J. August Richards in GIANTS | courtesy J. August Richards

J. August Richards in GIANTS | courtesy J. August Richards

Multi-hyphenate (actor/writer/director/producer) J. August Richards is probably still best known to the world at large for his performing work, starring on all five seasons of ANGEL and recurring on MARVEL’S AGENTS OF SHIELD as the heroic Deathlok. Other regular gigs have included two seasons as a lawyer on RAISING THE BAR , one season as a law officer on KEVIN (PROBABLY) SAVES THE WORLD, and now as a doctor on NBC’s upcoming COUNCIL OF DADS.

However, Richards has been getting a lot of recognition for his other talents as well. He has been nominated for Outstanding Writing and Outstanding Directing on a Digital Series Daytime Emmy Awards for his work on the dramatic series GIANTS (he was also nominated as outstanding Guest Performer for playing Andrew Prescott on the show). Richards also won an Independent Series Award and an International Academy of Web Television Award for his scripting on GIANTS.

Created by and starring James Bland, GIANTS follows three thirtyish friends in Los Angeles. Atlanta transplant Malachi, or Chi (Bland), started as a poet, wanted to be a motivational speaker, but has given up on his dreams and is drifting into becoming a male escort. His longtime friend Journee (Vanessa Baden Kelly, who won an Outstanding Actress Digital Daytime Emmy for her performance) is so depressed she can’t get out of bed, much less show up to work. Dancer/chef Ade (Sean Daniels) is less worried about employment, but has issues with his sexuality. GIANTS is set solidly within the black community. White people show up peripherally, but not as main characters and, more significantly, not as the necessary audience.

GIANTS aired its first season as a Web series. New TVOne channel Cleo TV picked up both Seasons 1 and 2, which are currently airing on Sundays.

Speaking by television, Richards discusses all of this and more.

ASSIGNMENT X: Congratulations on all the awards and nominations for your work on GIANTS. 

J AUGUST RICHARDS: Thank you.

AX: Have the awards and nominations changed anything for you?

RICHARDS: Hmm. That’s a great question. Intangibly, certainly. I think that people see awards as giving a credibility, so I do think that we’ve been given a certain credibility because of it. But beyond that, sometimes people will say to me, when I post something about the Emmys, or about booking a job, or something, they’ll say something like, “It’s about time.” Or, “I’m glad to see you’re finally getting the recognition you deserve.” What they don’t understand is that the work itself is the reward, and the fact that I’m able to act in the places that I’m able to act in, and direct in the places that I’m able to direct in [is an end in itself]. I don’t like this idea that or certain acting jobs, like make it that you’ve “finally arrived,” or some ridiculous thing like that. I just want to do great work. That’s all I’ve ever been interested in, truly. I want to do honest work, I want to help other people get to a place where they want to in their careers as well. So that’s the reward for me, truthfully. I don’t even mean that for some altruistic “It’s an honor to be nominated.” This is not fake. It’s the truth. When I sit down with my pencil and my ruler, and I’m breaking down the character and the scene, that is the gift for me. When I’m reading a script and figuring out how I’m going to shoot it, where I’ll place the camera, what I’m trying to say through the piece, that is the ultimate for me. And anything else is just icing on the cake.

AX: How did you get involved in GIANTS? Did you know James Bland from before?

RICHARDS: I met James close to, let’s call it eight years ago. He told me he was a filmmaker, he came to my house, he showed me a feature-length film that he made while in college at Florida A&M University, and when it was over, I turned to him, and I said, “Oh, so we’re all going to be working for you someday.” Because, not to brag, but I truly believe I have an incredible eye for talent, and the production that he was able to put together while in college, I just knew that he had an incredible talent. He had made four Web series [before] the point where he decided to make GIANTS, because he realized that all of the other ones were kind of someone else’s vision, or it wasn’t quite his own. So he started working on GIANTS. Season 1, James wrote and directed most of the episodes, and I was just a consulting producer – not to say “just,” but I was a consulting producer. I read scripts, I looked at cuts, and various things. And Season 1 connected with so many people that Season 2, he got a bigger budget, and decided to have a writers’ room, and he asked me to be one of the writers in the writers’ room, and then he also decided to allow others to direct, because he wanted to just focus on acting. So I ended up directing the first two episodes [of Season 2].

AX: Did you study Season 1 of GIANTS to look at, “Okay, what’s the directing style on this,” or do you just have an approach that works for you and James Bland let you run with that, or how did that work?

RICHARDS: Well, I was already super-familiar with the show, because of my role as a consulting producer. So with Season 2, being a writer in the writers’ room, we knew where we wanted the season to go, so we gave it a shape, and then when it came to directing, my take on it was that I saw these characters as giants, and not their problems as giants. So I wanted to pull that out. And so for the introduction to Season 2, I decided to make it kind of operatic in a way. I wanted to present these characters as the heroes that they are. I also decided that this was THE WIZARD OF OZ minus Dorothy. James’s character, Malachi, was looking for the heart, Journee’s character was looking for the brain, and Ade’s character was looking for the courage. So I always kept that in mind, in terms of directing. I just always thought about THE WIZARD OF OZ a lot, minus Dorothy. What was THE WIZARD OF OZ without Dorothy? And that’s kind of how I looked at the first episodes of Season 2.

AX: When you say “operatic,” what do you mean by that?

 RICHARDS: What I mean, number one, was I wanted to bring in the best composer that I know. His name is Austin Wintory, and he does classical music, he does all kinds of music. He went to USC [as did Richards]. He has scored everything that I’ve done to date, and his music has a drama to it. So when I say “operatic,” that was one level of it. Secondly, I mean the scope of the emotions. In the opening scene [of GIANTS Season 2], there’s a preacher, who’s praying over Journee, and trying to pray away the mental health demon, if you will, because that was something that we were trying to tackle this season, that mental health in the African-American community is something that needs to be taken as seriously as diabetes. It’s a real disease, and you can’t pray it away, and you can’t fake it away. It needs to be treated. So we open the season with her being prayed over by this preacher. Basically, I wanted to introduce all three characters at the maximum point of conflict. Here’s Malachi, who is turned into a male escort, but he can’t get an erection. Then here’s Journee, who knows that her mental health issues are real, but she’s got someone trying to pray it away, and she knows that it’s never going to work, and that is devastating to her. And then Ade is trying to build up the courage to walk into a gay club for the first time, and he just can’t do it.

AX: You were in the writers’ room for all of Season 2, you wrote Episode 5 and co-wrote Episode 6 with James Bland. One of Malachi’s big battles in life is his relationship to his ambitions, but for Journee and Ade, they’re ambitions are more about how to get through the day and be authentic to themselves. Now, you’re a pretty ambitious, driven person, so do you have to do a mind-flip to write about people who are not driven in the way that you are?

RICHARDS: No, because Malachi is a character that I know so well. I’ve never been Malachi, ever. I’ve always known my purpose. I came out of the womb telling my mother that I wanted to be on the television. When I saw it for the first time, I tried to crawl inside of it. And I wanted to be an actor before I even knew what an actor was. If we watched a movie about firefighters, I told my mom I wanted to be a firefighter. If we saw a movie about dancers, which was STAYING ALIVE, I told my mom I wanted to be a dancer. I didn’t even know how to say “actor,” but I’ve always known exactly what I wanted, I always knew exactly how I was going to do it. I wrote a map for myself, and I followed it, and I’m here now.

I make myself super-available to young actors in L.A., and to just people in general, and get into a lot of conversations with people. And I can pick up quickly whether someone is serious about becoming on actor, or they haven’t quite figured out that it’s not an actor they want to be, they just want to be what they believe an actor is, someone who is, I guess, important, popular, financially stable. So they don’t realize they don’t want to sit at their desk with a pencil and a ruler, going over lines for hours at a time, and going through a process of how to portray a character. I’ve known a thousand Malachis in Los Angeles, people who haven’t found their calling or their purpose yet. And so it was pretty easy to write for that character, very easy.

AX: Malachi keeps having visions of a female motivational speaker. Is she meant to be wholly a product of his imagination, or is she meant to be a real self-help guru within the world of GIANTS?

RICHARDS: Yes. She is a real person in the world of the show. Obviously, she’s not in that apartment with him, but she’s definitely a real person, and I hope that we actually meet her. She’s an Opray Winfrey type. In my mind, she’s nothing like you expect her to be. But yeah, she’s a real person. [When Malachi envisions her], it’s the externalization of an internal conversation. So that part is taken from my life, because I happen to listen to Esther Hicks, also known as Abraham Hicks, on YouTube all the time. I listen to her constantly. If you’re not familiar with her, she’s a Law of Attraction guru, I guess you could call her. She has thousands of videos on YouTube, and I listen to them incessantly. [Malachi’s fantasy] is kind of what happens to me when I’m listening to her YouTube videos. I think that she’s talking to me. And that’s what that was meant to be. I do actually talk back. So that’s why I felt justified in having him talk back to her.

AX: What’s the Law of Attraction?

RICHARDS: How to attract the things that you want in your life. I found [Esther Hicks] at a time when I wasn’t attracting the things that I wanted in my life at all. I talk openly about my three years unemployment period that I had. I worked a few times within that period, but not enough to gain any traction. It was really a combination of her, church, meditation, and reading that really brought me back on track. So that was a very personal script for me.

That was such a long time ago. You definitely want to be on the kind of show like COUNCIL OF DADS. That’s the kind of show that I think most actors want to be on, because it’s about life, it’s about human relationships, it’s about family, it’s about love, it’s about loss, it’s about the family – it’s about where does family end and friendship begin? What are the lines? How do you allow people into your heart? What is your responsibility to the people in your life? That’s the kind of work that I want to be doing, and I feel so blessed to be doing a show like this. I put everything that I’m dealing with personally into COUNCIL OF DADS. I said to the cast, “This feels like the TV show LOST, meaning strangers brought together by some mystical force to do something together,” because we all had such a deep personal connection to the material, and it was just so nice to know that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t the only one who was personally going through something that was relevant to the material. So it just created a comfortable environment for us all to really go there.

Related: Exclusive Interview: J. August Richards GIANTS, playing Deathlok on AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. and more – Part 2

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Article: Exclusive Interview: J. August Richards chats Season 2 of GIANTS – Part 1

 

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