You may not know his name, but you’ll certainly know his face. Julian Richings is a staple of genre film and television, with roles in Supernatural, Cube, The Witch, Urban Legend, Man of Steel, American Gods, Channel Zero, Hannibal, Wrong Turn, and many more. The British actor (now living and working in Canada) has a strong sense of physicality that he brings to every role, fully embodying each part and giving them their own sense of gravitas. He’s an impressive actor that stands out in each scene, no matter the size of the part.
I recently sat down with Richings to speak with him about his training as an actor, and his roles in the reverse-exorcism hit Anything for Jackson and punk rock gladiator showdown Spare Parts.
Kelly McNeely: You’ve had such an extensive career in genre film and television here in Canada. How did you get started? And are you particularly drawn to working in genre?
Julian Richings: How did I get started… I guess I’ve always been an actor. I’m a middle sibling, and I have two brothers — one either side of me — and I’ve always felt as a kid, I was the one that would like… I would be different with each brother, I would be different with everybody.
I had an older brother also that had a particular skill creating environments, he became a theater designer, and used to build environments in our backyard. And he needed somebody to populate those environments, like a ringmaster for his circus, and a ghost for his spook houses and stuff, so… guess who did that. And so I’ve just always acted, I always felt really comfortable acting.
And in some ways, acting enables me to be all kinds of extreme characters that I never would be in real life. Like, I’m always actually aware of how ordinary and dull I am. You know, people go, Oh, my God, you play that guy! It’s Death from Supernatural! And I love to say, Well, I was allowed to be that, but you don’t really want to know me outside the movies. So, oh, and there’s two parts to your question! Genre.
Kelly McNeely: Are you particularly drawn to genre?
Julian Richings: Well, I think it’s organic. I think that, you know, it’s just developed over the years, the kind of parts that I’ve played. Not so much in theater, I grew up in theater, I trained in theater, I’ve acted in theater, and then I slowly evolved into film and television. And as I was doing theater, I started to do commercials to supplement my income. And the commercials all tended to be offbeat, geeky, weird characters. Because, you know, when you’re doing a commercial, I wasn’t the classic dad, or, you know, the good looking guy with perfect teeth. I was always the strange guy, the eccentric. And that’s sort of inevitable in film and television, because it’s a more literal medium. So the kind of roles that I’ve played have been outliers and aliens and horror genres. So it’s sort of organic.
In theater, I’ve had more of a wider spectrum, but I embrace everything. And I always try to inject different elements to all the characters that I play, so I don’t dismiss them as being, oh, that’s a horror role. Like if it’s a horror role, I’ll try and introduce a bit of humanity or if I’m playing an evil Emperor, I’ll try and inject a bit of vulnerability, you know what I mean? So, for me, it’s like, I don’t know, it’s just inevitable, I guess.
Kelly McNeely: And now speaking of the villainous characters, you’ve played villains in Spare Parts and recently in Vicious Fun, and a more morally complex character in Anything for Jackson… What kind of roles really excite you as an actor?
Julian Richings: There aren’t many roles that I don’t go, oooh, that’s interesting. I have no sense of size. I have no idea or prejudice, saying, well that’s not a big enough part for me. Oh, that’s too small, or that’s too cliche. I like stories. I like storytelling. And I like being part of a story. And sometimes that requires something that’s small and intense. And sometimes it’s something that’s spread on a bigger arc.
So I find it hard to distinguish. It’s like, you know, there’s those classic masks that represent theater. There’s the smiling mask for comedy, and there’s the glowering mask for tragedy. I find it very difficult to separate the two, I think behind every tragedy, there’s a comedy and vice versa. And the same of the roles that I play. So I like mixing it up, I’m very comfortable being a comparatively small part of the story, and I’m happy carrying a main story. So I don’t kind of go, alright, next film, I want to be this or that.
I guess as I get older, I’m happy to sort of upset everybody’s preconception of what older characters do. So as I get older, I’m happy to play enigmatic powerful characters, because in our culture, we tend to dismiss aging as being something that, you know, you’re written off. So that’s kind of a cool thing that I’m sort of starting to embrace.
Kelly McNeely: Yeah, you definitely see that a lot in Anything for Jackson. I love that idea that instead of, you know, these kids reading from this book and summoning demons, it’s this older couple, and they should know better, but they do it anyway. And I really love that.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the moral complexities of Anything for Jackson, because it’s really quite a layered approach to the act of kidnapping. There’s this whole idea that he’s doing it for his wife, he’s doing it for his family, he knows that maybe it’s not necessarily the right thing to do. But it’s all out of an act of love.
Julian Richings: Absolutely, you hit it spot on. I think that what’s both wonderful and unsettling about the film is that it’s two people that are committed to each other, but share a terrible grief and a terrible tragedy. And in order to kind of alleviate that grief, they look to enabling each other, and the actions that they take are quite, quite unforgivable, but they do it in the name of love, and protecting the other person. And so in many ways, they’ve deflected the responsibility away from themselves. And I think that’s a really complex and interesting place for a film to sit.
Now, as actors, Sheila and myself work together really well, like we had a really good chemistry, and we just played the integrity of the relationship between two people. And we, I guess, we brought to it our own experience. We both are fortunate to have had long term relationships. And so we tried to be honest about both the juries and the distractions of having a long term relationship, you know, and this sort of comedic bits that can come into it as well.
Kelly McNeely: Absolutely. And there’s, of course, an abduction in Spare Parts as well, which has its own sort of set of complexities and a much more sinister motive.
Julian Richings: Yeah, I mean, it is clearly much more of an upfront, grindhouse, take-no-prisoners kind of film. What I like about it, what it really injects into that is a sort of a punk mischief. There’s sort of a high intensity, and there’s a sense that the women are not simply happy to be, you know, customized objects. You know, they’ve got to fight their way out to freedom. And it’s sort of got an energy to it, and a rock and roll kind of ferocity. And that is fun. Very different. Very, very different kind of energy.
Kelly McNeely: A very different vibe between the two films. Now, I’m happy to hear you talk so much about theater. Could you speak a little bit about your training and your background in theatre and if that perhaps lends itself to genre, as far as like the real complexities that you find in those characters?
Julian Richings: Yeah, it does. It’s been instrumental in my career. So I grew up and trained in England. But I grew up in a period of time when the Old English system, the weekly repertory theatre companies, and the regional theaters were decaying and we’re no longer relevant. And so there was a new kind of a wave of community theaters where people would perform in non-traditional spaces. I performed in parks, on the end of the pier, on beaches, in seniors homes — the idea was to take theater to the people.
And so there was a sense of — in the 70s, in England — that the old system wasn’t relevant anymore, with the advent of television and movies, that the traditional theater had to change. So that’s where I got into the theater, my early years of experience were there, and I also trained as a physical actor, not like a lot of British drama schools, that were very much versed in the old school.
I was very much trained in Grotowski’s method. He was the Polish guru of the time, who talked about creating the physical theater of pain and cruelty in which the actors were almost trained like dancers, they had a sort of physicality about them. And in fact, that’s why I ended up in Canada, is that the show that I was in was a sort of a multi-lingual, multicultural show that went to Europe, toured Europe, went to Poland, came over to Canada, it was a touring show. So then I discovered Toronto and — long story — but I ended up in Toronto. But the idea being that my physicality for performance has always been there. And I’ve adjusted it from the theater to film and television.
But I always have a physicality in my character. I mean, it’s not deliberate, but it’s there, because it’s innate in my training. So whether it’s even with my face, or whether it’s with my eyeballs, or whether it’s, you know, I’m playing a creature like Three Finger in Wrong Turn, or Death in Supernatural. What’s important to me is the overall physicality. And by that I don’t mean, you know, like, just trying to be big and strong and tough. It’s not like that. No, there’s a sort of a depth to it that comes from the physique.
Kelly McNeely: It’s a bit more of a physical finesse.
Julian Richings: Yeah. And things like traditional theatre, it’s actually not a genre that I’m actually well versed in, you know, the traditional English spoken word plays. It’s not something you know, where characters stand around and have tea and discuss and debate ideas. I’m not well versed in that kind of theater. So horror, and grand sort of operatic films, like Spare Parts, actually suit me very well.
Kelly McNeely: So this might be sort of a broad question. But what to you is the greatest joy and/or challenge of acting?
Julian Richings: Oh, gosh. It’s a part of me, you know? It always has been. I guess both, it’s the vulnerability. Because you always have to be present in the moment, right? It is truly interesting in the telling of the story, you’ve got to be engaged in that it can’t be a part of your brain going, hey, I’m really enjoying strutting my stuff. Or, I’m in control, or who am I? Funny, that voice in your head cannot be there, you have to be inside of it. So in order to be like that, you have to be in a position of a state of vulnerability, I think, and availability to the moment.
And that’s actually very difficult. It’s actually very difficult to be simple and open and spontaneous. And so, the search for that, it requires rigor. And it requires a lifetime of never sort of being complacent, really. Now, I don’t begrudge that. I think that’s the way I live my life. I’d sort of live my life on my front foot. I’m always sort of moving, I drive people crazy because I can’t keep still, I’m always sort of listening, responding.
But it’s both my greatest joy that I feel very much a part of the flow of life. But it’s also a little overwhelming too, because there’s no peace. As an actor, I can’t sort of sit back on my laurels. I can’t. Even during COVID I’ve never been able to sit down and write my great novel or write my reflections, or I’m too much on my front foot listening to other people and reflecting what they give to me. I hope that answers it. It sort of sounds a little pretentious, but it’s a state of mind. I guess it’s a state of being that I think you have to try and preserve.
Spare Parts is available now on VOD, Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray
Anything for Jackson will be available on VOD, Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray on June 15