Two weeks ago, I had coffee with an honest-to-goodness star of the stage and screen. Julian Richings, another denizen of the West End (College Street) YMCA, joined me at the local Starbucks to “talk theatre.” What a delightful experience! As Julian talked about his career and the evolution of the theatre, I was struck by his modesty, candour, and superb sense of humour. Julian may play bad guys, villains, and other odd or dark characters; in his real life, he is totally congenial.
Julian was born in Oxford, England, studied drama at the University of Exeter, and began his theatre career in the 1970s. As traditional English repertory theatre was disappearing, young actors such as Julian increasingly worked in community outreach programs, bringing theatre to non-traditional places; schools, old folks’ homes, prisons, beaches. These programs were funded by local councils, the British government and Manpower grants until Margaret Thatcher cut arts funding in the early 1980s.
In 1981, Julian was invited to a symposium at York University, which led to a show at Theatre Passe Muraille. He fell in love with Toronto. He felt liberated from the control and domination of old English institutions and found Toronto to be “huge and underpopulated,” a place of diversity and possibility “where everyone moved.” He joined a theatre company in Orillia that used local people from the Rama reserve, and spent several months touring First Nations reserves across the province, “a mind-blowing experience” for a newcomer from England. By 1984, he was in Canada permanently, married, and on his way to building his Canadian acting career. Having moved once already, from the United Kingdom, he has never since had any desire to go elsewhere.
He soon found that he “was his own instrument” and that he was going to be “a character.” He says that “as a canvas, I’m a primary colour.” He described how actors go through a “self-identification” process which must be pursued in the marketplace, always putting themselves forward, and sufficiently confident to withstand “a lot of rejection.” His agent knows what roles are being cast, submits his résumé if he suits the criteria, and schedules him for auditions. In his view, acting is “the most collaborative medium” when actors come together for only a few days at a time, and need to be highly available and to feel comfortable coming in and out. As the theatre community in Canada is small, work also comes by word of mouth. He appreciates that the approach to stardom in Canada is more relaxed than in the United States, and that actors here may be less overwhelmed and isolated by celebrity. He recognizes “the incubating effect” of Canadian content rules, and welcomes being part of the creative community in the Toronto scene.
As an actor, Julian has been busy. He was a regular on the War of the Worlds TV series. He has had three Dora nominations and one Genie Award nomination. He has had recurring roles in Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital and John Woo’s Once a Thief. For five seasons, he has played the role of “Death” in the US television show Supernatural, the wildly successful series produced by Warner Brothers and filmed in and around Vancouver. He also played “Lor-Em” in the 2013 Superman film Man of Steel. In January 2016, he is scheduled to play at the Tarragon Theatre in Mustard. His Wikipedia entry lists all his roles in film and television. For pictures, background and upcoming roles, see his webpage. Julian also teaches as a guest artist at the Wexford High School for the Performing Arts in Scarborough, and participates in the Canadian Stage Company Outreach Program
Julian is starring in My One Demand, a live, interactive film “about unrequited love” that will be screened in selected Cineplex theatres and streamed online as part of the Luminato Festival in Toronto next week: June 25th — 27th, 8:00 — 9:30 p.m. When I asked Julian what this was all about, he described it as a multi-media collaboration of people working with the theatrical company Blast Theory from the United Kingdom. The collaborators, from different disciplines, will act out a scenario live for one and a half hours, showing the journey of seven people starting at the Toronto General Hospital and ending at Cherry Beach. Although a set scenario, the film will use video and social media, and each performance will vary according to local conditions as they change. The idea is to push the meaning of theatre as a journey, using modern technology. It sounds fascinating. Check the trailer on Julian’s webpage and schedule it into your calendar to watch.