John Wesley Shipp talks bringing the Flash to DC's Stargirl and teases 'heartbreaking moment'
Since playing the titular superhero in the 1990 series The Flash, John Wesley Shipp has found himself wearing the iconic red supersuit more times than he ever imagined.
Twenty-five years after wrapping the live-action show, he joined the CW's The Flash as Henry Allen, father to Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) before eventually playing Jay Garrick as well as reprising his original role, "Flash '90." Now he's about to debut yet another version of the Flash on DC's Stargirl in this week's big flashback episode, but he says this Jay Garrick feels like the best he's played yet.
"This classic version of Jay Garrick is rooted in principle, even if it means some people are going to get hurt in the short term, he is going to stick by the principles of why the Justice Society was created to begin with," Shipp tells EW. "And I think he's profoundly disappointed when those ideals and ethics are not adhered to. When I read the script… [there's] a heartbreaking moment that made me go, 'Wow, what a rich episode.'"
Below, EW got Shipp to break down what else fans can expect from his crossover episode on DC's Stargirl, what it's been like playing different versions of the Flash throughout his career, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you first started on the original The Flash series, did you ever envision it would turn into creating this long legacy and that you'd continue playing this character on multiple shows?
JOHN WESLEY SHIPP: While we were slogging through that season — without CGI — working nine days per episode, two units running simultaneously, I would be there 55 to 80 hours a week. We were shooting 'til dawn every night because we were doing live-action practical effects. If we wanted to blow up a semi-truck and shoot flames 50 feet in the air, we really had to do it. If there was a speed eating scene I had to eat and eat and eat. I had a bucket beside me. [Laughs] If it was card tricks, I had to do the card tricks. If it was running? Run, run, run, run. In other words, it was such a backbreaker that if I had known 31 years ago what I know today, I might not have been able to go on. [Laughs] I might have handed in the suit.
Having said that, it's developed into the most remarkable relationship that I have with this franchise. It's unique among superhero franchises that I've looked at it from so many different angles. Barry Allen, Barry's worst enemy, Barry's father, and Barry's mentor, and then circling back around to the character that I originally played for Crisis and Elseworlds. Sometimes people say, "You've been playing the Flash for 30 years," and that's not entirely true. I've played Flashes for seven years in a 41-year career. And I no longer get that sort of, "But I've done Broadway! But I have Emmys! But I have this!" I've come into an acceptance and a gratitude that I find myself quite unexpectedly in this position within the multiverse.
Having played many different iterations of the Flash so far, how do you keep them all straight in your mind, especially when approaching a new version like we see in DC's Stargirl?
They've been so well-written. I was very cautious in 1990, before comic book entertainment had really gone mainstream, about stepping into a superhero suit. I was afraid I wouldn't be taken seriously, that it would be spoofed. But the treatment was so beautifully written — [The Flash series creators] Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson wrote human beings with human problems and we had an ordinary guy dealing with extraordinary abilities, which I think almost every human being on the planet can relate to. Moving forward, of course Batman: The Brave and the Bold was just fun voicing a cartoon version.
I can't imagine father-son scenes — and I've played quite a few — being more beautifully and sensitively written than the first two seasons of CW Flash between Henry and Barry. Those are some of the richest, most personal experiences I've had in my entire career. The challenge for Jay was to reset a much colder temperature. And to be playing with an actor, Grant Gustin, who I'm so fond of and yet enforce a distance that we hadn't had up to that point, that was challenging. And then everybody had such fun when we brought Flash '90 back that that kind of lifted me up and carried me through that and gave me a conclusion to the 1990 show that we didn't have at the time.
How is this version of the Flash different from the others you've played before?
I was set up brilliantly for it. It's executive produced and largely written by Geoff Johns, who writes Jay Garrick incredibly and understands what he wants from Jay Garrick, and it was in the scenes. I take everything off the page. Someone said, and I think this is such an interesting comment, that they felt that I was more Jay Garrick on Stargirl, even more than I had been on Flash, because Jay's in his element. Jay's in his Society that he's a founding member of and a leading light of, so there is a sense of classicism. It almost felt like I was playing classic Flash, there was a classic quality to the dialogue, to the principles and ethics that I was standing up for, that it called for a different posture even. I'm not with the League, I'm with the Society. And so that made a difference in my approach to the role.
What do we learn from meeting this Jay Garrick in the flashbacks in this week's episode?
There is a "hero entrance," but also we get to see immediately the humanity of Jay Garrick and how he relates individually to each of these other members. Certainly he has a history that has not been [revealed yet]. What I love about Stargirl is legacy, how it's a superhero show built around a teenager. If I could add one thing to the CW Flash, it would be more exploration and more of an explanation of legacy. That's what I love about the whole setup of Stargirl.
What do you think is going to surprise fans about seeing you on Stargirl?
Everyone was discussing, "Is it going to be a different suit? Is it going to be a new suit?" When I started seeing that speculation on social media, I began to get a little nervous because I knew it was going to be the same suit and the last thing I wanted to do was disappoint the audience. I was hoping people wouldn't get too invested in that. And, of course, being a superhero show you never know if we're going to see that suit down the line. Although someone put a picture from the Jay Garrick on Stargirl against a picture of the Jay Garrick on Flash and it said, "It looks like the suit and John Wesley Shipp got an upgrade." [Laughs] Because I'm about 12 pounds lighter. I really got into shape for Stargirl and I was at the ideal weight that I wanted to be in for that suit. [Laughs] And that doesn't always happen!
Are there plans to bring this Jay back to Stargirl in the future?
From your mouth to God's ears. [Laughs] God being, in this case, Geoff Johns.
What do you hope to see for the future of this character — on Stargirl or any other show?
I have high hopes, and there have been discussions, on Flash with Bart [Jordan Fisher] coming on. I didn't get to play the mentor episode, which I thought would have been so interesting with Wally [Keiynan Lonsdale], because Joe [Jesse L. Martin] became Barry's mentor/father figure, and how did Henry feel about that? How interesting it would have been if Jay had become closer to Wally than Joe? Well, we missed that opportunity; we went down the road of Savitar, and that never happened with Wally.
But with Bart coming on, we kind of set up in the last two episodes that he has a profound feeling for what he calls "Uncle Jay." And in some ways they're alike and they get along in some ways better than he does with his own father, who in our version is Barry. That, I would love to explore, and I hope that we do. It's been talked about; I've talked to [The Flash showrunner] Eric Wallace about it. A lot of it depends on Jordan Fisher's availability and we'll just have to wait and see what happens. I played the other side of it, like I was with the great Jason Bernard who was our Nightshade in the 1990 Flash. And I would love to play the other side of that mentoring relationship. [Laughs] So I would like to be Jason Bernard in 2021.
DC's Stargirl airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the CW.