J. August Richards, well-known for his work in movies and television, such as The Temptations and as Gunn on the popular television show Angel, took some time out of his schedule to talk exclusively with FEARnet about his upcoming role on the new hit series, Arrow.
FEARnet: With the upcoming April 24th episode of Arrow, you'll be playing a character called Mr. Blank. Can you tell us a bit about him?
J. August Richards: What I can tell you is that I've never played a role like this before in my life, and I was extremely challenged by it and very afraid of it. Andrew Kreisberg, the executive producer, thought of me for the role after he saw an episode of Emily Owens, M.D. that I did. He immediately thought of me for it; I don't know why.
Because nothing I've ever done is like this character. So I was kind of afraid of it, but the director, Ken Fink and I figured it out, figured out how I was going to portray it. It was challenging and very, very fun.
I saw the episode and the way your character treated his wife before his memory loss vs. after, I can see why he would think of you for the role. In that episode it was two different characters, in a way.
That's funny that you say that, because I didn't see it that way at all. But now that you mention it, it's really true. We had a debate on set during Emily Owens and everyone said that my character was mad at his wife, but I didn't see it that way at all. What I played it as I just couldn't look at her face because every time I saw her face I saw our dead son. That's where I was coming from, and that's why I was able to look at her with love after I forgot about that loss. So it's really interesting that you mention that, because I always wondered what it was about that performance that would have made them think of me for this role. My personality is so different from Mr. Blank.
But I found it, and I definitely had fun once I figured it out.
Since it was so different, how did you prepare for that role?
That's a really good question. Once you see it you will see that there's an aspect to the character's personality that I couldn't understand. In terms of how to prepare for it, it was really difficult because the character is very … I'll say he's like a sociopathic version of Nate Berkus. Do you know who Nate Berkus is?
No, I don't think so, but the name sounds familiar.
Nate Berkus is an interior decorator who works with Oprah Winfrey.
Oh, him! Yes, Nate, okay!
Yeah, yeah. So when I read the script I saw him as a sociopathic version of Nate Berkus, because he has no feelings about human beings but he has tremendous feelings about spaces. And I thought that that was so weird, because even though it's not easy, I understand the idea of someone that has no feelings for people. But then I asked myself, “How could someone have no emotions for human beings but then be so sensitive to the energy in a space?” And that's what made the character absolutely fascinating and difficult for me.
Interesting! I don't want to ask you too much specifically about it, so as not to spoil it for the audience.
You can call him a sociopathic Nate Berkus, because no one will know what that means! They might have an idea, but they'll want to see what the hell I'm talking about.
With the storyline right now on the show, they're dealing with a new drug, Vertigo, and I'm wondering how your character fits within that, or is it something different all together?
It's kind of related to that, but it's not. If I told you what it was, it would completely give away the storyline, so maybe I shouldn't answer that one.
Cool! So how do you feel about early work in your career, with movies like The Temptations, vs. your work now. How do you feel you've changed as an actor?
Great question. In a lot of ways, I see my career as the characters I've played. Put all together, it tells a story. I started out on The Cosby Show as sort of a clean-cut kid. Then I did a bunch of guest spots playing as college kids and kids in the military. And then I went from there to Angel, where I played sort of a homeless vampire hunter who turns into a lawyer, and then from there I did two legal shows. I feel like it tells a story that's almost parallel to my life in a lot of ways, and about what it's like getting older and growing up in this time.
Sometimes when I look back at my résumé I get very proud because there's so much diversity. It's funny, early in my career people would say, “Oh, well you're being typecast as a clean-cut kid,” and then they'd say, “Oh, you're getting typecast as a lawyer.” And maybe now people will say I'm typecast as something else, but I remember that there was a time when people said I was typecast as a background singer because I did Temptations and Why Do Fools Fall in Love.
But eventually they're going to get that I seek diversity in the roles I play and diversity seeks me. So I love the challenge of doing different things, and I feel my résumé is diverse. Musicals, science fiction, legal shows, medical shows and everything in between.
Right, right. And I think I read in an interview that you were a fan of science fiction and Star Wars growing up.
I am. When I was nine-years old my friends and I would go in the backyard and play Star Wars and superheroes, play pretend. Sometimes people will ask me how I do all those fight scenes or stunts, and it's like I've been doing this my whole life. I've always been a fan of fantasy and comic books as a kid, and now I feel like I'm doing it for a living, which is really pretty wonderful.
You're also coming to Arrow after working on a project of your own, The Hypnotist. It's still in its early stages, but can you talk about how it's different being at the helm as a writer/producer/director vs. being an actor, and give some background on the project?
I love The Hypnotist. It's something I'm very passionate about. I was inspired by the Star Wars mythology in that I wanted to create a mythology of my own, and this is the beginning of it. So I'd like to do a six-part web-series that is sort of a door opening to a world I'm trying to create. It's about this woman who lives in Los Angeles who cures people of whatever they want to quit, whether it's smoking, or showing up everywhere late, or overeating, or being attracted to a certain type of person.
Whatever habit you want to cure, she can cure you through this form of hypnosis, which is called African Hypnosis. It's the earliest form of hypnosis known to the planet Earth. It allows her to enter into your subconscious mind and remove the reason why you do whatever it is you do. So whatever the deeper reason is to your smoking, she can go into your subconscious mind and remove it with you, and you'll never smoke again. It's this amazing power she has and the story goes in very interesting directions. It's going to be a labor of love, something I'm working diligently on to finish and then hopefully we'll get to continue telling the story on television or in the movie theater.
I like that idea a lot; I remember watching the first episode and wondering where reality ended and the character's mind and the hypnosis took over. It was very good.
Thank you! That episode starts in the middle of his hypnosis, and no two episodes are alike. I'm doing a lot of pitches right now, trying to find someone to partner with me on it, and people will ask, “Well, is it going to be the same every time,” and the answer is no. Sometimes people have a hard time seeing how it will work as a series, but it doesn't take me long to convince them.
And so how was it going from that to back to acting on a show like Arrow?
Working on Arrow reminded me a lot of working on Angel because they have 15 hour days as well; they worked all throughout the night as well, and it's new show on the CW which used to be the WB. So it felt a lot like being on Angel. I really liked working with the cast and crew, and the director Ken Fink, and collaborating. It was really a collaborative process to really figure out the character, because I had to fill in Mr. Blank with my performance, and hopefully that makes sense when you see it.
Your family is from Panama and you were born here. So I was really curious about how you pull your background into your work with your characters, if you do.
I do. And I'll tell you how I use it. When my parents moved to the States, we moved to a neighborhood that only had one other Black family that lived there before us. So I felt like the outsider there. Then when I was a little older, a lot of my cousins moved from Panama to the states, and when I was with my family, I was the only kid who was very Americanized because I was born here. They all spoke Spanish, I spoke English. So I felt very “other” there.
Then the schools in my neighborhood would bus either kids from other neighborhoods into our neighborhood, or they'd bus us out of my neighborhood into an inner city neighborhood, and I was an “other” there. The truth of the matter is I don't have a comfort zone as a human being. There's no one place I can go to be around everyone that's “like me”. That place doesn't exist. So I know viscerally what it feels like to be an outsider, and I try to bring that to everything I do. And the only place I truly feel at home is in a diverse environment. I think it's part of my job to bring people together.
How do you think heroes now compare to how they were decades ago? In the most recent episode of Arrow, he kills a guy, and I remember back in like the 80s, heroes weren't always allowed to kill bad guys.
I'm not a television scholar; make sure you note that I said that.
And correct me if I'm wrong, but honestly, when I watch Buffy and Angel I think that Joss was doing things then that people are doing now, and I don't think he always gets a lot of credit for the brilliance of his writing. A lot of people in the television industry know it, and there have been a lot of producers that I've worked with who give Joss so much praise, but I feel like when I watch a show – and you know how you sometimes love the main character then despise the main character – I won't say that Joss invented that, but I think he was way ahead of the curve many years ago with what he did. So now, you almost can't put a show on television if the hero isn't complicated. But back then when Buffy and Angel were on, it was a little more rare. This is my perception. I feel like Joss has always been ahead of his time.
Being on Angel was so great because the characters kept shifting, changing from week to week. One week you really love Gunn and the next couple of episodes you really hate Gunn. At the time I didn't really understand that you were supposed to hate me sometimes and you were supposed to love me sometimes. But Joss has a way of making you fall in and out of love with characters. It's a gift.
I completely agree. In college I did a presentation for a class where we were supposed to demonstrate how films were different from earlier decades vs. the modern era at that time. But I was able to compare an episode of Angel or Buffy, and a clip from Lost Boys to show how television and movies were becoming similar. With shows like Angel and Buffy, television became more like the movies in the way it's put together.
I agree. Television is amazing right now. And I had a conversation once with Joss about how he writes, and I'm still wrapping my brain around it. It was so profound, the method of how he comes up with this stuff, and I felt like a hole was burnt into my brain with the genius I was getting.
Tune in to J. August Richards as Mr. Blank on Arrow, Wednesday, April 24th at 8/7c.
Nancy O. Greene started writing at the age of nine. Her short story collection, Portraits in the Dark, received a brief mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2007. Other works have appeared or will appear in ChiZine; Lovecraft eZine; Cemetery Dance; Tales of Blood and Roses; Haunted: 11 Tales of Ghostly Horror; Shroud Publishing's The Terror at Miskatonic Falls; Dark Recesses; Flames Rising; Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore!; and others. She has a BA in Cinema (Critical Studies) and a minor in English (Creative Writing) from the University of Southern California, and is a Fellow of Film Independent's Project:Involve.