Despite appearing in only 5 episodes of The CW’s “Supernatural,” Richard Speight Jr. has become an indelible part of the show’s legacy — a position that’s due to both the enduring popularity of his character, the archangel Gabriel (who was originally introduced as a mischievous Trickster), and Speight’s own rapport with the fandom.
So it should come as no surprise that, despite his character’s supposed demise in season five (and a couple of cryptic cameos thereafter), Speight recently returned to the “Supernatural” set in yet another guise — director.
While it would be easy to assume that Speight was handed the gig because he has friends in high places, the actor tells Variety it’s a role that’s been two years in the making, and one he takes very seriously. Below, Speight discusses the long road to the “Supernatural” director’s chair, the people who helped him get there, and what fans can expect from his TV directorial debut, “Just My Imagination,” in which Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) are visited by Sam’s childhood imaginary friend, Sully (guest star Nate Torrence).
This episode is your first opportunity to direct episodic TV – how did it come about?
It is my first episode of television that I’ve directed, but I’ve been circling a directing role for several years, because I really wanted to make a strong plan to get into narrative storytelling – meaning TV and film – so I set out to reinvent myself in that role, because obviously walking into the room and saying “I’m an actor but I want to direct” – that’s everybody. To really show people you’re serious about it, you have to go out and get pregnant with that baby. So I wrote and directed a short film that I was not in, that starred Rick Gomez — who’s one of my actor buddies from “Band of Brothers” — and the film’s called “America 101,” and I made it and took it out into the film festival world, and it did really, really well. We spent all of 2015 on the road with the film, it played over 30 festivals in the United States, Canada and Europe, and was eventually picked up by Virgin Airlines to run on airplanes, and got picked up by Shorts International to be distributed globally, and it’s currently available on iTunes, so it did really well for a short film.
And it really got the conversation started – Bob Singer was a fan of the short film, Phil Sgriccia was a fan of the short film, but that didn’t mean they were just gonna hand me an episode, because that was one project, and “Supernatural” is a very established show with a very long line of very, very talented directors in its stable of helmers and they weren’t going to switch out the recipes because I did one thing right. So I used that short film to crack into the commercial world… I directed 7 commercials for Pepsi in 2014, along with spots for some other brands, and every time I directed anything, I would send it to Bob Singer, I would send it to Phil Sgriccia, saying “this is what I’m doing, this is what I just shot.” I kept them abreast of everything because I wanted them to, A: see that the short film wasn’t a fluke, and B: show them that I was serious about it…
I also had the advantage of knowing that crew … I got approval from Bob Singer and Phil Sgriccia and Jeremy Carver to go up and shadow some of the more established directors – Tom Wright, Bob Singer himself, Phil Sgriccia himself – and I did that over the span of a few months. I also took my film over to Warner Bros., showed it to them, showed them the commercials I was doing, and they in turn got me into their very prestigious directors program … that is designed to take people they feel have a lot of directing talent and fine-tune their skills into the kind of person they would like to see helm a Warner Bros. TV show.
So I spent a summer doing that with some incredibly talented people, and essentially just tried to convince, one at a time, everybody all through the process, who would be a part of the decision-making process, that I was serious, that I was up to the task, committed to do it right, understood what I knew and what I didn’t know and was going to be sure that I had all my bases covered when I got the chance to tackle an episode on my own. And luckily for me, after a two-year period, it worked, and Jeremy called me this summer and said “you got one.” And so here we are.
What was the preparation process like?
It’s so involved. There’s so much work that goes into putting together one episode of television that it is mind-boggling. And this is coming from me, a guy who’s been on TV for 25 years. This is not my first rodeo, I’ve been on sets my entire adult life and I was still blown away by the amount of work involved in putting this show together. And that’s also with a well-oiled, airtight machine of a crew behind the whole thing, so I can only imagine if the crew didn’t get along or they were terrible, it would make this stuff impossible.
I was reaping the benefits of having a crew that’s worked together in lockstep for 11 years, so they’re on it, they’re so dialed in. Granted, I’m having to make a million and one decisions, but every time a decision is made, they execute and they execute at a high level. They know what questions to ask and they bring their professional opinion and expertise to the table for every issue, small and large. It was just amazing to be in that mix with those people, working towards the same goal, which was making a great episode of television. It was outstanding, but I can’t say enough how much work it was. There’s just no way to know how much work there is involved in making an episode of TV without actually being involved in making an episode of TV. I just learned a ton and realized how little I truly knew before this.
Was there any hazing involved? Misha Collins has spoken at length about the pranks Jared and Jensen played on him during his directing.
They were absolute gentleman … they did not give me a hard time at all, they were incredibly supportive. Did they give me grief and give me a hard time the way guys screw with other guys? Sure, of course, that’s because we’re friends and I expect nothing less. But they did not go out of their way to scuttle the ship – they didn’t steal my script, they didn’t burn my chair, they didn’t lock me in the trunk of the Impala, they didn’t do anything to impede my process. If anything, they were there like buddies to help and make my process as smooth and as positive and as successful as possible — it was really great. I can say that from Jared and Jensen all the way down to the PAs on the set – everybody, every department head, every crew member in every department really showed up for me in a huge way. And look, I’m an actor who directed, I don’t know if that’s an eye-rolling thing for the crew like “oh, here’s another one,” I don’t know what their usual response to that is, but for me, they were incredibly gracious and showed me every level of respect while also lending a helping hand, going above and beyond the whole time. It was a great thing to be on the receiving end.
Did Jensen and Misha give you any advice, since they’ve both directed episodes before?
I talked to Jensen and Misha countless times, and I couldn’t get enough information out of people. The second I got this assignment I started obsessing about it. I was watching episodes of “Supernatural,” I was watching them in order of certain directors so I could watch various directors and how they did their shot designs … that’s why I shadowed three different people to get a sense of their process. I talked to Jensen and Misha probably more times than I needed to, because in my opinion I couldn’t learn enough fast enough.
There wasn’t any reason not to glean as much as humanly possible, because your first time is always gonna be your first time – it doesn’t matter how prepared you think you are. I liken it to childbirth; you can read every manual in the book, but until you’re in the delivery room with your feet in the stirrups, you really have no idea what you’re doing, and so I just wanted to be sure I asked all the questions I could possibly ask and heard all the stories people were willing to tell, and Jensen and Misha were very gracious about it. Phil Sgriccia took me to dinner every two weeks and talked on and on about it, Bob was so gracious and let me shadow him, and Tom Wright – hell, he worked with Hitchcock! They let me be there, they let me stand in their shadow, they let me get up in their business, they let me ask and listen and eavesdrop and everything else.
And for Jensen and Misha, from their standpoint, they’re coming at it from my angle, they’re actors who turned to directing. The difference is, Jensen’s been on that set 220 times and I’ve been on it five, but I’ve been an actor for a long time in a lot of different projects, and Misha has too, so we come at it from that perspective, and that was really interesting to hear what speedbumps they hit and what successes they experienced based on the door through which they entered this world.
It sounds like a more comedic episode – was there any room for improv?
My job was to tell the story that Jenny Klein wrote and it’s a great script, so we shot that script. That’s not to say that there weren’t moments that were massaged or played with a little bit. We happened to have not only Jared and Jensen, who are just fantastically talented guys — and that’s not just BS press crap, they are amazingly talented and can move effortlessly from intense drama to lighthearted comedic moments … it’s really impressive to watch them do their thing.
So we had them, obviously, but we also were blessed with an amazing guest star, because this episode really lives and dies on the back of this main guest star, the character of Sully who is Sam’s imaginary friend, who is played by Nate Torrence. And Nate Torrence may not be a name you know, but it’s a face you know – he’s worked a million times in a million projects and he’s always one of those guys who stands out, and he crushed it. He is not a comedian, he is a comic actor, he can draw comedic blood out of a turnip, but he can also be really heartfelt and warm and grounded and sincere, and bring that level of depth to the character that he did, and it was just awesome. He and Jared and Jensen had a great time, they could riff off each other in comedic moments, and there are definitely moments that are made up, that just happened on camera because they were all so in the pocket, and when it came time to land the plane, they were there, they were in it.
There are some beautiful moments between Nate and Jared that I think is as fine a performance as I’ve seen on the show ever. I think Jared does landmark work in this episode; he brings so much heart and pathos to Sam Winchester in this episode, and his connection with his imaginary friend is absolutely one hundred percent real and genuine and heartfelt. We were so blessed to have Nate there, because that enabled Jared to be the best Jared he can be. He’s a super-talented guy, but you can only play tennis at a high level if you have another great tennis player on the other side of the net, and we had that in Nate, and it made for some really dynamic scenes.
How is Sam’s mental state in this episode, given his ongoing concern about God potentially sending him messages about Lucifer’s Cage?
I think this is a very reflective episode for Sam. I think having your past arrive at your doorstep forces Sam to revisit some memories that are not all pleasant, and forces him to confront what was going on with him as a child that made him reach out to an imaginary friend, to conjure somebody up, to relate to beyond his own family. And why is that person now reaching out to him, and why does Sam feel himself reverting to his boyish need to connect with this character? It really taps into a very primally innocent energy in Sam Winchester and strikes a very introspective and reflective nerve.
It sounds like Sam has a chance to confide in Sully in a way he can’t necessarily confide in his brother, so how does Dean handle that?
I think Dean is slower to trust, slower to open up, and really has to check his own reaction to this, because though he may not truly understand it, what he has to understand is that he and Sam are different, and that maybe Dean can’t fill every emotional gap that his brother needs filling. Maybe they require more, maybe sometimes he hasn’t been the best brother, maybe sometimes they haven’t been there for each other in the way that they should’ve been or wish they had been, and sometimes realizing that is to realize one’s own faults and fallibility, and that can be a difficult thing, and that’s where Dean finds himself.
We’re just having a blast putting this thing together – Rob and I have written all the scripts and we’re very close to closing a deal with a digital distribution company, which will mean we’ll have a home for the show and that’ll be very exciting. I’m not gonna say who, what, when, where or why yet, but hopefully soon I’ll have an announcement about that, because we’re excited about where these conversations have been going and are eager to close the deal on the home for it so we know specifically what the parameters are for each episode, because each digital company has different designs and wants different lengths of episodes. So that’s why we haven’t shot yet, but we’re eager to jump into the production in the first part of the year as soon as we sew all this up.
“Supernatural” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on The CW.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.