What happens when an actor migrates to the other side of the cameras? In Richard Speight, Jr.’s case, the answer is abundantly clear: magic.
Speight has a lengthy filmography that spans decades, and you may recognize him from some of his most iconic roles — Supernatural‘s archangel Gabriel, Warren H. Muck in Band of Brothers, and Bill from Jericho, to name a few. In 2015, Speight returned to Supernatural, though not quite in the way that fans may have been expecting. He wasn’t reprising his role as the mischievous archangel ( … yet), but he was slated to direct an episode — “Just My Imagination.”
He went on to direct nine more episodes of Supernatural after that, and has one more that has yet to air. In season 13’s “Unfinished Business,” you can experience the epic product of Speight directing an episode in which he portrays not one but two separate characters. As a director, Speight has continuously proven himself to be a creative, smart, and resourceful professional who truly shines in this role. Take a look back at a review of his work on episodes from seasons 11 through 14 here.
He took a stroll on over to the set of Lucifer, too, to direct the season 4 episode “Devil Is as Devil Does”, and you’ll see more of his work in the show’s upcoming fifth season.
In the midst of the difficult times of social distancing that the world has found itself in, I had a chance to have a refreshing conversation with Speight talking shop about his directing. And when he discusses his experiences, his dedication to the job and the amount of himself that he pours into his work rings true in each and every word.
Check out the interview below!
Nerds and Beyond: Who are some of your biggest inspirations in the television/film industries as both an actor and a director?
Speight: Obviously I’m heavily influenced by the directors of Supernatural because I’ve known these guys for a long time. Bob Singer put me on the show to start with. I had done a pilot with Bob in London the year before Supernatural became a thing. He directed a WW2 pilot called Sam’s Circus. That was a fantastic pilot. The industry is filled with these stories, but it’s one of those … “it almost went”-type shows where it was almost a show on TV. So much so that we were basically called and told, “Looks like this is going to be picked up … blah blah blah,” and then it wasn’t. But that begins my sort of history with Bob Singer … watching him direct that very complicated WW2 pilot.
The editor on that pilot was Phil Sgricca who then became an executive producer on Supernatural and I think directed the second-most episodes. Bob has directed the most. As an actor in my early days, I always paid attention to TV directing, but only to the directing in general, not necessarily specific directors. I was less focused on whose style was what. This is going back to my days on The Agency (a show on CBS). I was fascinated by the process, but it wasn’t until I got a little more serious about attacking that world on my own that I started paying attention to how certain people execute their shows and how certain styles go.
When I set my sights on Supernatural as my directing destination, I started watching specific directors. I’d watch the show in order, but then I would go back and group episodes by director and watch Bob Singer episodes, watch Phil Sgriccia episodes, watch John Showalter episodes, watch Tom Wright episodes, and watch some of the one-off directors. That was very illuminating because you do start to see a style. I think sometimes we as TV viewers don’t realize that directors are bringing a flair to the show because their episodes are not back to back. You’re not watching a Bob Singer series, you’re not watching a Dan Attias series. You’re just watching episodes — your actors and your story. But when you start to really peel it apart and you look at the execution of those stories … you start to find that there’s a rhythm to it in the same way there’s a rhythm to certain writers on the show. It became very impressive to me to watch how efficiently Bob Singer could make effective television. He would tell beautiful stories, and his blocking always facilitates the shooting of it. He makes it look easy, but it is not.
Then you watch someone like Phil and his attention to detail is stunning. You go back and watch his fight scene with Cain and Dean in the barn and the skill that’s on display in that fight, so complicated for a TV fight. It’s just massive. You watch John Showalter and he does things that you’re not supposed to do, like he jumps the line. He’ll be filming a conversation from one side of the table and then he’ll cut to closeups on the other side of the table. I met John Showalter late in the process. I knew his name, knew his reputation for years, but we’d never met. He’s one of Phil’s best friends and I think he’s done the third-most Supernatural [episodes] and now he’s an executive producer on the show. He took over for Phil when Phil went off to do The Boys. When I met him, I was acting as Gabriel with his mouth sewn shut, so I had no dialogue or anything, but I was like, “Oh, John Showalter. I’ve watched your episodes in bulk.” And he’s like, “Yeah sure, sure you have.” And I’m like, “No, no, no,” and I started pointing out things that he does. And he was like, “Holy crap, you have.” Because he does things that you’re sort of told not to do. But he does them and they work. So called him out, “You’re a bit of a hellion man, you’re a TV directing renegade.” I think he loved that label.
And I admire that about him, because what he does never takes away from the story. It never takes away from the character or the motivation or plot. It’s just an added level of interesting visuals that he is able to bring to his directing. John’s got a history as an editor, Phil’s got a history as an editor, and Bob comes from the writing/directing/producing world. So they just all execute very differently, and I find that fascinating, I really do. Watching them do their thing has been I think the most influential, because they’re the ones I’ve really watched do it in the lab coat. I watched the detail, I watched the minutia, I watched them start the process, I shadowed those guys. I watched them peel it apart, think about it, get frustrated, get annoyed, find a solution, put that solution on its feet, and watched them play out and be successful.
One of the most eye-opening conversations I had after my first episode aired was with my middle sister, Lindy. She called and she said, “That was a great episode of TV, I loved it. What did you do?” And I think that’s really what TV directing is … that sums it up for a lot of people if they don’t know the process. “What did you do?” If you’re the director, you read the template, you read the script, you saw the blueprint for the house, and you had to figure out how to build it. Then the viewer sees the show and says, “Yeah of course, of course that’s what it is. There’s the door, the character walks through that door, the other character is in that chair…” But none of that exists until the director decides it does. Where’s the door? What’s the room going to look like? What’s it going to feel like? How are we going to execute this? I’ve got a big fight that happens in this room, how can I facilitate that? I need to plan for all of these technical elements and these physical items that need to be in this space to be able to tell the story that I’m going to tell. It’s not just, “How do the characters feel in this moment?” (Although that is a key component to the job as well.)
I already appreciated this as an actor for umpteen years in TV, but it’s really great when actors get it. Because it’s such a specific art form, TV. It moves so quickly. You’re directing half a feature film in eight days. But it’s got to look big and it’s got to look beautiful and vast. Actors who get it, who have done their homework, who come in and have made specific choices and then are open to other ideas and can execute those ideas 20 times in a row in the same way but keeping it fresh. It’s such a specific art, and you don’t get better than Jared and Jensen. 15 years of playing the same two dudes and they’re like snipers. They come in and know exactly what they’re going to do. You throw a few ideas at them and they incorporate those ideas and they just know their stuff and know how to make it work.
I’ve worked with a lot of actors like that. Tom Ellis is like that on Lucifer. So is Lauren German. She’s also laugh out loud funny, by the way. This season [of Supernatural] episode 5, Anna Grace Barlow, who played Lilith, was like that. She’s young, hasn’t been playing the same character for 15 years, but she gets it. She has an intrinsic skill and knowledge that she brings to the set that immediately means that you can push everything to a higher level because. And that makes it really awesome.
I get the film question a lot, and obviously I’m a big film buff. I pull from everything, I watch a ton of movies, always have watched a ton of movies. I had one episode that was very Tarantino, and I had one episode, the one with Anna Grace, where I leaned into Wes Anderson. Executive Producer and Production Designer Jerry Wanek was my partner in crime on that one and built sets that leaned into that. So there are times when I lean into a filmmaker that I love specifically, but there’s a hell of a lot of times where I’m just doing what I think is best and what I think is best is built on the backs of the countless films and episodes of TV I’ve seen that have helped form my opinion and build my arsenal of what I like. So then I might be pulling from Wes Anderson, or I might be pulling from Bugs Bunny, or I might be pulling from some director who’s indie film I saw at a festival that stuck with me and became part of the sauce that I then dip my ladle into when I’m trying to be creative.
Nerds and Beyond: Outside of acting and directing, is there any other job that you feel you would enjoy doing as it relates to working on a television show?
Speight: Editing. I think being a camera operator would be amazing, but I know that I have zero skills in that area. It’s not just, “Hey, I have an eye for framing.” It’s understanding everything technical about the cameras, about the systems, about how they function. How light functions. How light and that specific camera function. How lights and that camera and a specific lens package functions. It’s a well so deep I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
Editing has always been something I’ve messed around with. I have said ad nauseum that I think filmmaking — TV, film, whatever — is made in three equally important artistic phases. And that’s the writing, the directing, and the editing. The writing is drawing up the blueprint, the directing is milling the lumber, and the editing is where you actually build the house. Because you have the blueprint in front of you, and you have all the lumber. And you might arrange it the way the blueprint says works, but when you put it up in a three-dimensional structure, you see it needs to be shifted around. So you have a lot of creative influence on the show when you are the editor. I think it’s an underappreciated part of the process. Because you always hear about the writers, you always hear about the actors and directors, but the editor … that’s just as key. I love that process. You can take a terrible performance and make that actor look awesome. You can also take a great performance and make it look like shit. So it goes both ways. But you have a lot of freedom and a lot of impact on a project.
Nerds and Beyond: The fans have gotten pretty good at picking out the subtle nods and Easter eggs in your episodes. Has there been anything more obscure that you’ve snuck into one of your episodes that has seemingly flown under the radar?
Speight: There’s some things I’ve snuck in that I wouldn’t expect people to recognize, they’re almost more for me. In “Just My Imagination,” I had Sully and young Sam talking to each other on single beds laying upside down, which is just how my cousin and I used to talk to each other when we were at sleepovers. So that was a nod to my own childhood.
I think people picked up on this, but in that same episode …. and I gotta say this right out of the gate, I love Easter eggs and I love putting deeply rooted things into episodes that hopefully have an impact somewhere down line when you watch it the third or fourth time, and a lot of times those were my idea. A lot of times those were not my idea, they are: somebody says, “Oh wouldn’t it be cool if?” and I say, “That’s a great idea.” That’s also part of the job of a director, to hear an idea better than your own and greenlight it. So this was not my original idea, but I thought it was brilliant. When young Sam, in that same hotel room, is on the phone with his dad and he hangs up on the phone, on that little bedside table are little bitty Legos that you see in “Swan Song” stuck in the car. I always thought that was really cool.
I think people have noticed me putting my wife’s name on the diner, Jaci’s Red Wagon. And then I don’t know if people recognized this, in “Galaxy Brain,” in the opening shot of that episode, it’s a store called Radio Shed. And off to the left is a sandwich store, and it’s named after my sons — Steve, Fletch, and Frank, The Three Amigos Sandwich Shop. That was fun to sneak in there.
“Gods and Monsters” — we shot in a church, in a beautiful set built by Jerry Wanek. It was stunning. This is an Easter egg Jerry put in. When you pull back from the altar and you see Jesus on the cross, to the right is the archangel Gabriel painted in the plaster, which Jerry just did because I was directing the episode. I thought that was neat.
Nerds and Beyond: Do you prefer to sit down and watch the Supernatural episodes in between the ones you’ve directed to keep up with the story visually, or is it easier to catch up with scripts/summaries?
Speight: I’ve done it in written form a lot. But if it’s something specific that I’ve got to draw from, like it’s a scene and I’m continuing that scene, or it’s a scene that’s being referenced, or a tone that’s being referenced. Then I like to take a look at what I’m working with. So I will either watch the whole episode or, if the episode hasn’t come out I don’t have access to that, I can request production let me see a scene or scenes and they’ll give me access to what I need to see to continue my story in the proper tone or manner or carry on the proper visuals.
Nerds and Beyond: If you find yourself torn between two very different creative directions to take with a single scene, what’s your internal thought process for making a final decision (outside of shooting two takes)?
Speight: There are several things that play into that. One of them is about time. How time consuming is my idea. It may be something I really want to do, but if it’s gonna take half the day, and I don’t have that kind of time, then there’s my answer. That idea goes away. I remember early on when I was starting to direct, Jensen gave me good advice. He said that when you’re in prep and you’re studying the scenes and start to see the movie in your head, ask yourself what the TV version of your internal movie is. The movie in your head usually isn’t achievable because of time or budget. There is a limit to what you’re allowed to spend as a director. I may want a shot that requires a crane or a certain device and production may shoot that idea down solely based on dollars. Then there are performance based issues. One of the things I do, in terms of blocking and performance, is ask myself what I would want if I were the actor in this scene. What would I be worried about? What would I want to see happen here? If I walked in and I was playing one of these characters, what would I want this director to say to me?
I’ve been on a lot of TV in my life, and a lot of times directors don’t give two hoots about the actors. They’re worried about their framing or their camera work, which is all important stuff. I’m not blowing that off, it all has to be factored into how it’s shot. I love cool visuals as much as the next guy, but if it comes down to visuals versus performance, I will always side with performance, because at the end of the day, the viewer wants to see heartfelt connected performances from actors, not necessarily fancy camera moves. If you can give them both, great. But if one’s got to go, you give up the slick camerawork and go for the performance. So I always try to think, “How should this scene be blocked to facilitate what’s going on in the scene, to work best for the performers?” And when I check that box, I go, “Now how do I make it interesting on camera?” And I try to find the intersection of that. That’s what I strive for.
When you’re working in the Men of Letters [Bunker] or the sets that have been shot ten thousand times, it can be incredibly challenging to try and figure out, “How do I find a unique visual here?” I spend hours on the studio sets, walking the scenes myself. I try to find the blocking that makes sense for the actors and that’s also visually stimulating, and come up with a camera idea that is elegant and effective and doesn’t get in the way of the performance, but is hopefully not the norm. At least sometimes. That’s sort of the challenge. But if there is ever a tie, the tie goes to the performance.
Nerds and Beyond: Has there been any particular scene that you can recall where you have deviated entirely from your original plan for it because a different “option” organically presented itself in the moment while filming?
Speight: I can think of two examples that I think are good … one is less artistically inspired. In “Gods and Monsters,” first A.D. Kevin Parks had allotted two hours for the teaser with Mark Pellegrino hanging in a cage, and I shot it for four hours. That bell tower had never been shot before, and I arranged for them to be able to fold the roof back so I could get a crane in and do these cool shots. It was all visually stunning and Pellegrino is an amazing actor, so I was getting all of this great stuff, and I just shot the shit out of it and did so unapologetically.
But Kevin was quick to say, “I’m glad you’re enjoying this, but now we’re screwed for the rest of the day.” The whole day’s schedule was built on this first scene taking so much time, and when a scene gets longer, everything else gets pushed, but the end of the day is still the end of the day. It ends at the same time whether you are on schedule or not. So I shot that teaser exactly the way I wanted it, and then looked at a scene later in the day that was way less important and completely changed that shot plan to make it simpler and quicker to pull off. Turned out I backed the right horse because when the producers realized the episode was too long, they took that scene out. But the teaser with Pellegrino stayed and looked great.
Then, and I can’t give you more details because the episode hasn’t aired yet, but in an episode of Lucifer, the first time you see Tom in the episode he’s working on something. Again I’ve got to be very vague here so I don’t want to give away the gag, but props had put something on the table, and I was like, “Oh, that’s cool! I’m gonna use that.” And I redesigned my opening shot to incorporate this prop, shooting through it, actually. It was super effective and completely unplanned until that very moment. If you’re reading this interview, watch Lucifer season 5 when it drops on Netflix and pay attention to the second episode I directed. You will not have to guess what I’m talking about. It’s that obvious.
Nerds and Beyond: Of all of the episodes of Supernatural (or even Lucifer) that you have directed, what has been your favorite filming location?
Speight: I loved shooting “Optimism.” We turned this town into this idyllic little romantic comedy-burg. And on this idyllic street, we shot in this building that Jerry Wanek turned into a library. It was nothing and he turned it into this cute small town library. We shot all over that thing. Ironically, the library we built was across the street from the town’s actual library. We had to go across the street from the library, to build a library, to shoot a library. That’s TV for ya.
On Lucifer, we shot in the LA river. You know, where the Grease drag race is, that sort of concrete-bunkered river of LA. I thought that was really cool just because I’ve grown up watching TV that has been shot in that LA river my whole life. To see that as a little kid, in cop shows, and then in Grease, then to be down there shooting with a huge 70 foot crane … I just thought that was really really cool. You know, it’s gross, it’s the LA river, but it’s just … still pretty badass.
This is off point, this is not about directing. But as an actor one time, years ago, I got to be in a helicopter that was circling the skyline of Manhattan, and I was thinking, “This is cool. I never would be here if I weren’t involved in this production. I wouldn’t be here, in this helicopter, circling the New York skyline.” I’m sure people have done that, and been in a helicopter, and circled the skyline of Manhattan. But I dare say very few people have done it wearing a panda suit. But I have.
Nerds and Beyond: Do you have any personal preferences for how you carry out different aspects of the directing process that are outside of the “norm”? Something that maybe would be considered wrong by other directors, or something that other people wouldn’t do?
Speight: It’s a tough question to answer, because I don’t know everybody’s process. I don’t know if there’s a wrong way because if the goal is to get the show shot, or get the story told, and you need to do whatever quirky thing you need to get there, so be it. One thing I used to do when I was really brand new and trying to find my own routine was I used to take every page of the script and cut it out by scene and put it on it’s own piece of paper, and put that back in the binder so that I could divide up each scene. If a scene ends halfway through a page, I would cut that page in half and give each half its own page in my new script. Then if scene 4 is two and a half pages, I could then pull scene 4 out as one unit with nothing attached as an independent entity. That helped me a lot early on, so I could focus on just that scene.
Also, as most people know, you shoot scenes out of order. You’re all over the map, schedule-wise. This cut out method really helped me be able to pull out the day’s work and go, “Okay I’m doing scene 4, scene 12, and scene 18.” Then I could really focus on just those scenes. I can remove everything in between and look at it as one day’s work.
When I did “Unfinished Business,” I was directing and playing two different characters. So I color coded the script by character. Loki scenes were one color, Gabriel another. Scenes that were the rest of the A story were in a color, and scenes that were in the B story were in a color. So that I could really divide up how to approach that script, which I was doing from multiple angles — how to play each character, how to direct that episode, how do you direct those two characters, how do you direct those two characters together if it’s only those two characters? How do you direct everyone and everything else? It’s acting choices and directing choices being made simultaneously, and I needed to be able to compartmentalize all that. That’s one thing that I don’t think a lot of directors do, but it helped me.
Nerds and Beyond: How have your experiences as a director affected the way that you approach acting?
Speight: I tell you one thing — it has made me appreciate the challenge directors have in picking people. It’s hard not to take loss and defeat personally when you’re an actor. As a director, even though it’s my work, it’s my work on this other thing. An actor, that thing is you. It doesn’t matter that you are playing somebody else, it doesn’t matter that you are not being yourself. It’s very difficult to separate the person from the persona, the character from the actual human being embodying the character. So the rejection sucks. You don’t go in for the job because you don’t want it, you go in for the job because you want to play that character. Directing has solidified what I already knew, which is this: it ain’t personal. Sometimes there’s two awesome people and it comes down to the fact that one looks too much like Jared, so go with the other guy. That specific thing has not happened in my episodes, but I’m saying that it’s all artistic until art runs smack into the wall of business. Then it becomes a business decision in which art now has to function.
I have found that you can go into the audition room and be phenomenal and still not be the person who gets that role. I’ve been that guy, watching performers do unbelievable things, then when they leave, turn to the others in the room and say, “That was fantastic. Not right for this role, but what a great actor.” And I’ve had other people come in, and then I cast them, and they’re like, “I thought I was so wrong for that role,” and I say, “Well, here you are. So clearly you were the right one.”
Directing has helped me compartmentalize the acting process more, because now I know what it’s like to be on the choosing side. Now when I put myself out there and don’t get the role, I’m less vulnerable, if that makes sense. It hasn’t really changed my approach to acting, it hasn’t changed my affection for acting or my frustrations with acting. You go in and do your best job and you have to walk away and let the chips fall where they may. Which brings me back to the core lesson — It’s not personal.
And there you have it, directing with Richard Speight, Jr.
When Supernatural resumes airing the final episodes of the 15th and final season, you can catch Speight’s directorial bow for the series in episode 18, entitled “Despair.”