Nowadays, information flies across the web in an exchange of pixels and coding that instantly snuff out any seduction of mystery. At least in the ‘good old days’ - pre-Snapchat - you had to dig a little if you wanted to uncover some celebrity exposure. This is something I Am Not Okay With This star Richard Ellis and I lament over. "It's interesting because if someone has to play something epic but you see a picture of them in a Yankees hat grabbing a Starbucks, they're not Hercules in your eyes anymore", the Connecticut-native observes. "It humanises you - which has its positives".
Richard himself seems to be equal parts mystery and human. A small-town boy who took the plunge with earnest determination, now playing series regular in Netflix’s highly anticipated adaptation of the Charles Forsman graphic novel. Photographer Monroe Alvarez captures the elusive qualities of that old Hollywood we dream of. A cast back to simpler times. No distractions, no noise. Just a young man, a camera, and the City of Angels.
With an inner confidence that exudes every sun-drenched frame, the back story behind it may come as an alarm: when, with no prior experience, Richard decided to quit his junior year of a science degree one day and follow the calling of acting. It is a self-assurance that disarms in the best possible way, and one that Fernando Pichardo flatters with styling. Retro notes add comfort to timeless and clean-cut silhouettes. New face; old Hollywood. The enigma of Richard continues.
What was your biggest lesson of 2019?
2019 was a big one for me. My biggest lesson has been to let go of people who don't nurture you; sometimes it's better to let a friendship end if it's not serving you. To keep the people around you that really are going to support you and try to make you a better person.
Damn. That is not an easy thing to do.
It was really hard. It's almost like you grieve a friendship - if that makes sense? But once you're out of it, and you kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel, I've noticed that my whole general outlook has been substantially better. I've been in a really good place.
You don't really give a lot away on social media.
Haha, yep. That tends to be the common theme!
Haha well, we will definitely unpack that later! For now, who is Richard Ellis?
A lot of things for me are really a way to try and find myself, so I would say I'm the kind of person who was trying to figure out the meaning of things. I've gone through all walks of life in a sense - a lot of different friend groups and social situations - and at the end of the day, I just want to be part of the creative process. I play four instruments; and sing and write my own scripts and act. Any way that I can have my hands involved in making something, I’ll do it.
I'm a very loyal person as well. I love my friends; I love my family. If you are in my circle, you are in my circle. I will literally do anything for you. And I've had to learn with age who to trust and, as I said, who to discard. But yeah, I would just say I'm a really good friend… At least I like to think so!? Some people may tell you otherwise!
When did you decide that the creative path was for you?
It's been an interesting little journey. My mum told me a story that when I was like 11 months old - before I was speaking - she had a song playing in the car and she heard me in the baby seat, humming to it. She stopped the car and turned around and was like, "what the hell is that?". Then at eight years old, I began playing the piano and by the time I was nine, I was playing Mozart and Beethoven. At 12, I picked up the guitar and was in a pop-punk band. So, I would say I have been a creative my whole life. Actually, I remember that in second grade, we had a writing assignment and I tried to write the next sequel to Harry Potter… I have 11 pages of garbage from a second grader trying to write the next book before J. K. Rowling did, which is a bit ambitious!
In high school, I kind of ‘overcorrected’. I just never felt like I fit in and so anything creative that I enjoyed doing, I put the clamps on it and was like, 'nope, you're going to be cool'. I attempted to be 'a square peg in a square hole’ type thing - which I really wasn't. When I went off to college, I was a kinesiology major. I was doing that until my junior year and then one day, I had a mental breakdown in an anatomy lab, and I told the teacher I was about to vomit so I could run out of the room. I'm outside and I call my mum, ‘I want to drop out of school and be an actor'. She was like, ‘What?’. I had never acted in my entire life. And I said, ‘yeah, I just really feel like I need to do this'. So after finishing my junior year, I left school and began taking acting classes in New York. I ended up moving down to Manhattan, then LA the year after. I feel like the theme of my whole life is straying away from who I am and coming back. But I realised that my outlook on life was suffering the further I moved away from being creative. It really keeps my head on straight.
I’m intrigued to know if you’ve had any doubts along the way since then?
Oh my god, yeah! Funny story. The day before I went in for the audition of I Am Not Okay With This, I was about to pack up my stuff and move back to New York. The day before. And my friends sat me down and basically just showered me with compliments so I wouldn't lose it. They were like, ‘We don't know what we would do without you. We need you to stay, you can't leave'. Then the next day I went in for the show - which was pretty mind-blowing. You hear that a lot though - I don't know what it is about people kind of hitting absolute rock bottom before something turns around. It's almost like you have to go through the gauntlet to see how much you're willing to put up with before you can truly stop caring. And that's what it was. I stopped looking for the validation from everybody and I was like, ‘you know what? I'm just going to do it. I don't care if I bomb. I don't care if I do well. I don't care anymore'.
That is some super interesting insight!
Yeah. It's pretty funny, actually. But who doesn't have doubts? I mean, anybody who wants to do anything in the creative field, you're pretty much signing a deal with the devil. It's like: I literally might not make a dime from this for the rest of my life, and I have to be okay with that.
…ironically your biggest project to date is called I Am Not Okay With This.
Which I am so, so excited for! And I've been really lucky that everyone from the cast I've been really close with, we all hang out all the time. I have had the most positive experience in the world on that show.
Yes, you all seem like an incredibly close cast. That must make such a difference to any project.
And I will say there's nothing manufactured about that. Especially through the lens of social media, you really don't know what's real and what's not. But I talk to those people every day. It's awesome. I'm very, very lucky.
I chatted with your co-star Wyatt a couple of months ago and learnt a little about the show, which sounds brilliant. Where does your character Brad fit into this world?
Brad is like the golden boy of the school. He is pompous; arrogant. Anything that could have been handed to him has been handed to him, so he really doesn't see anything else besides his own lens. He's a very selfish person. In his eyes, if someone wrongs him, they made it their life mission to wrong him. Do you know what I mean? He can't take responsibility for anything that he may have done.
So how did you prepare for a role like that?
Like I said, my experience growing up was that I straddled both of those worlds. So, I knew what that was. My friends at the time were like that, honestly. I recognised that narrow viewpoint and just the way they viewed other people.
I personally love playing mean characters because I look at it as something fun. You get to be kind of a monster with no consequences - and by doing that, you explore areas of your brain that you would never explore. You realise a lot of things about yourself. It ends up being this really interesting experience where you're like, well, I've never thought about things this way, but by looking through this lens I realise how other people in my life may have lived. It's like this full spectrum of perspective. When you get to test these different levels of your own personality, you see how far you can take it. Since I'm such a competitive person, I like seeing if I could go full out. It’s kind of like the test of your mental limits. But for Brad, it was like, ‘what would it be like to be the most narrow-minded person in the world and take all of your anxieties out on people who are a little less fortunate than you?'.
How does this challenge compare with previous roles?
I generally tend to do well with ‘condescending’. I don't know if that's my northeastern upbringing or what! I try not to come from a place of anger, and more of a place of ‘I'm better than you’. It's interesting to see what that does to your mannerisms and the way you speak to people because it's not this clichéd version of, ‘oh, I'm going to be a tough guy’. It's like: ‘no, you're so beneath me that I don't even have to give you the time of day’. The way that materialises through their script is pretty fascinating to me.
The show is produced by the same team behind Stranger Things, and we know they do ‘superpowers’ well. What can we expect from the IANOWT universe?
I would say similar in the vein of Stranger Things: the way they handled the relationships between the characters and that camaraderie. It doesn't feel like ‘fluff’ when you watch it; it's not your typical writing. They really cut through to this really interesting, outcast kind of viewpoint. Honestly, I was freaking out a little bit when I saw who was on the project. They blew my mind. I was like, ‘oh my god, they have such a keen eye for these things’, and that’s what I would say the similarities were: the relationships between the characters. Because that's ultimately what made Stranger Things what it was. You wanted to be in that group of kids, and even though they weren't what you think you'd want to be on paper, they were these misfits that do their own thing. There is real strength to that and I think that is going to resonate in this show.
Was the experience what you anticipated it to be?
And more. It really was. You have your peers in the industry, and you hear of people having these roller-coaster experiences, and I was trying very hard not to go in like a naive little puppy - which I did anyway - but I was just so excited. It blew my mind that I got the chance to do it. So, I was pleasantly surprised. Everyone I met was so amazing that I didn't have this moment of ‘oh, this is weird. This isn't what I thought it was going to be’. Everyone had a blast all the time.
Let’s talk about some of your other projects. You produced as well as starred in the short film Two Introverts. How was that?
Haha, funny story about that - I met one of my best friends on that project. I had just moved to LA and I was in an intro level acting class. They do this showcase where all these industry professionals come in and watch. It’s like 100 or 200 people from the studio that audition to be in it and they only took 18. I was there for about two months and ended up going for the audition. I was just so excited to be there. There were five different scripts that you got to pick from, and everyone picked the first PDF on the email. Every single person! I did not - I picked this third one called Two Introverts. So, they told us to pair up with someone who had the same scene as you for the audition. I was like ‘great, who has Two Introverts?’ I was just gushing about how funny I thought it was. And this girl just says, ‘Yeah, I wrote it'. I said, ‘great. Tell me exactly what to do’, so we went in and we both ended up in the showcase. She's the other person in the film, Mackenzie Ogden. And that's how we met. Fast forward three years later, she now lives in my apartment building and we write together!
How sweet! And you and Mackenzie have done another project together, Red Flags?
Yep, another short that she wrote which we filmed upstairs! The way that Two Introverts came about was that I needed a reel. Most scripts suck, but I thought that skit was hilarious. I wanted to put together a full reel in one weekend so I called her and asked her and went and bought all this party stuff and balloons. We had a filmmaker living in our building as well and we threw this thing together and shot it in my apartment in literally in one day. The whole experience was just hilarious. We have a very similar sense of humour, so we’re both very self-deprecating. Then she wrote this second short and told me, ‘I'd love for you to be this tool-bag kind of guy’. And I'm like, ‘bread and butter. You got it!’.
It’s just about staying on it and constantly making things, because it's supposed to be fun. You keep that tool sharp. When you're constantly making your own stuff instead of things that other people have made for you, you come to your own conclusions and you're able to then apply that to other work.
Yes. When I spoke with Wyatt, what struck me was that there seems to be this culture among younger actors of just getting together and creating things for the pure joy of it. In that respect, do you think being an actor has become easier with the rise of social media?
Hmm. So, the reason that no one can find anything on my social media is because I decided one day: ‘I'm deleting every single thing I ever had. I don't want any part of it'. I don't like the competitive nature of it personally - which is really hypocritical of me to say as I now post things and seek validation. But, you know, who doesn't? But I remember being like, ‘I'm not going to make an account unless I book something and feel like I need it’ - because at the end of the day, it is a career tool. It's foolish to think otherwise. You do see people that pull it off without having Instagram and, honestly, more power to them. I wish I was strong enough to do that. But, if that's the thing that's going to decide if I get a project or not, then I'm not going to lose out for that reason. I want to leave all my corners covered.
That was my negative rant about it! But I guess I take it for granted because I think we're the first generation to really grow up with it as part of the bloodline of our culture. We don't know life without it. It is a portal into lives. It is very fascinating to me - sometimes positive, sometimes negative - that you could feel like you have a personal connection to this person that you see through a screen. As I said, it has its detriments because people get to manicure whatever they want. What I post on social media is the very, very best of how I look sound, interact, the coolest events I'm doing - when most of the time on my couch fiddling with a guitar or trying to write something and I’m wearing my glasses.
Another actor that I spoke with recently suggested it can mess with your job when strangers think they know you too well. The public can’t separate the person from the character.
Exactly. Whereas I grew up in the ‘90s and the people that I idolised, actors of the older generation, all you saw were pictures from a premiere. They were this enigma; this ethereal thing that floated around in the ether and you had no idea what the hell they were doing at any given moment! It's interesting because if someone has to play something epic, but you see a picture of them in a Yankees hat grabbing a Starbucks, they're not Hercules in your eyes anymore. Instead it’s them putting on a costume. It humanises you - which has its positives, though. Because then we're gonna be like, ‘I see myself in that: they're not this unattainable thing’.
There are pros and cons to everything. I've been watching Seinfeld, and my friend worded it best, he was like, the number of problems that could be solved in that show if they just had cell phones! But there's something really interesting about a simple time when you didn't know where anybody was, you had to just find them. There’d be more to talk about.
Let’s talk about your writing. You said that you write scripts. Where are you at with that?
This is a new thing for me. It started as journal entries. I watched the Kurt Cobain documentary. I went through is grunge-kick last year where I was just like, ‘I'm going to listen to a bunch of Soundgarden
and act like I don't care about anything!’. But the most interesting part of the whole thing were his journal entries. You saw his mind through his words in a private setting. It blew my mind. Again: you want to feel like you know these people; you want to know every detail about them, because as someone who invoked this whole movement, I was like, ‘I want to know how this guy thought and how he was able to buck the standard’.
So, it started with me drinking coffee and wanting to be like Kurt Cobain. I would talk to my journal like a person, like ‘hello, journal. How are you today?’ And it just kind of turned into this really cathartic thing. Through writing, I found this dialogue with myself. As I would read my own words back to me, a new question would pop up in my head, which would lead me down another rabbit hole. I started understanding myself on a very different level. I was doing it every day - I wanted to figure out who the hell I am! That's why when you asked ‘who is Richard Ellis?’, I still can't give you an answer. I have no clue. He changes every day.
One day I decided I wanted to write a story. I won't give too much away but basically it was a way for me to explore my own things through a fictional setting where you can tweak what you want to. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Honestly: just writing it. Regardless of what happens. To have something finished in front of you – to know that you did that. That's something very special. These are my words. It was pretty empowering.
Our AW19 print issue was focused on ‘glede’ (a Norwegian word for happiness). Do you have a ‘happy’ routine?
Yes. I usually start with coffee. Love me some caffeine. I'm a big fan of motivational podcasts and audiobooks. When I feel myself straying, sometimes the right words put you in the right state. If I could have a coffee, get a workout in and listen to some motivating words, it sets the precedent for the rest of my day.
Also, something that was taught to me is: if I notice that I'm thinking negatively, I have the awareness to catch it in the moment and be like, switch it. It’s really just an awareness of my own thoughts that have led me to be happier. When I decided to take control of my own brain instead of being a victim of circumstance and environment, that has been a huge factor for me.
Do you think there is a greater understanding of issues around mental health amongst boys in today's society?
No, no, no. That's actually something that I've spoken to my PR Angela about. When I met her, one of the things we first talked about was how boys are always taught to toughen up. Always. I know that's a common theme and probably been talked about a million times through these interviews, but for me, I was raised by a single mum. I lost my father when I was very young, so I always struggled with male identity - how to ‘be’ a man. I think
One of the biggest travesties across the country is that men feel like they can't talk. They can't say what they're feeling, and when you're holding all that in it's going to manifest in different ways: substance abuse, alcohol, fighting, aggression. It's not that I've experienced that, I mean there's been stuff, but it's more just men are very pent up. They have a very hard time vocalising what it is they're trying to say.
If a boy doesn’t have a father in the picture and are around the eight to 12 range, I would love to be able to just to let them know it's okay. It's okay to cry. It’s okay to scream. It's okay to feel whatever it is you're feeling, you don't have to swallow it and be a man. I do think with the times now that stereotype is definitely starting to break a little bit, but I would just love to see that whole wall come down.
Eight to 12. That is probably key, right?
Oh, that’s the age. Well, it was for me - I can only speak from experience. But it's that stuff from eight to 12 that carries into the ‘15 through 18’ period, where you probably start making bad decisions. Then after that, it's the young adult stage: late teens, early 20s. You don't know what you want to do or who you are or why you feel a certain way about the world, and a lot of it goes back to just these pivotal things when you're little that if you had just been told, ‘it’s okay’.
The notion of ‘imposture syndrome’ is a topic that has been coming up recently. Have you ever felt out of your depth or like you don’t belong on a job?
It’s never been that I don’t belong… But. Especially where I'm from - life is drastically different. It’s a very small town in Connecticut. It's very, very, very rare - almost unheard of - that anyone's even in this situation. I think when I was there, it was more this surreal feeling of ‘I'm doing it. I don't know how I'm doing it. But I'm doing it'. The facade drops - it's not as mystical, you know? It’s still a lot of work - a lot of fun work, I love it - but you're busy. Some long hours; there's a lot of obligations. It’s not this magic carpet ride through the sky that you think it's going to be. You’ve got to be on your game all the time. I would say that I am fortunate to not have this self-deprecating look-in-the-mirror moment of ‘you don't deserve to be here’ because I know how much work I put into it. And I would like to think I deserve to be here.
I was going to ask, how do you silence ‘the voice’? But I think you’ve answered it: you recognise your own journey.
That’s it - and that's with any issue across the board. I'll do that sometimes - look myself in the eyes in the mirror, and just figure it out. Because it's only you in there. You get to choose how you talk to yourself. And I think people forget that.
My last question is: what is the ultimate dream?
Live a life with no regrets. If I'm fortunate enough to be 100 years old on my deathbed, and surrounded, hopefully, by a really amazing family - if I tell them my life story, will I regret anything? When I look at things through that lens, it helps my decisions. There's no material goal that'll ever make anybody feel anything. You see it all the time. You hear it all the time. There's no brand achievement that will change how you feel about yourself. So as long as I can look back and not regret anything that I did, that’s the dream.