Angel's Charles Gunn (J. August Richards).
Once again, I have decided to open up the interview vault and revisit some of the many interviews I have had the pleasure of writing over the years and that just appeared in-print and not on-line. Today's interview is with J. August Richards, who talks about working for Angel Investigations and playing Charles Gunn in Angel. Enjoy, and keep coming back for more familiar faces and shows!
Every so often we all need a bit of encouragement when pursuing our dreams. For actor J. August Richards, one such moment came a few years ago during an acting workshop being taught by Eric La Salle (ER) and Michael Beach (Third Watch). “One day, they gave me a scene to do from Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and I just couldn’t get it,” recalls Richards.
“While I was busy trying to work it out, Mike Beach casually told the class a lie about me. I turned around and said, ‘That’s not true,’ and he said, ‘Yes it is.’ Mike kept going on at me until I finally stood up, got in his face and yelled, ‘No, it isn’t!’ He yelled back at me, ‘Now put that [energy] back into your performance!’ That was one of those major light bulb moments for me, and something I always keep in mind when I’m performing.”
For over 15 years, Richards has been honing his craft as a stage, feature film and TV actor. Nowadays, he is busy helping rid Los Angeles of vampires, demons and other assorted evils as Charles Gunn on Angel. Introduced in the first season story War Zone, Gunn used to live on the streets of LA with his younger sister Alonna (Michelle Kelly). He became the self-appointed leader of a small gang of youths who fought against the creatures that preyed on them. Gunn’s life changed forever when he was forced to kill his sister after she was turned into a vampire. Much to his chagrin, he put aside his prejudices in order to join forces with a 200-year-old vampire named Angel (David Boreanaz). Being part of Angel Investigations and a fulltime demon slayer has forced Gunn to grow up fast.
“Before the Christmas break we shot an episode called Cavalry in which my character has to deal with a lot of personal issues along with some very global ones,” explains Richards. “The way he handles himself will show audiences that he’s not the same guy he used to be. What I like most about this [fourth] season is that Gunn’s past has sort of been left behind. When I joined the program as a regular in the second year, a lot of his involvement in the episodes focused on his early days as a slayer. By that I mean they dealt with his old gang. This year, Gunn’s story arc is more about what’s happening in the present. He has his own mission – which is more far-reaching – as opposed to just trying to save a small group of people. Gunn taught his friends everything he knows, and now it’s up to them to take care of themselves, and they’re quite capable of that. They realize he’s needed elsewhere.
“Another aspect of my character’s growth has been his acceptance of the fact that not everything is black or white, and that there are, in fact, shades of gray” continues the actor. “When Gunn originally met Angel his plan was, ‘OK, I’ll work with him as long as he doesn’t get in the way of my killing vampires.’ At the same time he was also thinking, ‘Angel will be the very last vampire that I kill.’ To Gunn, all vampires were evil, even Angel, and there was no place for them in this world. However, nowadays my character is fighting hard to try to protect Angel, so his attitude has completely changed. I think it’s sometimes a shock to Gunn as to just how far he will go to save Angel."
Despite his character’s initial animosity towards Angel, Richards has nothing but good things to say about the show’s leading man, David Boreanaz. “It’s great working with David,” he says. “What I enjoy most of all is his sense of humor. He’s quite good at keeping things light when the scenes are very taxing or dark. Sometimes, though, it’s really hard to keep a straight face when you’re acting opposite David because he always trying to crack you up. I don’t want to even think about how much film we’ve wasted this year just from laughing.”
In Angel’s third-season cliffhanger Tomorrow, Justine (Laurie Holloman) tricks Connor (Vincent Kartheiser) into thinking that Angel is a murderer. As a result, he sentences his father to a living death beneath the ocean. Meanwhile, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) receives a heavenly message telling her that she must leave this world for another. Both characters had been missing for three months when the program returned for its fourth season with the episode Deep Down. In it, Wesley (Alexis Denisof) is still off pursuing his own agenda and Gunn and Fred (Amy Acker) are left to search for their friends and colleagues.
“It felt a little strange filming our first episode this year,” says Richards. “Usually, the season opener is directed by David Greenwalt (executive producer), but, sadly for us, he left Angel to work on a new TV show of his own [Miracles]. David was very much a mentor of mine and always will be. So it was a bit difficult for me to come back to work after the hiatus and not have him direct us. That’s not to take anything away from Terrence O’Hara, who directed the episode, it just wasn’t the same, do you know what I mean? We still had a good time shooting it, though, and I thought the story itself was neat as it gave Gunn and Fred a chance to run Angel Investigations. We did a lot of night shoots in downtown LA as both characters were talking to various vampires in an effort to find Angel. I especially enjoyed the scene on the roof with Connor, Fred and Gunn. That was fun to do.”
Even with Connor’s betrayal of Angel, Gunn’s opinion of the young man hasn’t changed this season. “Gunn sees Connor as a child,” notes the actor. “I remember when my sister used to come home from college during the summer. She’d always treat me as if I were still nine years old because that’s how she remembered me. That’s how I think Gunn perceives Connor, as a kid who still has a great deal of growing up to do.”
Unfortunately, Gunn’s friendship with Wesley is not on quite as even a keel. “I always thought of Wesley as being one of Gunn’s best friends,” says Richards. “So when he kidnapped [baby] Connor it felt like a total betrayal to Gunn. Also, as you can see in the current episodes, Wesley still has feelings for my character’s girlfriend Fred, so that’s put a further strain on their relationship. You know what, though, when I’m doing a scene between Gunn and Wesley I tend to think about how those closest to you can sometimes hurt you more than strangers. That’s a big help to me when playing out that relationship.
“Believe it or not, the close bond shared by Gunn and Wesley was never supposed to be. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that the show’s producers and writers noticed the on-screen chemistry between Alexis and myself way back in the second season. That’s one of the neat things about working on Angel. You can contribute to your character’s development by just doing your job as an actor. Sometimes when we’re getting ready to do a scene I’ll tell myself, ‘Forget everything you know about Gunn and just go with the moment.’ By approaching your character in a different way you might discover something new about him or her.
“The dynamic between everyone on the series is so fluid and alive. It’s constantly shifting. One week someone might be on the outside, and the next week he or she might be back on the inside. It’s not as if in every episode I’m turning to Wesley and saying, ‘We’ve got to go kill that demon.’ Instead, there might be a story where I turn to him and say, ‘I feel like killing you.’ So I truly appreciate how the writers have kept the show fresh not only for the actors but also the audience.”
As the actor mentioned, there is still some friction between Gunn and Wesley regarding Fred. The former resident of another dimension called Pylea, Fred first crossed paths with Angel and company in the second season episode Belonging. After sharing a multi-story adventure with them in her world, she returned with Gunn and the others to their universe. It wasn’t long before Gunn and Wesley both realized they were attracted to her, but it was Gunn who finally won her over.
“My character cares very much about Fred and wants to protect her. I think Gunn needs to have a woman in his life to watch over because of the way in which he failed with his sister,” muses Richards. “Not that he doesn’t love Fred – he truly does – but that’s where their relationship stems from. I was reading somewhere recently that some people try to put themselves in a situation from the past in the hope of changing the outcome. That’s what Gunn is trying to do in his life.
“I’m quite pleased with how our writers have dealt with the relationship between him and Fred. I loved the way it came about in the third season story Waiting in the Wings, which was written and directed by Joss Whedon [executive producer]. That’s still my all-time favorite Angel episode. Because our series is action/fantasy oriented there’s not much time for long sweeping romantic scenes. We can’t afford to slow the pace down. Knowing that, I think The Powers That Be have done a fine job of not only fitting an on-going romance into the show’s story arc but also fostering its growth.”
Another memorable episode for Richards is this season’s Spin the Bottle. In it, Lorne (Andy Hallett) casts a spell that inadvertently erases Gunn’s and his friends’ memories and causes them to revert back to their high school personas. This story was also written as well as directed by Whedon. “Joss tends to give a lot of notes when he directs,” says the actor. “The nice thing is that his notes are actually helpful. The same is true of David Greenwalt. They have very specific ideas about who these characters are and, in particular, what they intended when they wrote each scene. Because they see things a certain way in their mind they ask you to play it that way at least once. However, if it doesn’t quite work they’re totally open to your thoughts and suggestions on how you would like to approach the scene. It’s a great way to work.”
Richards chuckles when asked what his idea of the ideal Gunn episode would be if he were given the opportunity to write one. “It’s not necessarily the ideal Gunn episode as much as the ideal J. August Richards episode,” laughs the actor. “I think we should do a story that picks up where a previous one ends. Let’s say there’s an episode with Angel and the guys searching for a talisman. By the end of the story they find it and that’s how my episode opens. The director would yell, ‘Cut,’ and we’d suddenly be ‘playing’ our real selves on the Angel set. Angel would be David, Cordy would be Charisma, Gunn would be me, etc. We’d go home and be living these lives that aren’t really ours. Eventually we figure out that something is not right and that, in fact, the talisman has caused this. Our heroes then have to return to the set and reenact an Angel episode in order to set things right. I think it would make a cool story. Now I just have to sit down and write it.”
Richards made his professional debut on an episode of The Cosby Show back in 1988. Since then, he has appeared in several other roles including guest-star spots on such hit TV series as JAG, Chicago Hope, Nash Bridges and The West Wing. It is, however, the actor’s work on Angel that has made him a familiar face around the world.
“My girlfriend [actress Tangi Miller] and I visited Australia last summer  and I’ve never been recognized so much in my entire life,” says Richards. “What amazes me most is that some of the people who stop me and ask about Angel aren’t what I’d consider to be your typical viewers. The fact that we have such a diverse audience makes me think we must be doing something right.”
As children, Richards and his sister used to watch Three’s Company. They promised each other that when they grew up they would move to California (where the show took place) and go to college. Richards never imagined that this dream would one day lead to a successful acting career. Not surprisingly, starting out in the business wasn’t easy, but he never gave up.
“I remember trying to get my Screen Actors Guild [SAG] card. To do that you need to get a SAG job, but for that you need a SAG card. I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ You have to find creative ways to get your foot in the door. It’s that old saying, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again,’ so that’s what I did and it paid off. I’ve worked steadily now for the past several years and I definitely feel blessed. I’m one of the lucky ones and I’m so grateful for that.”