Richard Speight, Jr. – On Gabriel’s Return to Supernatural, Ad-Libbing with Misha Collins, and Lots of Cons!
It happens to be the birthday of one of our favorite people in the world – and not just in the Supernatural world – Richard Speight, Jr. Richard is one of the first people we interviewed for Fangasm Supernatural Fangirls. We’ve had some of our most insightful and intellectually stimulating talks with him, often at the end of a convention when we all want to process and relax with a beer. Richard wrote a chapter for our new book, Fan Phenomena: Supernatural, sharing his unique point of view on the Supernatural conventions which have become a big part of his life over the past eight years. He turned around karaoke to make it the awesome party it is now, and when he became the emcee for a con weekend, the energy level at cons went up – and stayed there.
[Richard Speight, Jr., in Fan Phenomena: Supernatural, on not being famous: “And yet for the past four years, somewhere between five and fifteen times a year, I make grown women shake and young girls squee (and maybe a couple of guys get sweaty palms). Why? Because I’m a regular guest at conventions for the CW show Supernatural. Am I one of the show’s stars? Nope. A strong supporting character? Not even close. I appeared in a measly four episodes, playing first The Trickster who (spoiler alert!) later revealed himself to be the Archangel Gabriel. Four, total. On a show that has clocked over a hundred episodes and counting. Yet according to the web, I’ve so far been a featured guest at thirty-three conventions. That’s an unbalanced ratio that leads to an obvious question – Why?”]
At the time Richard wrote that chapter, Gabriel had been gone from the Show for three years. That all changed in Season 9, when he (and Richard) returned to the Show for the episode “Meta Fiction.” What was it like, we wondered, to return to the Show after all this time?
Lynn: That was the first time you worked with Misha, right?
Richard: Correct – well, it was the first time I really worked with Misha. In Changing Channels, he and I had a little bit of interaction, but no real dialogue. It’s like I think I acknowledge him at one point, and then knock him into a wall, and he’s out of the scene.
L: (laughing) Yep, that was pretty much it.
R: So that’s one of the things about this episode that was really fun for me. I thought it was really neat when I read the script, that all my scenes were with him.
L: You didn’t have any scenes with Jared and Jensen at all this time!
R: No, and I really dug that, because over this time I’ve become really good friends with Misha. I really like his acting choices too, I think he’s good on the Show, so I enjoyed it. And you know, the boys, their characters, there’s no correlation with Gabriel – I’m just a being who comes down and messes with them. Castiel, he and I, theoretically we’re related.
L: (astutely) Right, you’re brothers…
R: So there’s history, so as an actor’s choice, it’s different how I relate to him. It’s not ‘ah, I’m here to screw with you, zib zab’ – there’s backstory.
L: Right, even though we’ve never seen it.
R: It hasn’t been examined, but it’s there. So that for me informed everything, and informed that scene in the convenience store in a way. That was a really fun night of shooting, because the way the scene was written and the way the scene ended up being shot are two very different things.
L: (excitedly) Ooh, really?
R: Like the hug isn’t in the script.
L: Oh, so how did that happen? Who decided that?
R: It wasn’t a decision, it was a natural response to the scene. So the way Tom Wright [the director] had us blocked, we were apart, looking at the windows, and we get closer and closer as we backed up, away from it, and we ended up, you know, sharing a foxhole moment on the other side of the shelf of food. And it was at Misha’s instigation, that was just his instinct to sort of hug me. And I thought it was a really great moment – it’s exactly not how I thought that moment would play. One of the things I find fascinating about acting in general, when I read it – and I knew what it was – I talked to Robbie Thompson about it, before I went up, we had lunch to talk about the scene – and it’s a Han Solo/Princess Leia moment. It’s a pull from that – ‘Thank you.’ ‘Shut up.’ It’s the male version of ‘I love you.’ ‘I know.’
L: (interrupting excitedly) Yes!
R: So it was written to be played at a distance, and it felt on the page like it would be played at a distance. But then when we got there and we did it, it felt very natural for him, because of the familial nature of our relationship and the reality of what we’re playing – forget the fact that it’s revealed not to be true moments later – the moment is real. And his bonding with me was a genuine moment.
L: (nodding) It certainly played that way.
R: And so even my “shut up” ended up not being as snarky as it was on the page.
L: No, it wasn’t at all – it was like a Sam and Dean moment. It played very much to me like a Sam and Dean moment, like a mirror of their relationship. They also wouldn’t say I love you, they say ‘bitch’ ‘jerk’ or whatever, but we as the audience read it as I love you. And that’s how I read that. And then that made the reveal that this was actually Metatron pulling the strings so much more devastating, because we were all emotionally invested in the moment.
R: Right, but the interesting thing about it is – Robbie and I talked a long time, because I took the return very seriously. Not that I don’t take every acting job seriously, but I knew what was riding on this given the anticipation around bringing that character back. And the twitter reaction followed exactly what we thought it would follow, with people saying YAY and then people saying BOO! And the boo’s were not boo, you’re back, but boo this isn’t real, why did you do this?
L: Well yeah!
R: But Robbie wrote the piece – the piece was really written to bring the character back. That’s how it’s structured. And here’s what he sprinkled into the scene to indicate that. When Gabriel clicks out, once he’s busted, if it was Metatron running it, there’s no reason for Gabriel to snap in and out.
L (lightbulb moment slowly dawning…) That’s true, he would’ve just been gone…
R: He would’ve just been gone, yeah. And the whole scene would’ve been gone and suddenly it would’ve been Metatron sitting there going ‘it was me, it wasn’t real’.
R: So Robbie’s theory is that actually Gabriel has been around, and that Metatron convinced him that this was the right way to go, and that he agreed to help convince Castiel. So I snap him in and out – like when the girl breaks the window and Castiel says, ‘you’re not really who you say you are’, I turn around and snap her out. So I’m still controlling what’s happening in that universe at that moment. Which is Robbie’s way and the show’s way of saying that Gabriel is still alive.
L: (getting a clue) Right, that was clearly Gabriel bleeding through somehow – it implied that he was still there…
R: Right, it’s still very much Gabriel, it’s not Metatron being Gabriel.
L: And also, he seemed like Gabriel, maybe with a bit of Trickster throw in –it didn’t seem like Metatron trying to write Gabriel, it seemed like Gabriel.
R: Right, all the language. Robbie and I worked on making that accurate – I mean, we changed lines – like me calling him shorty, that was an improv on the day
L: That was an improv?
R: (nodding) That and me telling him to keep his hands on the wheel. Because I’m precious cargo? I made that up.
L: (silently) Of course you did.
R: Shorty is something that Robbie got – hands on the wheel is something I just did in one take and they kept it. Even me grabbing Misha’s face so he’d look at me wasn’t scripted, it was one of those things where literally the actor Misha wasn’t paying attention.
R: So when I said it, he didn’t look and he was supposed to look, so I just grabbed his face and turned it, and that’s the one they used.
L: Those were some of the best moments!
R: Well, because there’s no way to know how those moments are gonna be blocked. Like right now, there would’ve been no way for Robbie to know that right now I was gonna be this close to you, and there’s no reason for Robbie to think that Misha the actor wouldn’t have looked at me immediately.
L: (looking utterly fascinated – can’t help it, love hearing about the way my favorite Show is created)
R: So those are choices….but when we did it once, then we did it every time. So we did it one time and kept it and then did it like that every time.
L: So is this how it works? When you ad lib something like that, does the director say oh that’s good, keep doing that?
R: (nodding) He specifically at that moment said ‘we’re doing that – that we’re doing!’ And it was what Misha wanted to do and what I wanted to do, so it was a win-win for everybody.
L: Well, it made so much sense, with the relationship between the two characters..
L: That showed the familiarity between them, two characters who are as familiar as brothers, something they would do.
R: And the level of exasperation that exists in that moment…
L: Like pay attention to me!
R: Like do what I’m telling you to do!
L: I get it. And, that fits with Robbie’s head canon too, that at that moment Gabriel was really buying into wanting Cas to do it, to lead the army.
R: And it’s really true that I don’t think Gabriel quote unquote “knew the rest of the story”
L: Right, just like Gadreel!
R: He was sold a bit, he bought the sales pitch.
L: Cuz Metatron is good at that (sideeyes Curtis Armstrong…)
R: Yeah, so Gabriel said yeah, that makes sense.
L: You didn’t work with Curtis Armstrong either, right?
R: No I didn’t work with Curtis, but I spent some time with him up there. But we didn’t work together on the set. But it was very – going back, I haven’t been that nervous on a set in a long time.
L: Really? Because you felt so much pressure?
R: Self induced pressure, but yeah.
L: I understand though, because it’s been literally years that fans have been saying bring back Gabriel.
R: It had been almost four years to the day that I’d been on the Show. It was during the Olympics. I shot during the Vancouver Olympics, and then the Olympics were on TV when I went back up to do it. Almost exactly four years. And, you know, not to say they didn’t do things that were different. They redressed the character, Gabriel doesn’t wear the same clothes. They didn’t want to bring back the exact same image from four years ago. They always had him wear the same thing and then this time they didn’t.
L: I didn’t realize that (bad fan…did all of you realize this?)
R: So they switched what he wore. Which I love — they wanted to keep it like he wasn’t frozen in time. Which, by the way, is the other way of saying that Metatron didn’t create him, because Metatron would have no reason to not recreate him in the exact image that he’d been in.
L: True! I love these subtle hints. I’m surprised nobody picked up on that…or was it just me? Oh Robbie Thompson…
R: He’s clever.
L: He is.
(pause for a Robbie Thompson love fest….)
R: So that’s the thing – that’s Robbie, and Jeremy’s and the writers, everybody’s – that’s their intent – they kept all that in. Aside from the obvious, by the way, which is Castiel asking if he’s still alive, or if he’s really dead, and Gabriel not answering and giving him that look.
L: And the look to me clearly said relax…
R: To me it implied, duh. There’s no reason for him to pretend – what would be Metatron’s end game to give him that look?
L: No reason.
R: No, that’s Gabriel injecting himself, that’s why he snapped in and out. Those gimmicks are Gabriel. They’re not Metatron re-enacting Gabriel, because once the shtick falls apart, Metatron would just be Metatron.
L: I think there would’ve been a horrible fandom rebellion if you had come back for one episode and then been dead.
R: Well we’ll see if – I mean, that doesn’t it mean it won’t fall through, so we’ll have to see if they bring him back more, but I think they left the door open very intentionally on purpose.
L: I hope it won’t be another four years. Though Supernatural will probably still be on… So how long did it take you to get over that feeling of being nervous or was it the whole time?
R: No, it was the first day. And it was the scene in the car, the first thing I shot. And the monologue. I was so nervous, it was weird. Because I don’t get nervous anymore. I felt so much pressure. I’m still really good friends with Brad Creasser and Robin Milstad, the head of props – the three of us are really good buddies.
L: Robin Stooshnov? We interviewed her for an article in Supernatural Magazine.
(skip over our trying to figure out married and professional names…and agreeing that Robin is awesome).
R: She’s awesome. So literally I saw them on set that first day, Brad was DP on that one, and then the next day when I saw them, Robin said “hey, I’m glad to see you’re normal, you were such a weirdo yesterday!”
R: I think everyone who knew me was like what? Because I was like ‘hey-what’s-goin-on-guys-hi-wow-hey” — I was so nervous! And sitting in the car, first scene up in the morning, and it’s this big rambling monologue. I mean, it’s a phone call, but it’s like me bebebebeblah and there are all these levels to it that I wanna get in, and I wanted to sort of add the Gabriel-esque moments to it, the eyerolls and all that crap. And if you notice, most of that is in one shot, there’s not a lot of editing in it. If you go back and watch it, Tom just pretty much used the one shot of me talking on the phone. So it’s not chopped up, and I was a nervous wreck. I remember leaving going, crap, I don’t know if I got it right. I mean, you don’t leave with any sense of confidence. I mean, I know I know the character, but I also knew the microscope I was gonna be under.
L: Is this the first time you’ve been in a situation where you had an acting job where you return to it after a long time? It’s pretty unusual, right? Usually you’re a regular and it’s your job all the time or you’re a guest actor coming in off the street .
R: This is the first time. A four year gap to play the same character? I don’t know how many people have ever had that experience. That was very strange and very high pressure. But again, I put the pressure on, nobody else did. But I wanted to do it right. And I think maybe if I hadn’t done conventions, if I hadn’t been tied to this universe, and I’d just been gone and doing other things for four years, and then come back, it wouldn’t have been the same pressure. But I live this show all the time.
L: That’s true. Even though you weren’t on for four years, your life kinda revolves around this Show.
R: I’m so involved with this show, in weird ways that I never would have predicted.
L: Your best friends are from Supernatural.
R: I know. Totally changed my social circle. Because I’m on the road all the time.
L: Who would’ve thought this would be a big part of your career?
R: My busiest year was 15 cons, slowest was 10. And now that I’m hosting, it’s not like it was, fly in one day and then out. It’s four days in a row.
L: This is a big part of your life, and it’s all Supernatural. You’re with Supernatural fans all the time, and with the other Supernatural actors.
[Richard on his first con experience: “I was in a hotel full of women who were, for the most part, thrilled to have me there and excited to meet me. Strange. Bizarre. Fan- f*cking-tastic. The exact opposite of high school. They embraced me (sometimes literally), so I embraced them back.” – from Fan Phenomena: Supernatural]
R: And on that level, I was also very glad to be back on the show, because you start to feel like Peter Mayhew sitting at a Comic Con booth waiting for people to buy your headshots, you know? Like people might be oh, you’re not even really involved in the show. It’s a weird dichotomy of loving the conventions because you have friends here and you enjoy the camaraderie and the interaction and you enjoy performing and doing that. But the flip side of that is, why the fuck am I here, I’m not even on the show? I didn’t get into acting so I could do cons for a show I’m not on! And part of that’s cool and part of that’s really confusing, because you’d rather be acting than conning.
L: Well, you’re an actor…
R: But the other thing is, I try to make these cons work schedule-wise. If I know that I’ve got a con, and I’ve got a shooting schedule, I’ve tried to make it work so I can still get there. Because I feel inexorably linked to the experience now. I would feel weird if a con occurred without me here.
So would we, Richard. And on that note, Richard is flying to NJ Con right now, and I’m about to finish throwing things in my suitcase so Kathy and I can jump in the car and roadtrip there in the morning. Follow us on twitter for all the con coverage and photos. And if you’re at NJCon, stop by and say hi to us in B29, and pick up a copy of one of our Supernatural books if you like – we’re happy to sign for you too. If we won’t see you there, you can check out all our Supernatural books at the links at the top of the page.
Stay tuned for part two of our chat with Richard soon – for now, see you at NJCon!