British-Canadian actor Julian Richings is the kind of actor I think of as a chameleon; not just for his ability to disappear into the characters he portrays, but because whether you realise it or not, you’ve probably seen Julian in at least half a dozen movies or TV series.
Over the past few decades, he’s appeared in hundreds of films, television series and video games, with a clear penchant for tales of mystery and malice – but never allowing himself to be boxed in as an actor.
Despite the world of cinema hitting a roadbump in the last year or so, Julian’s as busy as ever with the release of two new feature films: Anything for Jackson, an occult horror from director Justin G. Dyck and writer Keith Cooper, and girl-power grindhouse flick Spare Parts from director Andrew Thomas Hunt and writers David Murdoch & Svet Rouskov.
I had the absolute pleasure of speaking to Julian about his diverse body of acting work, his approach to the very different characters he portrays in Anything for Jackson and Spare Parts and much more.
You’ve been in such a phenomenal amount of films and TV projects. I think such a strength of yours as an actor is that you bring you A-game to everything you’re involved in. You’ve popped up in just about everything I’ve ever seen, I think.
Julian: You can’t get rid of me!
As an actor, what helps you bring your A-game to all these projects, no matter how big or small?
Julian: Well, I’m lucky in that I love what I do. I love acting. The thing about being an actor is that, really, you can only be an actor by acting. You can’t sit and think about it. You can take classes or you can train, but it’s all about the moment. It’s all about being out there and telling stories, and people are my medium. So I find COVID-19 very difficult, for instance, because sitting down and reflecting on who I am and what I’m doing is very tricky. Even having a conversation with you on the phone or Zoom or whatever, it’s not the same as being up close and personal with people, and that’s what I enjoy.
I guess my joy in life is to be part of a story, a narrative. I’m always happy to keep going there. It’s nice of you to say I bring my A-game. I guess what I would interpret that as being is that hopefully I bring myself and I bring myself with no pre-conceptions, no prejudice. No kind of, “here’s a character that I know what I’m doing with. I’m smarter than this guy, but I’m gonna play him anyway!”, those little hints that you get when you watch performances.
Hopefully, I just immerse myself in the character. I’m equally happy to play a small role in a story and be a primary color that affects the rest of the canvas, or to take on a larger role and take the story arc for an entire production. That means I will always be open to do stuff, so that’s probably why I keep going and why you see me a lot – I actually like what I do.
Spare Parts and Anything for Jackson are two very different films in many ways, but both are very fun. As Henry in Anything for Jackson, you managed to find the balance in what is quite a funny role, but also quite a tragic role, and frequently frightening too. There’s a lot going on in the role of Henry, and I’d love to know your approach to him.
Julian: Well, I think it’s a great script. As soon as I read it, I thought, “this is a terrific script with a lot going on between the words”. There were so many elements to it. I love the fact that it centers on a couple, not just an older man and woman, but the dynamic that that creates when two people have been together for a very long time. They’re undergone joys and pain together. I love the fact that they’re propelled by grief, and they’re propelled by their love for each other. In fact, their actions are informed by trying to appease or to enable their partner in the terrible, terrible actions that they’re putting in place. They’re deflecting the responsibility for their actions.
I find all that fascinating, but very real. Not just a cerebral idea, but something that all of us have experienced or do in some form or another. I loved all that complexity, but I love the fact that it can be grounded in something as simple as my love for another person. Sheila and myself worked very well together. We were able to get to that place as actors. We’d both come from similar theatre and film backgrounds. We get each other. We are also fortunate enough to have enjoyed long-term relationships with other people. So we bring an honesty in that, and we celebrate the idea of being a long-term couple.
We understand the idea that you don’t just act on your own; you make an action, but always looking at your partner and always including them in everything that you do. We realized that that was the key to Henry and Audrey – they were interdependent as an entity. So that was our jumping-off point, and we enjoyed it. We trusted each other, and we trusted the story because it was such a great script. We allowed it to sort of unfold as the story unfolds. We shot it sequentially, so we were able to grow with the story-telling.
Spare Parts is very much on the other end of the emotional spectrum, but no less fun. The Emperor, of course, is a very fun character – as much of the film is, it’s quite a campy role.
Julian: It’s important to leave your logic at the door to a degree. When you come in to watch the movie, you have to sort of suspend your disbelief and just embrace the chaotic glory of the film.
That really is the magic of genre film, especially these grindhouse style films. You go in knowing you don’t need to take its premise or logic too seriously, especially when you’ve got characters having limbs replaced with chainsaws and drills. How was the role of The Emperor pitched to you – was it more or less as it looks on paper?
Julian: Yeah, pretty much. It’s kind of self-explanatory, too. We’re not dealing with clichés, I underline that; we’re dealing with archetypes. For it to work, you need those archetypes in place. You need the Gladiator movie, you need the punk sensibility, you need the blood and guts grindhouse thing. There’s a pretty clear requirement for The Emperor.
But you mentioned the word camp. There’s an underlying camp that’s kind of fun, and there’s underlying mischief. It doesn’t take itself overly seriously. It’s a great thing. It’s got a twinkle in its eyes. And even though we’re dealing with crazy things, there’s a sort of relish about the way the film is executed. I think that gives it its energy. For me, that’s fun, and it’s tapping into that that’s important to me, rather than embodying a cliched Emperor-type person. It’s about getting the right energy.
I love listening to you talk about how you approach your roles, because you clearly have such a great understanding of media, like the archetypes and what an audience is looking for when they walk into a certain kind of film. Of course, you sometimes walk into a film and get something else entirely, which can be a good or a bad experience.
Julian: I look it as my job as an actor to always slightly subvert your expectations, but to also provide what’s required for the story. So if there is a role of a very, very powerful figure, it’s important to include vulnerability or to provide a counterpoint so that there’s dimension to that person. It can be on a very, very basic level – it doesn’t have to be heavily though-out. As long as there’s a little bit of complexity and it’s not one-note, it’s important. And the beauty of a movie like Spare Parts and a confident director like Andrew is that he allows that to come in. He allows a bit of sparkle and a bit of individual quirk to come into the archetypal world.
As you mentioned earlier, COVID-19 has made things rather difficult in the acting world. With things looking slightly brighter in certain parts of the world at the moment, what have you got on the horizon?
Julian: Well, I think I’m very lucky. I’m in Toronto, which is a large city that’s still in its third phase of lockdown. It’s as depressing for us as anywhere. But I’m very fortunate because I work in the film industry. The film industry has managed to keep going, up to a certain point. Obviously, there’s restrictions, but it’s behaved very responsibly. It’s an economic generator in some regions of Canada.
In the fall, I went to Nova Scotia. There’s a thing in three or four maritime provinces called the Maritime Bubble, in which they were comparatively isolated from COVID. There was a thriving film industry there for a period of time, so I was one of the few fortunate actors that was working at that time. I did a show that will be out soon; it’s called Chapelwaite. It’s an adaptation of Stephen King’s short story Jerusalem’s Lot and it stars Adrian Brody and Emily Hampshire. It will be a ten-part series, coming soon – I think maybe next month. But there’s a sort of pre-promo beginning to emerge right now.
I was very fortunate that I was engaged during this terrible period of time. But I don’t find it easy. I’m now back in Toronto, and I must admit, it’s counter to everything that comes naturally to me – the idea of not being able to go out, or to be careful and masked up. Anyway, we’re all doing our best and we’re all coping with it, so I can’t complain, for sure. But the one thing to look out for is Chapelwaite, and I’m involved in something else too but I can’t talk too much about that. But I’m happy to say that there are things on the horizon.
As an enormous Stephen King fan and of yours, Chapelwaite’s sounding like a must-watch.
Julian: Good! I think it’ll be fun. It’s based on his short story, so the writers have taken license with it in a very creative way. Sometimes they can feel like a bit of a clunky adaptation of a Stephen King work, but this one is taking it into a slightly new, completely faithful to the original direction. It’s embellishing and taking it further, and I think it works very well.