12:30 pm EDT, April 26, 2018

‘Supernatural’ legacy Richard Speight, Jr. on acting and directing Gabriel’s origin story

One of Supernatural’s biggest reveals this season was the survival of the archangel Gabriel. The man himself, Richard Speight, Jr, joins us to preview Gabe’s origin story — an episode the actor also directed.

Richard Speight, Jr. has been a Supernatural mainstay since the show’s earliest arcs — appearing first as a monster-of-the-week Trickster spirit in season 2’s “Tall Tales,” he was a key player in some of the most comedic meta episodes before being revealed as the archangel Gabriel, a heavenly runaway who chose to extract himself from the cosmic conflict and repress his family and responsibilities, instead chasing his bliss on Earth, immersing himself in humanity and posing for a time as the famous Norse trickster god Loki.

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Season 5’s “Hammer of the Gods,” penned by current showrunner Andrew Dabb, saw Gabriel slain at the hand of Lucifer, as he finally tried to do the right thing. That was the last we saw of Gabriel — though not of Speight. His character was a huge fan favorite, and the actor himself became a staple of the famed Supernatural convention circuit, serving as an M.C. or host, for countless events with the current cast. Season 9 saw an iteration of Gabriel — actually a projection of Metatron — return to the screen for a single episode, and from season 11 onwards, Speight became known for a different contribution to the series, when he was added to the slate of recurring directors.

Speight became such an accepted factor of Supernatural daily life that his return as an actor came as a complete surprise to the audience. Gabriel was revealed to be alive at the close of episode 13, held prisoner by Asmodeus and drained of his grace. He was delivered to the Winchesters by Ketch, as a peace offering, and episode 18 saw Sam and Castiel attempting to heal Gabriel and hear his story.

When the traumatized archangel returns to his old self, he rejects the request to help out in the fight the Winchesters are about to face, and books it outta the Bunker before you can say Casa Erotica. Tonight’s episode “Unfinished Business,” penned by Meredith Glynn, will showcase the real story of what’s been going on with Gabriel all this time, and rather unusually, it’s directed by Speight himself, who last helmed episode 7 “War of the Worlds,” before the winter hiatus.

Speight spoke with Hypable earlier this week to preview “Unfinished Business” and share some perspective on his process as an actor-director, including what an unprecedentedly rare opportunity this circumstance actually is.

The episode airing this week, “Unfinished Business.” You directed it — which is not new for you. You acted in — which is not new for you. But it’s your first combination of directing yourself as an actor in Supernatural. A cast member working as a director on an episode in which they’re highly featured is a feat that has been shared, I believe, by only you and Jensen Ackles. Does that amass to literally double the work, compared to doing one or the other? What was the process like to prepare for that?

That’s an interesting mathematical equation you pose. I’m not sure how much it stacks up against each other but I’ll tell you, if directing an episode of television is eating an elephant one bite of a time — which it kind of is, it’s consuming a giant — then directing an episode in which you’re also performing is like an elephant with some kind of Shetland pony sitting on top of it. It becomes a bigger animal. It’s an enormous undertaking, and part of that is because it is just an enormous undertaking.

Directing TV is a big deal. It’s a big machine to move, at a quick pace, and directing yourself makes it a bigger challenge and a bigger ship to steer. So the challenge itself was enormous but exciting enormous, you know? I think there’s a certain feeling amongst my peers — Jared and Jensen namely — who thought that it was ludicrous, just crazy-making, that I was going to take on directing myself in an episode of Supernatural when my character is the main guest star for the week.

Yeah. It’s not like you’re on the back burner. I know a few of Jensen’s episodes, that he’s directed, have not really featured him as the main player.

Correct. And in theory, I could have directed one of the last couple where I had my mouth sewn shut! That would have lightened my load a lot. In terms of approach, I kind of compartmentalized it. I now have my method as a director, granted I’ve only done five episodes of Supernatural, but still even within that framework I’m starting to develop a process that works for me. So I’m working that process. And the acting I’ve obviously been doing for 25 years. I have a process for that. So I had to be sure that both processes got serviced properly.

The way I did that is that I focused on the acting out of the gate. I memorized my lines, got my character down — granted it’s a character I’ve played before, but there are new elements to the guy that are in play now — and I just made sure I got the lines down, understood what I wanted to do in the scene as a performer first, and then started breaking the whole episode down from the directing standpoint, which was doable because Bob and Andrew allowed me to get the script a little bit earlier than directors typically do. I got an early draft that wasn’t locked in stone, but they wanted me to see what I was up against.

It’s interesting to me for a couple of reasons, this episode. First of all, what you’re talking about is representative of your progression on the show as a director You had your two assigned episodes this season, two last season, one the year before, and they’ve grown in scope, the kind of episodes that you’ve been directing. The previous one in season 13 (“War of the Worlds”) did not feature you as an actor. So for “Unfinished Business,” did you actually elect to do one that you were acting in, or was it sort of an incidental — did you request to take this on as an actor-director, or is that just how the dice rolled and they said like “here you go, this is what you have to do?”

That is exactly what happened. It’s just how the chips fell. The assignment of your episode number comes early. I mean in July to September you get the news, “Hey you’ll be directing X and Y…” in my case episode 7 and 20, so you go “Okay, cool.” And then as I was finishing 7, in post, Andrew and Bob came to me and said “Look, we heard a pitch for a story for episode 20 and it involves your character. Do you think that’s something you can do or do you want us to try and move you?”

And I said, I said, “Well, listen.” I said, “I love the idea of directing myself.” I said, “Now, if you guys want to feel more comfortable and want to have one of the veteran guys take over and swap me onto their episode, I’m certainly willing to have that conversation, but I don’t want to give up my directing slot.” And they said, “No, no, we don’t want to remove your slot. We’re not even sure we want to move you off the episode. We just wanted to get a sense of what you think and how you feel.” And I said, “I feel like it would be an awesome challenge. I say we do it.”

I didn’t hear back from them for a while. Then I had a holiday dinner with Phil Sgriccia right before the Christmas break and he said, “So we’ve talked it over, we’ve talked to a couple of the directors and we’ve decided it’s your baby. Have at it.” So it kind of was just a confluence of events that led to me being the guy. I mean it really has to be a perfect storm. You’re talking about a character that’s been not on television for seven years, so it wasn’t even on my mind that I would have a character to direct, and then they brought the character back because they broke a story that made sense, where it worked.

So to me it’s the luckiest thing of all time. It’s the professional opportunity of a lifetime. Every interviewer that’s interviewed me, I use that phrase so I’m going to to burn that one out, but it truly is the professional opportunity of a lifetime. Who would knowingly give a fairly new TV director an episode of television to direct in which he was a principal player? I mean they wouldn’t necessarily do that on purpose, and when you see the episode you’ll see how involved my character truly is, and it’ll make even more sense. You’ll go “Holy cats! That’s substantial!”

As we’ve discussed previously, you’ve directed yourself before in your own show, Kings of Con, which I’m sure is a bit of a different beast to a production of the level of Supernatural in terms of how they move their episodes along, but you’ve done it. You’re saying that this circumstance is such an unheard of thing — and it is, but you’ve got a lot of clout in this world. I’m not wildly shocked that they entrusted it to you. You’ve been such a constant element of the show, off-screen and on, and it seems like you’re a pretty permanent fixture now. Is that something you hope to continue?

Oh absolutely! I love that group of people and I’m talking about the actors AND the crew. And the crew, I’m talking about the post-production, I’m talking about the pre-production, I’m talking about the production. I love the editors, I love the cameramen, I love the crew in every department and I’m obviously close friends with a majority of the actors, so it’s as close to a home set as I have. I absolutely love being up there. I feel incredibly comfortable and welcomed there and have felt very blessed to have that as a place where I can cut my teeth as a television director.

It’s amazing. Because those episodes aren’t easy. You’re talking about visual effects, special effects, practical effects and stunts. Deep-rooted stories, heavy drama, comedy, characters that have long storied histories and relationships that must be serviced properly… It is a complex and fascinating show to direct, and I love that challenge. And then to be involved in this one…

I mean you’re right, I am sort of inexorably linked to the show, but if you think about the man hours that I’ve been involved in the show vs. the number of hours that show has been on television, it ain’t much. Five episodes of television — and now I’ve directed another five — but five episodes of television that I was in before they decided to bring the character back this season. That, out of 250? Not a lot of TV hours comparatively.

But it’s a character I feel very close to. It’s a show I know like the back of my hand; style-wise and tone-wise. And if I’m going to get a chance to play the character that I love in the show that I’m emotionally connected to, this was a wonderful opportunity. And like I said, it would never happen on purpose. But it happened, so I feel very fortunate that it was a happy accident that fell into my lap.

I want to talk about Gabriel as a character, because you’ve had this experience with the show since the second season, and you’re talking about an arc that’s had a lot of changes in terms of playing the character a certain way and then discovering a new secret about him. And that seems to continue even to this day. The episode we have coming up is a huge exploration of the truth of Gabriel’s circumstances. His last episode, when he peaced out — probably a bit of covering up there, about the truth of what was going on.

Now we’re about to delve into some of the deepest truths about Gabriel, truths that have retroactively been hidden since that season 2 episode with the Trickster, when you, to my belief, did not know at the time, and surely the show didn’t know at the time, what he was going to advance into. So basically what are you most excited about to be delving into this arc? Because as you said, five episodes in the past, and this season is already packing in more than that total number for Gabriel in terms of a deep dive into this character that’s existed for so long.

I know. I feel incredibly fortunate to get this opportunity, to have the story break the way it’s breaking. Because you know, at any given point, if the boys decide they’re done with the show, we never get to discover more about this character. Now here we are season 13 and they’ve turned the steering wheel back toward that storyline. We’re getting to learn — we, the collective we, myself as well — are getting to learn all about the character and the origin story, if you will.

And I love that because really, all these characters are complex. All these characters are sequenced. Gabriel certainty is. He comes in, you think he’s a Norse trickster god, and then reveals himself to be an archangel who’s got family issues, and who happens to have a penchant for pornography… He’s a very quirky, layered guy — someone that you like, but you get frustrated with — you know what I mean? Who drops the ball when you don’t want him to and then shows up out of the blue when you think he’s done.

He’s an enigma. And I like the fact that they’re finally going to unravel some of the why to his puzzle. Again, the fact that I got to be the guy helming the story was a huge gift. Because — as an actor, I read it, and I know what I thought it should be. The good news is I didn’t have to guess how it was going to play out, ’cause I was also the one who’s going to decide that. So I got to be sure that visually, stylistically, and dramatically the story played out the way I — the guy who played the character — felt like it should.

That’s huge.

It’s a rare opportunity.

That is… I can’t even imagine how huge that is.

I know! That’s the other thing. Everything you said about the importance of this episode, I got to direct. Even if I directed an episode with Gabriel in it and Gabriel was a main player, it’s unlikely that I would have gotten handed the origin story. But I got the origin story. I got the deep-rooted “Oh this is what has happened over the last block of times since we last saw this guy’s story.” So that’s so awesome. That’s so cool.

It’s insane, to be honest. For me this is also a very personally interesting episode because my closest connection to this show, my dearest friend within your community where the sausage gets made, in addition to being one of the most valuable writers they’ve ever had, is actually Meredith Glynn. So I’m very curious about what elements of the script that she prepared for this story of Gabriel that most stood out to you.

Meredith’s script is fantastic. Anything I wanted to see happen over the last seven years… she and I had a long conversation, sporadically throughout the shooting of it, but also just yesterday, when we both watched the final playback of the episode to see it in its finished, sound-mixed, color-corrected form at Warner Brothers. We talked afterwards and we’re both tickled pink with how it played out. But she wrote a hell of a script, and I’m not just saying that as like a PR thing, cause I’m promoting the show, I mean it was fantastic.

I loved it the second she gave me the rough draft. I was like “Holy crap. This is a dream come true for me as a director and for me as the guy playing the character. For me to get to do both? This is ridiculous. This is great.” It was really the perfect match, because she really wanted to tell this story and I really wanted this story to be told, and she’s told it in a much cooler way than I could have imagined.

Because I’ve tried. I’ve tried imagining what this story would be, how if this were to happen, how would it happen. I’ve been asked that question at conventions, I’ve made up answers on the fly, I’ve thought about it on my own time… nothing I’ve conjured is as rooted, grounded, and interesting as what she crafted on the page. She did a great job.

I can’t wait for this thing to drop. I’ve been obsessed with it for three, four, months, you know what I mean? December, I got obsessed with the idea that I would be doing this story. But I didn’t know what the story was. And ever since I got the script… So since January I’ve been literally living this thing. I’m really excited for it to get out there and for this chapter to be examined by the fandom.

My biggest thing with Meredith’s episodes is that she tends to really go inwards, she tends to go really deeply inside of a character’s motivations. Obviously Gabriel is one character that has had that question mark for so long and so that’s something really shocking to shed light on. So how have you found the reaction to your reveal on the show this season? You’re engaging the Supernatural community every day, but what was the response once people knew, that yes, in the real world of Supernatural — in the CW television show that we watch, that is, not everything in fandom that surrounds it — how has that felt to see that reaction?

It’s been cool. I think the show did a really good job of keeping it under wraps, which I think is important.

Even I was shocked, and not too much shocks me with this show anymore.

Yeah! They did a really good job of not letting you know it was me, and I did a good job of not letting you know it was me. And so the surprise worked, and I think that’s important in a show like this. We keep it fresh. The response I’ve gotten is overwhelming and positive. But it’s also very possible that people who were bummed aren’t going to reach out and say I’m bummed you’re back. So. You know. I mean maybe some would but overall it’s been really positive.

I think there’s a guarded optimism cause they want to know how this played out. Because these fans are savvy and smart and have done their homework and have watched the show and that’s where I think this episode is exciting because as we get more into the world and we figure out more of what happened and how this all played out, that’s going to excite and interest the fans ’cause it’s meat to chew on. Like “Oh, this is interesting.”

And that’s where Meredith’s rock solid script comes into play and does a great job of laying the foundation and then making it beautifully detailed and nuanced and all the things you’re talking about, about getting deep into the character? There’s stuff… I would read her script and email her and go — you pulled this reference from eons ago — she did her homework, man. She knew the character really well before she started writing this episode so that it was really well fleshed out and built on solid ground.

And I’m saying that as the guy who played it. It would have bummed me out had they built this house on sand. And I would have been like “Aw man, okay. Cool. I’m glad I’m back but nah, I wish it was just cooler.” But that’s not the case. I thought it was executed beautifully on the page, which makes it even more fun to direct! Because then you love every toy you got in your toy box. So now it’s just playtime.

Your role has involved a far amount of… shall we say… turns around the corner, where you’ve given a performance in an episode where presumably what you’re playing was the truthful portrayal to you at that time, and that later the story retroactively reveals that that was a lie or a misdirect. Even going from the Trickster to Gabriel – I’m curious about how that’s going to play into this. What you’re saying sounds like we’re really going deeper into the truth – that it’s not story that eradicates the truth of the work that you had been doing before. Is that accurate?

I think that’s very accurate. I think that’s why Meredith did a great job: she didn’t go, “we’re just kidding here’s what really happened” and obliterate seven years of the canon story of Gabriel. You know, she built on that, she didn’t erase it. And I think that’s key to this story being valued by the fandom and to stand up to their critical eye. That’s what I think is interesting about it.

Of course the audience will judge as they will, at this point. I mean it’s out there, or it’s about to be out there, and she did her level best to tell the story in an honest way that was unique and creative and fascinating. And I did my best to perform it correctly and then direct it correctly, and at each step of the way add layers, add layers. Make it interesting. Find nuances. Find beats. And so now we have this thing that she is very proud of and I’m very proud of and we’re just fascinated to see what the response will be.

There’s always going to be some negative. Somebody — I was talking to one of the directors who directed an episode — he was like “Wow, a lot of people loved my episode but there were a lot of people who tore it apart.” And I said “Welcome to the world of art!” But that’s like any field, you paint the canvas and you hang it up in a museum, you probably don’t want to stand there while people shuffle pass it. That’s what social media is. You have to be very careful about that, because you do your best, you put your best foot out there, you do your best work that you’re proud of and tell the story you want to tell — and if you want to read what they say, please do.

But know that part of knowing it’s a success is the debate that follows. You can’t have people love it without some people hating it. That’s part of the dialogue that goes on. I don’t think that’s totally negative, because I don’t think everybody should have to love everything. It’s cool to have it batted around and debated and discussed and nuances pointed out and details argued over. All that’s great. It’s just that if you’re the artist, sometimes it’s like getting poked in the ribs a little too hard. So you have to be careful about how close you want to stand to the fire. All that to say — I am interested to see how the fans react.

Yeah. It also sounds like — just based on the synopses that have been released for the rest of the season — we’ll see how this continues. Gabriel is a major ensemble player to the close out the season. We’ve got Rowena, Jack, Mary, we’ve got all of these characters, a really big group of characters going into the close of season 13 of Supernatural. It’s all tying back to this ultimate story, this sort of fated story that is connected to where we left Gabriel in season 5 — the archangels, Michael and Lucifer, whichever version of them it is we’re talking about… Does this ending of this Supernatural season feel like something bigger than ever to you, from your involvement? Is it servicing a story that we’ve never covered before? Or is it more of a big cyclical throwback?

I don’t want to get into it too detailed because I don’t want to accidentally spoil stuff, but I feel like one of the things that’s really cool about the build-up, as we ramp up towards the end of the year here, is the scope. They do have a lot of players involved. Sometimes the endings are intensely awesome but on the smaller scale — not smaller scale in terms of story, but smaller scale in terms of players? But this is a deep bench of old and new coming together in this last leg of the sprint here, and I think that’s fascinating, and I think story-wise that is unique. We haven’t seen this many players from this many years of the show interacting and crossing paths and teaming up or butting heads, what have you, as part of the build-up to the climax of the season. So I think it’s really well crafted by Andrew and the team.

Your arc this season began with Gabriel as a prisoner of Asmodeus and I found it very interesting that your return – there’s that first shot of the lips sewn shut – was obviously an homage to Loki. To the mythological Loki.


Now, this may be a throwaway meta thing, but do you believe that Gabriel really was Loki? That he left heaven and then actually was that participant in the Norse pantheon, that he always was the Loki of history? Or do you think that it was a legitimate short-term cover-up?

I think that that is THE question.

Ahhh. Okay.

As far as I’m concerned that is the question. And that is the debate. And there are some things that will make that question even more pertinent going forward. I’ll say no more than that but I think that that is it. The writers are no dummies and I think it’s a really interesting level to have added and it’s going to add to the debate about the character going forward.

‘Supernatural’ airs Thursdays at 8/7c on The CW

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