CIA agent. World War II soldier. Deputy Sheriff. Pepsi delivery man. Archangel.
Chances are if you watch television, Richard Speight Jr.’s is a face you know. From pitching Pepsi Max to guest starring on Alias, CSI: Miami, ER and Party of Five to recurring on Supernatural and Justified to co-starring in The Agency, Jericho and Band of Brothers, Speight is a truly bonafide working actor with an impressive resume of terrific, memorable characters.
Being a big fan of Speight’s – his role on Supernatural (my favorite show) is, as fans will attest to, epic – I was thrilled to have the pleasure to sit down with the actor for a chat about his chosen career, which first began in his home state of Tennessee.
TV Tour Guide: Did you always want to be an actor? How did you first get started?
Richard Speight, Jr.: I started doing plays when I was five back in Nashville. I caught the bug early on. I have two older sisters who acted for a while but moved on to other things. But I stuck with it. I just loved the whole process of people coming together and putting on a show. I didn’t know I wanted to do it for a living till I was 15 or so.
Speight worked regularly in local projects like Ernest Goes To Camp before making the move to Los Angeles at 18 to major in acting at The University of Southern California. It wasn’t long before he landed his first west-coast gig.
TTTG: You did the After School Special Torn Between Two Fathers, directed by Richard Masur (Stephen King’s It, Bored to Death, Picket Fences). What was that like?
RS: I had two lines: “Hey, Debbie.” and “Good work, Deb!” On my very first day, I was late. I overslept. I got a phone call from production and just about s*** the bed. I didn’t even shower. So my first appearance on national TV as an adult living in California was without having showered. It was very European.
TTTG: What’s your audition process like? Does it differ from doing commercials to guest star and series regular roles?
RS: It’s harder to audition with just a few lines than it is with 15 pages of dialogue. Those few lines may work in the scene, but just to randomly say those words out of context is impossible. Delivering chunks of dialogue is much easier. No matter the size of the role, there’s no difference to me. I have the same approach. It’s all about making your choices, committing to them, and staying grounded.
TTTG: Tell me about being the face of Pepsi Max …
RG: Joe Pytka, a director with whom I’ve worked many times – and really the “godfather” of the modern American commercial – reached out to me for Pepsi Max. I don’t do a lot of commercials anymore, but if Joe’s office calls and says he’s interested in me, I say “Great, where do I go and what do I do?” I love being involved in his projects. He doesn’t make boring, presentational spots. He makes mini-movies.
What started out as one commercial has turned into an ongoing campaign for the actor, and it’s easy to see why:
TTTV: You’ve been both a guest star and series regular. Do you find a difference between the two?
RS: Doing a guest star is like being the new kid in school: you’re showing up to a universe that is functioning just fine without you and won’t miss you when you’re gone. You have to breeze in and do your job as best as you can while fitting into their framework - and do it very quickly and efficiently. It’s an art form, and it is definitely something you either learn quickly or sink quickly. If I ever write an autobiography, it’ll be called Guest Stars Don’t Blow Takes. Series regulars can afford to memorize the lines while rehearsing, get one or two [takes] to warm into the scene, then another three or four to get what they want. As a guest star, you don’t have that luxury. Your job is just to show up and kill it in one or two takes so they don’t have to waste time on you.
Being a series regular is a very different experience. You know the crew, and you guys are all working together and used to each other. And it’s nice to have the comfort of knowing you have a job to go to every day. It’s not the stress of being the new guy having to deliver on cue.
TTTV: What about when you end up doing multiple episodes of a show?
RS: You get a little of that comfort level if you end up recurring. Supernatural is a good example. I only did four episodes of that show, yet just today I was texting with one of the actors and the camera guys. They’re just good people. Shoot days are long. After your first full day on a show, you feel like you’ve been there a month. Hence the quick bonding. Justified is kind of the same way. Everybody’s really cool and you just kind of feel like “Yeah, I’m here, I kind of know these people.” Once you’re on a set a couple of times, it starts to feel a little more relaxed. It’s not your house, but you feel like a welcomed guest.
TTTG: Do you prefer one over the other?
RS: I like doing it all. I’ve never been on a set and thought, “Gee, I wish I weren’t here.” I love doing my job. My worst day on a set is better than my best day off one.
TTTG: Are there roles you feel you are better suited for?
RS: Certain things I’m never gonna get … New York gangster for example. Whenever I get called for something, I usually know after a quick study of the material if I’ll wear it well or not. Even if it fits me, it doesn’t mean I’ll get it, but at least I know I can make a competent choice. There are a lot of roles I’ve gone in for that I thought “I wouldn’t cast me for this,” but I still go in because you never know … but you kind of do know. If you look at the material and it just doesn’t sit right, and you can’t really get a good handle on it regardless of how much time you spend on it, it’s probably not for you. It’s somebody else’s job.
Come back for Part 2 of my interview with Rich tomorrow, Wednesday, Feb. 29, where we discuss Jericho, Supernatural and his Supernatural Convention odyssey!
In fact, catch Rich live and in person this weekend at the Salute to Supernatural convention in Burbank, CA.