Julian Richings has that unforgettable face; you know that guy, the smooth voice, slightly threatening demeanour and ever so elegant outsider vibe. He stars in Collaborator, Republic of Doyle, Murdoch Mysteries, Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, Supernatural, and hey, a blockbuster too – the new Superman film Man of Steel. Richings has built a solid, enviable career since his arrival in Toronto from the UK in the 80’s. He’s passionate about this work and the professional community that gives him the opportunity to do pretty much what he pleases in film, TV and theatre. He straddles the line dividing studio and indie fare as few actors do. He’s one of a kind as I discovered during a recent conversation.
Julian RichingsYou seem to place a high value on diversity in your roles.
I did six shorts last year because that’s the medium of American directors who are less rich and work with small budgets and they have found favour with the people and they take a shorter period of time to make. It’s a privilege to be part of it. I was in Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim, which we shot in Alberta with Sarah Polley and Milla Jovovich and Wes Bentley. That was a fabulous reworking of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Michael, I know this being British, was inspired by the film and for him it represented the western romance to an Englishman, the sprawling canvas and town and he took it and hung it on Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge and expanded it to a snowy, western natural world. The light and the snow – it was sprawling and messy and there were long takes of about five minutes. You’re on the top of the hill and the whole group rides in and films it and you see what happens when you approached the posse at the bottom of the hill, four or five hidden cameras, simultaneously filming.
It’s good to be an actor! But many of your best known roles are sci-fi and horror. Why?
Look at me! Seriously, I’m thin and have cheekbones and my face blends itself to the genre and I embrace it, quite happily. I try not to fall into any raging stereotypes, I play within the form, with dignity and humour rather than the grim reaper, but that’s inevitable. I didn’t necessarily represent British theatre, as I was European trained in Poland, and I see myself as a physical actor because I use the entire body. My characters are physical, I don’t talk from the neck upwards, and I like to inhabit them. It can be an exercise in total mask in horror, about the embodiment of things and the suspense of terror that comes hidden in the body and the elegance and confidence and sensation of the guy plays against.
How do you avoid stereotyping?
It can be limiting but I try to go against the stereotype. It’s up to me to ensure it doesn’t become restricting and that there is enough room in a part to surprise me. That it isn’t a cliché. If I had a complaint and I don’t, I find that one thing is that it’s harder for us to accept someone like myself who is less conventional in looks and attitude to be the lead in a story. There are some examples like Cracker with Robbie Coltrane, a man who was overweight and addicted and had many negative attributes but was compelling enough to fuel an entire TV series. One thing I think is important that we have to try to do is not to look for the clean cut archetype that fuels TV shows. It enhances all our lives what Robbie became. Not simply the local. I am a character actor, no complaints and I enjoy it and have a life to lead. I don’t age but it’s not an issue. Some people are like athletes and have a very short span and so for a character actor I can count my blessings. Hopefully I will play the 80-year-old cranky man I’ve become – or not – that’s the beauty of doing what I do and not being pigeonholed. I embrace a variety of genres, rock and roll horror and mystery and all sorts.
As a film and TV star in demand, do you do enough stage work?
It’s extremely important to me. I’ve always done it. It brings me down to reality and in theatre the actor is in control and you have direct feedback with the audience. It’s visceral, muscular and there is empathy and spontaneity and it’s dangerous, like walking a tightrope and anything can go wrong at any moment. It creates dependency between actors, directors, designers, everyone. It is important to do it. The problem is more commitment to TV and film operates on different schedules and the challenges of doing TV and film mean you do less theatre. I have to be available at a moment’s notice. That’s the beauty of living in Toronto, there’s a bit of a lull from December to February and that is the highest point in theatre, so I am always a work in progress.
You’re English, born in Oxford, and theatrically trained but you’ve chosen to live here in the colonies. Why Toronto?
Our industry is great and it’s good to be in it. The cultural differences in a city where one’s grandparents were born are insular and small. It’s a great tradition and fascinating to be in such an eclectic place like Toronto where the cultural diversity is extraordinary. The life appealed here and our industry is really growing and defining itself. I was part of something coming to terms with where it’s going. It’s been a privileged life over 20 years to see things shift and change. Toronto affords an actor the ability to do theater, TV, feature films and being in Toronto I’ve started to do more work in Vancouver and across Canada so for me it’s wonderful. I came to a theatre company in 1980 and being theatre, got billeted in houses and I was really fortunate. I was in great households with eclectic people and made friends. We got invited back the following year and then I met my wife and we were marred in 84 and settled here permanently. We are still together!
So Toronto is where it’s at?
We are in a very exciting time. People bemoan the time we only have large empty blockbusters but we have an incredible indie culture in Canada and the US and Toronto is the centre of a vibrant cinema culture. We are all friends in the community. There is a generosity of ideas and interconnection emerging directing.
Collaborator opens in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal on July 13.
Top image: Julian Richings in Supernatural. Courtesy Warner Bros.