Sam Richardson Has Always Been Ready for Primetime

·10 min read

Sam Richardson’s first paid acting gig quickly went south. Loading into a Ford Windstar with his mother, older brother and childhood friend Lamar, he headed down Interstate 75 from his hometown of Detroit for a semester work program at Disney World, where he was eager to join the cast of Festival of the Lion King.

“Not the Broadway musical,” he clarifies, 19 years later. “It’s, like, inspired by that — those same kinds of costumes — but it’s a stage show at Animal Kingdom.”

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Once his travel companions had flown back north, leaving him in Orlando with the aging minivan he’d just put another 1,200 miles on, Richardson discovered that the theme park had something else in mind. “Oh no, no, no. Who told you that?” he recalls hearing, and then: “That’s an Equity job. You can’t do that.” He would spend the next four months ushering tourists into Dinosaur: The Ride instead, bunking with a casually racist line cook who was later fired from Epcot’s France Pavilion over his aggressive use of the term “Freedom Fries.”

The ordeal proved a rare lapse in foresight. Despite a clear penchant for playing flaky optimists on TV series Veep and Detroiters, Richardson has been busy planning his whole life. By the time he was 8, he’d already targeted a career in comedy, taking careful note of the well-trodden path, from Chicago’s Second City improv to Saturday Night Live to Hollywood, charted by his favorite actors (namely, the cast of Ghostbusters). And though his own course has deviated some, he’s starting to see similar results. In the eight years since his first stolen scene on HBO Emmy winner Veep, Richardson has segued from background player to burgeoning leading man, accruing A-list advocates and a string of choice projects — including a starring role alongside Tiffany Haddish in the Apple TV+ miniseries The Afterparty (out Jan. 28).

“He’s an unsurpassed comedic actor,” says Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who worked with Richardson for five seasons on the improv-heavy Veep set. “There are lots of really good actors, but not many who can jump into the deep end like that — while also being such an affable human.”

Afterparty creator Chris Miller, who locked Richardson into the comedic whodunit before filling out its ensemble, is similarly enamored: “I don’t see anything holding him back from being America’s sweetheart,” he says. “Sam’s got the chops, the ambition, the range — and no one has a bad thing to say about him. He’s his generation’s Tom Hanks.”

Sam Richardson - Credit: Photographed by Yuri Hasegawa
Sam Richardson - Credit: Photographed by Yuri Hasegawa

Photographed by Yuri Hasegawa

***

Over lunch in early January, on the patio of a Burbank cafe sandwiched between a Panda Express and an empty Jenny Craig, Richardson says comparisons are something that he doesn’t think too much about, though he’s starting to wonder if maybe he should.

“One thing I’ve been careful to not plan on is emulating anyone else’s career,” he says, two days shy of his 38th birthday. “As a Black man in comedy, I feel like there’s truly no archetype for me. I hope that doesn’t mean I get to some level where it’s like, ‘Nope! No more space!’ I’ve been working really hard to believe that’s not going to be the case.”

Within minutes of meeting Richardson, I recognize the traits of a fellow Michigander. He’s apologizing to our server for not immediately knowing his order, and then requests an entree-size salad even though he claims he isn’t at all hungry. “That’s polite, right?” he asks. Richardson dials down the dimmer on his sunny demeanor only once, to mock a passing sports car — rolling his eyes at the flashy vehicle and the extra $50 its driver spent on one of the newly ubiquitous black California license plates.

But labeling Richardson just another “nice Midwestern guy” would slight an otherwise unique upbringing. Throughout childhood, he ping-ponged between the Motor City, where his father was a successful restaurateur, and West Africa. There, his mother, the daughter of a Ghanaian chief, brought him home for holidays, summers and even two years of elementary school. His parents were, and remain, together, but their unorthodox setup made it easier for the youngest of four (three half-siblings, all via his dad) to consider a future outside Detroit.

“It kind of prepared me for this life,” says Richardson, who shares a Lake Hollywood home with his longtime girlfriend, Nicole, and their two cats: 15-year-old Gus and a lingering stray they’ve named Conan (after O’Brien, not the Barbarian). “Because acting is a weird thing. You just tell people, ‘Oh, hey, I’m going away to work for the next three months, but I’ll be back!’ ”

“The first year I was auditioning [for SNL] the same time as Jay Pharoah, and that sort of one-at-a-time-ism with Black people was still very much entrenched over there,” Richardson recalls without resentment. - Credit: Photographed by Yuri Hasegawa
“The first year I was auditioning [for SNL] the same time as Jay Pharoah, and that sort of one-at-a-time-ism with Black people was still very much entrenched over there,” Richardson recalls without resentment. - Credit: Photographed by Yuri Hasegawa

Photographed by Yuri Hasegawa

Ghana felt far from formative at the time. It felt far from everything. Richardson was more concerned with his American care packages, stuffed with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures and VHS tapes of Hulk Hogan wrestling matches, than he was with being well-traveled. So, he wasn’t bothered when the trips stalled once he started attending a private Jesuit high school in Detroit. After graduation, his Disney detour and an abbreviated tenure studying theater at Detroit’s Wayne State University, Richardson began classes at Detroit’s Second City outpost.

His first instructor would become one of his most frequent collaborators. “I felt like a bad teacher because everything Sam did had me cracking up, and all the other students noticed,” recalls Tim Robinson, creator and star of Netflix cult sketch show I Think You Should Leave. “We’ve been best friends ever since.”

Richardson ultimately left to do two tours with the Second City players on Norwegian Cruise Line — “Working maybe five hours a week but making $900 for it,” he says, “I was like, ‘I’m a Rockefeller!’ but saved nothing” — before getting tapped for the Chicago mother ship. That reunited him with Robinson, who’d joined a year prior. The two worked eight shows a week, lingered at bars until close and did what all 20-something Chicago comics do: try to get on SNL.

Video evidence of Richardson’s work from those years is hard to come by online, but he established himself as a young man willing to use his entire body to get a laugh. Among his early sketches, “The Artistic Stripper” had him work up a sweat in a hot-pink Speedo while performing an interpretive dance to Bryan Adams’ “Heaven.” Something caught Lorne Michaels’ eye, because Richardson was eventually asked to try out for SNL. But after two invites and just as many unsuccessful auditions, he decided to stop chasing the show.

“It just didn’t happen,” he says. “The first year I was auditioning the same time as Jay Pharoah, and that sort of one-at-a-time-ism with Black people was still very much entrenched over there. I could have stayed at Second City, but it would have just been to try to audition for SNL again. And I wasn’t turning this thing that I loved into something transactional.”

He doesn’t discuss SNL — or other setbacks, of which there have been few — with anything resembling lingering resentment. Even the unabridged version of his Disney semester includes some kind words for the shitty roommate. Richardson’s spirits, like his smile, are coated in Kevlar. And with that armor, he decamped to L.A. in 2012, where a recurring part on the final season of The Office led to the most important guest role he’d ever book.

Veep wasn’t supposed to be Richardson’s big break. But as hapless aide Richard Splett in a season three back-and-forth with Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer as she signed books for would-be Iowa Caucus voters, he left the comedy legend in awe. “I remember saying to [series creator] Armando Iannucci, ‘We’ve got to get him or he’s going to be scooped up by somebody else — and then I’m really going to be pissed off,’ ” Louis-Dreyfus says all these years later.

Richardson with pal Tim Robinson in Detroiters (left) and in Veep (right) with Julia Louis-Dreyfus: “So much of that scene is a testament to his improv skills.” - Credit: Courtesy Of Comedy Central; Courtesy Of HBO
Richardson with pal Tim Robinson in Detroiters (left) and in Veep (right) with Julia Louis-Dreyfus: “So much of that scene is a testament to his improv skills.” - Credit: Courtesy Of Comedy Central; Courtesy Of HBO

Courtesy Of Comedy Central; Courtesy Of HBO

Richardson was upped to series regular the next season, a gig he balanced with Detroiters, a self-referential comedy that he and Robinson had created for Comedy Central. The latter wouldn’t have anywhere near the same reach as Veep, but for two years it afforded him time in his hometown with his best friend and a job where the pair could play just that. “The note we kept getting from the network was, like, ‘Can these two characters not be with each other all the time?’ ” recalls Robinson. “And our response was always, ‘Well, what’s the fun in that?’ ”

Veep wrapped in 2019, having brought Richardson a Screen Actors Guild Award for his work in the ensemble. But Detroiters was canceled after just two seasons, collateral damage for a floundering cable channel. That’s the one thing that still doesn’t sit well with Richardson. On the occasion he’s recognized or approached in public — a supporting role in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, of all things, gets a lot of mileage — he regularly responds, “Oh, thank you! Go watch Detroiters, please!”

***

“I want to play a douche so bad,” Richardson announces between mouthfuls of the salad he didn’t want. “There’s nothing funnier to me than unearned confidence. And I don’t know if there’s a reluctance to see me do that, but I do feel like people don’t reach out to me for those things.”

There is a recurring theme to his body of work: many characters who possess the same, sweet Sam-ness he projects in person. But, of late, more collaborators share his enthusiasm to skirt that typecasting. Jason Sudeikis, an executive producer and recurring player on Detroiters, offered him one of his more unlikable characters to date as petulant billionaire Edwin Akufo on the second season of Ted Lasso. “I think some people stopped and thought, ‘Wait a minute. That’s the same guy?’ ” says Richardson. “I start out semi-suave, but I go full asshole by the end.”

Both men were thrilled with the results. “Sam brings the same enthusiasm absolutely everywhere you put him,” says Sudeikis, who, when pressed for another example, recounts a time Richardson pulled out all the stops for an annual fundraiser Sudeikis puts on in his native Kansas City. “Sam had planned four or five songs, everything from the Freddie Mercury part of ‘Under Pressure’ to a Stevie Wonder cover, and he went out that morning to the Salvation Army and bought five full outfits so he could do a complete wardrobe change for every song.”

Richardson in The Afterparty - Credit: Courtesy of Aaron Epstein/Apple Tv+.
Richardson in The Afterparty - Credit: Courtesy of Aaron Epstein/Apple Tv+.

Courtesy of Aaron Epstein/Apple Tv+.

A number of other new credits are diversifying the sides of Richardson that audiences see. Emerald Fennell, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Promising Young Woman, added Richardson to her revenge thriller’s call sheet of lovable TV actors — including Adam Brody, Bo Burnham and Chris Lowell — cast as sexual predators. And now, Afterparty, a slapstick murder mystery that THR critic Angie Han called “a genre-hopping blast,” hinges on the possibility that nice-guy Sam Richardson could believably pull a Keyser Söze in the denouement. This barely perceptible tension, a device to keep viewers watching for more than just laughs, is something Richardson is eager to duplicate as his career evolves.

“When I think about longevity, I think about what it means for an audience — and that’s wanting to not see the same thing over and over,” he says, momentarily serious before reaching for one last joke. “Assholes and unhinged maniacs? Those are settings I can access.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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