Bardicvoice Vancon Reports, Part 3: Julian Richings
(Photo courtesy of wolfpup2000)
Death is marvelously funny, at least when he's portrayed by Julian Richings. Julian opened his panel by saying he's been acting for 35 years, but coming to "Supernatural" was the first time he ever realized how powerful a fan base can be. “Now walking down the street I hear, “It's Death!” I smile, bring out some junk food, and everything is fine.” He laughed about Death's food choices: “Vancouver has great food, all fresh, organic – I felt out of place. Then a guy in a red t-shirt was hawking samples – “It's Tangy-Zangy!” I felt right at home.”
Asked whether he knew what he was going to be playing, he admitted he didn't know anything about the show's mythology and had to do fast homework. He thought it was going to be a one-off. He saw the humor in things like the pizza and thought to play with that, rather than having to prove how authoritative Death was. He kept a bit of menace in the mix – “You must remember I can do nasty things!” – but used the humor as the basis of the character.
Asked his favorite quote from the show, he laughed that he'd been given some great lines, but said the one he liked over and over again is, “I'm old. I'm very old.” As he put it, “I get to use it as an excuse!”
He said his mother was still alive, and joked that when he got hired for the role, “I tell my dear old mum, and she says, “You're not playing a dead guy again, are you? Do you at least speak Shakespeare in this one?” He admitted he didn't have any Shakespearean lines.
Asked about his appearance in the Percy Jackson films, he chuckled that he was the spooky guy in Percy Jackson, very much the traditional Death. Brooding, menacing. “What I'm allowed to do in "Supernatural" is the best. I'm really happy. Not taking anything too seriously.”
One fan asked about his role as Mr Cameo from "Once A Thief," and Julian was delighted someone remembered both the show and him. “That only lasted a season, about 15 years ago. I played a hit man. Surprise, surprise. There were two of us, both with large noses. They played with that in the blocking to get funny shots: the two killers would turn toward each other and our noses would block out the heroes in the background. It was a bit too campy, I think. As an actor, you use aspects of yourself. Characters never go away. There's a bit of Cameo in Death, I think – the wittiness. One episode was a spoof of Waiting For Godot, very out there. Good to know it meant something!”
One fan asked if he knew there was a restaurant called Hell in Vancouver; he said he hadn't been there, but thought it could be fun.
In response to a question about whether there was a stunt he would like to do, he said he'd done stunts in other shows, but not in "Supernatural" because his character didn't need to do anything like that. He chuckled recalling a film called Wrong Turn, in which he played one of three hillbilly brothers. When he started shooting, he was told there were lots of prosthetics involved; he spent four hours a day in the makeup chair, including getting a hunchback and eye lenses. The director thought it would be easy to disguise a stuntman with the makeup job, but when the stuntman showed up, he didn't look anything like Julian, even with makeup, so the director had Julian do the stunt. He said there was also a Transformer show coming up and he did a stunt in that one that was pretty terrifying. He also laughed about doing Westerns, saying that when you were auditioning for one, they always asked. “Can you ride?” and every actor would say, “Of course!” He laughed that on one Western project, the wrangler took one look at him and said they'd give him the bombproof horse!
Asked about his favorite film, he said his all-time favorite was" Night of the Hunter," a film noir classic. “Mitchum has love and hate tattooed on his knuckles. I love the scene where good and evil wrestle with each other. And Lillian Gish – these actors represent a tradition of training I admire – sitting on a rocking chair singing a hymn, while Mitchum, in shadow, is singing too; that's really creepy. I highly recommend it.”
Asked more about his favorite lines, he confessed that he really finds it hard to learn lines, and because of that, can't suddenly go, “Oh, that line's great!”
He recounted the honor of having been asked to give a speech at college in Toronto. “You always have to ask yourself, what is success? It isn't always fame and fortune. For me, it's doing interesting things. I try and talk to young emerging talents and tell them they don't have to conform to the 'win or die' stereotype; it's the work itself. It's the journey. I like to absorb the energy of younger actors, give them advice.”
Asked how he made the character of Death so fantastically creepy, he thanked the questioner, and said, “I think less is more. Relax. Take occasions when you show your spite. You have to remember it's been beautifully shot and beautifully written. Craft and thought. Humor mixed with threat.”
He admitted that when filming his entry scene, he had no thought of what it was going to look like. The day he showed up on set they told him he'd be driving the classic white Cadillac, and he was terrified! “It's a huge car, you turn the wheel and nothing happens, and you have to drive around a lot of obstacles you never see – cameras, cables, equipment. I was worrying about crashing the car!”
Asked about his greatest fear, he said, “As an actor, it's flopping. The flop-sweats: you're on stage, looking for your line, nothing happens, you start looking around, you start sweating. That's an actor's nightmare, you don't fit. There's a part of me that wants to conform, be polite, say the right lines.”
He said he didn't know if he would appear on Supernatural again, since he wasn't signed for any specific number of episodes, but hoped he would. However, he noted that part of the reason his character worked was that he hadn't been overused, and he trusted the writers to maintain that.
Asked if there was something he'd like to do as Death in the show, someone he'd like to kill, he said slyly, “Castiel is a bit pesky. He's a stupid little soldier, isn't he?” He also said a song and dance routine as Death would be fun. He laughed that he'd gotten to know Misha on set and at a convention in England. “I realize that by now he would probably have dropped his trousers or something. Make sure he behaves tomorrow, tell him I'll be upset with him if he doesn't.”
Asked about his favorite place, he answered, “CANADA! Really. It's home. English Bay in Vancouver is very hard to beat. I always go there and sit.”
What would your personal last meal be? “My upbringing was much like Death's. A beer and Stilton cheese.”
Asked about his favorite character on "Supernatural" other than his own, he observed that the character he most interacts with is Dean and he's gotten to know Jensen. He praised Jensen's subtlety as an actor. “One thing I thought was very funny, was in the episode where we were eating hot dogs. I had watched him in the pizza scene, carefully choosing when to eat, when not. I thought it was very funny how he would pace himself. It was the look in his eyes saying 'no way, I'm not picking up one of those,' as I encouraged him to eat a hot dog.”
Asked about the most inspiring advice he could give to an actor, he said, “Keep going. The fame doesn't mean you're an actor or not. We're all actors, aren't we? If you need to act, act. If you love acting, act. If it becomes your profession, keep going.”
Asked where he found his inspiration to play evil and mischievous characters, he laughed, “From my brothers! You draw on your own life and your own inspirations. I'm lucky to come from a warm and dynamic family and have an ability to laugh. I don't take myself too seriously, and hope that comes across in my characters.”
Do people get surprised when you're not like your characters? “All the time! Bad guys have the most fun, always. We generally don't have to worry too much about what we look like. If I lose my hair, no worry.”
How hard is it to maintain a somber, serious face? “Very hard. It's about dynamics. The way to make it work is for me to play it straight. Humor relies on having a straight man and a funny man. We test each other out, just how to play the scene. I keep trading off with Jensen.”
He said he works in Toronto all the time, but never at Shaw or Stratford; instead, he works mostly in small theater, because he's most interested in new productions and new playwrights.
Asked if there was another character he would like to play in "Supernatural" – perhaps anther of the Horsemen – he responded, “I am the most powerful one, and I am as old as God. I'd be pretty happy to be Death!” Asked about his favorite Shakespearean villain, he chose Iago in Othello because he was a brilliantly written villain who managed to embrace good, evil, and humor in one character arc.
Asked about roles he regretted taking or not taking, he laughed that actors didn't really have that much choice. He said he had just missed a couple of roles, including an opportunity to work on "Still Scenes" with Benicio Del Toro. He said he'd been written into the film and got very close, but there were shifts and changes and Del Toro realized he didn't need that part of the story, so it got cut before he could do it. “We actors don't have that much choice. We struggle for what's out there and we take what's available, even if we think it's not that good. Way too many times I missed out on a role because I was already committed to another one.”
Asked if he'd ever done books on tape, he said no; that he couldn't do everything. He said he liked playing with his voice, but he tended to focus on theater, films, and television. He said he had a British accent, having come from Britain, but that he'd put a lens on it, softening it. One nice thing about "Supernatural" was he could use the accent if he wanted to, and then get rid of it.
What do you like seeing and not seeing in a script? “If it surprises me and I might not get it … sometimes you read a script and don't get how it will work when it's shot. One recently was very strange, seemed gratuitously violent, but the way it was structured was actually very moral, and I'm glad I did it. I don't want exploitation of victims, but generally try to be open.”
Asked about his favorite character to play and why, he said, “I don't have just one, but Death in 'Supernatural' really is one because he was so fun to play.” He added that he'd also really enjoyed "Hard Core Logo," a rock and roll film shot in Vancouver in which he'd played Bucky Hate (a role he illustrated with a Keith Richards impersonation, dropping his hair over his face), a character based on a real person with the band Dead On Arrival.
Asked about the "War of the Worlds" series – a two-season show shot back in 1989/90 – he shared a hilarious story. He noted that the two seasons had been very different from each other, with the first using very powerful aliens while the second season was totally overhauled, influenced by Blade Runner to be much grittier, more grungy, and post-apocalyptic, with the aliens more human in appearance. He recalled being cold, really cold, in Toronto in winter in skimpy attire, trying not to shiver, and brought down the house when he said the aliens killed people with a weapon that looked like – a dill pickle! He laughed about trying not to laugh at how silly it looked, and recounted the tale of a night when they were shouting dialogue over the noise of a big fan that was blowing garbage around. On the last shot of the day, the director was angry because it didn't look windy enough. He threw a piece of newspaper at the fan, and it hit the fan, blew into Julian's face, and caught on his prominent nose. As Julian described it, acting it out on stage, they were losing the light and he was holding out this terribly threatening dill pickle while trying to toss his head to get the paper off his face. His conclusion? “It was bad!”
Asked about his most embarrassing theater experience, he laughed about a show where he'd been wrapped in a towel, crouching over a candle to under-light his face while he was growling threateningly – and the end of the towel caught fire. He said he was naked beneath the towel, and danced around awkwardly trying to stamp out the fire while not dropping the towel! He chuckled that it turned out all right in the end and he wasn't hurt, but he'd never forget it.
He concluded that the real beauty of film and TV – as distinguished from stage work – is that the actor is really doing the thing, whether driving a car or eating and drinking, not just pretending to do it, and that added degree of reality made it easier to create the full character than just making everything up, as an actor needed to do on stage. He said that's why he loves to do TV and film.
Julian's panel was the last one on Friday, but not his last appearance: he showed up on stage during the karaoke party, and you haven't lived until you've seen long, lanky, loose-limbed Death dancing to rock music! Maybe someday on "Supernatural" we'll see Death cutting a rug … *grin*
Next up, location manager Russ “Moviegod” Hamilton!