9:30 am EST, January 13, 2017

Exclusive: Richard Speight, Jr. chats ‘Kings of Con’ and his return to the ‘Supernatural’ director’s chair

"I don’t worry about hitting too close to home. It’s my home, so if I want to burn it to the ground I can."

Actor Richard Speight, Jr. joined Hypable in Australia to talk about aiming the blast laser at himself in his satirical convention-life series Kings of Con and returning to his Supernatural home turf as a director.

“Oh, I don’t worry about hurting people’s feelings or hitting too close to home! It’s my home, so if I want to burn it to the ground I can.” Such is the mantra of Richard Speight, Jr., the peppy Supernatural and Band of Brothers alumnus currently ruling the internet as the writer, director and star of convention circuit comedy Kings of Con. The question at hand is whether he ever feels trepidation about exposing the inner workings of his industry, perhaps to the embarrassment or expense of his colleagues. The answer is a resounding no. “I am an actor and it is my world, so I apologize to nobody for any jokes I make,” he declares confidently. However, if you’re a superfan, don’t expect to find yourself in the line of fire – despite the show’s premise, you’re definitely not the target.

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Created by Speight and Rob Benedict, two Supernatural guest stars whose characters have, over the years, become deeply woven into the very fabric of the show’s canon, Kings of Con is a farcical yet heartfelt glimpse behind the curtain in the world of fan conventions, in which Rich and Rob play heightened versions of themselves, parodying themselves as washed-up actors clinging to the 13 weekends per year in which they’re blessed with fame and mild fortune thanks to their past roles on a popular genre show with a deeply loyal fandom, one that stars a couple of hot “lumbersexuals.” Sound familiar? Yup.

The Rob’n’Rich origin story has a slightly unusual twist: Speight, who played the mischievous archangel Gabriel, and Benedict, who portrays the prophet Chuck Shurley recently revealed to be God himself, never actually shared screen time while filming Supernatural. Instead, they met as guests on the (real) Supernatural convention circuit, and through this environment, grew into the very best of friends. This bond led to the pair becoming a fan-favorite double act, and through their work over the years hosting the tours together, where Speight acts as each weekend’s MC and Benedict leads rock group Louden Swain as the convention’s onstage “house band,” the idea for Kings of Con was born.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself “Hang on, a webseries about conventions? Isn’t that already a thing?” Yes, it is a thing. Con Man, written by Alan Tudyk and produced by Nathan Fillion, which satirizes their experience on the circuit in the wake of Firefly, is a thing that also exists. But neither project was based on the other, or knew the other even existed when they each went into production. The situation at hand simply proves two things: number one, that convention culture is becoming so prominent in the lives of actors and in the process of being a fan that it inspires multiple parties to tell their stories about it; and number two, that irony truly is a bitch, because, as Speight and Benedict revealed in their Indiegogo campaign video, the very day that they finished filming scenes for their own first pass at Kings of Con, the crowdfunding campaign for Con Man was dropped online.

A little competition was not enough to dissuade Speight and Benedict — “What if the makers of ER had said ‘you know what, there’s a Chicago Hope?'” — and the Kings of Con Indiegogo, which launched in early 2015, met its initial goal within days. The creators increased their plans from three to ten episodes, and the campaign ended on May 11, 2015 with a total of $279,655 raised by backers. Around a year later, it was announced that the series had been picked up by Comic-Con HQ, the nerdcentric video-on-demand channel launched by Lionsgate. I sat down with Speight in the lobby of his Sydney hotel on a recent visit Down Under for — what else — a Supernatural convention, to talk about how that partnership came into being, why his comedy doesn’t exploit fan culture, and what to expect from his latest episode of Supernatural.

The success of the Kings of Con crowdfunding venture was not only financially beneficial in terms of helping Speight and Benedict’s business plan, it also got the project a fair amount of positive press. From that hype came a meeting at Nerdist Industries, which is home to a whole slate of original video content alongside their flagship podcast hosted by Chris Hardwick. It turned out not to be the right fit. “Nerdist’s format for doing a show like that would have been very different,” Speight admits. “Great company, great people, but different kind of design. They do ad-supported content, it’s just very different.”

However, in that meeting was a man named Seth Laderman, who, unbeknownst to Speight and Benedict, was at the time in the process of leaving Nerdist to start a new digital arm for Lionsgate, which was a partnership with the Comic-Con International brand. When Laderman took up his new position, he called the Kings and told them that he wanted their show, and that Comic-Con HQ would be the right home. “It ended up being a perfect mix, because we had autonomy. We could make whatever show we wanted. It wasn’t ad-supported, so we didn’t have to worry about content being altered to fit a brand or anything like that. It was really a perfect storm for us.”

While Speight is quick to assure me that he and Benedict would have produced the show at any level, with just their fundraising budget and no further reach than inviting the Supernatural fandom to view it on their YouTube channel — an eventuality they would have been happy to rely on — they were never aiming to make the show feel small in scope. He disparages my use of the term webseries — a pet hate, as the mainstream implications of “videos on the internet” don’t truly reflect the current state of content creation. “Really, it’s a digital series, but so is House of Cards. There’s no difference between what we’re trying to do and what Netflix is doing. Digital is really just a distribution platform,” he explains, and that’s what makes Comic-Con HQ such a valuable asset — along with a plumper production budget to better showcase the vision and abilities of the creators, the partnership with the VOD service has provided the show the opportunity to reach a much wider crowd outside the built-in congregation that is the Supernatural fandom.

Speight describes Comic-Con HQ’s national and international plan to get their own brand and the brand of their shows out to a larger audience, and it’s no small thing. Since Kings of Con premiered in November, Comic-Con HQ has also hosted Kings of Conversation, a globally accessible live after show with special guests breaking down each week’s episode, and has cut deals with a host of other paid subscription services: iTunes, Amazon, Google, Playstation, Xbox and Vimeo to get their content available to international viewers. And if you attended San Diego Comic-Con this past summer – where Speight and Benedict hosted the Sunday morning Supernatural panel in the cavernous Hall H for their second year running, a gig that came not from their relationship with Comic-Con as Kings of Con promo but with Warner Brothers for their relationship with Supernatural itself, you’ll have noticed that the push for the channel was absolutely inescapable, with their own stage area, giveaways, subscriber sign-ups left and right. Billboards for Kings of Con, alongside Comic-Con HQ’s other projects – Pop Culture Quest, the Mark Hamill-hosted documentary series about collectors of memorabilia, and, irony strikes again, Con Man, which joined the platform for its second season – lined the walkway between Hall H and the Hilton.

2015, Speight’s first year onstage in Hall H, also saw SDCC play host to a huge panel for Con Man, and questions about the spoofing of fan culture within such a series began to arise, especially as Tudyk’s character was extremely disdainful of his own circumstances. The Firefly cast are deeply and famously in love with their own fandom, so they handled that aspect in their own way, but Kings of Con is a completely different animal, for a variety of reasons, so the same questions must be brought to the table here. Fans are always extremely cautious about anyone trying to fictionalize fandom on film — it’s failed many times in the past, but it turns out that if you point the camera in the other direction, you get a pretty accurate portrayal, because much to the delight of the Supernatural fandom, Kings of Con does a great job in normalizing its own setting and the community surrounding it.

Set on the road at various stops of a weekend convention tour for on an unnamed cult genre show (based on Creation Entertainment’s Official Supernatural convention tour, probably the biggest such event for a currently airing show) Kings of Con never draws its humor at the expense of fans. “Here’s our aim,” Speight lays it out when the question of writing about fan culture comes up. “We don’t set out to make fun of fans. Fans are the reason why we have an audience. They’re the reason why Supernatural is successful, why Supernatural conventions are successful, and why the crowdfunding campaign was successful.”

Moreso than that, Kings of Con isn’t actually about fans themselves – the representation of fan culture is actually very limited, with Speight and Benedict pulling most of their character-driven comedy from the stories of the actors and onsite staff who help make the con work. Moments in which the stars are shown meeting with fans — at autograph signings, panels, and so on — are treated very sincerely, with no mocking private commentary of these interactions, and the fact that fans choose to come spend their time and money at conventions is, as I mentioned, treated as valid and reasonable. Several episodes revolve around Rob and Rich covering up their own mess-ups in order to give a good performance for a waiting audience, and the hardest digs hand the power to the fans rather than the actors — moments when an actor is dismayed not to be recognized, or acknowledges that he’s just there to pad out time for fans keen to meet the real celebrities, the show’s as-yet-unseen stars “Justin” and “Jaden,” who only appear on Sundays.

If they’re not using the celebrity/fan dynamic to send up the fans, then what’s left is using it to send up the actors – in all their insecurities and desperation and bravado and unfounded confidence. “It makes a ton of fun of the actors,” Speight laughs, “and that’s what it’s going to do every week.” Given that large portions of the show were filmed on location on the convention circuit, the majority of characters on Kings of Con are played by other Supernatural staples also in attendance – some, such as Alaina Huffman as Rob’s ex-wife, are roles crucial to the plot, but others, including Osric Chau, Kim Rhodes, Kurt Fuller and Matt Cohen, play fellow caricaturized convention guests with all manner of odd hang-ups and habits that absolutely stink of observations totted up during exposure to all manner of other working actors within the industry over the years.

But Speight isn’t worried about his comedy offending his own community. “Robbie and I come from that world. We’re not outsiders looking in, we’re insiders looking out, so if we want to take the piss out of our co-workers we can and will, but the thing is, we don’t do it in a mean way. Rob and I don’t have a mean bone in our body in terms of our comedic sensibilities or how we write or how we perform,” he tells me truthfully. “Keep in mind, the characters we make the most fun of are ourselves. If we’re aiming that judgmental laser at ourselves, we can get away with whatever we want. There’s a blast radius, but nobody steps in more turds than Rob and Rich.”

The methodology seems to be working, as during the production of its first season, Kings of Con has attracted a host of notable guests including Speight’s Band of Brothers co-stars Ron Livingston and Michael Cudlitz, comedian Josh Meyers, and veteran character actor Bernie Kopell, who appeared as himself in a hallucination after the pilot introduced a running gag about him. In next week’s episode, the season finale, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles will also appear, presumably as their Kings of Con-verse alter egos, the pampered and elite Justin and Jaden – Speight and Benedict have clearly won the unwavering support of their peers with this project.

Returning to the real world, Speight also recently wrapped several weeks filming as the director on an upcoming episode of Supernatural — his second, after season 11’s “Just My Imagination.” That episode, a sweet story about Sam’s ‘imaginary friend’ Sully, who turned out to be a real supernatural being, was an intimate tale that hits very close to home, but Speight’s next turn in the director’s chair for episode 12 of season 12 sees him taking the reins on a much, much bigger piece. Originally teased as an homage to a certain famous director, the title was revealed to be “Stuck in the Middle (With You)” so you can rest assured that the icon in question is Quentin Tarantino – some huge shoes to fill.

Speight sings the praises of the production as he reflects. “That episode was a phenomenal experience. Davy [Perez, a new addition to Supernatural’s writing team this season] wrote a hell of a script. It’s a tip of the hat to a certain director’s style, but it is its own episode of story and action, everything else. It is not a meta episode at all. It’s simply a style nod.” This confirmation — the lack of meta — is part of our discussion of Supernatural’s history of deep absurdism, having gotten away with everything from a high school musical about the characters to a fourth-wall breaking trip to an alternate universe in which Sam and Dean find themselves on the set on the TV show where everyone thinks that they’re their actor counterparts Ackles and Padalecki. Speight’s character, especially when still in disguise as the Trickster, has even been the lynchpin of several such meta episodes.

The prospect of a Tarantino “theme” isn’t even necessarily the aspect that will make this episode memorable. It wasn’t confirmed whether the content would be monster-of-the-week-ish or tied to the season’s bigger British Men of Letters or Lucifer arcs, but given Speight’s description that it is “very cool and very full plot, with a lot of storylines going on with a lot of characters being serviced really well,” it’s safe to assume that it’s a showstopper. Speight finished shooting around 24 hours before he made the flight out to Australia, and describes the episode as “all-encompassing,” with some huge sequences to pull off. “It’s big, and it’s broad. There’s style, and there’s several different stories happening and they’re intertwine in interesting ways. It’s a doozy of an episode.” If Supernatural’s back half doesn’t take a mini-hiatus when it returns on January 26, “Stuck in the Middle (With You)” will air on 16 February, and Speight is also booked to direct yet another episode towards the season’s conclusion.

In the meantime, catch Richard Speight, Jr. and Rob Benedict in the Kings of Con season finale on Tuesday 17 January on Comic-Con HQ, or watch episode 1 right now below!

All episode stills © Comic-Con HQ and The CW. All portraiture used with permission © Stardust and Melancholy.

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