Richard Speight, Jr. has had a career in film and television for over 30 years, but he’s one of those actors whose name doesn’t ring a bell. And he knows it, and it doesn’t bother him in the slightest. “The truth of the matter is most of the actors out there, the rank-and-file kick-ass actors delivering good performances on kid’s television, on HBO, on commercials, all over the place on any network show, people don’t know who they are. They kind of come and go and do the best work they can do and go home and have a career but it’s never a career they coast on. I was always fascinated by those guys.”
Superstardom was never on his radar, and that’s not to say he wouldn’t have accepted it had it fallen into his lap, but his plan has always been just to work in a business that he loved – film and television – in any capacity that he was given.
Speight grew up in Nashville, Tennessee as the youngest of three children. Like most younger siblings, he followed his two older sisters’ footsteps and dabbled in the arts growing up, even finding himself performing at the Atlanta Ballet for five years in a row. But at 15 he realized his love of entertaining went beyond a childhood hobby; he wanted to do this forever.
Thankfully, his father Richard Speight, Sr., a lawyer, took the news of his son’s artistic aspirations better than anticipated, “I think if I’d said I’m not going to go to college, I’m going to move to Los Angeles to pursue acting, it would have been a different response that I would have gotten. But because I was saying, I’m still going to pursue my higher education, I just want to do it in this city that celebrates the profession I want to pursue, that made logical sense to him, and then eventually to my mom.” So, Speight headed out to the University of Southern California to pursue a degree in theater.
His time at USC granted him the chance to work as an intern at the esteemed Roger Corman’s film company, Concord Pictures. “I interned in his company in the marketing department, I was coming up with movie slogans, and that kind of thing. And then I also did development where I would break down scripts and write down the plot of a script, break down if it’s a good choice for his company.”
His time there only solidified that he’d made the right choice, this was where he wanted to be and wherever he ended up, as long as he was in the business of making movies, he’d have attained his dream.
After graduation, it was time to get to work. While grabbing any acting gig he could find, like most starving artists, Speight worked a restaurant gig to pay the bills. But at the age of 25, he’d finally landed a role on a series that allowed him to focus his energy on acting, at least for the time being. However, things in Hollywood are never steady, especially not for an up-and-comer, and soon Speight found himself needing some supplemental income once again. But this time he took a different approach.
“If I was gonna have a starving artist’s job, I wanted to have a starving artist job in the same career that I was pursuing. I didn’t want to work in a restaurant cause I had no interest in the culinary arts.” With this mindset he set out to find jobs throughout the film industry, taking jobs as a production assistant or sound editing, plus crewing any film that any of his friends were starring in; he happily worked any opportunity to immerse himself deeper into the world he had such a passion for.
“You know you have the right job when you’re not doing it for money, you’re doing it for free. And you know you have the right job and the right career that when you aren’t doing it, and there’s no way for you to do it, you want to do something else that puts you near it.” And this ethos traveled with him for years as he landed small roles here and there, enough to keep him busy. But acting in those small roles wasn’t all that he did.
His love for the craft led him to learn more and more about the inner workings of a film set instead of waiting for his time in front of the camera in his trailer. He’d help clean the sets, hang out on the soundstage, even assist the catering crew serve lunch to the cast and crew. Each set, each role, each new group of creative minds was a new outlet to learn from, a new opportunity to soak up as much knowledge of the inner workings of this world, and he took advantage of each of them using his time there to his utmost advantage.
Then, he got his biggest role to date, one he hadn’t expected to get, a recurring part in an HBO miniseries from the minds of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg – the 2001 World War II drama Band of Brothers as Warren “Skip” Muck. “Every step of that experience was baffling to me. And then, to get the call that I got the job … I was getting congratulations from my agents for getting that far. Every single one of them was like, ‘Dude, this is a home run, like, do not worry’, because they didn’t want to put pressure on me. Everybody in America and England was auditioning for the same in the same age range.”
Getting that role, from the audition process and on, was surreal. He recalled the audition process with elation, from acting alongside a Castaway bearded Tom Hanks in the second audition (and nailing it) to the third and final group session being surveyed by Tom Hanks and filmed by the one and only Steven Spielberg on a handheld camera. “While we’re doing our scene, you’ve got to pretend like Steven Spielberg is not walking around on the video camera with Tom Hanks right beyond while you’re doing the scene with guys you’ve never met.”
While he did end up getting the role, he left that third audition process feeling accomplished for getting that far and for getting into a room with two of the greatest in the business. But that wouldn’t be the end of the journey.
Warren “Skip” Muck did not come home after World War II, and this posed a challenge to bringing him to life onscreen. No one had any contact information to Skip’s living relatives, they never had, and recalling the memory of their lost brother and friend proved difficult for the surviving members of Easy Company. But Speight was determined to bring Skip to life as accurately as possible, and in the end, he located Skip’s nieces and sister. “I was winging it, trying to figure out who this guy was, I had very little information at my fingertips to humanize him. And I really, really wanted to because this man did something spectacular. And I didn’t want to just pretend I was him. I wanted to do something that was him.”
With the help from letters sent home from the war from Skip and stories from Skip’s family, Speight was able to bring some of Warren “Skip” Muck to his portrayal, from small gestures like a rosary hanging from the pocket of his uniform to a retelling of information unknown by everyone until Speight uncovered it in a letter from Skip’s sister, Ruth. That story was added into an episode at the last moment thanks to this correspondence.
The story was of Skip’s triumphant swim across the Niagara River before being sent off to war, to prove his “manhood” before facing the perils overseas. When Speight received the letter, he approached the director of episode 7, the episode that shows Skip’s tragic death, and they both agreed that this had to be in the series. “I wanted to have a human moment for him. That doesn’t mean I wanted more screen time, I wanted something that was really Skip to be a part of the series. And that was really Skip. That was really him.” Years later, Speight also went on to speak at the memorial dedication ceremony located at the site of Skip’s legendary swim to Skip and his friend who paddled beside him, another immortalized World War II veteran Fritz Niland (whose name was changed and then depicted in the film Saving Private Ryan). He still exchanges Christmas cards with Skip’s family to this day.
In the years following Band of Brothers Speight would go on to enjoy a steady career in guest spots and films, most notably perhaps on the longest-running fantasy series of all time, Supernatural. But as time wore on another aspiration from his college days came creeping back up in full force. He wanted to direct.
Directing wasn’t completely new to him when he began to seriously pursue it. He’d dabbled in it throughout college, making some short films with friends and writing screenplays aiming to write and direct a film he wrote. “That did not serve me well. Every time I’d have this conversation, I’d say, and I’d like to direct this, you could just see people kind of go, ‘Uh-huh, cool. Anyway, we’re gonna have a conversation over here.’ And you realize ‘I’m being left out in this conversation, nobody’s taking me seriously. And then I stopped and thought, but why would they take me seriously?” He had no real directing experience under his belt. He needed a calling card, something to show that proved he could do the work.
“I could not think of what to do. One day while forcing myself to write, which is what I used to do, I’d just go to a coffee shop and stay until I’d written something. And I wrote this monologue.” That monologue would one day flourish into a short film titled America 101, Speight’s first solo, official directorial debut. He assembled all the bells and whistles: a cast, a crew, great cameras, and he called in a lot of favors with old friends from the business, and they agreed. “You’ve got to be like, I am my own commodity. If I don’t believe in me, who will? If I won’t invest in me, who will? So, I spent my own money on that short and smartest money ever spent.”
The film was a hit on the festival circuit and was enough to finally get his name circulating in director conversations. But even after that, Speight knew there was a long way to go. Heading back to the set of Supernatural, Speight shadowed three of the directors before landing himself a spot in the Warner Bros Television Directors’ Workshop, a special training program aimed to help up-and-coming directors learn the ropes to directing primetime television. “I was trying to do everything in my power to remove as many ‘nos’ from the table as possible.”
His directorial debut came on December 2, 2015, with Supernatural‘s “Just My Imagination.” And that wouldn’t be his last. He’d go on to direct 11 total episodes in the show’s final five seasons; a number that matches his total appearances acting as the archangel Gabriel. One of those, in fact, he pulled double duty, directing an episode he stars in. And he’ll be the first to brag that it was an episode where he had to direct himself fighting himself as another character.
There is more on his bucket list, including directing a feature film which he feels one day he’ll accomplish. ”I truly love movies. So, I will absolutely hopefully not just put my toe in the world but put my entire body in it.”
From the age of 15 after a family trip to Hollywood, Speight knew that he wanted to make movies. Sitting on the tourist bus during a Burbank Studios Tour, seeing the inner workings of a set, he knew he’d do what it took to be there. “That is what I want to do. I want to be allowed on this lot to do what I want to do. And the guy biking wasn’t an actor. I wasn’t like, ‘I want to be the famous guy.’ I was like, ‘I want to be any of these people who are allowed to come on this lot and work to make the things that I love.’”
He did eventually get his moment, too, riding a cart around the set for an episode of Netflix’s Lucifer he’d be directing, and one thought passed through his mind, “There’s going to be a tourist bus that passes me, and somebody is going to see this golf cart and go that’s what I want to do. It was a really weird full-circle moment.”