Sam Richardson on Making ‘Detroiters’ With His Best Friend Tim Robinson, Idolizing Jean-Claude Van Damme and His Favorite Batman
There’s a face Sam Richardson makes often in The Afterparty, and it’s always a delight. As Aniq, the mild-mannered voice of reason on a show otherwise stacked with eccentrics, jerks and lost souls, the comic actor constantly wears a look of pained befuddlement, absorbing the oddness around him and trying to pretend it’s all normal.
Smart but shy, easily embarrassed while excessively well-meaning, Aniq returns for the Apple TV+ series’ second season, which begins July 12th. Once again, he finds himself in the middle of a murder mystery, although this time he isn’t the prime suspect. Instead, Aniq assists Detective Danner (Tiffany Haddish), who’s back as well, as they try to deduce who killed the groom at a wedding Aniq attended with his now-girlfriend Zoë (Zoë Chao). Like with Season One, the suspects tell their version of events, each episode a flashback from a different perspective, each rendered in a specific film genre or media style. One is done like a Wes Anderson film. Another is shot as if it was a noir. Richardson’s calm, steady presence holds the whole show together. Few actors are as funny while doing so little, his expressive reactions constantly hinting at the layers of anguish, anxiety and disbelief Aniq is hiding underneath that placid surface.
This special skill isn’t a surprise to anyone who’s been following the 39-year-old performer over the last decade. Splitting his time between Detroit and Ghana as a kid, Richardson studied improv at Second City in the Motor City, meeting Tim Robinson, who was one of his instructors and, soon after, his best friend. They eventually moved to different sides of the country but, encouraged by mutual buddy Jason Sudeikis, they reunited to make Detroiters, their terrific, underloved Comedy Central sitcom in which they played Sam and Tim, Detroit admen determined to get Tim’s father’s flailing firm back on the map. By that point, though, many viewers already knew Richardson from Veep, where he’d played Richard Splett, the one speck of sweetness among those jackals. Richard may not have been the brightest, but his decency was disarming — and also hilarious. That he ends up becoming President of the United States of America seemed preposterous, darkly comic and, also, weirdly gratifying.
Richardson often plays warm, unassuming characters — sometimes a bit nerdish — and it’s the same vibe he gives off over Zoom from his L.A. home. Frequently talking with his hands, laughing at himself, he tells me about how, growing up, he thought he was going to be a kung-fu action hero, only to decide that comedy was his destiny. “I was huge into musicals,” he recalls. “Outside of Rent, (they) aren’t always super-melodramatic — but even in that, the songs have jokes in them.”
It’s hard to avoid Richardson these days — even when you can’t see him. Besides The Afterparty, he’s a voice in the appealing animated comedy Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken. (He’s popular on animated shows, having worked on everything from BoJack Horseman to Velma to Clone High.) He pops up on his old pal Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave frequently, and he received an Emmy nomination for his change-of-pace role as a heel on Ted Lasso. But whoever he’s playing, whether an idiot or a schemer, he takes comedy seriously, dissecting what works and what doesn’t. During our conversation, he was often most passionate while geeking out about the intricacies of what makes things funny. He thinks about these things a lot, clearly.
Below, he talks to me about learning stillness, Richard’s trademark glasses, the challenges of filming The Afterparty and why he sympathizes with fellow nice guy Tom Hanks. Plus, he tells me about a particular Detroiters episode whose plot hit close to home.
You shot the second season of The Afterparty last year. You did Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken even longer ago. You’re currently in those Hotels.com spots. All these things were produced at different times, but they’re all coming out now. I can’t escape you.
When my family asks, “What are you up to?” I’m like, “Nothing — oh, actually, this thing that I did a while ago is coming out now.” It’s hard to keep track. But I enjoy working, so working is not working to me — it’s getting to do what I’ve wanted to try and do my whole life, and I’m at this point now where I get to do it. Of course, I’m not just taking anything, but I do pinch myself: “Oh, I get to work on all these cool things.”
Are you able to forget about something like The Afterparty after you film it? Or are you constantly wondering, “How did that thing turn out?”
I wish I was totally in that Zen space where I could be like, “Done, all right, we’ll see what it becomes.” But I’m always going to be like, “How did that turn out? Is this going to feel good? Am I going to be happy with what I did here?” You look back, it’s like, “Oh, I’ve learned so much since I did that. That’s an old habit I had — I’m doing it there — but I’ve corrected it.” (Laughs) Luckily, I feel Afterparty doesn’t have those things.
After the first season of The Afterparty, you said in an interview, “I’m trying to learn more stillness.” What did you mean?
Sometimes I watch myself in things, and I am consciously frenetic. Aniq is frenetic in some ways, because he’s taking in a lot of input and redirecting it and absorbing it and figuring things out, but I want to make sure that that is conscious, always. But stillness, you watch films from the ‘50s, ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s, great stars are able to just hold a moment — and it all happens internally. So I want to make sure that I use that lesson and do that.
I feel my face can do a lot of work. Gesticulations are very helpful for conveying information and attitude and unspoken social cues — as I say this, I’m speaking with my hands. (Laughs) But with animation, it’s all the voice, so whatever things you do physically, it’s to get the voice to where it is — the body, you use it as a tool, but it’s a behind-the-scenes tool. But when it’s on camera, everything you do is part of the performance. So I want to always try and take the energy that you use for voiceover or animation and put that in your live-action or on-camera performance, but cut the strings off. I’m always trying to calibrate what I’m doing with my body — it’s always a work in progress.
With comedy, it seems being more animated makes sense, whereas with drama, there’s a gravitas to being still. Also, Richard on Veep is a character I think of as being very still. So you can definitely do that.
I think the spectrum is wider with comedy, because you want to be able to hold that gravitas but then also undercut it. With Richard, he was very still — there’s so much happening around him, and everybody’s out to cut each other down, and everybody’s panicked. But Richard’s never really panicked — when he is panicked, it’s a different state of being for him. His stillness is very much him absorbing his space — Richard absorbs more than he projects. That’s interesting to think about: I’m like, “Oh yeah, Richard was very still,” but that’s what made him great. That’s part of what I loved about him — maybe I am wanting to take that piece and make sure I have it in my toolbox to apply it to other characters.
When you auditioned for Veep, how much did they tell you about who Richard was?
(Before getting) Richard, I hadn’t really done anything, so it was sides for an audition. I’d auditioned for Veep a couple times before, hadn’t gotten it, so I was looking at this thing and I was like, “Oh, I think I’ve got an idea who this is. He is a character who is so different from what Selina’s used to. She’s in Iowa and the rest of her team is at Mike’s wedding, so she is with this idiot who doesn’t know how she normally operates — a backcountry rube.” I’m like, “Okay, I think I can do that.”
I’ll say the character evolved when he then joined the group. But it was about interpreting, “What’s the best juxtaposition?” Having watched the show and knowing the show, what is the energy of everybody else? And, then, how do you counter that? (Selina) is a dynamic person, so if a person (around her) is not doing the right thing, it’s easy to push him aside. So he had to be very bold and front-facing and stepping out there to do the wrong thing. But once he’s then locked into the group, it was more about him sitting back and then sniping in — not necessarily always bad ideas, but ideas that don’t fit the grain of what’s happening. So then it became a Double Dutch versus a car crash. (Laughs)
Did you think you’d nailed that audition?
Honestly, yes. The other two times I did those auditions, I was like, “I don’t think this is right.” But when I did the Richard audition, I was like, “Yeah, that feels good — the timing and everything.” Armando Iannucci was in the audition, and he was very excited. And the process of the show was one that matched my training (in) Second City and improv and sketch-writing. The show is written, but then it’s rewritten through the rehearsal period, and then you re-improvise it — that was my whole background. So getting to put pieces of what I thought Richard was in the script, before the script is fully formed, was something that I was like, “Oh, I’m very familiar with this process.” It was the best-case scenario for me.
Tell me about Richard’s glasses. They’re so integral to who he is.
I wear contacts — I never wear glasses — but for this audition, I was like, “You know what? I’ll just wear my glasses.” And it worked, so I was like, “Well, I’m not going to lose these glasses!” So in (Richard’s) first season, I’m wearing my actual glasses, and then when I become a cast member, the glasses became props.
I remember I wore a three-piece suit for the audition. (Laughs) I found this three-piece suit in a thrift store — “Oh, this is a good fit” — and so I wore it as Richard. And the glasses really informed (who he was) because there was an air of sophistication that you’re able to undercut with unfortunate behavior.
The glasses also conveyed a sweetness about Richard. Among all those people on the show, he was the one character who felt approachable.
I felt the vulnerability — even for myself to wear glasses and not wear contacts and have that shield. It’s very Clark Kent — an approachable vulnerability.
The cast of Veep would sometimes talk about meeting people in D.C. who were obsessed with the show and saw themselves in the characters. Did anyone tell you they were Richard?
Not really. I always say that Richard is like a character from West Wing — he’s so well-meaning but doesn’t fit in that world. (Laughs) In politics, you have to have a backbone in order to get anywhere in that world. So what you would normally hear from people is like, “Oh, Dan Egan, I am that guy” — there’s an ego to that. But nobody would admit that they’re Richard: “It’s not me, but I know this guy.” (Laughs)
With The Afterparty, much of the fun — and the challenge — must be doing the different genres that are the basis for each episode.
With these things, the exercise is “How do you incorporate and embody that genre and style?” I try and watch (examples of that particular genre) to find what the tropes are — that’s the game or the trick of it. But the conceit of (each) episode is that this is this person’s imagination who’s telling the story — so how do they feel? How do they see themselves as this figure in this story? How does my character fit into their narrative? And in that narrative, what is the trope that they’re assigning to you? So you’re playing that and then trying to be truthful to your own character, but you’re in an interpreted reality. So you really want to hit those tropes so the audience recognizes it very clearly — but you’re also playing to heighten the story of the character who’s trying to explain themselves and make themselves the hero of the story.
For Season One, it was all about, “Wow, this guy’s a dreamboat — then he’s a feckless weakling.” But then in this season, (in) Paul Walter Hauser’s noir, I was very much trying to get a Peter Lorre coat of paint on Aniq, (the type of character) who exists in these noir films and (is) very shifty. (Hauser’s character) Travis doesn’t really know Aniq, so to him, he’s just a character in his world who’s serving (his story), which we all do.
You have talked about how Detroit informed your comedic style. But I was curious about your upbringing in Ghana. Is there a Ghanaian comedic sensibility?
In all perfect honesty, I’m not sure. I’m always curious if what I do here makes it there, because it’s not advertised the same way. Unless it’s a bold, big-hit-success thing, are they seeing it? However, being in Ghana, people who do know me and recognize me, it’s like I’m a big star, and I’m like, “Oh, wow, that’s great.” I was in a KFC in Ghana late night with my cousins, and I got approached (by some fans) — “You’re very funny!” — and I wasn’t expecting it at all. I’m like, “Surely you don’t know my stuff — unless I’m Eddie Murphy, you’re probably not seeing it.” But, no, the currency of entertainment can travel so far and so quickly.
When I was growing up there, there was a video club, and I would bring VHS tapes and essentially sell them to the video club — I would get free rentals. As an eight-year-old, that was my business — my dad would bring me tapes, I’d watch the tapes, and then I would take them to (the video club) and then get credits and get paid a little bit of money. I was the conduit for American and Western entertainment, but it was very limited. My brain still thinks of it that way, but it’s not the case anymore — everybody streams everything.
So what movies were you selling?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II. (Laughs) A lot of action movies. I had so many movies — movies were my whole life and still are. I don’t use DVDs anymore, but I had one of those album things just packed full of DVDs. Tuesdays, I used to go to Best Buy and just buy whatever new movie was out. I used to do that with VHS as well.
Were comedies part of the mix, too?
It was a lot of comedies, but a lot of action movies. You’re talking about every Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Jean-Claude Van Damme ran my house as far as I was concerned. (Laughs) I thought I was going to be Jean-Claude Van Damme when I grew up. I was like, “I’m going to be RoboCop. I’m going to be Double Impact.” I was taking martial-arts classes — me and my friend were in Taekwondo, and we’re like, “We’re about to be big-time action (stars).” We would wear denim jeans and black T-shirts all the time. (Laughs) We were like, “Yeah, we’re so cool.”
The idea of being in show business, I think I always wanted to be an action cop — but then I realized, “Oh, you can pretend to be an action cop in movies.” But I remember my dad took me to see Dreamgirls on tour in Detroit. It was at the Masonic Temple, and watching that, I was like, “Oh, yes, live theater, performance … this is what I want to do.” I was obsessed with Dreamgirls — I was like, “This is truly magical.” So I wanted to do theater — that seemed real accessible. The idea of doing TV and movies was like, “Five people get to do that — it’s not real, but this is tangible. I can see this.”
When I got to high school, I found out there was a play audition, and I got in the play. And then my friend was taking classes at Second City and I was like, “Oh, I know Second City.” So I started taking classes at Second City — I was 15, 16 — and then that became the focus. And while I was doing that, I was in high school theater and then was trying to go to theater school for college. I went to Wayne State, but while I was doing that, I was like, “Well, actually, Second City, I’m already working in theater, I’m working in comedy.” So that became the path.
Detroiters feels like it’s finally getting the attention it deserved. You and Tim Robinson are such good friends and played best friends on the show, and I think that can tempt people to think, “Oh, they’re just playing themselves.” I imagine it was more complex than that.
We are best friends, so that translates into our comedy shorthand. We are always thinking about what comedy is, professorially, as far as you can go without being fully pretentious about it. (Laughs) We were at Second City together performing, and then Tim moved to New York, I moved to L.A. — and then the idea of doing a show was like, “Oh, I guess we can, but the approach is to be ourselves.”
We always say the conceit of Detroiters is “Sam and Tim if we were half as lucky and twice as dumb.” So every bit of it is comedy, with the underpinning of it being that these guys love each other very much — too much, which is true to us. (Laughs)
But it’s all very specific comedy — there’s no loose paper in Detroiters. Every bit is something we pored over: “How does this affect Tim? What is a Tim thing here? How would Real Tim react? And how do we heighten that into this? How would Real Sam react? How do we heighten that to then make it blend? And, then, what is the world outside of them? What are the forces that are making them behave this way? What are they looking for that makes them behave to try and affect the world around them?” It’s all very specific in how we would approach that. And then also trying to add in these elements — we call them the “hot beer moments” — where it’s like, “What’s a very Simpsons-esque, ridiculous thing that happens? Sam and Tim are ridiculous, but what’s the thing that happens outside of them that then they look at and they’re like, ‘That’s ridiculous. What is that? That’s so stupid’?’”
Specific bits, like the scene in which Tim inadvertently keeps cockblocking Sam when women come up to talk to him, were inspired by real-life events. Was Detroiters a way for you two to work through issues in your friendship?
In the chalkboard phase of what episodes we wanted to write, you bring up the idea, “Oh, Tim is the worst wingman — he’s a reverse wingman, he’s a cockblock like nobody’s business.” And then in the writing of it, you can’t help but dissect what that is and where that comes from — it’s a little bit of a therapy session where you’re like, “Well, what is this character’s motivation?” Because you’re not just retelling a story — you’re imbuing the character with these traits — so when you ask yourself the “why,” there has to be a real “why.” In the exercise of reproducing it, you have to go into the psychology of it and the impetus for these things.
But it was never “Well, I never told you this, but I felt this way…” We are very much heart-on-the-sleeve — we tell each other whatever we think. At the time when that (cockblocking) would happen in real life, we would perform six nights a week and then, on the seventh night, we would hang out. And then, whenever we’d go out, I was single, Tim married his high-school sweetheart — and then, you do the show, and women would come up (to me) and be like, “Hey, I just wanted to talk to you…” And Tim, he’d be so annoyed. (Laughs)
One of my favorite Detroiters episodes involves you trying to impress this Black woman, Angel, who makes fun of Sam because he “talks proper.” And so Sam, essentially, tries to talk in a tougher, more “street” way. It’s a really funny, sharp episode about code-switching: How much were you drawing from your own life experiences?
It does come from reality — that’s me doing a dissection of myself and how I speak and the interpretation of “proper.” In my real life, I’ve been called “proper”: “Oh, you talk proper.” And I’m like, “Well, I speak like I speak” — and even in saying “speak,” it’s like, “No, you ‘talk.’”
My relationship with code-switching… my background is American, African-American and African. There’s three worlds. Even in Africa, you can be Ghanaian, you can be Ghanaian-British, all these things. There’s so many layers and so many avenues that, as a kid, it’s a blend of all those things I feel. But the code-switching gets very confused and confusing. Even the interpretation of Season One, you have some people watching the show and be like, “Well, he (wouldn’t) talk like that — he’s from Detroit.” I’m like, “Well, I am from Detroit.”
Sam is very confident — that’s one of his characteristics — but then it can be pulled out from under him in an instant. It’s something that I deal with in my life: What is appropriate to code-switch? How necessary is code-switching? Is it to make the people around you more comfortable? Is it to make you blend in? (That episode) was a dissection of that. And so with Sam getting lost in it — you’re changing yourself to then be with someone else, but it’s something you can’t keep up, and he doesn’t know how to do it. It’s not how he behaves. That is a real-life thing that we’re talking about in that show.
Tom Hanks is someone you’re sometimes compared to, especially in terms of both being nice guys. In recent years, he’s expressed annoyance in interviews, insisting that he’s more than “just” a nice guy. I wondered if you relate to that annoyance.
I’ll say, in my friend group, the people who are closest to me and know me, they’re not like, “Sam, oh, he’s the nice guy.” Because I can be as mean as I need to be. (Laughs) But at my core, I am kind and nice. Always the fear is that these things are interpreted as being very one-dimensional — very nice, but not containing multitudes. I do truly feel that for Tom Hanks — like, Road to Perdition, he’s a gangster, he’s a murderer in that movie. Nobody talks about that movie, but they should and he’s brilliant in it.
But how you get in the door is people see you as “Oh, he can do this,” and it keeps on growing as that. I do find kindness the better way to live, but as an actor, I’m not just trying to be myself all the time. I’m trying to instill myself into things, but I’m not just trying to one-to-one: “Now here’s Sam Richardson as a space captain. Here’s Sam Richardson as a president.” I do fear the idea of being only seen as a nice guy — with that comes the interpretation of “It’s uninteresting,” which I don’t agree with. It’s Clark Kent and Superman: Clark Kent is Clark Kent because he’s nice and unassuming, and so nobody looks at him, but Superman is very competent, bold and powerful.
This is a good segue to me asking you about Batman. I know you’re a big fan of the character. But if you had to pick only one actor who’s played him, which one would you say is your Batman?
That’s a tough question, but Michael Keaton is my Batman. That’s the movie I grew up watching and I loved it so much. His demeanor, he was able to be Bruce Wayne. The idea for the movies — (a Batman actor) “had” to be a buff action star — he didn’t have to be that. We were all like, “Yeah, that’s Batman.” And he’s funny.
That seems a fitting choice for you: Keaton was a comic actor who proved he could do something more dramatic and action-y with Batman.
Yeah, he can do other things. People forget that Michael Keaton does comedy. You watch Night Shift, that’s not Batman. Mr. Mom, you’re like, “No way.” No way Beetlejuice is Batman. It’s all performance. Comedic actors being able to do drama — there’s two masks, the frowny and the smile. You can’t have one without the other. Good dramatic acting has to have an undercurrent of humor and it has to have levity to it — otherwise, it’s melodrama and it’s not real. And then the other side, too — with comedy, if it doesn’t have the underpinning of emotion, then there’s no balance and there’s no stakes. There’s no anchor.
Giving up those action-hero dreams as a kid and going into comedy: Do you remember a specific moment of realizing, “I can do this — I can be funny”?
I was 14 when I got that first onstage laugh, and I was like, “Uh oh, this is it.” It is an instant barometer — immediately when you are affecting the audience, they laugh, they’ll tell you. It’s bad manners to look at your audience — it breaks the illusion — but you can hear your audience.
You do lots of acting now where there is no audience. How do you know when something’s working without those immediate laughs?
(I have) the experience of honing and tuning my comedic voice and timing in front of audiences for so long. I gained so much knowledge of my comedic voice doing cruise ships in front of a 1,500-seat audience twice a week. I already knew what funny was, but that (helped) me really tune the dials. And then touring with Second City and going all over America, (you) tune the dials: “I know what works here. I know what works there. I know what works for me.” And then doing bits in the van where you’re with other comedians, you’re laughing, but you’re also trying to do the bit — if you laugh, you break the bit. You have a core understanding of what funny is.
So by this point, I feel I do understand comedy enough — or I feel I understand my own comedy enough — where I’m confident in knowing how to apply it. I feel I have those things tuned enough now — and, of course, we’re always growing, we’re always learning. You try and put on a new layer of comedy paint: “I find this to be hilarious. Can I do this? Does this translate, the idea of what’s funny here? And is my body able to convey the idea?”
But you’ve also done more dramatic work: You got an Emmy nod for playing Edwin Akufo on Ted Lasso. That character was also great because you got to prove you don’t just portray nice guys. Do you ever worry there’s an industry perception of you that’s holding you back professionally?
If those conversations were happening, they didn’t happen to my face, but definitely they happened in my mind: “Do you not think I can do this because I’m a nice guy?” I wonder what things I’m not included in because people feel that I don’t have the capacity to do these things.
I guarantee nobody would’ve cast me as Edwin Akufo if they didn’t know me. But (Ted Lasso co-creators) Jason (Sudeikis), Joe Kelly, Brendan Hunt — they know me. And they’re like, “Oh, he can do Edwin Akufo.” But anybody (else), they (only) like Sam Richardson from what they know of Sam Richardson.
So, were you anxious going into Ted Lasso, just to prove to people you can do a role like that?
Not super-anxious, but definitely excited to do it. The anxiousness is “I’ve got to make sure I do it well so that I get to do it more.” But the environment was so safe to begin with. My biggest concern was doing the accent — it’s a familial accent, but I’m also doing other things with it. There’s an affectation (that represents) the airs he’s putting on. But then also: What’s his upbringing? So he’s Ghanaian, but he’s Ghanaian probably educated in either the States or in boarding school in London. He’s playing sweet and nice (initially), but then he’s going to turn — he’s going to be nasty. I was like, “I got the comedy — how do I make sure his voice sounds real?”
That professorial thing you mentioned earlier about comedy — it sounds like you’re the same way with acting in general. Whatever form you’re working in, that’s your thing: You like to dissect.
It really is. I don’t write notes in my script, but I write them in my head.