Sam Richardson brought improv techniques to ‘The Afterparty’

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Photo: Emma McIntyre/WireImage

In the past year alone, Sam Richardson has traveled back in time to battle future aliens in tomorrow’s warorganized buff little boy competitions on I think you should leaveattempted to poach one of the Ted Lasso‘s top players, and now, in her most recent role as Aniq on Apple TV+ the after party, was charged with murder (gasp). It’s hard to believe the hopelessly romantic escape designer could be capable of such a thing, but the after party requires its actors to present several versions of their characters in a Rashomonstyle challenge, and Aniq bounces between romantic hero, lovable nerd, and drunken menace depending on the head of the character we find ourselves in. Richardson relished the complexity of a process that was reminiscent of the improvisational games he had learned to play in high school. He chatted with us about how much he’d like to attend his own reunion, get all that permanent marker off his face, and which Tom Hanks movie he’d like to star in. It will all make sense, I promise.

Included between the after party and yellow jackets, high school reunions are having a while. I’ve never been there, how about you?
I didn’t either and wanted to go, but each time it got to a point where I no longer had the leeway to leave work. This year would be my 20th reunion, so it would have been great to go, but I don’t think they’re going to have it. I would go and make a big Apple promotion of it. [Laughs.] And a person will be killed.

What was your deal in high school? What crowd did you run with? What was your style and what did you want your style to be?
Well, I went to an all-boys school, so that changes the social world of high school a bit. There weren’t many teenage postures trying to impress the girls. I was friends with a lot of different groups of people: I was kind of an athlete, but I always left the team because of the theater stuff. I used to practice with the football team, but when I heard about high school plays and musicals, I was like, “Oh, there are musicals and stuff here? I’ll see you later.” And then I was throwing weights and discus, and I was like, “Oh, the springtime musical? I’ll see you later.” And I was on the soccer team and I was like, ‘No more games? I’ll see you later.” Really unreliable as a teammate when it comes to sports, but I’ll always be there for a play or for a musical.

Did you always want to be an actor in high school?
As soon as I walked into the rooms, I was like, Oh, it’s a real thing I can do. It’s time for the auditions, and I’m going to prepare a song… Mulane, “Be a Man,” sings Donny Osmond – and that wasn’t what this audition needed at all. But I absorbed musical theater and performance very early on. I was basically raised on TV and the dynamics of comedy is something I’ve always studied. Even though my family didn’t know I was a funny person, my cousin Dwayne always said “Yeah!” I’d crack a subtle joke and no one would get it, people would correct me or lecture me, and I’d be like, Yeah, I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say. I said it because it’s a joke. But my cousin Dwayne always said, “That’s the funniest thing.”

The reality of doing something with it didn’t occur to me until my friend Pete Jacobs took classes at Second City. He was an elder; I was a freshman. I went to see his show, and I thought to myself, Wait a minute. I went to the jam once when I was 15 – like, what are you doing on stage? – and they were making this game called “A Directed Story”. You would improvise a story and point the finger at someone else, then they would pick up the story where the last person left off. I remember Kirk Hanley pointing at me, and I had a line that said, “Without his knowledge, of course, but with his knowledge.” And the audience was like, “Yeah!” I was like, It’s real. I can do its. And then I got obsessed with Second City because of my ego and my need to be loved. I’m basically kidding, but I started taking classes when I was 15, and it was all lights out from then on.

I started doing improv when I was 24, and I can’t imagine how much more fun it would be when you’re young enough to be like… whimsical?
Whimsical, exactly. There is no limit to anything. When you’re 16, you don’t know anything. It’s “We’re in an office”, and I’m like, Here’s something I know about a movie because I’ve never worked. The things you draw from are so limited. But if you’re a young improviser, these experiences will automatically filter into the improvisational structures of your brain. You are like, It’s a human trait, and it’s a work trait. You cannot help observing these things.

Were you able to improvise on the set of the after party?
With the show being a murder mystery, you can’t stray too far off the rails, but with Phil Lord and Chris Miller, they encourage zhuzhing or make it your own. They have great confidence in their cast. Jamie Demetriou – whom I had watched in Stath rents apartmentsand I was like, My God, this guy is so funny – see him in his scenes when he plays Walt? It’s so brilliantly funny. The character is supposed to be someone no one pays attention to, but you can’t help but pay attention to him. It’s a perfect juxtaposition. And a big part of my relationship with Ben is that we’re just friends, so to have that natural cadence and familiarity — and our characters are supposed to have known each other for 19 years — we get to make that relationship feel real.

And then there’s Dave Franco shirtless in a blazer.
I think they do a good job covering her nipples because they are hypnotic. You know, I catch myself looking at Dave Franco’s nipples like, “Oh, sorry. Uh, can we take that down? I don’t know what happened, I lost a whole day!

Aniq wakes up with permanent marker all over her face. Did you have any say in what was drawn on it?
No, it was put together because there are clues in there. But the weird thing is that when we did the makeup on the first day, they had this special marker that is supposed to come off very easily. So they would draw it on me, and then we would do these stamps, so the drawing would be consistent every day. This is also the hardest part: if this all happens over the course of one night and you film eight episodes in three months, it has to match every time. The first day we did the marker, it was like, Ok, now it will rub off. And it just wouldn’t go away. We had to use this special oil and rub it. It would take an hour to get out of this thing every night.

Free scrub!
Yes, my body said, We have to make a new skin! You know when you’re at the bottom of your trash bag and it’s like, “Make sure you fill it up”? It’s written on my forehead.

Is it madness to do multiple takes of the same scene in different genres? Did you have a reference or something that grounded you for each of them?
That was part of the fun: tracing those steps and doing them again in any genre or style and knowing the tropes of those things. And also play on how they see my character. Sorry to talk more about improv, but there’s a game called “Take That Back” where you’ll do a scene and they’ll say, “Freeze, take that back.” Then you re-improvise that scene with all the same beats, but you do it western style.

So if you’re in the cafe and you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to have a mocha latte, please.” And here’s a tip,” then I say, “Freeze, take that back. Now, it’s western-style,” and then it’s like, “Hey there, lady, I’m going to get myself a sarsaparilla. It’s a fun exercise that makes you analyze all the things you do. You don’t really want to throw in a line or a gesture or an action because each has to be correlated, you know? It’s a fuck insofar as there are a lot of threads to follow, but it’s fun insofar as there are a lot of threads to follow.

So if you’re doing the balcony scene, do you do all the versions of it on the same day?
Not every time because we all didn’t know who the killer was. Some things would be redone and redone in a different style and different lighting setup. Sometimes there were scenes where you did the exact same thing over and over and over again but just a bit of a costume change; they change the lighting and camera lens and maybe how wet or dry you are. To answer the question: It wasn’t always in succession, but sometimes it was.

Aniq really suffers in this show. You get doused in a lot of liquid and get hit by a car in the first episode.
Doused in liquid with the beer ski, dunked in a pool, hit with a car. Getting pushed onto a table with shrimp on it. I did this stunt too! I feel so bad because I work with a stuntman, Horace Knight. He’s a terrific stuntman, and we’ve worked on maybe five projects together. But it was time to do this push number where Ike pushes me over this table, and I was like, “I can do this. I’m going to do the stunt. And you can barely tell it’s me.

You’re living out one of my biggest fantasies on the show, which is having a musical number pop around you. What does it do?
It’s a unique feeling. We were set for success because everything was so brilliantly choreographed and written, and then we had vocal coaches for the music. We rehearsed it, we did it, and we watched the monitors afterwards like, Oh, it’s a music video! Everyone around us dances with exuberance, and you say to yourself, It’s real. And I know the choreography that everyone does. I’m in!

It looks like it would be very high pressure. You already dread getting your block and hitting your line, but I imagine there’s an added level when people are choreographing around you.
What’s easier about doing this kind of stuff for film is that you can go wrong. If you’ve done live broadcasts, what you do is what you do. On a film, even if you’re wrong, you just go to the end because it’s going to be edited. [Laughs] I messed up a lot.

The Hollywood Reporter recently described you as the Tom Hanks of this generation. Which Tom Hanks movie would you most like to reboot and star in?
I mean, you say Forrest Gump? Kinda hard to restart that one right where it is in those historic moments. [Laughs] But thematically, I love it. uh, maybe Joe against the volcano. Turner and Hooch? I would like to do Turner and Hooch. But this one, I’m playing Hooch.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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