Interview with Richard Neil, lead actor in Prodigy

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I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Neil, the star of the phenomenal film, Prodigy (2017). Richard hails from New York City (my hometown) and has been a staple in the entertainment industry for over thirty years. He is best known for his roles in Veronica Mars, Entourage and Eli Stone.

Prodigy is a remarkable film about a nine-year-old girl who is capable of the unmentionable… death by sheer will power. Richard Neil portrays the empathetic psychologist, who is determined to break this ruthless demeanour and uncover the humanity buried inside her.

Meredith: Fonda is a broken man, trying to help save a child from her own demons and powers. How did you prepare for such a deep and emotionally scarred role?

Richard: Well, it’s a period of rumination. I read the script, and immediately felt a connection to the role [Fonda]. He’s a father, a wounded man, and it’s not too difficult to imagine the tragedy in his past. You dwell in that pain, and it somewhat possesses you, and really becomes the key to the character. It infuses all of his personal interactions.

Meredith: Did you feel any direct connection to the Fonda role? Any shared/similar traits?

Richard: As I said, we are both fathers. And without coming across as too New Age, when you embrace the role of an attached parent, it truly does transform your life. My own daughter is now sixteen, and the person I was before becoming an involved dad is a complete foreigner to who I am now. It has so opened me up emotionally, where I’ve really become quite pathetic, as I see my daughter about to leave home.  I really have to refrain from getting emotional just by looking at her, so as not to embarrass her. It’s pretty sad really. This connection, this self-identity as an empathetic father is the key to the role. So, where Fonda is at the beginning of the movie is a place of resolve, he feels tremendous guilt and pain, and his lifestyle, his work with troubled youth, his solitary chess playing are his way of dealing with the burden, a kind of self-council. Also on a physical note, Fonda is described as being unkempt, somewhat disheveled in his appearance and hair maintenance. That’s not a big leap for me either.

Meredith: Savannah Liles is such a talented young lady! What was it like to work with her, portraying such an intense character as Ellie?

Richard: She really was terrific. So well-prepared and poised on the set. She seemed to handle it all quite well. She worked really hard with her mom as well as with an acting coach. And both Alex and Brian, the co-directors, were always there for her, and were protective of her, making sure she felt safe. Our scenes went relatively smoothly. The only drawback to working with someone so young is their time restrictions. Since kids can only be on the set for a strict amount of hours, most of my close-ups were delivered to a stand-in which was usually the script supervisor. So instead of delivering this intense dialogue to a nine-year-old freckle-faced girl, they were usually delivered to a twenty-year-old woman, who was squatting to be at the appropriate height.

Meredith: Fonda at one point, becomes almost… fearless around Ellie. If that were a real situation you were in, would you hesitate before removing the restraints and ignoring all the warnings?

Richard: Well, at that point, I’ve become quite desperate. I have little recourse except to go rogue. And I suppose, Fonda himself is bit of a depressive, feeling “what’s the worst that can happen?” “So, I die.” At least I tried everything in my power to save her.” When you have little to lose, when you are just so tired, I think that’s where that fearlessness comes in to play.” Not to digress too much, but I remember being bullied as a young boy, growing up in the Bronx, and getting my share of bloody noses. After a while, you are so fed up, you fight back and say, “Enough!” No matter how big or how many there are. You get a little crazy. So when Fonda’s back is against the wall, he says, “To hell with it! Let’s see what happens.”

Meredith: Prodigy is a sub-genre of horror…more along the lines of suspense/thriller. What type of film genre(s) do you find most challenging?

Richard: Every genre has its own challenges. But I think it has more to do with the writing and the character. Some roles, like Fonda, felt easy for me to slip into. Other parts, if they are so wildly different to who I am, my outlook, my personal experience – then you just have to work a lot harder to get there.

Meredith: Tell me about the beginning of your acting career… you grew up in New York City and graduated from The Neighborhood Playhouse? What took you to South Carolina?

Richard: Yes, I got to study at the Playhouse with Sanford Meisner, and with some other very gifted teachers, especially Richard Pinter, who I believe took over as head teacher there since Meisner’s passing. As for South Carolina, I got to be part of a production at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. A producer on that production asked if I and another member of that production would return for the following Spoleto to be part of a production of Cyrano. That was a collaboration with a local theatre company called Chopstick. After that production, I was asked by Chopstick’s artistic director, Steve Lepre, to become a member of the company. That turned into a wild five year ride, touring and teaching with this company, primarily in the Southeast. I got to play Stanley Kowalski and a lot of other great roles. It was always my dream to be part of a repertory theatre. It was incredibly hard work, and I made a lot of wonderful friends, and basically got that bug out of my system. It turned out to be the best training ground in the world! Working really hard, being thrown into every imaginable role. And making it work!

Meredith: What was your favourite project to work on?

Richard: I’ve been very lucky. Probably the one that made the biggest impact was the film, Best Wishes for Tomorrow. I got to go to Japan for a month, working with a legend, Makoto Fujita, and the director, Takashi Koizumi. It was his third feature as a director, but he worked side by side with Kurosawa for a couple of decades. Koizumi is a pure artist and a true inspiration.

Meredith: What was your proudest moment, as an actor and in life?

Richard: Well, in life, that’s easy. Being a dad, being there for my daughter. As an actor, there are just too many. As I mentioned, working in Japan with Koizumi-san. Also, another amazing artist, with whom I had the good fortune to collaborate on more than one occasion was with the video artist, Bill Viola. What a mind. What imagination. I was part of his installation for the Venice Biennale called Ocean Without A Shore. Well, both Viola and Koizumi are practicing Buddhists, so that probably has something to do with it. Just inspiring to be around. Like going into a spiritual study. I didn’t care so much about the work, just hanging out with these guys was very inspiring.

Meredith: Who are your influences?

Richard: As an actor, probably Brando more than anyone. I remember seeing On the Waterfront for the first time, while studying at A.C.T. in San Francisco. And then, of course, getting a bit obsessed, seeing everything he’d ever done. Last Tango in Paris. Not sure if it was acting, being, or what. But having that confidence, and being so present in from of the camera.

Meredith: Was there ever a point in your career where you questioned or regretted any decisions?

Richard: It never stops. Don’t work for a few weeks, a few months… That self-doubt doesn’t seem all that far away. But then you get a good gig, and you know you’re in the right place. All that you’ve done has brought you here. It’s the ridiculous highs and lows which make most of us actors neurotic.

Meredith: You have appeared on countless TV series and full-length films as well. Which do you prefer and why?

Richard: I’ve never had a long running character on a show, so I wouldn’t know that feeling of security. For me, the films have worked out better because it meant longer employment. Like most actors I assume, we would rather be working than auditio

ning. And as with most jobs, I’m just grateful for the gig! 🙂

Meredith: If you had a chance to work with anyone in the world, who would that be? Even if he/she is deceased and you had the power to resurrect them…who would you kill to work with?

Richard: Anyone? Edmund Kean in a Shakespeare production. Or the Lunts. Or the Barrymores. Why not Brando in an early stage production? I’d settle for any of them!

Meredith: Richard, thank you so very much for taking the time to interview with me. You have had quite a career and it looks like more great things are to come! I hope to see you in more fantastic films, TV series, and even some theater productions. I appreciate your time and best wishes on the success of Prodigy. It is absolutely wonderful!

This interview is copyright Meredith Brown and, © 2018

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