lot of SUPERNATURAL followers that Twitter is one of the primary places where there is a huge interchange of opinion, or knowledge, critiquing, blogging. It’s remarkable.

S: Twitter is one of the reasons that people started reading Unseen Films. Everybody connected.

J: It's remarkable. I'm a guy with his head in the sand. I'm slowly coming around. I'm kind of understanding it, trying to embrace it and enjoy it. Right now, it allows me a particular persona and it's not a lie; it becomes an extension of who I am. There is a dialog between a creative person and this very massive audience out there. And that's very exciting. Exciting for guys like Foresight Features. They do not have big development budgets, publicity budgets. They are dependent on Twitter and social media.

S: I've been reviewing films for five or six years now and it’s amazing that when you use social media you can get word out about your film projects.

J: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

S: How much interaction besides Twitter and the occasional convention with the public?

J: Well, just because of the way I look, and because of the span of stuff I've done... I've done kids movies or kids TV shows, for instance ,and kids recognize me — that particular context — so I can't go out without a discussion of some show that I'm in or a role that I've done.

But I really like it. I mean, I'm not Brad Pitt, or I'm being followed by the paparazzi — it's just this very polite interchange with people that kind of goes "you're that gut on so and so," and some people know my name but a lot of people go "I really like that show," and you know if it's not cool to stand around, people pick that up pretty fast.

Folks out there are paying my bills. I have an obligation as a face to at least be courteous, and the years in the theater have taught me to be very grateful for your audience. I mean, I've slogged away in the theater for many years. I've done some good work there, but I know how hard it is to pull people into the light theater, and I'm so grateful that I can do something on a TV show and constantly get recognition for it. It means people are watching my work, which is what everyone wants at the end of the day.

S: It was a little strange: when I mentioned I was going to be speaking with you, people were like "I know him he's in...." and I'd get a laundry list of everything. I feel like I'm coming in late but also realize how much I've seen of your work.
With Kayla Lorette as drag king double in "She Stoops to Conquer". Short film To be released in 2015

J: (laughs) I've been told that by a lot of people.

But the industry is full of character actors. Sometimes they get their break and some times they don't. Harry Dean Stanton, for instance, was in I don't know how many recognizable small parts, and then he did PARIS, TEXAS and suddenly became a house hold name.

And Steve Buscemi...I'm using these actors because other people have compared me to them. I don't see it, necessarily, but I understand why they use them as examples. It just depends on whether what you do catches fire and you get recognized as someone in your own right, or someone like myself who's "Oh that's the guy that's in such and such and such and such."

I mean it’s necessary. I mean if you have a sports team, you need the grinders. It’s not all about the superstars and the massive contracts; you need the team players. I think...from the public's point of view, it's the guys farther down the ranks…that are very important. They give a kind of credibility or familiarity to a movie or a TV show and you go "its that guy". There is a recognition of the everyman.

S: If the secondary or supporting characters aren't good, the lead actors have nothing to act against. In some ways they are more important, because they create the world.

J: I totally agree with you.

It’s been interesting for me. I sit on a lot of juries evaluating performances and stuff for actors awards, and it’s been very interesting for me to watch TV series and watch performances. You realize the leads of a series are playing the brand. They have a journey; they have to take the audience on — its a narrative journey, and they can't go through too many revelations on that journey. The character arc has to remain constant, but each week they depend on people to come in and introduce a primary color and have a mini arc that people can grab hold of. So its true its those secondary and guest actors that give a particular show its color, whereas the labors, the hard work, is done by the characters who go in week in and week out. They have to play the same notes often.

S: I have to ask: when you do a play, what sort of play do you do?

J: Same as film and television, new work, contemporary work. I like mix media work. I'm a physical actor. I trained in Britain, but I trained in a very unusual way. I trained with [Jerzy] Grotowski in Poland, who is a physical actor who emphasizes imagery and the body over the brain over the way people talk. So when I do theater, I tend to get drawn to projects that may be mixed, visual projections and movement and voice. So not necessarily traditional narratives. I mean, I've done many. I've worked on a lot of new Canadian plays and new British plays. So yeah, recently I did a play about John Berger, the art critic who wrote Ways of Seeing. I played Berger, and I read letters he had written to another artist, and I was accompanied by a string quartet and back projections by a visual artist. It was preceded by two dancers. It was an amazing mix of material. To me it was great because it pushed the envelope.

S: I was curious because I saw something where you played a ranting Shakespeare.

J: I do Shakespeare and I think he's terrific. I think, unfortunately, society has a set idea how it should be done, and there is often a kind of preciousness about the production of Shakespeare. But I think some places get it bang-on. The Stratford festival here in Ontario, Canada is fine…they hit the ball out of the park quite often. Yeah, I like Shakespeare but I don't want to be restricted to doing classical work. I feel like I'd like to bring classic training and classic discipline to contemporary works and contemporary ideas.

We tend to forget that the greats now, the literary greats were once provocateurs and out there on a limb. What’s happened is, we've made them safe. We've made them objects of education, of literature, where in fact we've robbed them of the vitality. So when people come along and inject life into those texts, I find it very exciting.

It’s like when you see a movie that goes back in time. It’s more a reflection of the current period. Its like THE GREAT GATSBY, the one with Robert Redford, is more about the 1970s then it was about the time of the Great Gatsby, and the one that Baz Luhrman did is more about twenty whatever — it is 2010? — than it is about the past.

We forget when we look backwards, we should never try to reproduce things as they were because it won't be, it will be through a modern lens — it's how we've come to assume it should be done.

Julian Richings can be seen currently in EJECTA which is in US theaters and on VOD.

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