Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Rick Springfield is far better known for his musical efforts than his acting ones: The force behind perennial radio hit “Jessie’s Girl” has had 17 Top 40 singles and still tours extensively. But years before “Jessie,” Springfield was also an actor, starting on a kids’ TV series before showing up in guest spots on a variety of ’70s shows, from The Rockford Files to The Incredible Hulk. He landed his best known-role—dreamy Dr. Noah Drake on General Hospital—even before his hit album Working Class Dog came out. He then concentrated on his music more than acting, occasionally showing up in a cable series or made for TV movie. Springfield kicked off his recent acting resurgence by playing a distorted version of himself on Californication, followed by a creepy True Detective role (like there’s any other kind). He returns to the big screen on August 7 in Ricki And The Flash, playing the guitarist boyfriend of Meryl Streep’s Ricki. An A.V. Club Undercover veteran, Springfield talked with us about the various twists and turns of his long career.
The A.V. Club: You have an impressive return to the big screen after several years this week, co-starring with Meryl Streep in Jonathan Demme’s Ricki And The Flash. How did that come about?
Rick Springfield: I was on the road, actually; I was on the East Coast and I got a call from my manager saying that Jonathan Demme wanted to see me for the new Meryl Streep movie. And they wanted to see me the following day in L.A. So I figured I must be at the bottom of the list, if they want to see me tomorrow. And I’m not a great auditioner and I would need a couple of hours to rehearse, so I said, “No.” [Chuckles.] So Kim, my P.R. girl, got on the phone and told me to get the fuck on the plane and go do the audition.
So I did and it wasn’t a reading; they basically wanted to see me play guitar in a band with [Streep]. They wanted to see what our chemistry was like and how we looked together. So that was kind of easy for me not having to go through the whole audition with a scene in a cold room, which I hate. Actually every actor does. But they saw that I could play the guitar and they liked our chemistry together. I already knew what the character was kind of like so I put that attitude on with her. Then they brought me to New York to do what is called a chemistry read, where we sit together and they film it and we read from the script. We don’t have to overdo it and, in fact, it was actually the first time she had ever read it out loud. And then they liked that, they liked us together, and they offered me the part.
AVC: Did anything surprise you about Meryl Streep as a person, just getting to know her? Your connection really comes across in the movie.
RS: Well, I had heard she was really nice and didn’t wear “Meryl Streep” on her sleeve. And had raised a family and that can certainly ground the hell out of you, so she was kind of how I had pictured her, which is gracious. Just killed every time she did a scene and knows what it takes to create a relationship on-screen. That was our most important issue, was to create the most real relationship we could on-screen, and that starts right away. I’ve heard such horror stories about actors belittling people because they think they’re cutting it and, honestly, the people who do that aren’t very good actors themselves. So I figured she would be how she was, which is gracious and talented.
AVC: We actually just ran a Very Special Episode feature on the Wonder Woman episode “Amazon Hot Wax,” where you’re in a band.
RS: Yes! I was in a band with one of the guys from Bread. [Laughs.] Mike Botts.
AVC: You guys were supposed to be some sort of KISS takeoff?
RS: It was very weird. It was the TV version of a rock band, awful script.
Oh my God, it was so ’70s. Honestly, you look at TV scripts now and you look at them back in the ’70s, and even back in the ’70s, I was going, “Oh my God, this is horse shit!” Just really terrible, terrible clichéd stuff that was just primetime TV, it was unbelievable. It’s so great now with the writing; it’s so incredible like on HBO and those kind of shows where the writing is just brilliant. But back then, it was just horrible, horrible stuff. Back then, I was just excited to be on-screen. [Laughs.]
AVC: Speaking of scripts that weren’t the greatest, you’re Ned Nickerson in a Christmas episode of Nancy Drew.
RS: Oh my God. That was pretty awful. I remember the director really wasn’t digging my performance. He was an actor and it was his first directorial role and I had no clue what I was doing. He was trying to get all these acting chops, and he was going, “C’mon, man!” and I was really stressed out.
AVC: It was a terrible script about Santa Clauses! There’s only so much anybody can do.
RS: Oh, I know! If I had any balls, I’d have been like, “Dude, look what I’m working with! Come on!”
RS: Occasionally, there’d be stuff that really excited me, like Battlestar Galactica. I was a giant sci-fi fan and we’d all just come off the high of the first Star Wars movie. I was in the first big movie after Star Wars, even though I got killed 10 seconds into the freaking story! But it was so exciting. Actually, my colonial warrior outfit is the only one that is still complete and they sold it on some auction house recently.
AVC: For thousands of dollars, no doubt.
RS: Yeah. All of the sci-fi geeks love all of that stuff.
AVC: You played the younger brother of Richard Hatch’s Apollo? You two really looked alike.
RS: That’s probably why I got the role, I’m sure.
AVC: You’re like the Battlestar Galactica martyr, because then your death in the cylon raid rallies Commander Adama and Apollo.
RS: I was kind of the sacrificial lamb.
AVC: You had started out in the kids’ TV show in 1973: Mission: Magic!
RS: That was an interesting career choice. I had come over here [to the U.S.]. ABC went around to all the teen magazines and asked them who they thought was going to be the next David Cassidy, and they all said me. So they just said they were going to cash in early and do this really awful, lame cartoon show and have me write music for it so that when I became the next David Cassidy, they’d already have me in the bag. Thankfully, it died after two years because it was pretty atrocious, but it was fun to write songs for, and it was a pretty interesting experience. I see [animation] cels show up all the time that people want me to sign and it’s kind of cool, kind of like having an action figure.
The original conversation was great. We all got together and met, some guys had worked on Fantasia, the Disney movie. The guys had just come off of Yellow Submarine and I was like, “Yeah, let’s do something really different and really unique with music!” And it ended up being another Xeroxed piece of shit basically. [Laughs.]
AVC: After that show, you landed a variety of guest spots on ’70s shows. Sometimes they reflected your actual life, like the Rockford Files episode where you’re a rock star. Do you remember pushing the piano into the pool?
RS: I do, that was exciting! I think I got [that part] because I could fake an English accent. James Garner was great. That’s kind of a great memory to work with guys like that people have nothing but great things to say about.
AVC: In your spot on The Incredible Hulk, it looks like you also had some martial-arts skills. Or in Human Target when you get to fight David Carradine.
RS: Right. I was a brown belt in shoto-khan and had done some training in aikido as well. Back in the old days they asked you, “What are your skills?” and I didn’t have any skills other than guitar playing. So I could always put karate.
AVC: So all of those roles led to you getting booked on General Hospital?
RS: Well, probably at some point. I think nothing is ever wasted. I went up on a cattle call in 1978 or ’79. They were trying to do this male version of Charlie’s Angels, so I went up on that and I didn’t get it. But the casting guy remembered me and he moved to casting at General Hospital and when a new character came up, he thought of me and gave my agent a call. So that’s kind of how I got in on that. But things definitely lead to other things for sure.
AVC: Then Working Class Dog came out and everything sort of exploded?
RS: Yeah, they didn’t know I was a musician.
AVC: That’s funny.
RS: They didn’t know I was a musician, actually, till I had been on the show for like two months. And the record was released around the same time; it was just one of those things. Gloria Monty—the producer who originally hired me, who was awesome and was responsible for General Hospital’s giant success—sidled up to me a couple of months into the show and said, “I hear you’re also a singer.” So she had all these ideas of me suddenly bursting into song as a doctor and I had to say, “No, I’m not going to do that. I’m already getting enough shit for being on a soap opera. If I become a singing doctor that’ll just alienate everybody.” So I never did.
I went back for the 50th anniversary and actually played, which was really weird, three characters on that show—I played Noah Drake, I played an Australian musician called Eli Love, and I played myself. [Laughs.] You can only do that on a soap opera.
AVC: What’s great about General Hospital is that it has such a long history. For the Drake family, Noah has an adult son who’s now a main character, so you’re always going to be important to that show.
RS: Fans always ask, “Are you going back? Because you call in a lot.” Apparently I call in on the phone and have conversations with my son.
AVC: You’re always there. [Springfield laughs.] So Tony Geary [Luke Spencer] is a notoriously intense actor. What was it like working with him?
RS: Oh, he was always really lovely to me right up to the last scene we did. We had the dressing rooms next to each other and he was always a real great guy. I never saw any ego at all other than him wanting to push it and do the best work. If a choice came between what he wanted and what a director wanted, then things could become kind of heated, but that’s the same with any actor that believes what he’s doing. But he was always a doll.
In fact, I had this documentary called Affair Of The Heart, and I supported it when it first came out and went to the Amsterdam Film Festival because it was playing there. Tony lives in Amsterdam, so we all went out and got baked one night at one of the legal marijuana shops there. He led us around Amsterdam and through the red-light district and it was great.
An Affair Of The Heart (2012)—“Rick Springfield”
The Six Million Dollar Man (1977)—“Niles”
The Eddie Capra Mysteries (1978)—actor
AVC: That documentary depicts the strong relationship you have with your fans; some of them have followed you around and come to your shows for years, even going on fan cruises with you. How did that film happen?
RS: A woman who had been a fan as a kid and was now a producer and director loved the music. I think they did a great job. It was certainly a unique approach having the fans tell their stories.
AVC: There’s a scene in Affair Of The Heart where you climb up a tower at a Swedish metal festival, which was pretty impressive. Do you do your own stunts? Are you one of those guys who says, “I don’t need the stuntman, I can jump off this ledge!”
RS: Well, when they said, “You catch on fire and fall out of this building two stories up,” that’s when I said, “You know what, get another guy to do that.” But the fight scenes and stuff like that I would always do; I love that. I chose to do a lot of it, but a lot of them won’t let you.
The first thing I did was The Six Million Dollar Man and I played a roller-derby guy. They asked me when I auditioned for the part if I roller-skate and I said, “Of course I do,” which I don’t; I’d never been on skates in my life. So I strapped these skates on and I wobbled around the oval for a couple of takes and then I walked up the slope—remember those old wooden banks? I took one skate off so I could walk but didn’t realize that when I put the one foot down that still had the skate on it that it was going to slide from under me. And it did and I brought my hand up, and it had the other skate in my left hand and it whacked me in the eye. It blew my eye up, so they had to shoot me from the left side for the rest of the shoot. [Laughs.]
AVC: And they didn’t fire you?
RS: No, because they’d already filmed things. If I hadn’t already filmed anything, I would have been out. But they’d already shot a scene the day before so they had to keep me. And I’ve had like cracked ribs and stuff in fight scenes and bruises. I did a Eddie Capra Mysteries and there was this part—of course I was playing a musician, they had little imagination back then—where this guy threw me across the studio and it wasn’t me—they brought a stuntman in. I saw the final edit and you see him grab me—and I’m 6 feet 2 inches—and go to throw me and you see a 5-foot-1, little stocky Italian dude rolling over. And I went, “Aw, fuck! I look so lame!” So from then on, I tried to do as much as I could when I wasn’t going to get permanently disfigured.
AVC: Like jumping off the balcony in Silent Motive where you’re the coke addict?
RS: I was a director, right? A coked-out director?
AVC: Yeah, and you take a dive off a balcony. There’s a gruesome aftermath with you smashed up on a car afterwards.
RS: [Laughs.] I remember watching the guy falling and thinking, “I’m so glad that’s not me.” He fell like 15 stories; it was quite a ways down.
I did three roles in a row where I die from falling and I’m thinking, “Are they trying to tell me something?”
AVC: After the album came out, and you focused more on music, eventually you started doing videos with Gone Girl director David Fincher. Some of those are pretty otherworldly, like “Bop ’Til You Drop.”
RS: That was the first music video he ever did. He’d just come off of working off of Empire Strikes Back. My manager found him, and when he turned a salad bowl into an alien base shot from above, I said, “This guy is fucking good!” [Laughs.] We shot it all in 18 hours in this hot and sweaty bar in San Francisco. He did three other videos with me and also did a live concert called The Beat Of The Live Drum where he put in all these animation effects. It was pretty incredible stuff.
AVC: On those videos, would he have an idea or would you guys work on them together?
RS: Yeah, they were mostly his ideas. They were all his ideas.
AVC: The alien overlords?
RS: Yeah, that was totally David. [Laughs.] “Dance This World Away,” which is one of my favorite videos I did from then, is one of his too. We talked about me playing three different characters and what the three different characters would be. That was a lot of fun, too.
It’s working with great people, really. The better the people you work with are, the better you are, honestly.
AVC: Fincher went on to work with Madonna and Aerosmith, but it sounds like he started his music video chops with you.
RS: He killed it the first time, obviously. It was the best video I’d ever seen at that point until Michael Jackson came along. I love sci-fi so it was really down my alley.
AVC: What’s the process like to film a video? Do you have to just mouth the words to the song over and over?
RS: Really it’s all lip synch. They’ll run the song through one setup then do another setup, then do part of the song, then do a setup for another part of a song and cut it all together, but it all depends on the director. If you have a director that has a firm idea of what it’ll look like, like David did, the part of the song where just that section is, you’ll shoot it from different angles and far away and close up and all that sort of stuff the same way as movies.
That’s the thing about Ricki And The Flash and why it feels so real, because in the band we’re really singing and playing. There are no overcuts, which is pretty rare for a movie, especially. I mean, people can just tell when you’re lip synching. The mistakes and the flat notes and all that are all good; it’s what happens in a real band.
AVC: And you really frickin’ shred in this movie.
RS: That’s probably the comment I get the most from guys who have seen the live shows: “I didn’t know you could play guitar like that.” And I say, ‘“Dude, I’ve been playing since I was 14 years old.”
AVC: Hey, Dave Grohl gets it.
RS: If I haven’t gotten some chops in 50 years, then there’s something wrong! Right?
AVC: For “Jessie’s Girl,” did you figure that since MTV was coming up, you should probably shoot a video for your song? And just throw a guitar through a mirror?
RS: No, nobody knew. People said that they wanted to do a video and I said, “Why?” Because MTV wasn’t around [yet], and nobody knew it was coming. Everyone thought it was a joke when it first came out. The first thing I thought of and the only reference I had was those jukeboxes from the ’60s where you’d play the song and there’d be that crappy surf movie playing behind the surf song “Wipeout” or “Pipeline” or whatever. That’s what I thought they wanted a video for.
I actually storyboarded that whole video. It’s the only video I storyboarded and directed myself. And even before MTV, I was on General Hospital one morning and everyone said, “We just saw your video, we just saw your video, it was awesome!” Which it wasn’t, but it was awesome to see a video! What had happened was that one of the cable channels put on a championship boxing match and one of the guys got knocked out in the first round. One of the guys in the booth had been searching for something to play and his hand landed on my video and he put it in, so everyone that tuned into the boxing match saw my video. So I was like, “Wow, maybe that’s why they had me do this!”
Then MTV started and my video was one of the first videos they played. I went into New York and they said, “We want you to go on MTV,” and I said, “What’s MTV?” I went into this crappy area of New York and it was truly a hole in the wall. The whole place must have been 20-by-20, maybe 25-by-25. I did an interview, walked out, and thought nothing of it.
AVC: Then MTV used the shattering mirror from that video as part of their early promos. It was like, “The new edgy music smash.”
RS: [Laughs.] That was our big budget expense for the video, 24 of those [mirrors].
AVC: You left General Hospital because the show was getting in the way of your band, touring and recording. So how did the movie Hard To Hold come out? Did somebody approach you, like, “You’re huge in music right now and you can act, so we should do a movie?”
RS: Yeah. It was one of those guys that said, [Uses an old-time Hollywood voice.] “We can make some money on this, kid.” And I thought the script was so awful that I threw it across the room; I remember physically throwing it across the room and saying, “This is a piece of shit.” Then they offered me a lot of money and I remember picking it up and saying, “I can make this work!” [Laughs.] Which I didn’t, because it was still a crappy movie, but I did my best in it and I still make jokes about it actually.
AVC: Like, “Well, that was a great career move”?
RS: Yeah. [Laughs.] Like I’ll make a joke with who is in Ricki And The Flash and who is working and singing and acting and directing and writing, so it has a little bit of a chance of being better than Hard To Hold! [Laughs.] I got a lot better ammunition this time.
The fans and a lot of people say they don’t like it when I make fun of Hard To Hold because a lot of them liked it. I mean, it wasn’t War And Peace, and they took it for the light, romantic comedy it was. It had a lot of good music in it and a lot of guys and women have said, “You know, dude, I liked that movie! It was great!” But I was expecting more and it wasn’t the right mix involved, I think.
AVC: You’ve said before that you gave up a part in a bigger movie to do that.
RS: That’s probably the only time I’ll say my ego got the better of me was when I did that film. I said, “I can make this work” after turning down a chance to do The Right Stuff.
AVC: Since you’ve had a long and successful music career, what is it about acting that still draws you?
RS: It all comes to one thing, the one center, the different art things, and it’s the same high. When I feel like I’ve nailed a scene, it’s the same feeling I have when I feel like I’ve nailed a song. When you perform and you do a show and everything is clicking and the audience is on, they both use the same thing. They both charge me in the same way.
AVC: But you don’t see a lot of people who can do both.
RS: Oh, there are actually a lot of actors who are excellent musicians, but you just don’t know it. A lot of actors do something else. Unless you’re like Meryl and go from movie to movie to movie, there is a lot of downtime as an actor. I know a lot of actors who started out as musicians and have very successful careers as actors, but most people don’t know them as musicians.
RS: Human Target was actually a great show. We did, like, eight episodes and then they canned it, but it was kind of cool. It was sci-fi and it had a plane—this big plane—and it had Frances Fisher, she was the secretary in it. I guess they didn’t think she was cute enough so they replaced her. I said, “Dude, she was such a great actor. This really sucks.” But it only went for eight episodes anyway, so it didn’t matter.
AVC: In High Tide, you were a surfer that was also kind of a private eye?
RS: It was great. We filmed the first series in New Zealand, which was really fun. It was a beautiful place and I took my whole family. The second season they shot in San Diego and the third season they shot in Ventura. But, yeah, it was good. The first season the scripts were pretty funny and pretty clever, but they started to deteriorate as the seasons went on, but the first ones were really good and everyone was into them; they had some funny stuff.
AVC: After High Tide and Human Target, there was a bit of a break before Californication came up, where you play a distorted version of yourself.
RS: I think it was a hangover from the reality shows. They wanted a real character that they could write something about and have fun with the character and play with it and I was up for that. I actually called them after I read the first scene they sent me; it was kind of normal stuff. I said, “I know what this show is about. I’m game for anything, so don’t hold back.” And they didn’t.
AVC: David Duchovny seems like he would be really fun on set.
RS: Yeah, they were all great. I’m sure there are jerks on set, but I haven’t met a lot of them. People who are working and are on successful shows are doing that for a reason and part of that reason is that they’re good people. They don’t have giant egos; I don’t know any except for a sycophant who has time for someone with a giant ego, and I haven’t met a lot of them actually. In fact I haven’t met any of them that I’ve worked with. Colin Farrell was a doll on True Detective.
RS: [Laughs.] Freaky.
AVC: A little bit. How did they make you look like that?
RS: They combed my hair and frayed it and put dots like I’d had a bad transplant. And they took tape and taped my temples and my jaw with elastic band to make it look like I had a bad face lift. And then they made me super, super tan, like fake tan, that kind of orange color.
AVC: That must have been fun to play.
RS: It was. I think playing against type, if you do it believably, it can be really effective and get much more notice than a tough guy playing a tough guy. I got sick of playing husbands and boyfriends because there was nothing there.
AVC: Like on the couple of sitcoms you did like Suddenly Susan, where you were the nice guy. But at least you were with Warren Zevon.
RS: Yeah, he was a doll, too; another great guy with a great dry sense of humor. We laughed so much on that show.
AVC: How did True Detective come about? Did they contact you for that?
RS: No, actually my agent called up this brilliant casting woman; she does all the really great shows. And he said, “How about Rick Springfield for this True Detective part?” and she was like, “No.” Then he said, “Now that you got that out of your system, let me tell you about what he’s been doing.” And he told her about the movie and all this kind of stuff. She turned right around and she said, “Let him come in and we’ll see what he can do.”
So I came in and read for this one role and she loved it; she flipped out. She said, “Dude, you’re perfect for this part,” but then called to tell me that it had been offered to some other actor and he had accepted. So she brought me back in for the Pitlor part, which actually, in retrospect, for me was a better part because it was more off the wall than the other part was. And I read for it again and they really liked it.
I just signed with [talent agency] ICM and said, “I come in with baggage; the name Rick Springfield comes with baggage.” And they said, “Every actor comes in with baggage. Every known actor comes in with baggage.” And they do; everyone has their perspective on what he or she can do or where he or she fits and you have to fight to get past that. Certainly doing roles like that will help. They know I can play something other than a musician, which is different for Jonathan Demme and Meryl Streep and a Diablo Cody script. A lot of the things people initially inquire about [for me] is for just a musician. But hopefully that’s changing.
AVC: Do you think you’ll act more after this? How do you see it playing out?
RS: Yeah, I definitely want to act more. I want to cut back on touring so it’s more special. I know there are acts, what do they call them? Vintage? Classic? They tour so much where you’re like, “I’ll catch them next year; they’ll be back.” I want to make it more of a draw than, “Oh, he’s coming back.” So I want to cut back on touring and do more writing and recording and acting. I want to do much more acting; I love it.