Emmy-nominated Detroiter Sam Richardson on His Rise to Stardom

You’ve seen him on Ted Lasso, Veep, Arrested Development, The Office, and more. Next up: Hocus Pocus 2. // Photos by Atiba Jefferson
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Find out if Detroit native Sam Richardson wins the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series on Sept. 12 for his work on Ted Lasso. // Photos by Atiba Jefferson

It’s not fair to call Sam Richardson a rising star anymore.

The 38-year-old actor from Detroit has firmly stationed himself in an orbit of fame that many creatives can only dream of.

You see, Richardson doesn’t have to explain or justify his day job to family and friends anymore. What a relief.

“Sometimes, I’m amazed,” Richardson says, speaking from his cluttered home office in Los Angeles.

“I’m, like, a legitimate TV actor. I’m a legitimate movie actor.”

He’s also “excited, grateful, thankful, fulfilled” — all words he uses to describe his current place in the ever-evolving atmosphere of Hollywood. It’s part of the abundant yet humble charm that Richardson radiates on screen (or even through an hourlong Zoom call).

“I don’t have to explain to my parents what I do anymore. My aunties have seen the work. I didn’t have to try and convince them to come see my play. No, my movie comes on in the airplane. There’s a trailer for my next movie in the movie they’re going to see,” Richardson says, laughing.

He’s paying the bills with his talents, but there’s a sense of wonderment in his eyes when it comes to the fact that he’s actually doing this thing he’s already dreamed of — and people are watching. Not just his family, either. And not just fans. Richardson was recently nominated by the Television Academy for an Emmy for his work on Ted Lasso. “I was so happy to be on Ted Lasso and work with all those incredible performers. To receive my first Emmy nomination was the cherry on top of the cake.”

He adds another word to describe his newfound stardom.

“It’s bewildering,” he laughs.

There’s no confusion, however, about how Richardson went from doing improv at Detroit’s now-defunct Second City outpost to being hailed as this generation’s Tom Hanks by Chris Miller, an A-list Hollywood producer-director (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street).

And to carry a comparison like that, there’s still so much more to build, Richardson says.

“Artists are imitators, but we are also creators. You don’t want to just create in the image of someone else,” Richardson says. “I want to be the next Tom Hanks. I want to be the next Jamie Foxx. I want to be the next Sam Richardson, and I want that to be its own category.

Sam Richardson’s education includes stints at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, Wayne State University, and Chicago’s Second City. Today he lives in the Los Angeles area.

A RISING STAR

Since he was 8, Richardson had his sights set on performing.

Growing up, he split his time between Ghana and Detroit; his father is a successful restaurateur from the Motor City, his mother the daughter of a Ghanaian chief who relocated here. He graduated from University of Detroit Jesuit High School on the city’s northwest side, where he took theater and later flirted with studying it at Wayne State University.

Instead, he chose learning and performing improv on that tiny stage at Second City, which used to hold classes and performances at the now-Detroit House of Comedy downtown.

It’s an art form that’s still near and dear to Richardson’s heart.

“I’ve done a movie where we had the premiere in a football stadium, and that’s terrific, but playing in a two-person improv show in a full 100-seat theater is thrilling,” Richardson says. “That’s what started it for me.”

He flashes back to a time when he was just a teenager performing at an improv comedy jam at Second City. It was one of the first times he felt that connection with the audience through comedy and laughter.

“I got a line out and the audience went bonkers,” Richardson says. “I was like, ‘My life is ruined because I’m going to chase this for the rest of my days.’”

In 2007, he chased that improv high to Chicago’s Second City — the de facto capital of improvisational comedy — before arriving in Los Angeles about five years later, where he got small roles in shows like Arrested Development and The Office.

You could argue his “big break” moment came shortly after when he was cast as the lovable and aloof Richard Splett on HBO’s Emmy-winning Veep; he turned what was supposed to be a one-day gig into a contract role. (“He’s an unsurpassed comedic actor,” Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus told the Hollywood Reporter earlier this year.)

Local audiences fell in love with Richardson on Comedy Central’s Detroiters (2017-18), which paired him with his longtime friend and actor Tim Robinson (Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave), who is originally from Clarkston and was Richardson’s first instructor back in those Detroit Second City days.

Detroiters was canceled after two seasons, but he still has hopes it could be revived one day.

“I’d love to do at least another two seasons of Detroiters,” Richardson says.

In each role he’s tackled so far, there’s undoubtedly something irresistible about Richardson. He’s easy to watch, to relate to. His body language and delivery never feel forced; he’s doing what comes naturally, that sense of timing embedded during those nascent improv days.

For the audience watching at home, it makes him easy to root for, to love, to see ourselves in — perhaps because a lot of his characters so far have leaned toward the endearingly bumbling side.

That hasn’t proved to be a typecast for Richardson, however. He’s found roles to show off his range, like when playing the despicable Edwin Akufo on the second season of Ted Lasso on Apple TV+, or as a misogynistic predator in the

Oscar-winning movie Promising Young Woman. He’ll play the role of action star alongside Hollywood hunk Chris Pratt in Stranded Asset, which Richardson is also writing.

He doesn’t shy away, either, from such a hefty comparison to an actor like Hanks. He’s undoubtedly flattered by the comparison, admiring the “trustability, the body of work, the charisma, the charm and skill” of Hanks like many do.

But he’s got his sights set on carving out space for himself, thinking about what his career might look like decades down the line.

Still, he’s not going to take down the framed letter Hanks wrote him back in 2015 after watching his performance on an episode of Veep.

“He just said how funny I am and that he hopes to see more of my stuff,” Richardson says, a sense of boyish wonder in his voice.

Richardson as Gilbert in Disney’s Hocus Pocus 2, which reunites Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy as the wicked Sanderson sisters.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Over the next few months, you can expect to see a lot more of Richardson.

Chris Miller, who first made the Hanks comparison, cast Richardson in a lead role on The Afterparty on Apple TV+. He stars alongside a stacked ensemble cast of Tiffany Haddish, Ilana Glazer, and others.

The genre-shifting murder-mystery series is set to return for its second season in early 2023 (when we spoke with Richardson, he was currently in production on the series).

At the end of this month, Richardson will appear in Hocus Pocus 2, the highly anticipated sequel to the cult classic that starts streaming on Disney+ on Sept. 30.

The three wicked sisters that anchored the 1993 original Halloween flick have all returned — Winifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Mary (Kathy Najimy).

And while Richardson has to keep a lot of details under wraps — he recently told The New Yorker he doesn’t want to end up on “Disney’s shit list for time immemorial” — he did talk about what it was like to work with those marquee names that anchor the film.

For him, it’s like stepping out of his own nostalgic memory and onto the actual set of the movie he adored as a kid.

“I grew up watching that movie a lot. The me of 30 years ago would be flipping out right now. I feel that way about a lot of my career and my life,” Richardson says.

“As a fan, it’s such a weird, exciting thing to get to be a part of. I was just so excited to be there and watch these ladies do their thing and to get to do my thing with them. I think people are really going to enjoy this movie.”

In a lot of ways, that’s where Richardson stands right now in Hollywood. A major motion picture out this month. The second season of an acclaimed show dropping next year. A wave of projects in development or on the horizon.

But he’s still got that giddy excitement in his voice when he talks about the projects he gets to work on, like stepping onto the set of a sequel of a movie he loved growing up, or receiving a letter from Tom Hanks himself, or being recognized at an event by an A-list actor — a moment when Richardson realized his career was starting to blast off.

“I went to a party a couple years ago and this guy came up to me and was like, ‘I’m such a big fan. Nice to meet you. I’m Ewan,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re Ewan McGregor, man! Are you kidding me?’” Richardson laughs. “I absorb entertainment, so being a part of that is an interesting thing. In the same way I absorb them, they absorb me as well. That’s one of those moments where I realized this was all crazy.”

That’s not to say he isn’t realizing how normal it’s all becoming for him and his career — and what’s next for him. When talking to Richardson, you can see the wheels turning in his head as he thinks about his future. It’s like a skill he picked up from his improv days — staying two steps ahead, but staying in the moment, too.

“I want to take more control,” Richardson says. “I think I’m a trusted person in comedy, but I want to be a trusted person for all audiences — where the viewing public trusts me to entertain them.

“I’m building that.”


This story is from the September 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition

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