Supernatural send-off: Richard Speight Jr. recalls his puckish season 2 debut
Twelve years ago, the actor traveled to Vancouver to play a janitor in season 2's "Tall Tales." It wasn't until he read the script, though, that he realized he was actually portraying the episode's monster, the puckish Trickster, who used his reality-altering powers to humble pompous humans. Even though the Trickster survived his encounter with Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles), Speight thought this was a one-and-done situation. Of course, he was wrong.
Speight appeared on the show 11 more times (in some of Supernatural's most inventive hours), and the CW drama eventually revealed that the Trickster was actually the archangel Gabriel and had a history with the god Loki. Not only that, but Speight was eventually added to the series' roster of directors. When Supernatural ends in a few weeks, he will have helmed 11 episodes, including four in the final season.
"Long after I retire from the entertainment industry, I will know that I was a part of something unique and special in the Supernatural universe, from the fan support, the convention, to the force that spawned from the show, and just from the people I met who enabled me to do my best work as an actor and, later, my best work as a director," Speight tells EW. "I'll be forever grateful to everybody involved and the show itself."
Ahead of his final directorial effort on Supernatural (which airs this Thursday), EW spoke with Speight about his very first appearance on the CW drama, his initial impression of Ackles and Padalecki, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you remember how you landed the role in "Tall Tales"? Did you audition?
RICHARD SPEIGHT JR.: I remember everything because it was very unique. I didn't audition for the show. I got offered that role. I had done a pilot with Bob Singer, the executive producer and showrunner, a year earlier. We had been in London together doing a World War II pilot and somehow seeing me play an alcoholic World War II medic made him think I would also be good as the Trickster. I just got a phone call from my agent saying, "Hey, do you want to go play a janitor on a show called Supernatural up in Vancouver?" And I said, "Sure, I'll play a good janitor in a show." I had never heard of the show, but I figured, "I know how to sweep and mop. I can pull this off." And then it wasn't until I got on the plane and started reading the script that I realized, "Oh, wait a minute. This isn't a normal janitor." And that's how I got introduced to the show. That's how I figured out what I was doing.
What's your first memory from your first day on set?
My first memory, specifically, was we did a table read. I'd never heard of the show and now I've been hired to do the show and I'm thinking, "Hmm, I want to know the vibe of this show before I start shooting scenes." We go to the table read and [creator] Eric Kripke and Bob Singer are on speakerphone because we were up in Vancouver and they were in Los Angeles and we read the script and I thought, "This would be great because now here are some tips on the tone of the show." And what I thought was funny is they kept using Supernatural as an adjective and as a verb and an adverb. They're like, "Now listen, this episode is a little bit of a departure, but don't lose the Supernatural elements of the show, keep it very Supernatural and make Supernatural choices and Supernaturally infuse the humor into the show." And I'm thinking the whole time, "This ain't helping. I need an adjective or an adverb that isn't the title of the how because I don't know what this show is." But they never really veered off that path.
So the first scene I shot was the scene where I'm sitting in the auditorium and messing with Dean and slinging him up on the bed with the scantily clad girls and, eventually, Bobby [Jim Beaver] and Sam come in and the scene resumed that way. But my first stuff was sitting in the auditorium, messing with Dean, and I remember thinking, "All right, well, I'm just going to do what I think this is and they'll tell me if I'm wrong."
So they threw you right into the deep end with the episode's climax.
Yeah. Well, they never shoot these things in order and the director of the episode I did, that was the only episode he ever directed. He was a veteran director named Brad May, but he had never directed Supernatural and he never ended up directing another Supernatural. That was his one. I didn't get a lot of intel on the show's backstory from him either. Yeah, I was winging it, but luckily, as an actor, you do that a lot. You aim your darts not knowing where the board is, and I aimed my dart and luckily it stuck in the board.
How did you wrap your head around the character and figure out your performance? Well, the writers are good, obviously, and they do a good job of describing characters in the character descriptions. And I just leaned on playing the Trickster funnier than meaner. Even though the character is killing people, to me, there's a certain levity to him that I built on versus playing him dark, like the Joker or something. I went the other direction and played a more everyday guy, likable with a sharp wit. When you get a role, you make choices and you hope that the director will steer you down the right road if you've made a wrong choice or if he likes what you're doing and wants you to amplify it.
In the beginning, how much of yourself did you put into character?
Well, I think any acting job has the actor portraying it infused in there. And certainly, the Trickster lends itself to some of my sensibilities. I mean, I'm a bit of a goofball. I like to think I have a decent sense of humor. I like to goof around and crack a joke or two, and I think that underlying throughline of the Trickster and I were similar. Where we differ is the darkness and the troubled elements of the character. For example, I barely kill people because this is not something I do. But I feel even the weight the Trickster carries that drives him to do the things he does [is] much different than I am and that's where the acting, the fundamental core of the character, is not me.
Were you aware of the weight the Trickster carried in that first episode, or did you only discover that with subsequent episodes like the audience?
You obviously discover through later episodes even more, but at the time I didn't think I was doing more episodes. I was basing my entire framework of the character on [that] script with the idea being that was the one and only time we'll ever see this guy. And the whole "hoisted on their own petard, kill the pompous to make them pay for their pompacity," there's a weightiness to that, whether it's on the page or not because to be making judgments about other people's character and deciding whether they live or die based on their human flaws is a heavy hammer to wield. And so, I felt that just innately comes with some resentment or anger and frustration towards people that bug you. It requires a certain internal weight.
What was your first impression of Jared and Jensen?
I think the first day I was there, and it was probably just for a costume fitting, Jared had taken some alien head that was obviously a costume piece and he and Jensen were sprinting around the sound stages with Jared wearing this giant [alien head]. He's already 6-foot-4 and this rubber head made him 6'10", and he was just running around and I'm like, "Man, this is a loose vibe over here." And I always remember that being a funny intro. I don't think I spoke to him at that point. He just sprinted by me. And I remember them being really, really nice.
It was not my first show. I was a good bit older than they were and I just always assume that you're not going to really bond with the cast when you go to do a show, especially a guest star. I found them to be way more warm than that. We didn't hang out socially per se off set, but on set they're incredibly kind and nice and they were watching... They're both Dallas Cowboy fans and Dallas was playing a game and they had the game on in their trailer and they invited me in to watch some football with them. Anytime I talked to them, mainly about sports, I was struck by how normal they were. They are, especially then, young men who had done well in Hollywood, but they were still very, very, very much from Texas and that kept them charming and real. And I found that to be a really pleasant surprise because it's not what you come to expect once you've been in the business for a while.
Thankfully, you returned for several more episodes. What was your favorite appearance as Gabriel?
I'd have to go with "Unfinished Business." My character had long since [been] put to bed in [season 5], and then here we are in season 13 to revive the character to finish off his story arc. That was just so cool and rare to get to do as an actor. They told a thorough version of that story. It involved Gabriel and what had been happening to him over the years since we last saw him and then his relationship with Loki, and we finally met that character and that was super cool. And so, I got to explore what Loki's relationship with Gabriel was, their backstory, their history, why Gabriel was like he was, and I got to direct the episode.
I'm doing all the exploration, not just internally, but also visually. And it all culminated with a fight scene between Gabriel and Loki. Those are the two characters I was playing so it was Richard versus Richard and the director was Richard. It was me versus me directed by me and that's just a rare, artistic, creative experience. I don't think I'll ever get that shot again. That is near and dear to my heart and a rare and wonderful experience.
What did you find particularly interesting or unique about Sam and Dean's relationship with Gabriel?
You couldn't really put your finger on the relationship. It wasn't totally animus. They didn't hate Gabriel. Gabriel didn't hate them. He also wasn't all that great to them all the time and they were annoyed by him. It was a very complex relationship, not just based on, "We need you so we're going to deal with you." Innately, there was an eye-rolling acceptance of who Gabriel was by Sam and Dean, and Gabriel felt the same about them. In spite of himself, Gabriel liked Sam and Dean. and his relationship with them introduced him to humanity and forced him to admit that humans are not bad. But for them, as much of a pain in the ass he was, he's their pain in the ass. They just had a complex relationship that was neither love or hate, but somewhere in between and vacillating dramatically, depending on what was going on between the extremes of those emotions and that makes it interesting.
Supernatural airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the CW.
Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki star as the Winchester brothers, hellbent on battling the paranormal forces of evil.