The name J. August Richards sounds, well, august. Sure, the actor bearing that name can play distinguished, majestic, eminent.
But in person, he’s Jaime, Jay for short – friendly, affable, engaging and above all, enthusiastic, talking rapidly and passionately about his work and his lifelong love of television.
“I like to put my real name out there out of respect for my heritage,” says Richards, who was born in Washington, DC to parents from Panama, and grew up in Maryland. But people tend to mispronounce his name (it’s hi-MAY rather than the more familiar HI-me), so the J. is easier. And anyway, “My family calls me Bo.”
By whatever moniker, Richards’ career has caught fire. After an 18-month period of unemployment, he now has recurring roles on two series, ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Bravo’s Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. On S.H.I.E.L.D., he plays Deathlok, a cyborg assassin seeking redemption who gained super powers via a serum and was transformed from his original existence as a factory worker and father named Mike Peterson. In Girlfriends’ Guide he plays Ford Phillips, the husband of lead character Abby’s brother and the father of two.
“I really had angels looking out for me last year,” Richards says. “At one point I was working on four shows [with roles on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and the Lifetime sci-fi series The Lottery] and making appearances at conventions on weekends.”
The sci-fi/fantasy gatherings weren’t just because of his recent endeavors: Richards had played vampire hunter Charles Gunn on Angel, which was co-created by S.H.I.E.L.D. co-creator Joss Whedon. His other series credits include Raising the Bar and Conviction.
Q: How did you end up being cast in two series at once?
A: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was rather fortuitous. As I’m told, Joss thought of me at the last minute. He woke up and thought, “Oh, Jay would be good for this part.”
At 11:00 a.m. I got a call from my agent to go to the audition at 3:00 p.m. I couldn’t have the script first – it was secret.
I was doing something out of my comfort zone; I’m a nervous auditioner. I went in, read the material and had an instant connection with the character. He was against the wall, his life was falling apart around him. There was a line, “I could be a hero.”
I’ve been there. No matter how bad things are, I still believe in myself. As long as I understood this line, I understood everything in the scene. I woke up the next morning with the role. Once I started working, one of the executives told me that watching my audition, “When you got to that line, you made us all cry.”
With Girlfriends’ Guide, I had worked with [creator] Marti Noxon on Angel. I was offered the role. There was no conflict with having roles on two shows.
Q: The roles are so different. Do they have anything in common?
A: One thing similar about the characters is that they’re both men who would do anything for their families. They’re both dedicated to their children. How they go about it is quite different: Mike Peterson has to do things to protect his son that go against his moral fiber.
Q: Is there anything you can use from one character to the other?
A: NO! (laughing) There is absolutely nothing I can use!
Q: So how do your acting style and craft differ for the two roles?
A: Girlfriends’ Guide is almost hyper-realistic. Often, all of the actors are in the scene being shot at the same time. We’re encouraged to overlap, talk over each other.
With S.H.I.E.L.D., playing a Marvel [comic book] character, there’s a lot of action, not a lot of lines. Whenever I play Deathlok, I always reference that I’m playing a father who will do anything for his son. No superhero, no superpowers.
There’s no manual on how to play a superhero. I have to go with my gut. When I started, I didn’t know I was playing a superhero. I knew I was a single father with a son.
And playing a superhero, I still have my technique. As a trained actor, you always play the “want” – what your character wants. I’m being manipulated by a villain because what I want is to keep my child. I put my full energy to it – you just do it. You don’t comment on it. The audience will understand.
Q: And you’re noted for your relationship with your sci-fi/fantasy audience, online and in person.
A: The entire landscape has changed, not just with social media but with technology. The audience wants to interact with you, get a sense of who you are. I want to do live tweets [during an episode’s airing], so the audience gets that instant feedback. I think it’s part of the job.
I like to share with people, about the show. But I also hope I can use this character Deathlok to help other people believe in themselves, no matter what. I stay inspired about my 18 months of unemployment. We all have to go through something.
Q: As a working actor, what does being a member of the Television Academy mean to you?
A: I just joined a year ago. Once I applied, I realized I’d been eligible to join 10 years ago! But I feel everything happens at the right time.
I’m excited to become part of the Television Academy community. I went to my first Members’ Mixer, in May. It was definitely an exploratory mission. I wanted to find out who was in the Academy, what the intentions of the Academy were and how I fit into that landscape.
It was very successful – I ran into old friends and made new friends, and [performers peer group co-governor] Bob Bergen was so wonderful about explaining how I could get involved. I’m figuring that out now.
I’m so excited about voting for the Emmy Awards for the first time. From the time I was a kid, I was in front of the TV. I was obsessed with television. So for me to participate to determine who will win an Emmy is pretty big for me.
Q: Looking ahead, do you have other projects in the works?
A: I’m writing and directing a six-part web series, The Hypnotist. It’s a huge universe; as a child I was so incredibly excited about the Star Wars universe, and now I’m starting my own universe. But I don’t want to give too much away.
Q: What advice would you give aspiring actors?
A: To study. To practice, get in a class and do plays and work in the craft. There’s an epidemic of people who believe that in order to be an actor, you have to spend time on social media and in the gym. If you want a long career and a variety of roles, you have to focus on the work.