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Skeet Ulrich Breaks Down Playing Bad Guys From Billy Loomis to Brian David Mitchell

Skeet Ulrich had a simple desire to be a part of “strong material that washed you in emotion.” He’s turned that into a 30-year career of acting in projects that have a long-lasting effect on pop culture and the industry as a whole. “If it’s something that takes over my mental day, then I know whether I have to fight for it or it’s offered to me, I have to take it,” Ulrich says. Though Ulrich may have been best known for Wes Craven’s “Scream” or cult favorite “Jericho” in the past, his work on the CW’s’s comic book adaptation “Riverdale” and Lifetime’s based-on-the-true-story “I Am Elizabeth Smart” cement his place in the current zeitgeist, too.

You have a history of playing bad guys, from “Scream” to “CSI: NY” and now to the ultimate villain, Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper Brian David Mitchell. What keeps drawing you to those roles?

Well, Billy Loomis was very different from Brian David Mitchell and not just because of the fiction/non-fiction aspect. It’s the challenge of making somebody who is essentially demonic relatable to an audience. I’ve always been interested in those Ted Bundy-esque characters who appear to be average, normal, law-abiding citizens, who underneath it all are quite the opposite. To get the audience to feel for that person is quite the interesting challenge. I don’t know that anybody should feel anything for Brian David Mitchell, but to bring a vitality to it, you could very easily fall into a gravelly voice and a sneer, and it could be that. But to break him down and try to figure out what makes him tick is interesting. It took me a couple of weeks to figure out if I wanted to do it and to figure out if I could do it.

What ultimately made you feel like you could take on Brian?

I asked myself “Was there value in playing him, in terms of for my family, for people in general? Was there something that I could find that was relevant?” And I ultimately came to the conclusion that if I could play him as real as possible, there would be.

How did you connect with his story internally, to make him your own?

For me the story was always about how people can pervert religion for their own gain in a negative sense, and from her side, how religion can be used as salvation. We’re aware that religion can be perverted, but it gave it relevance to me. There’s also a great physicality to him. He was a narcissist and he thought he was a rock star. It was in the way he walked, the way he moved. Tapping into that helped.

What was the most challenging scene to shoot in “I Am Elizabeth Smart?”

I always have script supervisors come to me at the end of a film or a show saying I never dropped a line, I never forgot a word. And part of that is the way I work. But there was a scene that I just couldn’t get the words out, and it was that first rape scene. As much as you try and stick to it, it was so uncomfortable. There were crew members walking off set in tears. There was a point where Sarah [Walker, the director], and [fellow actors] Alana [Boden], and Deirdre [Lovejoy] and I, she finally just said “We can’t keep doing this. This is not right. We’ve never seen a 14 year-old in any movie in history be raped.”

How did you move past the discomfort of that scene?

We stayed in that tent, which was on a soundstage, for probably an hour [to calm down]. For me, it was more about being embarrassed to meet eyes with people after. So that was brutal, and not long after that, fortunately I had a four-day break. I had been having nightmares, mostly from the 206-page psych analysis I read on him that was provided to me, and partly just from the work in general. But during that four-day break, I came back to L.A. and I had one last nightmare. He wore a rope with the key around his neck, and I had this dream that I was pulling hair out of my mouth, and it became more hair and more hair, and then it became the rope, and as I got to the end of it, I had to struggle to pull the rest of it out, but when I did, there was a black heart attached to the end of it. Initially I woke up shocked and scared, and then I guess I kind of came to the conclusion that this was me letting him go. Because we had finished the really harrowing stuff at the camp – the rape, the abuse. There was more work to come, but it wasn’t going to be as challenging at that stuff.

Your role on “Riverdale” has moments of darkness, yet your character F.P. seems to have good intentions.

[Executive producer] Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa] kind of laid out what his arc was when I was deciding about whether or not to take the job – not in any definitively specific way, but I knew the gist. The logline line of him became an ad-lib I put at the end of one scene [in the first season]: “Good people do bad things for the right reasons.” And that was sort of the essence of him. I love the fact that you think he’s something that he’s not. That may even be thrown on its head this season. People are never one thing, so it’s nice to not have these parts be one thing.

Skeet Ulrich portrait
CREDIT: Michael Lewis for Variety

How do you feel about being back on “Riverdale” as a series regular this season?

I was all for joining them full time. I have three kids, and I’ve always tried, for better and for worse, to stay in L.A. So it’s the first time I’ve taken a series outside of L.A., but fortunately it’s close so I can go back and forth, and it’s not that taxing on our family. But I was really excited to be a part of it. I think Roberto was a hidden talent for so long, having read a couple of plays he’d written. He is an exceptional writer, and fortunately people are now seeing that.

What were your initial goals starting out as an actor?

I never saw it as a business. To me, I loved good writing. I was always drawn to strong material and hoped that I could be a part of things that when you read them, they just washed you in emotion – whether that’s fits of laughter or tears. That I would have an opportunity to do anything near that was all I ever thought of. I never thought, “Oh I’m in competition with this actor” or “I’ve got to be better than this person.” I just saw it as an art, and that’s a solo thing. And I think that hurt me in certain instances because I was never my own salesman. Now I’m seeing to get to that writing, you sometimes have to. I was fortunate early on to work with great writers and great directors, and for the most part I’ve been able to continue, but I’ve realized over the last couple of years you really have to be in the business, in that other part of the art. I don’t know that I have it figured out, but I’m starting to accept that that’s part of it.

What’s the biggest difference about acting now, either within yourself or for the industry overall?

It’s harder now for great dramas to be made. You get a lot of them around awards season and stuff, but they’re limited to a small swath of actors now. Pre-dot-com crash, in the ‘90s, there were so many movies being made that you could really get your hands on good material. Whether you were the 100th actor that was known or the 1000th, there was enough material that you could get ahold of it. Now it’s a lot harder. In terms of my approach to things, it’s hard to really put words to it. But I feel better, in terms of skill. I feel like I’m better than I’ve ever been, but in a way that’s not for me to decide.

How do you feel about your kids getting into the business?

My daughter wants to and has for most of her life, having grown up on sets. It really intrigues her. I won’t let her go into the business until she’s studied [it], which she has to do after high school, because it’s a cutthroat business. But she’s done a couple of plays, and I wrote and directed a short film she starred in. She and the film won awards at the Williamsburg Film Festival. She and her brother – they’re twins – a friend of mine put them in a movie, and they did a few scenes with Robert Downey Jr. But I’ve tried to keep her out of the business until she’s able to handle it.

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