A New Twist on an Old Favorite
Skeet Ulrich reminds viewers of his versatility in the CW's Riverdale and Lifetime's I Am Elizabeth Smart.
Skeet Ulrich is back with a bang – a motorcycle backfire bang that is, and a cool biker jacket to boot.
He stars as Jughead's dad, FP Jones, in the unique, breakout CW murder-mystery Riverdale. The show is loosely based on the classic Archie comics and features Ulrich as the leader of the Southside Serpents, a seemingly rough and rowdy gang from the "bad" side of town.
Riverdale and its quick rise to popularity have certainly sealed the series' fate as an iconic cult classic as it rumbles its way through season 2.
From classic cars, quirky clothes to vivid, spectral scenery, Riverdale is a keenly styled mix of vintage-modern that fits together like a favorite 70s song blasting through Bluetooth 21st century speakers.
Riverdale is a "big" small town complete with a high-rise penthouse condo, a trailer park, the suburbs and a 50s' malt shop all within the same county line.
Skeet, a nickname that stuck from little league because he was so fast, grew up and went to college in North Carolina for microbiology, but it wasn't for him. "I knew I wasn't in the right place. I was always taking an interest in building things, and I started building and striking the campus theater sets." (He and KJ Api who plays Archie Andrews on Riverdale, built the chicken coop in Skeet's back yard.)
"I remember standing on the stage one day and looking out at this empty theater and feeling for the first time, 'Somebody would have to listen to me.' I went through a lot of stuff (including open-heart surgery at 10.) As a kid and in the south we didn't really discuss (things) so I found the power of saying what I needed to say behind other people's words without having to get too personal."
He switched to NYU, auditioned for and studied under playwright David Mamet. This, Skeet says, was his real first big break, and he credits Mamet for much of where he is today.
Skeet Ulrich landed roles in the Jim Brooks' critically acclaimed film As Good As it Gets with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, Richard Linklater's The Newton Boys with Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke and Ang Lee's Civil War-era drama Ride with the Devil.
But he became a household name for his role in one of the most classic teen horror films movies of the 90's, Wes Craven's Scream, in which he made serial killer Billy Loomis almost likeable. As with most classics, Scream is still a teen favorite. "My kids tell me their friends still watch it, over two decades later," says Ulrich, laughing.
Riverdale, which has gained a huge following among both teens and adults, is following suit in popularity, but it has a buzz about it that sparks its appeal to a wider audience. Millennials, Generation Xers and Baby Boomers make-up the cross-section of the show's incredibly loyal fans.
When the cast headed back to shoot season two, they had to make their way through hundreds fans just to get to set. It's the first time in his career, Ulrich says, that he's seen that big of a crowd during filming.
Part of Riverdale's charm is that the storyline is as much about the parents as the kids. And that's not easy to pull off. This is a credit to the smart, snarky writing and the inclusion of the core four teens' parents' sinister, ever-evolving backstories.
The mean age of the live viewer is 42 years old. Ulrich attributes that in part to nostalgia. "I think that to some extent it's because of the Archie comics' popularity. That generation grew up reading them, add a little curiosity and they probably got sucked up into the plot of the show."
Teens are drawn to the relevant humor, diversely cool cast and bold characters. For parents it's a twist on a beloved childhood comic doubling as a great excuse to watch something with their kids.
Ulrich makes the perfect unlikely hero as FP Jones. "[Executive producer] Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa] wrote a note to me asking me to consider this part so they sent the pilot and script and I thought it was so cool. He is a really talented writer.
"And it had a noir-ish quality of it, the way it was shot. We blow smoke on the stages to cut the HD...it makes it so beautiful. I thought it was really engaging so I was curious and they asked me to do three of them."
He had no idea it would be the "juggernaut that it is, but it's pretty extraordinary. It's a bunch of incredible, talented people that are fun to be around and there's a really nice energy about it." Now he is signed on as a regular character.
He works very closely with Cole Sprouse who plays Jughead and has been acting in hit shows since he was a young child. "He doesn't need my help. Cole is like a 45 year-old college professor when you talk to him. He has such a diverse amount of knowledge. We love working together and I think we have grown to know each other and care for each other. We talk about dynamics, but I am in no way his mentor, nor does he need one to be honest."
This is the first time Ulrich has played a dad. As a devoted father himself, Ulrich's take on FP is a down-to-earth, kind of endearing guy who happens to be a gang leader. FP appears one way while his heart is quite different, bent on protecting the people close to him.
"In the world they created he represents the coal miner, the construction worker, the blue-collar laborer who's trying as hard as he can to feed his family, and sometimes that leads to things you wish you didn't have to do, but that's what's been fun to play... that he is the salt of the earth.
"He does bad things, but he does them all for the right reasons." He ad-libbed that last line to Sprouse's character at the end of a scene, which really captured the character, and, ultimately the show.
The biggest and best part of his life? Being a dad. "Anybody who's known me for five minutes knows that."
After his twins, Naiia and Jakob were born in 2001 he made the important personal decision to shift the focus from traveling and working all the time to raising his family. He was noticeably absent from the television and film, and the "Whatever Happened to" articles to swirl.
The grounded and devoted family man and actor offers a simple, sensible explanation. "I think it's all a part of perspective. Their idea of struggling means I wasn't in the limelight like I am in Riverdale. I was still working, doing pilots and films that were just too challenging then for network."
Because being a dad is his most important role to him, when he did go to work on the set of Jericho (CBS 2006), which was pulled after one season, brought back by popular demand, and cancelled again.
The twins went, too. "There are scenes on Jericho where I'm driving and Naiia wouldn't get out of the car, and I was like, well you have to get down on the floorboards then because we are starting to shoot! So she did! They were there almost every day. After school, of course," he says.
Ulrich has a reputation of playing bad boys but his portfolio runs a gamut of characters. "Maybe I'm just good at playing them," he laughs again. "I haven't really played that many bad guy parts to be honest. I guess I do them well when I do them because that's all everybody thinks I play, but it's been quite the opposite actually." He may play bad boys, but Ulrich isn't one.
This is one of the reasons playing Brian David Mitchell in I Am Elizabeth Smart (Lifetime) created some difficult moments for Ulrich. In June 2002, Elizabeth Ann Smart was a 14-year-old girl when she was abducted from her Salt Lake City home by religious fanatic Brian David Mitchell and held captive for nine months before she escaped.
"I did a lot of reading. It took me two weeks to decide to do it."
"It's really a story about the two sides of religion...how somebody can pervert religion for negative gain and how somebody can use it for salvation, in her case. I read the 206-page psych report (on him). And then I was all right playing the other side of that.
"The hardest part was the nightmares. I couldn't sleep. Finally I had one last one where I had hair stuck in my mouth and I was pulling it out and it became more and more and then it became the rope necklace he wore around his neck with the key on it...that was the last one...I think that was me, letting him go."
Some say Skeet Ulrich is back but it's clear he never left and is better than ever.