J. August Richards has an exuberance about him.
He has good reason. The actor, known his more than 30 year career which has included roles on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Cosby Show, Angel, The Practice and more, just landed a leading role on the new NBC drama Circle of Dads. On April 20, he also rocked the internet by coming out of the closet as a gay man. The unplanned admission generated came in the context of discussing his Council of Dads role as Dr. Oliver Post, a gay, married African-American dad. The series follows a group of friends following the death of one of their friend Peter. Oliver, and several other men, come together to act as surrogate fathers to Peter’s children and to preserve the memory of their friend.
“I read your site every day!” Richards belts as we greet him on the phone. We warn him that we will need to use that quote in our piece. The two of us have made some time to chat about his coming out, the new show, and his experience as a queer, African-American working in Hollywood for more than three decades.
Council of Dads airs Thursdays on NBC.
So you’ve had an exciting few weeks. Exactly how are you feeling? What’s the state of your life?
Thank you for asking. Empowered.
Aligned. Clear about my purpose. That’s how I feel two weeks later. I will admit that I was on a bit of an emotional pendulum. In my imagination, there was a reaction that was the best reaction I could possibly get, which was supportive. But it exceeded that. Also I really did not expect it to go past my social media page. So that was a bit daunting. That was part of the emotional swing I was on.
I had no idea that it would be picked up on various sites, which it was. And I didn’t even have a publicist at the time…
Yeah. So that’s how unplanned that was. I’ve hired one since because everything was going so far so fast that it was all a bit overwhelming. But when it went so viral, it made me feel like this emotional swing toward oh my God, why would you do that? No one even asked. That was the ultimate overshare. But fortunately, the pendulum has swung all the way back into the position of empowerment.
That’s so wonderful to hear. Now, when you describe it as an emotional pendulum, what are you doing as you walk around the house? How’s your mood shifting? What are you doing to take your mind off it all?
Yeah, it’s always surrounding a triggering question or triggering comment that I receive that really only triggered the fact that I was not expecting this attention. So that was the only thing that would scare me. It wasn’t negative at all. But, like, when people ask me, “Aren’t you afraid of how this will affect your career?” That question would really trigger me. I’ve obviously thought a lot about it. And that question doesn’t trigger me anymore.
I’ve talked to so many actors who have gone through a difficult coming out process and immediately have their agents or managers screaming “Why did you do that?” So it’s good to hear that it’s been so empowering.
I have a great agent. He’s been really supportive.
Now, you’ve said before that you’ve been out to people close to you for years. Have you had any blowback? People saying “why didn’t you tell me?”
No. Not one person. Anyone who needed to know, knew. And there were people who didn’t need to know that knew, just because they saw me out, or I went to a party. I’m living my life and doing whatever I want to do for the most part. People who know me, in my life, also know that’s not the kind of question I would entertain.
So let’s talk about your new show Council of Dads. Your role as Oliver, you’ve said, was part of what inspired you to go public. He’s a gay man married to another African-American man Peter, played by Kevin Daniels, and the couple has children. For you as an actor, what is it that speaks to you in a role where you realize it’s more than just a job? In other words, when the role changes you?
You know, honestly, it happens to me every single time.
Every single time, yeah. I think of it as my job to put something deeply personal to put on the line for myself. I have to find it, and I do with every role. This one is unique in that it pushed me up against a wall that I had created for myself. I think it served me when it had to. When I first started in the business, there were very few opportunities for a black actor.
I jokingly say “I was too busy being black to be gay.”
But the industry has shifted enough to where there’s more LGBTQ representation and more black representation. And I just wasn’t mature enough as a human being to walk through life as a black gay man. Now, at 46, I have the confidence and the wisdom and the knowledge to be able to take it on. The reason I ended up talking about it publicly was that I saw a huge opportunity to be observant in a meaningful way, and I just could not pass it up. It was a very person decision. I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t take the opportunity to continue a dialogue—it was started way before me. Black gay men, gay families—I would not have been happy with myself if I had not chosen to talk about it.
That speaks so well of you. One thing I really love about this show is the way it redefines community in a sense.
There are right-wing voices that claim diversity is harmful, or focusing on it is harmful, that it’s all a myth. The series shows that community is defined by what is shared; in the case of the series, that’s a love for Scott Perry and his family. How do we encourage people to focus on what is shared, to accept one another?
Well, it oftentimes takes people knowing someone in a community, knowing someone that belongs to a community that is seen as “other” to break down that wall. Again, that goes back to the reason I decided to go public. The other great gift of coming out for me was that it made clear for me my true goal. I really want equality for all. I’m talking about groups that I belong to, and groups that I don’t belong to. Ultimately, we have to move toward a space where everyone can sit at the table equally. That’s one of the reasons I was so happy to be involved with this show. It has diversity, and it’s not cosmetic.
What do you mean by that?
It’s like there’s one of this and one of that. There are multiples of different in this world. As the season goes by, you’ll be able to understand even more what I mean by that. It really elevates the conversation about diversity in a way that I’m so proud of. You come home with Oliver & Peter. You come home with us, and a whole episode takes place in our house. So the other thing that attracted me to the show was that I’m not playing the “insert black gay guy here.” He’s a three-dimensional character. He’s not just the best friend. He has his own storyline. The character is not additionally marginalized by not giving him a full story.
I also love the way the show redefines masculinity.
We have a trope in Western entertainment that fathers are either lovable buffoons like Homer Simpson or wisdom sages like Fred McMurray in My Three Sons. Either way, they are centers of authority and power. This show is different in that it shows men working together, sharing power, listening, conversing and making choices. It’s in the title: a council of dads. It’s not dictatorial patriarchy. Is that by conscious design, that Joan and Tony [series creators Joan Rater & Tony Phelan] had intended as much? Have you discussed it?
We’ve not talked about it, but I will say this: in developing the character one thing that you do as an actor is figure out the character’s super-objective.
That means the one thing they want more than anything in life. It took me a while—call me slow—but I realized that what is important to Oliver is that he be a great father. That is the most important thing in his life. So I started to think about what makes a great father. I think the answer is different for each person depending on their father. So I think about Oliver’s past, and how his father did not accept him for who he was. He grew up in a household where he felt like an imposter, like love was conditional. He never got to fall into the arms of his parents and hear them say “You are ok as you are.”
So what makes a great father to Oliver is growing this invisible fence around the children where they are able to be themselves and thrive as who they are naturally, whatever that is. That’s what makes a great father to Oliver, and it’s a great gift that any parent can give their children.
Absolutely. As a working actor, I need to ask you about the cult of celebrity. In the social media age, actors are really encouraged to become a “brand” or a product to help promote their show. That includes putting private life on display. What is your experience dealing with that pressure? Is it fair to expect actors to perform on both sides of the camera, in essence?
Some don’t. There are still actors out there who don’t want to be stars, who don’t have social media at all. To a degree, I think it’s slightly a myth. Every job that I get there’s an actor in a pivotal role who is not on social media, or who didn’t have a big following. I don’t believe that a large social media following translates to viewers. If it did, Kim Kardashian would be in everything.
Lord help us.
So, like anything, you just have to decide who you want to be and rock out with that, win or lose. One of the places I’m at in my life is that I don’t feel like the world needs another f*cking celebrity.
Nobody’s asking for one. I’m so tired of it. I’d just rather have an impact at some point in my life. If I can make the world a hair easier, or serve in the tiniest way, I’m so satisfied with that. The red carpeting thing is so played out to me. I’m so over it. So I think you’ve gotta make a choice about who you want to be, win or lose.
That’s great advice. So given the context of all of this, I also need to ask. This is a question that comes up a lot with actors I talk to. It came up with Billy Porter, with Nelson Lassiter, with Doug Spearman, and others. How can we encourage queer African-American men to come out and to feel safe in doing so?
That’s a big, big question. Number one, I’d say understanding. Just understand that it’s a lot to ask a person to own and take on another marginalized identity. As a black man moving through the world, you really have to live it to understand it: all of the concessions and adjustments that you have to make to the world just to get through your day. It’s a lot man, a whole lot. It’s a whole lot to ask people. I’m 46 now, and I said in another interview, if I had come out a day sooner, it would have been too soon.
Only now do I feel like I have the understanding and the confidence and the clarity to move through the world as I do now. So the most important thing is understanding. I love the gay men in my life because they never pressured me to do anything. They only loved me and counseled me to be myself.
Another way to help is to stand against racism. Working through the racism of our society might help people feel free to live in a world where they can feel like they can be themselves.
Amen to that. As a gay, African American man, what advice do you wish you could have had starting out in the business that you did not?
Actually I had wonderful mentors: African-American men who took me under their wings and advised me, counseled me, gave a call after auditions. Everyone showed up for me the same way they’re showing up for me now. My colleagues were the first ones to congratulate me.
But you ask me what I wish I could have known? That’s a difficult question. It was a different industry at that time. So I can’t answer that. I’ll have to think about it. It’s a great question.
Any word on Season 2?
I haven’t heard one way or another. I think NBC’s upfronts are next week, but I don’t know if our show will be picked up or not because we are so early in our run. I’m not sure.
Council of Dads airs Thursdays on NBC.