Supernatural send-off: Julian Richings looks back on Death's chilling debut
Julian Richings' Death had one helluva introduction in Supernatural's fifth season.
After dispatching two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse earlier in the season, Death finally arrived in season 5's penultimate episode "Two Minutes to Midnight" (which began with the death of Pestilence) via a slow-motion sequence set to a haunting cover “Oh Death” by Jen Titus. Director Phil Sgriccia’s camera slowly follows the Grim Reaper as he parks his striking white Cadillac and strides down a busy Chicago street. A passerby bumps into him and rudely tells him to watch where he's going. Death pauses and casually brushes his shoulder off before continuing on as if nothing happened. Meanwhile, the man just collapses on the street.
Former Supernatural showrunner Sera Gamble, who wrote the episode, describes this montage as a "Rock Star Entrance," and even without her recent explanation, it's easy to see why. The minute and 22 second-long sequence left an impression on the audience and immediately made it clear he was not someone to be trifled with. A few scenes later, though, Gamble's script threw a curveball at the audience.
When Jensen Ackles' Dean Winchester meets Death for the first time, he cautiously enters the Chicago pizza parlor expecting a fight. Instead, he finds Death casually enjoying some deep dish pizza at a table, because it turns out Death likes junk food. That disarming character quirk combined with Richings' calm yet intimidating performance instantly made him a memorable character, who would go on to appear in four more episodes over the show's run.
As Supernatural moves closer to its series finale, EW caught up with Richings to discuss shooting that first appearance and other memories from his time on the show.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you auditioned for Supernatural, did you know it was for the role of Death?
JULIAN RICHINGS: I had no idea. I’d already auditioned probably about nine months, 10 months previously, and the only sides that were available were sides for the character of Pestilence, and they were just some flat sides. I put myself on tape, sent it to Vancouver, heard nothing, and so I thought, “Well, that’s passed.” Then, I was actually shooting in the prairies and my agent said, “Oh, you’ve got a gig on Supernatural. You have to go straight from your shoot to Vancouver.” I said, “Oh, it’s that one! It’s Pestilence right?” And she said, “No. Death.” So, it was a surprise to me even the character I was playing. Obviously what had happened was that the writers and producers were kind of figuring out what four horsemen they wanted, what mix, and I guess at that stage they only had scripts available for Pestilence and then they kind of got everybody to read that specific script. To cut a long story short, I arrived in Vancouver kind of discombobulated, a little surprised, and not really familiar with the show. So, doing that opening sequence was a real eye-opener.
That sequence plays so beautifully on-screen — everything slows down, there’s “Oh, Death” playing underneath it. What do you remember about shooting that?
It’s not often that I’ve had to do a montage like that. So, it obviously was very detailed and very specific — with close-ups on my hands, on the cane, on my foot coming out of the door. It was very painstaking and very specific. I could tell as I was doing it [that] I was on a show that was really careful and each shot mattered. I knew that I was in the midst of something that was going to be really exciting. Of course, I didn’t have the Jen Titus [song] going through my ears, so that was an added bonus when I saw it afterwards. But it was pretty clear it was going to be something special.
I guess my biggest shock was when the AD said, “Well, we need you to start in a car. Here it is over here,” and he pointed me to this huge, white monster of a 1959 Cadillac. He said, “You can drive, right?” And I said, “Yeah.” So I got in it, and he said, “Well, you just have to drive from here to the location 20 yards in front of you.” [I thought], “No problem.” But of course, the thing handled like a boat. So, it was kind of a challenge, I must admit, especially your first day on set and there’s a whole bunch of camera equipment and lighting stands. I kind of jumped in with both feet.
How many takes did you have to do of you driving that Cadillac?
Not too many. I think that everybody, as well as me, was a little nervous about me not hitting the mark and hitting something else instead. So as soon as they were happy that they got what they needed, we moved on. In fact, there was a lot more detail with the close-ups of the ring, the cane, my ring, the different crowds. [Laughs] It was the biggest unknown factor of that particular sequence.
I particularly love the beat when Death kills the rude man who bumped into him. What did that beat convey to you about who you were playing?
Well, it was great. It was the perfect thing for me because I realized I was the most important being in the universe, the most powerful, and yet little things irritated me and I didn’t suffer fools well. Also the way in which I dealt with him was so nonchalant and off the cuff that it was a great indication for my character. So I learned a lot from it
Then, the following scene in the pizza parlor with Jensen performing so well as a scene partner, like really playing up the fact that he was terrified, really helped me as an actor because I really didn’t have to work hard. I didn’t have to push the terror aspect of the Death character. I could play and enjoy myself like a cat with a mouse. All of the clues were there in that original montage.
Was this calm portrayal of Death in the script, or was that something you came up with as you prepared for the part?
It was in the script. It was there. The delight that Death has with things like junk food — pizza — and the curiosity that he has with the habits of the humans and foibles of humans makes him a very relatable character. So, I just picked those clues and I kind of amplified them and just went along with them, and enjoyed being with Dean in that scene — listening to him and then getting a little impatient with him, and then putting him in his place. It was a very human relationship, almost like a stern uncle with his nephew. There was a connection, so it took beyond it just being a stern bad guy. It became a really interesting organic scene.
Were you surprised by the script’s playful take on this character?
Yes, I was and delighted. In subsequent episodes, the writers took those ideas a little further with it becoming a kind of habit for Dean and Death to meet and eat junk food together. I thought it was a really fun idea because on the surface it’s kind of jokey, but underneath it amplifies the tension and it allows me to sit back and hold my cards to my chest and play them very slowly.
I know that having food automatically makes a scene more complicated because you have to watch out for continuity errors between takes. How did you handle that aspect of the performance in this initial scene with the deep dish pizza?
[Laughs] Not very well. You know, I think it was the first time I had ever had Chicago deep dish pizza. It was really good. And I made the dumb mistake of eating way too much in the rehearsals and the planning of the scene, and realized by the time we were shooting the actual scene that my threshold for anymore pizza was evaporating fast. So, there was an awful lot of shaking eating by the time that some of that got to screen. But it was really fun actually figuring out the mechanics of Death having a huge appetite — eating and eating, and then slurping on his drink, and then eating, and then having Dean sit there nervously just prodding his food. It felt like a really appropriate dynamic. But in terms of my mastery of props and managing the pizza, it was pretty hard. I don’t think I touched pizza after that day probably for another couple of months.
In that Chicago scene, you start out very calm, but then some of your anger and frustration bubbles to the surface when you start talking about being tethered to Lucifer. While shooting, did Death lose his cool in the same place in each take or did you try different versions?
It’s just so well-written that it was natural. Once Jensen and I had figured out the rhythm of the scene — the back and forth and the fact that he was really quite nervous — it just finds a place. There are just such great lines like, “I’m old Dean, very old, so I invite you to contemplate how insignificant I find you.” It’s such a great line and it’s just a great moment of changing the dynamic of the scene and that’s entirely down to the writers and just playing the words they gave me.
You went on to appear on Supernatural several more times. Is there one appearance that really sticks out in your mind?
I enjoyed all of them actually. I can’t say that I have a favorite. It was always a delight to pick up a script and figure out what specific junk food I was going to be eating this time. I remember with particular delight revealing the pickle chips. That was very, very funny. I’d never had them before, so that was a memorable episode. Of course, Death’s death was particularly memorable as well. It marked the end of a very interesting character arc, and an arc for the show, too. In many ways, the show wasn’t afraid to keep moving forward and to keep introducing new ideas [and] to pull the rug out from under the audience in regards to any expectations. That last sequence is very memorable and equally technical, actually. It went full circle; the whole sequence with the scythe was as carefully constructed as the introduction in the Cadillac.
The show has a new Death now, played by Lisa Berry. Have you had a chance to meet her?
Oh yeah! I know Lisa. I’ve seen her in many things, and I followed her theatre career. We sort of have both been in the Toronto theatre scene for a while and I think she’s terrific. I really enjoy what she brings to Billie. It goes back to what I was saying about the show. The show has the imagination and courage, really, to take an idea and really change it and shift it to not get stale. I think she brings so much that’s so different [to the part] and it’s great.
Supernatural airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on The CW.
Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki star as the Winchester brothers, hellbent on battling the paranormal forces of evil.