Actor Interview: Julian Richings

Following his review of Hall, Hugh has a chat with actor Julian Richings

Great to meet you Julian, I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time.

It’s nice to talk to you Hugh.

 

You have a new horror film on the horizon, Hall; what can you tell me about it?

I can tell you that it’s a movie by a first-time director. I do that, I like to work with a lot of emerging directors. I think its part of the bag of being an older actor; it’s a two-way relationship. I think you can act as a bit of a balance because you can just be an older character and not be like a young student who’s just desperate to star in a movie, you bring a bit of experience to it. And for me, it allows me to really gauge the temperature of what’s out there and how people are feeling and what they are obsessed by. Particularly in genre, because I think genre reflects contemporary mores and maybe distorts them a little bit.

Genre sees itself as the outsider but it is actually a profoundly moral forum, even though it’s trying to shock and push the envelope. For me, that is always very important to work creatively with people coming up. The democratisation of film is important; the idea that we’re all in this evolving process together telling stories that really depend on spontaneity and what you bring to the moment, you know?

Rather than just be like some old fart who arrives and expects royal treatment (laughs).

Actor Julian Richings in Hall.

What was it like filming a movie, ostensibly about a pandemic, in the middle of the pandemic?

It’s pretty extraordinary!

However, I have to correct you; it wasn’t filmed during the pandemic, even though it’s just come out now, it was filmed beforehand. And actually, that is kudos to the filmmakers because they were very prescient and tuned into the zeitgeist.

Yes, it’s about a pandemic, yes it anticipates the pandemic, but it was actually based on was the Canadian SARS experience that was about ten or fifteen years prior and the H1N1 outbreak five or six years ago. So, it is very much a ‘what if’ type of scenario.

But the main canvass of this film was about the disintegration or the infection of personal relationships. It’s really a character study of two women who are experiencing an abusive relationship and want to escape, but their bodies are trapped by this thing that is attacking them. But it’s also on more of a societal level; there’s a sense that they are trying to escape male oppressiveness.

Now, that makes it sound very black and white political, but that’s really in the world that we are in. It’s not a sort of ‘this happened and then this happened, then the government did this or that’ kind of film, its more woven into a societal breakdown.

It’s almost banal; it’s boring. You know what I mean? It’s not glamorous or sexy; people are slowly dying in a hotel corridor. There are no great big jump moments, it feels very grey and its very artfully constructed.

 

I saw the movie last week and I loved how atmospheric it was. It isn’t a ‘big bang’ movie, but you really get to spend time with the characters and get a feel for their plight. Your role in proceedings, while it isn’t the largest, does leave such a huge impression on the film. How did you approach that?

Well, I enjoyed it.

They wanted me for the role, and the guys who wrote and directed it knew about my career and the kind of characters that I play. They wanted somebody who was enigmatic in the film, that raised questions without giving you any real narrative answers where you could simply say ‘oh he’s the bad guy’.

My character is on the phone to somebody else in the film, and that person sounds like it’s a personal relationship rather than some sort of mad-scientist in a lab! There’s a dimension of banality about all of this, and our need to interact with people and face the notion that we are actually poisoning ourselves and killing ourselves.

For me it was fun, the shooting process was really fun too. Working with some young filmmakers and cinematographers, who were fantastic I thought, creating this film out of as economical a set as they could possibly create. They rented an entire floor of a hotel, and they knew the owner so were able to get a good rate! They got him to cater the movie and we all slept in the rooms that we were all filming in. So, you would just walk out to the corridor where we were filming and there would be dollies and camera equipment (laughs). But there was this instant sense of a universe, it was very organic and it was easy for me to fit in.

And as you said, I have a small role, a sort of question mark in the movie; I’m introduced to allow the possibility that there might be some orchestration to this pandemic rather than it being a complete fluke. That it might be to do with some odd individual or a renegade government, just planting seeds in the film.

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It’s fascinating how budgetary restrictions can create a necessity to scale things back; but in so doing create something really unique that you might not otherwise have had.

I agree.

A prior example to this is another film that was shot in Quebec and Montreal by Denis Villeneuve who has Dune coming up soon. One of his early films was called Polytechnique, and that was set in a Polytechnique in Quebec where there was an atrocity where this guy went in and murdered a lot of women, a really terrible slaughter.

And it is a very grey, very methodical and sober film about evil, and about a misplaced sense of purpose. I look at people like Francesco (Giannini) and think ‘well you have the vision’ even with these sorts of humble beginnings.

 

It is a remarkable debut; it’s one of those films you come out of with an intention of keeping an eye on that director’s future work especially having done so much with so little.

Yeah exactly.

 

I wanted to ask you about another of your recent films, of which I am an enormous fan; Anything For Jackson. Your performance in that film is terrific, and something of a departure from the normal genre characters that you play. How did you come to be involved in that film?  

The writers approached me, Justin (G. Dyke) and Keith (Cooper); two fascinating guys.

Everything I’m telling you now has sort of a Canadian edge; I have a British accent but I’m actually ensconced here in Toronto and am very much a part of the Toronto based film community. Our income is often featuring as a roadhouse for a big American film; they come up here and get big tax breaks and Toronto will double for Chicago or something like that, and we get a lot of big stars up for the Toronto International Film Festival.

But I’m one of those guys who is very much a part of an emerging culture and sense of identity. And around the periphery of the big American productions is the rise in the consciousness of Canadian stories.

And they tend to be more overwhelmed by the bigger, flashier ones south of the border here, but there are guys like Keith and Justin who make a living out of doing things for the American assembly line, like Hallmark and Christmas movies, that they just bang out, right?

So, these two guys are in a small town north of Toronto banging out these Christmas movies in like ten days, just getting everything together and have learned all the skills needed on the fly to make movies. They’re not cinematic auteurs, just guys who have learned the craft just by doing it.

And both of them are big horror movie fans and both have skills in special effects and are real buffs. So, while going back and forwards to sets doing Christmas movies all these years, they’d come up with this script that they’ve felt really passionately about.

So, they approached me with it and Sheila too. They’d identified us as a couple of Canadian actors that they really liked and thought we’d be really good together as a dynamic, and I really agree with them. And they’d come up with this really great idea, and while they were working with limited resources, they had picked up enough cinematic and pragmatic skills to just get this thing up and just hit it.

We shot that film in just fifteen days. And actually, that one ended on March 13th at 5:45pm and the Toronto Film Industry was shut down at 6pm (laughs).

Julian Richings holding on to Shelia McCarthy in Anything for Jackson.

Crikey! That’s unreal.

And that’s why the ending to Anything for Jackson feels a little rushed. It’s enigmatic, but there is a degree of confusion because the film is so tightly controlled all the way through until that point. And that’s because the world was coming to an end around us!

We won the race though and the guys managed to get it cut together during the pandemic. So, in many ways, although you asked me about Hall earlier, this is truly the film that was shot with the pandemic just getting closer and closer. We’d go away to our hotel in this small town and we’d be doing the COVID count every night, checking the numbers to see how many had it and how it was spreading.

We just dodged a bullet on that one. Long-winded story (laughs).

When those guys approached me with a script that was so rich, and with their history, I really felt that this is how cinema should be developing. Not just the auteur system and schools, but guys who actually have their feet on the ground and are doing stuff just because they love doing it.

I was drawn in right away and it gave me a different opportunity as an actor. As you know, the kind of roles that I play are generally as a sort of primary colour; I’ll come in and do a scene and hit it with that kind of thing and set the plot of story off in a particular direction. But for me to carry the narrative arc was a great thing to me, because I don’t get to do it all that often. And even better, to carry that narrative arc with another actor, and the two of us just sort of playing off each other all the way through in a complex relationship was really exciting.

And then, to make it even more exciting we introduce a third person to that narrative. The woman that we kidnap in the film is at first a victim but then ultimately becomes a player within that sort of three-way dynamic. That was great for me.

 

You’re absolutely right in that it is one of those films that doesn’t at all work without that central dynamic. It is scary and gruesome, but the strength of those performances elevate the film to a higher level.

Thank you so much.

Sheila and I have both worked in theatre and film and television over the years and while we’ve known about each other we’ve never actually worked together. It was a real pleasure for us both.

And she’s sort of in same situation as I am. She’s a very distinct actor and gets cast in very distinct roles rather than those with big character arcs; so, for both of us to hit that film together was really a lot of fun.

 

I wanted to ask you about your next role in the upcoming Stephen King show, Chapelwaite. As a big Stephen King fan, I am anxiously awaiting a UK air date, what can you tell us about the show?

It is an adaptation of Jerusalem’s Lot, a short story Stephen King wrote as a precursor to Salem’s Lot, so it’s the same universe, the same kind of feeling.

Adrian Brody plays a sea captain that suffers tragedy at sea and returns home with his children and inherits the family estate. And there is evil and darkness around the family estate…. But I don’t want to give any more than that away (laughs).

It’s a classic gothic setting, late 1800’s, with all kinds of bangs in the night and strange behaviours by people. Whats interesting about this for me is that often Stephen King adaptations can be very successful, but they can be very underwritten. This is interesting because it is based on a very short story, a sort of skeleton of an idea; it’s written as a series of letters rather than with dramatic characters.

So, the two writers, Jason and Peter Filardi, have taken this idea and fleshed it out, creating their own Stephen King universe. And they’ve taken liberties, but very much in the Stephen King style, so they’ve been able to create a tense series arc that takes its time. It dwells on the suspense and anticipation, focussing on the village and the characters; and the Adrian Brody character might be the main character but there is a lot else going on.

It is a very atmospheric world rather than just a straight line of jumps, that you do often see in a Stephen King adaptation.

Still from Chapelwaite.

That is great to hear, my ears were perking up at words like gothic, atmospheric and tragedy. I love slow-burn horror, I’m excited to see it.

It’s an interesting show.

 

And before I let you go Julian, I have to ask; are you a big horror fan yourself? And if so, what horror film do you enjoy most?

I do like the genre; I find that when they become a little too ‘body-horror / slasher’ it can become a little too much for me. It’s just not my thing.

But I love slow-burn horror, and I’ve got a stand-out film that transcends even the genre Night of the Hunter. It’s a 1954, Charles Laughton, black and white film starring Robert Mitchum, Shelly Winters and Lilian Gish, who at the time was a silent movie actress that nobody had really heard speak.

It is shot in a surreal way and is almost like a gothic fairy-tale with a nightmarish inversion of Babes in the Wood.

That to me is always a reference point because it is so brooding, sinister and terrifying. The children in it are so vulnerable to the forces around them, but the film is so beautiful too, and it’s such an exhilarating race against evil. It has, for me, all the ingredients that make a great horror film.

 

I’ll add that to the top of my watchlist.

Oh that’s great, it’s really enjoyable.

 

Julian, it was great getting the chance to speak to you, best of luck with Hall and Chapelwaite. I can’t wait to see what else you’ve got coming up next.

My pleasure Hugh, take care.


By: Hugh McStay

Hall is available on UK Digital download and On Demand now.