Sunday 23 September 2018

A broken back ended Cavan man Richie Stevens' career in construction – now he’s acting with Daniel Craig and Halle Berry

Actor plays role of a cop in upcoming movie Kings

Richie Stephens and Halle Berry on the set of Kings
Richie Stephens and Halle Berry on the set of Kings
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

If Richie Stevens had not broken his back in 2011 he would have never pursued a career in acting. Now he has more than 50 TV and film roles under his belt with his latest seeing him play a cop in Kings, starring Halle Berry and Daniel Craig. Here, the LA-based Cavan man tells Independent.ie how he caught the acting bug as a child but pursued a career as a carpenter in the US before that fateful accident changed the course of his life.

At just 10 years of age Richie's mother enrolled him in speech and drama classes and he performed in various plays, competitions and fashion shows until he secured an audition for a major Irish film at the age of 12.  Despite the fact the audition went well, the experience led to Richie quitting acting.

"It was my first audition for something big," he reveals.  "The casting director told me I was great and she thought they would use me in the film. I was so excited. But the call never came. It was very disappointing.

"At the time I thought that if you go for one audition and you don’t get it then you’re not cut out to be an actor! Nobody told me any different. So I quit. I never knew anyone who had done it professionally growing up, so nobody else knew how it worked either.

Richie Stephens
Richie Stephens

"The reality is that even here in Los Angeles you might have to go to dozens, or sometimes hundreds of auditions before you book something!"

During his second year in college Richie left Ireland for San Francisco on the J1 visa and loved it.  He didn't want to come home so when he graduated college he spent a short time working for a phone company before deciding to take a chance and head back to San Fran.

"Ireland was booming at the time and there wasn’t much emigration. So people thought I was a bit mad to leave," he says.  "But I just fancied a change of scenery. I didn’t think at the time that it was a stepping stone to Los Angeles."

'My goal was to have my own construction company'

However, the aforementioned accident changed everything.

He explains, "I was working on a remodel on a house in SF, when a beam fell down and hit me, knocking me off a scaffold. That was the end of my construction career.

"At the time I was a carpenter, with no thoughts whatsoever about working in show business. My goal at the time was to have my own construction company. A few months before the incident I had just passed the test for my contractor license and was about to set up a company. After it happened, when I was recovering, a girl I knew suggested I should try modeling. I was open to ideas, but didn’t think I would have much chance of success in the modeling world."

An agency immediately signed Richie and after just a couple of months modelling a director spotted his photo on a website and asked him to be in his film.

"I really enjoyed the experience so I decided to pursue acting instead," he says.  "That little bit of encouragement got me going at it. Now, that I am actor, I know I’ve found my calling."

Rather than try to learn his craft on set, Richie took the approach of taking every acting course he could get into to help hone his craft.

"Being an actor is one of the most competitive jobs in the world. For every role in my category (white male 25-35) in LA there are around 5000 submissions. To just audition you would have to be in the top 30 or 40. Without training, this would be an impossible task. It would be like trying to play in the Premier League without kicking a ball first," he says.

He initially trained at the Beverly Hilsl Playhouse in San Francisco but after a year he moved to LA and trained at other schools where he trained in all aspects from scene study to technique, comedy, improv, auditions, cold reading and commercials.

"I was starting a bit later in life than most others, so there was a lot of catching up to do," he says.  "I still work with coaches now. Like professional sports, it’s good to keep training. I like to read scripts, so when my agent does send me scripts, I like to read the whole thing. There is a lot of good writing here in L.A. and of course back in Ireland, where the industry is doing so well."

'I'm not going to be competing with Leo Di Caprio for romantic lead'

Richie's first big break was as the Unsub (suspect), a Texan serial killer who cuts people's faces off and wears them like a mask, on the CBS series Criminal Minds.  Villains are his forte, especially Russian, Irish and European villains.

"It’s a lot of fun, and I can do it well.," he says, adding, " I’m not going to be competing with Leo Di Caprio for the romantic lead. I know that directors like what I do, and I’m in a fortunate position.

"I’m looking forward to doing some work in Ireland or the UK. The US audiences really like LOVE/HATE,Peaky Blinders and others, so If they are doing another season of those, then sign me up. I'm used to working with American talent, but I admire so much the talents working at home in Ireland. There is a good feeling among the actors on both sides of the Atlantic."

After five years of grafting Richie feels his career really started to take off in 2016.

"I think a combination of things made that happen. I had been working on my craft, improving as an actor and booking little parts, growing my CV. I booked a role in a play which demanded I cut my hair short (an army role). I tend to play villains and I decided to keep it short for a while and see if the new look would work out better.

"Also, key to success here is having good representation. I got a new manager at the end of 2015, Vanessa Henderson. She worked really hard to get me out on as many auditions as possible, got me into a lot of auditions and self tapes. Since then I have been kept busy."

There are still disappointments as projects don't come to fruition, but auditioning is networking and one ill-fated job last year has indirectly raised his profile.

"I had a really close one last year. There was a big budget Paramount remake of the horror movie Friday the 13th in development. I was put on hold to play Jason after the very first audition. It was a Michael Mann production, set to shoot in Atlanta for three months and I had been introduced to the director Breck Eisner," he says.

"Out of nowhere the movie was canned for some unknown reason. It just never happened in the end. Although the project never got off the ground, this sequence of auditions and others like it have put me on the radar of many casting directors. They know what I am capable of and bring me in for suitable roles. I'm known as a tough guy who's great with accents. I now have a manager, a publicist and a team of agents working to get me on projects."

His latest film, Kings, stars Daniel Craig and Halle Berry as neighbours in a South Central LA neighbourhood.  It's set against a backdrop of rising racial tensions during the verdict of the Rodney King trial in 1992.  Richie plays a cop who arrests Halle's character.

'Halle was a real lady'

"Halle was a lovely person. She was a real lady and so kind to everyone on set," he says of working with the Oscar-winning star. 

"I’m arresting her in one scene. There’s a lot of pulling and dragging with the crowd of rioters going wild around us, so it was physically exhausting for all of us, but she was so cheerful and positive for the couple of days together. Halle is a great professional, totally prepared when the cameras are rolling. Some actors tend to phone it in when the camera isn’t on them, but she didn’t. When the other actor gives 100% even off camera that helps in the delivery of your own performance. It's generous."

Shooting on location where the original riots took place required the cast and crew to be sensitive to the residents.

"It was a pretty sensitive topic for the residents so we had to be very aware of this and treat it with sensitivity," he says.  "In between takes, the PAs took our guns from us in case anyone might be provoked."

Richie spent time researching his role with real police officers in LA.

"I wanted to get a feel for how their day goes, how they view the world and what they have to deal with - the reality of being a cop in LA and how it felt on the days of the riots," he reveals.  "The two officers who showed me the ropes, John and Marlin of the Canoga Park PD were great guys and gave me a deep understanding of their perspective."

'I don't take it personally if I'm not picked for a role'

Since that first big audition when he was 12 years old, Richie's attitude to auditions and rejection has taken a full 180.  Now he's happy just to act and show directors what he can do with a character on auditions, even if he doesn't land the gig.

"I do my best, show them what I can do and if they want me that’s cool. If they don’t, that’s fine too," he says.  "It’s not my project! It’s theirs. If it’s always about the finished product, getting to set, then as an actor you’ll be continually disappointed. I don't take it personally if I'm not picked for a particular role."

He explains, "It's like shopping for a hat. Imagine you need a cowboy hat for your outfit, but you're in the store and you see a fabulous Trilby. It's a great hat, but it just won't do for this outfit. But you'll remember it for another outfit for sure. That's what it's like to be an actor. Being the right hat for the right outfit!"

One of his selling points is his ability to do accents.  In 2015 he released a series of comedy accent videos on YouTube, including one called '15 Irish Accents'.  Ironically, most of the roles he plays are not Irish.

"Despite being from Cavan, I’ve never played a Cavanman. Unfortunately there’s no demand for us here at the moment!" he laughs.  "Although some very talented people have come from Cavan, like T.P. McKenna, Brian F. O'Byrne, Diarmaid Murtagh, Kevin McGahern, Padraig Conaty...

"Last year I booked my first major Irish role. I played Jack Dunne on the Amazon Original series Lore. It was in the 1800’s, so I did a sort of non specific old timey accent for that.

"I’ve always enjoyed copying accents, since I was a child and can pick them up pretty easily. I’ve played Germans, Russians, Brits, Americans in the films and TV I’ve booked. So the versatility does help widen your net of roles you can play.

'The Irish are like unicorns here in LA'

"Usually I go into auditions in character so they don’t know my real accent until they look me up. In terms of meeting people I think it does help. The Irish are like unicorns here in LA, so I find that most people are disarmed by it or at least amused by our accent because it’s a break from the norm."

LA is teeming with Irish talent and Richie's good friend and fellow Cavan man Kevin McCann is in town developing a movie about the 1916 Rising. 

"Irish actors are well respected for their abilities here, much like the Brits and Australians," he says.  "We support each other, and meet at social events and sometimes audition for the same role! I met a gang of them in my first year here at an audition for the CBS TV show Scorpion.

"The Irish are popular here, and very often Irish films have sell-out screenings, like earlier this month a small Irish movie The Drummer and the Keeper had a sell out screen. A few months ago I went out to see Cardboard Gangsters as well and it was very impressive. Irish Screen America do a great job in helping Irish Film here and support the network of talent here."

'People have been shocked by the scale of scandals in the wake of Weinstein'

"The day the story broke, I had three female friends tell me 'it’s about time'," says Richie.  "It has been the talk of the town for a good few months here now. I think a lot of people have been shocked at the scale of scandals that have come out. But I think everyone at least suspected that kind of thing had been happening.

"Overall, I think a lot of good will come of it. I hope there is more transparency, equality and protection for people from being exploited. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) has made meetings, auditions, interviews in hotel rooms prohibited. Zero tolerance is the current code of conduct and I hope it continues.

"Since the scandal, I've noticed that a lot of the new promotions in executive positions at the studios have gone to women. It seems like the tide is turning in terms of finding a balance. I've been directed by several women in my career so far and my next movie will also be directed by a woman."

'I want to work at home and fine tune my normal accent!'

Richie has several projects in development from a horror movie he shot in Louisiana last year to another film shooting in Pennsylvania next month.

"On my wish-list is to play a role in an Irish TV show or film in the next 12 months. It would give me the chance to come home and see family and fine tune my normal accent!" he says.

Read more: Mindhunter star Holt McCallany on channelling his late Irish father for role in hit new Netflix series

Behind the Scenes with... New York based Irish director Imelda O’Reilly  

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