In just the past year, Sam Richardson has traveled through time to fight future aliens in The Tomorrow War, hosted little buff boys competitions on I Think You Should Leave, attempted to poach one of Ted Lasso’s best players, and now, in his most recent role as Aniq in Apple TV+’s The Afterparty, been accused of murder (gasp). It’s hard to believe the hopelessly romantic escape-room designer could be capable of such a thing, but The Afterparty requires its cast to present multiple versions of their characters in a Rashomon-style challenge, and Aniq bounces between romantic hero, lovable nerd, and drunken menace depending on which character’s head we’re in. Richardson relished the complexity of a process not unlike the improv games he learned to play as a high schooler. He chatted with us about how much he’d like to attend his own reunion, removing all that permanent marker from his face, and which Tom Hanks movie he’d like to star in. This will all make sense, I promise.
Between The Afterparty and Yellowjackets, high-school reunions are having a moment. I’ve never been to one, have you?
I haven’t, either, and I’ve wanted to go, but every time it fell at a point where I didn’t have the leeway to leave work. This year would be my 20-year reunion, so it would’ve been a great one to go to, but I don’t think they’re gonna have it. I would go and make it a big Apple promotion. [Laughs.] And one person will get 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 little bit. There wasn’t a lot of teenage-boy posturing to try to impress girls. I was friends with a lot of different groups of people: I was kind of an athlete, but I would always leave the team because of theater stuff. I was training with the football team, but when I found out about the high-school plays and musicals, I was like, “Oh, there’s musicals and stuff here? I’ll see you later.” And then I was throwing shot put and discus, and I was like, “Oh, the spring musical? I’ll see you later.” And I was on the soccer team and I was like, “More plays? I’ll see you later.” Really unreliable as a teammate as far as sports go, 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 got into the plays, I was like, Oh, this is a real thing I can do. It’s time for the auditions, and I’ll prepare a song — Mulan, “Be a Man,” Donny Osmond singing — and it wasn’t at all what that audition needed. But I absorbed musical theater and performance early on. I was essentially raised by television, and the dynamics of comedy was something I always studied. Even if my family didn’t know I was a funny person, my cousin Dwayne was always like, “Yeah!” I’d do a subtle joke and nobody would get it, people would correct me or lecture me, and I’m like, Yeah, I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say. I said it because it’s a joke. But my cousin Dwayne would always be like, “That’s the funniest thing.”
The reality of doing something with it didn’t occur to me until my friend Pete Jacobs was in classes at Second City. He was a senior; I was a freshman. I went to see his show, and I was like, Wait a minute. I went up for the jam one time when I was 15 — like, what are you doing getting onstage? — and They were doing this game called “A Conducted Story.” You’d be improvising a story and then point at somebody else, and then they’d take over the story right from where the last person left off. I remember Kirk Hanley pointed to me, and I had a line that was like, “Unbeknownst to him, of course, but beknownst.” And the audience was like, “Yeah!” I was like, This is real. I can do this. And then I was Second City obsessed from there on because of my ego and my need to be loved. I am essentially joking, but I started taking classes when I was 15, and it was just lights out from there.
I started taking 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 … fanciful?
Fanciful, exactly. There’s 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 from a movie because I’ve never worked a job. The things you’re drawing from are so limited. But if you’re an improviser young, these experiences will automatically filter into the improv structures in your brain. You’re like, That’s a human trait, and that’s a work trait. You can’t help but observe these things.
Did you get to improvise on the set of The Afterparty?
With the show being a murder mystery, you can’t go too far off the rails, but with Phil Lord and Chris Miller, they encourage zhuzhing or making it your own. They have a lot of trust in their cast. Jamie Demetriou — who I had watched in Stath Lets Flats, and I was like, My God, this guy is so funny — to watch him in his scenes when he plays Walt? It’s so brilliantly funny. The character is supposed to be somebody nobody’s paying attention to, but you can’t help but pay attention to him. It’s a perfect juxtaposition. And so much 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 know each other 19 years — we get to make that relationship real.
And then there’s shirtless Dave Franco in a blazer.
I think they’re doing a good job of covering his nipples because they are hypnotic. You know, I catch myself just staring at Dave Franco’s nipples like, “Oh, sorry. Uh, can we take that back? I don’t know what happened — I’ve lost an entire day!”
Aniq wakes up with permanent marker all over his face. Did you have any say in what was drawn on it?
No, that was set because there’s some clues in there. But what’s weird is when we did the makeup on the first day, they had this special marker that’s supposed to come off really easy. So they would draw it on me, and then we would do these stamps, so the design would be consistent every day. That’s the hard part also: If this whole thing takes place over the course of a night, and you’re filming eight episodes in three months, it has to match every time. The first day we did the marker, it was like, Okay, now it’s gonna rub off. And it just wouldn’t come off. We had to use this special oil and scrub it. It would take an hour to get out of that stuff every night.
Yes, my body said, We gotta make new skin! You know when you’re at the bottom of your trash bag and it’s like, “Make sure you refill”? It said that on my forehead.
Is it a mindfuck to do multiple takes of the same scene in different genres? Did you have a reference or anything that grounded you for each one?
That was part of the most fun of it: retracing those steps and redoing them in whatever genre or style and knowing the tropes of those things. And also playing into how they view my character. Sorry to talk about improv more, 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 reimprovise that scene with all the same beats, but you do a Western style.
So if you’re at the coffee shop and you’re like, “Oh, I’ll have a mocha latte, please. And here’s a tip,” and then I say, “Freeze, take that back. Now it’s in the style of a Western,” then it’s like, “Hey, there, ma’am, I’ll have myself a sarsaparilla.” It’s a fun exercise that makes you analyze all the things you’re doing. You don’t really want to throw any line or gesture or action away because each one has to correlate, you know? It’s a mindfuck in that it’s a lot of threads to keep track of, but it’s fun in that there’s a lot of threads to keep track of.
So if you’re doing the scene on the balcony, are you doing every version of that in the same day?
Not every time because not all of us knew who the killer was. Some stuff would be reshot and redone in a different style and different light setup. Sometimes there were scenes where you’re doing the same exact thing over and over and over again but just a little bit of a costume change; they change the lighting and the lens on the camera and maybe how wet or dry you are. To answer the question: It wasn’t always in succession, but then sometimes it was.
Aniq really does suffer in this show. You get doused a lot with liquid and you’re hit by a car in the first episode.
Doused by liquid with the beer ski, dunked in a pool, hit with a car. Get pushed over a table with prawns on it. I did that stunt myself too! I feel so bad because I work with a stunt guy, Horace Knight. He’s a terrific stuntman, and we’ve worked on maybe five projects together. But it was time to do that push number where Ike shoves me over this table, and I was like, “I can do it. I’m gonna do the stunt.” And you can barely tell it’s me.
You live one of my greatest fantasies in the show, which is to have a musical number break out around you. What does that feel like?
It’s a unique feeling. We were set up for success because everything was so brilliantly choreographed and written, and then we had vocal coaches for the music. We’d rehearse it, do it, and look at the monitors afterwards like, Oh, this is a music video! Everybody around us is dancing exuberantly, and you’re like, This is real. And I know the choreography that everybody’s doing. I’m in it!
It seems like it would be really high pressure. You’re already worried about getting your blocking and hitting your line, but I imagine there’s an added level when people are doing choreography around you.
What’s easier about doing that sort of stuff for film is you can mess up. If you’ve done live shows, what you do is what you do. On film, even if you mess up, you just go to the end because it will be edited. [Laughs] I messed up a lot.
The Hollywood Reporter recently described you as this generation’s Tom Hanks. Which Tom Hanks movie would you most like to reboot and star in?
I mean, do you say Forrest Gump? Kinda hard to reboot that one just by where he sits in those historical moments. [Laughs] But thematically, I love it. Uh, maybe Joe Versus the Volcano. Turner and Hooch? I would love to do Turner and Hooch. But this one, I play Hooch.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.