Sam Richardson may be best known for his comedic roles in “Veep,” “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” and “The Detroiters,” but this summer, the funny guy is taking on furry beasts in “Werewolves Within” and spike-shooting aliens in “The Tomorrow War.”
Playing skittish draftee Charlie, Richardson adds levity to “The Tomorrow War,” which follows high school teacher Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) as he is recruited by a group of soldiers from the future to fight a war in 2051 against deadly aliens threatening humanity.
While the film focuses on Dan and his time-traveling quest to save his family (and the planet), Richardson’s Charlie gets his own satisfying story arc, as the character goes from timid to triumphant, memorably pulverizing one of the White Spikes with a giant chainsaw.
“He’s introduced as this nervous guy, and then he hides from the aliens so he’s ashamed,” Richardson tells Variety. “And then with his moment of bravery at the end, that’s like a tentpole summer movie moment.”
Richardson likened the scene, a moment of ecstasy and catharsis for any viewer, to when Captain America lifts Thor’s hammer in “Avengers: Endgame.”
“It’s a big rescue moment, and it was really cool to get that,” Richardson says.
After the big success of “The Tomorrow War,” which debuted on Amazon Prime Video, Richardson is reportedly in talks to rejoin the crew for a sequel.
“It’s truly the best form of ‘playing pretend,’” Richardson says of filming the alien invasion movie. “Six-year-old Sam, who was sure he was Jean-Claude Van Damme, still wants to do more of that.”
Of course, Richardson hasn’t totally lost track of his comedy roots — he’s currently shooting “Senior Year” in Atlanta, which stars Rebel Wilson as a cheerleader who wakes up from a 20-year coma and returns to high school to finally claim the prom queen crown.
Richardson is also part of the star-studded ensemble for the Apple TV Plus series “The Afterparty,” which the actor describes the series as “a high school reunion murder mystery where everybody retells the story in their own genre of film, sort of like ‘Rashomon,’ but through different film genres.”
With a brand new season of “I Think You Should Leave” and voice acting credits on “HouseBroken,” “The Fungies” and “Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K.,” the actor has a lot on his plate. But, just like his “Tomorrow War” character, Richardson is leaning into his hero moment.
As an actor who’s mainly acted in comedies, what was it like starring in a blockbuster action movie like “The Tomorrow War”?
I have starred in comedic roles a lot, but I feel like Charlie in this movie is also a comedic role, juxtaposed against the tone of the movie. It was really fun and exciting to get to play in this genre, running from explosions and shooting machine guns and being scared all the time. I love action movies, I love sci-fi movies, so I got to be a fan within it as well as participate in it.
It’s a thrilling movie, but your character provides a healthy dose of comic relief. How much did you improvise?
It was pretty tightly written, but I got to improvise a lot actually. My first scene where I’m meeting Chris [Pratt]’s character, Dan, that’s mostly just an improvised monologue. [Director] Chris McKay was very open and excited for me to get to play around whenever I could and inject myself into the script.
Were there any parts of shooting “The Tomorrow War” that were harder than you expected?
Running through the streets of Atlanta repeatedly and shooting at nothing for, like, so many takes. It’s funny because when you watch the movie, there’s certainly a lot of running and shooting, but it’s a fraction of what we filmed. It feels like you’re doing this stuff for like five months, and then you’re watching like, it certainly doesn’t look like five months of running up a hill and downstairs and through smoke, and firing machine guns under a bridge and over a bridge and down a walkway and up a walkway and up a staircase.
Since so much of this movie was made in post-production, what was your reaction when you finally saw the movie, and especially your badass scene at the end, on the big screen?
It was really cool to have that moment that the film leads up to, where people applaud, because it pays off this character. It was so cool to see that and to hear people at the premiere clap for that moment because you get the beginning, middle and end of Charlie. He’s introduced as this nervous guy, and then he hides from the aliens, so he’s ashamed. With his moment of bravery at the end, that’s like a tentpole summer movie moment.
What was your standout moment from filming that was the most fun or the most exciting?
The scene where we all land in that pool. Getting to that set, which was on a soundstage on this Miami rooftop pool, with green screen all around the interior. I was in there underwater, holding my breath for like 40 seconds. It felt so cool. I was like, “This is Tom Cruise!” We also had two weeks of boot camp military training, where we trained with the guns and learned tactical movements and entering rooms, and those sort of things.
Are you looking to take on more action roles in the future?
It’s certainly something I hope to do more of. What I love about comedy is how it elicits a response, and you feel a natural connection with an audience. I think action does that as well. People, myself included, are excited to watch “Bad Boys For Life” and “The Avengers,” and are excited to watch “The Tomorrow War.” And the set pieces are so much fun to exist in. It’s truly the best form of “playing pretend”. Six-year-old Sam, who was sure he was Jean-Claude Van Damme, still wants to do more of that.
“Werewolves Within” came out the same day as “The Tomorrow War,” but debuted in theaters. What drew you to that role, and what was your experience working on a comedy horror film?
I really loved doing that movie. Reading the script, the energy of it felt really fun and interesting. It was a take that I hadn’t seen before in that genre, and I truly laughed at scenes. I loved the idea of a “Clue”-esque, “Hot Fuzz”-ish take on the horror genre, and to get to play the lead in a film like that was very exciting.
“I Think You Should Leave” has sort of a niche humor, but it’s also wildly popular. (The critically acclaimed show earned a WGA Award comedy/variety sketch series.) Is that popularity something that you expected when working on the show?
Not to that degree. I mean, [creators] Tim Robinson and Zack Kanin are the funniest people that I know, and I know a lot of funny people. There’s a certain confidence and patience that we have in the comedy, so seeing people attach themselves to it and really appreciate it, is really cool. It’s overwhelming, and I’m shocked, but not surprised that people love it.
People start to learn the language of comedy —- at first they might watch it and not get it. So you’re training the audience to expect something, and then you subvert that expectation. And then that elicits a response.
Tim Robinson has only put you in sketches that he is not in. Is there a particular reason for that?
No, not really. There is one sketch that we did together that didn’t make the season, but I think it’s going to exist digitally somewhere. But I think it’s just coincidental, like in the “Baby of the Year” sketch, there’s not really a place where he would have been, and he knows that I like that energy, so he wanted me to do it.
When you and Tim co-starred in “The Detroiters,” how much did you make each other break? Is it hard working with someone you know that well?
We’ve worked together for almost two decades, so we’d certainly break each other. But we also know each other’s comedic moves and know how to respond to them. It’s so rare to find someone who understands and complements your comedic style and voice like that.
When Tim and I met, he was 21 and I was 17 or 18. I was in his class at Second City, and we became such fast friends, because we just got each other. We went from that to doing shows together, and then moving to Chicago, where we would hang out every day and then do a main stage where we’d perform eight shows over six nights a week.
How much do you think improv and live performance affects your on-screen comedy?
When you’re performing improv and sketch for a live audience, you learn what works and what doesn’t, and you ingrain that into your bones. You become a strong performer the more reps you get, especially working in Detroit, where the audiences weren’t always as forgiving or patient as they were in Chicago. In Chicago, the audience knows that they’re going to see the Second City that’s a great tradition, like, “Woah, this is improv!” In Detroit, we’re playing to blue collar audiences, so people are like, “What is this?” So we had to learn to get them on our team really quickly. When you’re performing, you’re dictated by the audience a little bit, especially in improv. Even if you love an idea, you’re still gonna adjust it a little bit. Whether it works theoretically or not, you can’t help but to want to have that feedback.
So on that same token, when you’re doing it for film or TV, you know the rhythm of comedy and the timing of moments, but now you can change the scale of it. So you don’t have to be performing for the back row, you can have subtle moments. And also you have the option to do it without the feedback, so you’re performing it for yourself and what you think is the funniest thing in the moment. You can also do it multiple times to get it right, but the idea is that you’re performing as if you’ve never said those words before, which is just good acting. In improv, you actually have never said those words before — it’s listening and responding — so in film and TV, there’s a natural lightness to working.
You also had a role in “Promising Young Woman.” Have you had conversations with other men in comedy about how the film has changed their perception of what’s funny when it comes to topics of consent?
I truly haven’t, but I feel like the language of the “bro comedy,” hasn’t been like that for a while, you know, where the goal is, “I gotta get the girl and I gotta get laid tonight!” At least, certainly that’s not where my contemporaries live. But one thing that’s interesting is to hear the movie be described as “really frightening.” I’m like, “Well, it’s only frightening if you’re a date rapist.” I also love the idea that a lot of the date rapists appear as these “nice guys” in the movie. You can see a bro coming from a mile away, but it’s the “nice guys” who slip under the radar. So I appreciate the movie for its casting because it uncovers what’s behind the heroic charm of a lot of these “nice guys.”
In a recent interview with Variety, Julia Louis-Dreyfus said that she really missed playing Selina Meyer and would be interested in reprising the role. At the end of the show, she’s dead and you are the President. Would you be interested in playing Richard Splett again, and is there any chatter about doing that in some capacity?
I really would love to play Richard Splett again. For a while we were talking about what it would be like to see Richard’s rise to the presidency, like a spinoff show about Richard reaching his ultimate self. I don’t know how serious those talks were, and everybody’s working on something else. But if I got the call, I would do it for sure because I love that character.
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