Jason Richter fell in love with movies at an early age. One of few souls passionate enough to pursue the craft on a professional level, he quickly made the jump from film-fan to movie star. 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of his big screen debut in “Free Willy.” A natural in front of the camera, his performance left audiences spellbound and quickly catapulted him to superstar status at only 13 years old. A string of sequels and other notable roles quickly came his way before he decided to take time away from acting. However, his passion for filmmaking and acting never went away and he ultimately returned to Hollywood.
This time around, he explored the world behind the camera by taking on a series of gigs to soak up as much knowledge as he could. Those experiences quickly stoked his creative fire and led to more ambitious goals. Armed with his unique skill set as an actor and hands-on experience of the filmmaking process, Richter carved out the next exciting chapter of his Hollywood Story! The past few years have been wildly productive for him. Not only did he bring his short film, “The Quiet Loud,” to life but he also brought one of his passion projects, “Last Rampage: The Escape of Gary Tison,” to the big screen.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Jason Richter to discuss his unique career path, the challenges he faced along the way and his passion for creation. In the interview he reflects on the 25th anniversary of “Free Willy,” the making of “Last Rampage” (starring Robert Patrick and Heather Graham) and the launch of his awesome new podcast, “The Richter Scale.”
You started your career in the entertainment industry many moons ago. How did you get involved with the arts?
Like any little kids, at an early age, you get introduced to the movies through your parents. You go to the movies, it’s a fun experience and you sort of fall in love with this dream-like world. Some of my earliest memories of movies, and this will really date me, is being 3 and going to the drive-in with my parents. They would usually show the family movie up front and by the time 10 o’clock rolled around, the kids are asleep, and they would show “To Live and Die in L.A.” or something like that. I remember being in the car, under my dad’s big coat and watching movies! It was such a great experience! I remember crying when E.T. had to go home. Specifically, I remember standing up in the car and crying and my dad’s going, “It’s OK! It’s just a movie!” [laughs] I just loved them like any little kid but, for whatever reason, that never faded for me. It was a true love for making good movies! My mom had been an actress and had gone through the process. One day, I got too big and said, “I want to do this … “ It wasn’t something that was ever brought up to me like, “Oh, do you think you want to do this?” It all happened very naturally. One day, she came home, and I was like, “I want to do this!” She was upset because she had a bad audition, which you have from time to time as an actor. She asked if I was sure about it and I said, “I’ve been watching these people do this. I know all these words, so I could do that too!” That’s how simple my connection to it was! [laughs] From there, it became a job! [laughs] That’s how simply it started. I had a fascination with films as a kid and I still love them now. This might sound ridiculous but, now I can’t fully watch a movie without picking it apart in some way. It’s just a product of having been doing this for so long. So, when I do see something that totally engrossed me and sucks me in, that’s when I know that original feeling is still there!
Who influenced you? Did anyone mentor you along the way?
I was a child of the ‘80s, so guys like Sean Astin, Corey Feldman and Josh Brolin were kids I looked up to and made me say, “I can do that too!” The two movies that really did it for me were “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “The Goonies.” “The Goonies” for sure! I thought all those kids were amazing and I still do! When I started my career, I would communicate with kids who were in the business and busy, but I had a really normal life, which was in juxtaposition to being a child actor. My parents were pretty down to Earth! I didn’t commingle with many of my peers at that time and I was in bed by 9! [laughs] I definitely met people of my generation and older, but I never had a mentor. There were definitely people who I admired. I worked with Jack Black before he was super-famous. I used to walk around set and see him and think, “Yup, that guy’s going to be famous.” You just know when someone has that something! While I didn’t have a mentor per se, I am definitely an admirer of many actors, comedians and directors.
You came onto the world’s radar with your role in “Free Willy,” which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Did you have an inkling the movie would become a phenomenon and what impact did it have on you as a young actor?
I had no clue. It was my first film and I never had any idea of if it would be a success or not. It was amazing to make! Like I said, it was my first film and when you are a kid, you don’t see any of the ugly stuff that happens on set and it’s a positive experience. Everybody who worked on that movie was great and I have totally fond memories of them. I don’t think anyone thought it would become the success it did. The producers and the writer, Keith Walker, they all believed in the film. The people who were making the film definitely believed in it. The stories I have subsequently heard, as an adult, were that the executives at Warner Bros. weren’t keen on it because they didn’t understand it. They didn’t have a family division and they didn’t know what to make of it! It was almost like, “OK, we’ll do this one as a tax write-off!” [laughs] It came out and it lingered at the box office for a few weeks, which isn’t typical because normally if you don’t make any money in the first few days, you’re gone! Somehow it found an audience and that summer it just continued to build! I had no idea what having a successful film meant and everything that comes with it! Sheeew! It comes like a tornado, ya know! Anybody with any sense is like, “Yeah, this is not normal.” People think you belong to them because you are in their living room on a giant screen and you seem larger than life. They just automatically think they know you! [laughs] It’s just the weirdest thing! One story I had heard from Mark Marshall, the associate producer, was that at the time it was the highest test score from an audience that Warner Bros. had ever gotten for a film. That is what sort of changed the tide. All of the executives, all of a sudden, got behind it. Even when it came out and struggled to find its audience, they stuck with it. It ultimately found that audience and became a success. That has a way of bulldozing any sense of normalcy in your life, at least for a little while! [laughs]
What did you bring to the role that wasn’t on the original written page?
That’s an interesting question. I was young and, it being my first film, anything that was happening was what it was. At that young, you’re just having a lot of fun and going along with the program. You’re not really thinking about the things you are thinking about years into your career. You aren’t thinking, “Why would my character pick up the pen?” You’re thinking, “Yeah, OK! That sounds great! Let’s do this shot!” [laughs] It’s just fun because acting is fun, and you are make-believing with a bunch of people who are taking it seriously! [laughs] It’s funny because, at that age, it goes from this thing you do with your friends as a child and now you are being paid to do it with adults but they all still take on the fantasy of it all. As I got older, I think the bells really went off and I realized, “Oh, this is a craft. I can really dig into this!”
When did you come into your own as an actor?
I don’t know. I think if you are doing it right, you’re never quite sure and you’re learning something new all the time. That might sound like a ridiculous, hoity-toity answer but I don’t know if I’m a good actor, Jason! [laughs] I’m just lucky enough to get things and I try to put something together. If people like it, they ask me to do it again! [laughs] This is funny to say after I said that but I’m definitely more confident in my understanding of what it is that I’m after. With that said, I don’t know if there is a point where you say, “OK, I have reached the pinnacle.” I hope that remains true! I watch actors who are a little bit older than me and they’ve had these careers that have evolved; they’ve changed in subtlety and styles. Ya know, whatever it is that gives them that little twinkle of light, it’s something that they never lose. For some of them it might even become brighter! What I do know is that I do love the process of it. I truly enjoy acting a lot!
What is your process for bringing a character to life?
I try to empathize with the character, whether it’s a good guy or bad guy or a person who is conflicted with something or not. Even if it’s a doorman opening up a door, you have to care about the person you are trying to convey. It all starts on the written page and I don’t think writers get enough love these days. I say that because if you don’t have structurally sound characters on the page, it makes the actor’s job much more difficult. Occasionally, that is fun because it’s a challenge but it all starts with what’s on the page. From there, if you can find a way into the character and sympathize with the character, you can justify their actions. That is a pretty broad strokes approach, but it starts there. If I care about the character, it puts me in a space where I’m not afraid to try something.
Jumping back to earlier in your career, you did plenty of films after your debut in “Free Willy.” You ended up taking a break from acting for several years. Did you have reservations about taking a break and what brought you back to the craft?
When I decided to go another direction, I was OK with it. At the time, I felt in my heart that it was the best option for me. I felt like I needed to take a step back. When you’re a child actor growing up on set, you have a lot of great experiences, but you are kind of in a bubble no matter what. I was burnt out, exhausted and had a rough time on the set. I said, “Ya know what? I need a break from this. I just need to stop and take a breath.” That breath lasted seven or eight years! [laughs] It was a really deep breath! At some point after that period, I started as a production assistant. I felt like I wanted to get back into it and learn film from an entirely different perspective. I was doing P.A. gigs and assistant gigs bringing waters to and from people and eating lunch between locations. I was learning the business in a different way, getting an appreciation for how it really works, what goes into creating the images that you ultimately end up seeing. It’s a tremendous amount of work! That was good for me. I did that and had some life experiences. I had done a bunch of little things when I decided that I was going to make my own little short film to put all the tools I had into practice. From there, I started to act again. I would pick up a little thing and say, “Oh, this is a little indie, fun thing. I’m down!” It all started happening again and it was fun, so I have stuck with it!
It seems to be working for you! I recently caught you in “Last Rampage: The Escape of Gary Tison” (now streaming on Netflix) and heard you mention it a bit on your podcast, “The Richter Scale.” This was a project that was on your radar for years. Tell us about it and what made it a story you wanted to be a part of telling. I thought it was a really great film!
Thank you for that! I appreciate it! I got the book when I was 16 years old from a writer on another picture I was on. He had come over for dinner and said, “You should read this book. It’s a true story and it’s pretty crazy.” I read it and it was very disturbing! I can’t really express it in any other way. It’s basically the story of a father, his sons who break him out of jail and being on the run. There are also these elements of manipulation by the father, mother and the whole thing. It just fascinated me! At one point in my life, I wanted to play one of the sons. As time went on, I kept working on scripts trying to get it better and better, but it just wasn’t enough, so I would put it down and pick it up every couple of years. Eventually, I found a draft that I really, really loved and found a way to start putting those resources together and we ultimately got the film made! I worked with my stepfather on the movie, who is a director named Dwight Little. He’s great! You can point to nepotism, but the truth is that every script I ever brought him, he was like, “Uhhhhh. No. Nope.” [laughs] Finally, I brought him one and he called me after a week and said, “Hey, this one’s actually not bad!” We went from there and it finally happened. It was great because we had a great cast! We got Robert Patrick, Heather Graham, Bruce Davison, John Heard, Chris Browning, who is fantastic in the film. There were also the boys, played by Alex MacNicoll, Skyy Moore and Casey Thomas Brown. It was an incredible cast and we got really, really lucky with them. They were all perfect for their parts! We shot the film in about 17 days. When I look at it now, I think we did a good job and did justice to the story. I hope people understand that it’s a true crime story, it’s dark and we are not trying to reinvent the wheel. From my point of view when I watch the film, which may differ from what Dwight’s vision is, I find a lot of sympathy for the boys. I think that’s really important because they were kids when this happened and living in a bubble in their lives. It was really tragic what their father did for them.
Robert Patrick and Heather Graham were terrific in the film. What went into bringing them to the table for the film?
Robert Patrick got the script and he loved the character. From what I recall, he was on board right off the bat and fascinated by Gary Tison. When we were promoting the film, he always made a point to say, “These were real people and we have to respect that.” I always loved that about Robert! He gave a great character in the film, but he never lost perspective that these were real people with real lives. I feel the same thing is true of Heather Graham. Dorothy was a complicated character and she really changed the look for it. I really feel that she created an incredible character for the film. The dynamic worked because you have to wonder to yourself, “Was this woman a little off to fall in love with Gary?” There had to be something weird there and I think Heather was able to grab that! Bruce Davison is great as well. He’s truly an incredible actor. Ya know, I really love the scene between Bruce and John Heard. It’s such a great little moment! It’s silly and it’s kitschy but I love it! They are both tremendously talented and I love the scene between them in the prison!
I couldn’t agree more. It’s cool to see you work both in front of and behind the camera. You’ve seen a lot of changes in the business of filmmaking since you first started. What excites you most about the industry in this day and age?
What’s exciting about it is that it’s changing! That is good. Often times, change can feel very discomforting and discombobulating. Since I started as a kid to now, it’s a vastly different landscape. The film industry has changed from the way films are made to the way they are distributed and even how we watch them. There is a new world happening and it’s constantly evolving. I think that allows for young talent, new talent and undiscovered people to really take the reins and try to hit one out of the park! I think the base truth of what people refer to it as the early ‘90s indies scene is still there. At that time, we had a lot of interesting indie directors and films. That was made possible because the technology had gotten to a point where it was accessible and if you had the vision and talent, you could rise through the noise. I still think that basic principle is true. Hell, you can make a movie with your iPhone these days and shoot anything. If you are really motivated, you can put something together! It might not look like a studio film, but you can tell a story and if it’s compelling and draws people in, you are doing something special! That’s always going to be true of the medium, no matter how much it evolves. The most interesting things will always rise to the top! I love the fact that everyone has an opportunity if they are really passionate about it!
What I think is cool about your career is you not only act but create your own content. What’s on your radar as both a producer and an actor?
I have two things right now that I’m developing. One of them is a true-life story once again and the other is more fantasy based. One is called “Big Money” and the other I can’t talk too much about them at this point because I am really in the process of trying to figure all of this stuff out. As far as film roles, I did a movie a couple of years ago called, “High and Outside,” which is getting a run in theaters and they’re talking about doing a stage version of it in Chicago, possibly. If that happens, I might be a part of that, which would be an honor and a blast! That was also Geoffrey Lewis’ last film. Evald Johnson directed it and it has a really great cast!
“High and Outside” is another great film. When it comes to acting, what are you looking for in the roles you take on these days?
I like playing against type. I think every actor enjoys playing against the type that they are seen as. For example, Henry Fonda in “Once Upon A Time In The Old West.” He was the blue-eyed pretty guy and they made him the evil guy in the movie. I like characters like that! I’m personally drawn to characters that are sort of dark and I don’t know why that is. I think it’s kind of similar to how roller coasters give you the illusion of danger. I don’t have enough excitement in my life is what I’m trying to say! [laughs]
You recently launched a podcast called “The Richter Scale.” What drew you to that medium and what can we expect moving forward?
There is a lot going on with the podcast! I started working with this guy named Ethan Dettenmaier, who does a show called “Combat Radio.” I was coming on as a guest and I watched him do his show. He kept having me back as a guest and eventually said, “Do you want to try this?” I said, “Yeah!” I was kind of involved with internet radio way back at the early stages in 1999-2000. That’s when you had to have a T1 or T5 to even hear us! [laughs] It’s so ridiculously antiqued that no one would even recognize it today! [laughs] I’ve always been a radio listener. My dad listened to AM radio when I was a kid, so I was inundated with personalities and delivery! When I first started doing the podcast, I was envisioning it as an interview show. That would mean I would have to find a guest all the time and that seemed like a lot of work! I’m an actor, so I’m lazy! [laughs] So, I got a sidekick and his name is Dustin Burford. He’s a super funny guy and I really love our dynamic. It’s sort of an everyman show, and we talk about whatever is on our mind. We try not to veer too far into the political thing because there is a lot of that already out there. I’m hoping the show we are doing serves as a brief reprieve from whatever the latest development might be politically! We have a bunch of live remotes coming up from The Canyon Club up in Valencia, as well as adding a man on the street thing from our friend Jacob Craner. He’s a hilarious friend of mine. Basically, I’m getting all of my friends that I hang out with on a regular basis to get in on this because I know we all get each other’s humor. That makes it very organic at this stage. We’re just trying to have a good time and keep the topics a little tilted in a good way!
I have listened since the first episode and I you are doing a great job! You had some great people in studio and hit so many great topics. It’s also cool to get a glimpse into stories from your past. I like getting to know what you are all about through the podcast medium.
Oh, wow! Thanks, Jason! I appreciate that because we have no idea if anybody is listening. You listened and liked it, so I appreciate that! [laughs] We’re just having fun. We’re going to start doing some bits and playing with what it is. I’m glad you enjoyed it! We’re in the process of tweaking some things and will be able to drop new episodes at a relatively quick pace from here on out. Starting in mid-July, we will probably be able to hit a weekly and sometimes bi-weekly show. We got some equipment and we’re taking it seriously, so we’re going to get the editing going and start delivering something on a consistent basis. Once we bank a bunch of shows, we will start promoting more. I think what we are in right now is a test the waters phase. We’re really enjoying it but we definitely want it tighter and to be something we can take a bite of and put down.
That’s great to hear. I have one more question before we go. We can look to you as an inspiration when it comes to everything you have done and continue to do creatively. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey?
I think it’s very important to always find a moment to laugh at yourself. Find the folly and absurdity in the moment! That’s what my career has taught me! Never take yourself too seriously and don’t sweat the small stuff. I know it’s a little clique, but you have to roll with the punches. Life has a way of carrying you through. Also, don’t be a dick to people! [laughs] It’s pretty simple really!
Solid advice for sure! [laughs] Thanks again for your time today, Jason!
I appreciate your time and I’ll talk to you soon!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.