Richard Speight, Jr. is a veteran actor from Nashville, Tennessee. He is best known for his roles on the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, on The CW’s Supernatural and as Deputy Bill Kohler on Jericho. He can next be seen alongside Danny Trejo and Lin Shaye in the film Mucho Dinero.
What made you want to be an actor?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to become an actor. When I was five, I started doing plays in Nashville, Tennessee, where I grew up. What I really fell for first was theatre. At the time, Nashville was a pretty small theatre community. It was a tight knit group. So, once you’re the nonspeaking five-year-old in a Greek tragedy, you might be the nonspeaking five-year-old in the next play. And I had two older sisters. They had dance class, then they went to acting class and I sat in the waiting room. Eventually I stopped sitting in the waiting room and decided that if I’m gonna be there for an hour, I might as well take the classes. And that really sent me down the road. I was just immersed in the world. I remember specifically deciding when I was fifteen that I wanted to do it for a living. Eventually, the dance class went away because I really wasn’t that good. But the acting stuck. I moved out to Southern California and I went to USC and majored in theatre.
What was your biggest fear?
I was afraid of failure. Returning home with nothing to show for my time in Los Angeles. That was my biggest fear. That was my biggest driving force, but that’s not gonna get you hired. I was always very hard on myself. I felt like I wasn’t working and I was a big loser. In a way, that gave me a good work ethic. I was just trying to figure out how to chip away at the giant wall that is the acting industry. I mean, it is the damnedest of professions! There are weirder ones, but there may not be trickier ones. There’s no right way to do it. It’s not like, “Oh, I wanna be a lawyer, so I’ll go to law school.” You can be an actor, and not even go to acting school. There’s no degree requirement. You could be forty or you could be four and make the same amount of money a year. So bizarre, so hard to navigate, so impossible to interpret. I feared everything! I feared failure. I feared using all my time trying to crack the code and never developing a personal life. Being broke. I always thought it was kinda hip to be a starving artist. I didn’t mind starving, I just wanted to be damn sure I was doing the artist part.
What was your lowest point?
I wrote a movie and it got made. But it didn’t get made for much money. It was made for next to no money, and no one really made money doing the movie. But because I wrote it and got to play the lead, I felt like it was an accomplishment. And there I was, still in my twenties, and got that under my belt. I’d work on the script forever and I was really proud of it.
It was the worst experience of my life. It was a nightmare. Every single facet of it was terrible. Working with the director was awful. I was watching my own script be destroyed and I was fanning the flames. I knew that it wasn’t going to get released. It was just turning into garbage! So I thought, even though I won’t make any money, this is at least gonna be an artistic high. It ended up being a complete, personal bomb. The audience will never get to see it. It wasn’t even good enough to get an audience. I remember sitting with my then-roommate out by our pool, drinking martinis. I literally said to him, “I think I’m done, man. If this is what I’m gonna deal with. If this is what would be considered a minor success, then I’m out. I’m too old and too smart to be doing this nonsense and getting treated like s*** in the process.”Richard Speight, Jr. in ‘Band of Brothers’
I thought, “This project is so bad, it’s just gonna suck the life out of the industry.” And I wrote it! It was just such garbage! An awful, awful experience! And I honestly thought it was signaling the end of my run.
What was it that kept you from walking away?
You’re kinda damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You get screwed out here. You get beaten up. But if you walk away, you have to go back to your hometown, hat in hand, without anything to show for your efforts. “Hey! I was out there for a long time, and eight years of my life are shot. So, any openings at the insurance department of whatever-the-hell?” I just found it mortifying to come back home. And I wasn’t gonna stay in L.A. if I didn’t do this business. It’s the only reason I’m in Los Angeles.
If you’re the best life insurance salesman in the whole office, or if you’re the worst, your friends that you have beers with don’t know! Because it only happens in your office. If you’re trying to be an actor, everybody knows if you’re doing well or not. It’s a very public way to fail. If you go out there to be an actor, they watch and see what happens. And America loves a train wreck, so no one’s gonna be more intrigued by a failed career than your friends, family and the people around you. It’s just such a public profession, even at its lowest level.
I thought, “What will I do if I quit? What’s Plan B? I don’t have a plan B!” But luckily, riding the heels of that movie where I thought I was gonna quit, I got the biggest job of my career at that point. It was a miniseries called Band of Brothers.
Who has been your closest ally?
I’ve gotta say my parents and my sisters. To say to your parents, who spent all this money on this private education, that you’re then going to spend it on a theatre degree at USC, and then pursue a professional career in acting, is tough. But I’ve never had anything but support from my parents, which is pretty astounding. We’re not an artistic family. I’m not following in the footsteps of successful Uncle Pete, star of stage and screen. We are not in the industry. It’s just me. I remember where I was when I told my dad that I wanted to go to college in California. We were at a four-way stop in Nashville, and I told him that I wanted to go to UCLA to college. That I wanted to major in theatre. He said, “Okay.” I wasn’t sure if that meant, “Okay, you can do it,” or “Okay, we’re not having this conversation right now.”
That Christmas, I got a UCLA sweatshirt from my parents. And I thought, “Oh, maybe this is gonna be alright.” But they were very, very supportive during the difficult years and the good years. I don’t mean financially supportive, I always feel like that’s an important distinction to make. My parent’s financial responsibility ended when I was eighteen and out of the house. If they could help with some bills or with the flight home for Christmas, they would. They were always very generous in that regard when they had the money to do it. But it wasn’t their responsibility to get me an apartment, pay for my acting class and subsidize my life while I pursued an art.
What were some words that kept you going?
Every time I got positive feedback from casting directors. Even when I didn’t get the job, but they were like, “Wow! He’s great! We’re going with a brunette, but he was dynamite.” That really mattered to me. I was always someone who responded well to positive feedback. It didn’t matter so much if I didn’t get the job. The job is nice because it pays the bills, but I got a lot of mileage out of casting directors being upfront with their praise and then continuing to call me back in.
I remember getting compliments from Tom Hanks in the audition for Band of Brothers. That was one of the greatest moments of my adult life, and I didn’t even think I was getting the job at that point. He was just so complimentary when I was auditioning with him that, when I came home, I told my roommate, “You know what? If I don’t go any further in this process, this was worth it. This is a story for the grandkids.” Meeting Tom Hanks is like meeting Santa Claus. He’s a fantasy figure. And to have him say something nice that was genuine, it meant a lot.
How do you feel like you’ve changed?
I shave more. When I started this career, I had very little facial hair. I don’t know if I’ve changed much, to be honest. I think I’m less needy, and less frantic than I was when I was young. But that’s because I have kids. I have little beings that actually need me. The longer I’m in the industry, the less mystifying it is. It’s still tough. But it’s also difficult to perform open heart surgery. We don’t have the hardest jobs in the world. The more I realize that, the more I can enjoy the process.
What words do you have to inspire others?
Trust your instincts. Believe in your own ability. Because there will be plenty of people who don’t agree with you. “Trust your instincts” doesn’t mean run off the cliff because you think you can fly. It means know your limitations as well.