In Lifetime’s new drama series MARY KILLS PEOPLE, the heart of the story lies within the strong partnership and friendship of Mary (Caroline Dhavernas) and Des (Richard Short), who have taken up an enterprising venture of helping terminally ill people end their lives as painlessly as possible. But with an undercover cop hot on their trail and after an thorny entanglement with a local drug dealer, Mary and Des’ lives become a lot more complicated than they ever expected. Richard Short’s portrayal of Des is nothing less than brilliant. Even playing off the scintillating Caroline Dhavernas, Richard manages to steal scenes and tug at the heart strings every chance he gets. In an exclusive interview, Richard talks about bring the complex character of Des to life as well as reflecting at where his career is now.
What initially appealed to you about the role of Des and working on the MARY KILLS PEOPLE?
RICHARD: The first time I read the script my initial response to my team was “if we do this right it can be a really great series,” as if I’d already been offered the job. I hadn’t! I had to audition, which allowed me time to go a little deeper into the page. I couldn’t quite fathom just what genre of series it was. Thriller? Documentary? Drama? Comedy? All of these questions pulled me further into imagining how it could be portrayed and I realized the true value lies in its originality.
How would you describe who Des is?
RICHARD: I must say that Des was written wonderfully. He was born via the pen of show creator Tara Armstrong who somehow understood the warped, intelligent, filthy, lonely yet compassionate mind of an English doctor. He’s a quick witted smart ass who may take an episode or two to empathize with until you discover he has an absolute heart of gold.
What do you most admire and/or like about Des?
RICHARD: I most admire his approach to the thorny issue of assisted suicide. He’s an advocate for freedom of choice and not just in it for the money. And although he’s adept at using humor to mask a difficult situation, he’s a genuinely funny man. A bundle of complexities and nowhere near perfect but the best people I know are complicated too. It makes the bare moments of real honesty so much more powerful.
What is it like working with such a strong ensemble cast?
RICHARD: Firstly, thank you. I completely concur. This is a strong ensemble piece and I consider myself fortunate to be a part of it. The guest stars who’d come in with ‘illnesses’ each episode were extraordinary. Caroline and I soon realized our job on those days was to ‘get out of the way’. To hand over the stage to such capable and hard working actors. We shot in and around Toronto and there’s a strong tradition of the theatre up there which no doubt helped them all massively. I’m just honored to be on the same playing field with each and every one of them, whether sharing pages of dialogue with Lyriq Bent (Frank Gaines) or a single line with Taylor Love (Taco Girl).
You have a number of scenes with Caroline Dhavernas. What was it like filming the wide range of emotionally-charged scenes with her?
RICHARD: Exquisite. One of the joys of my professional life in fact. So much of this show comes down to the chemistry between Mary and Des, which is something you can’t be trained to do. It’s a simple human instinct and so often the epitome of what we all chase when striving to make great art. Once an actor can see that his/her scene partner can be trusted implicitly, it leaves them free to ‘let go’ of inhibition and anxiety. Our first scene together was a very emotional one from later in the series so we intentionally didn’t discuss it beforehand which enabled the full surprise of the moment to work so well. Of course, we also share many lighter scenes which were just good old fashioned fun. The fact that we enjoy each others company means we can continue to develop the Mary/Des friendship after work, all of which plays into what you see onscreen.
How would you describe the complex relationship of Des and Mary?
RICHARD: Des and Mary have the relationship that any pair of friends who’ve known each other so long have (they studied together at medical school). With that comes a shared history. A history that can be called upon to make each other laugh or even used as a weapon. When two people love and trust one another so deeply they can either support or hurt the other more than anyone else can. Of course, they’re also walking the tightrope of an illegal pursuit and dealing with the stress of that in very different ways. Ultimately, they’re a man and woman with an unwavering friendship. That seems to be a rarity on television.
What was the hardest part about portraying a recovering drug addict?
RICHARD: Paying respect to the ongoing struggle of those enduring similar circumstances. An addict is always ‘recovering’. It’s never over. A daily fight. After meeting with several ex-addicts, that responsibility rested heavily on my shoulders and I was determined to do them justice. Although the series starts with a lighter tone, Des’ personal demons are eventually explained. I don’t mind saying that I cried myself to sleep on several occasions just thinking the whole thing through. We have to ensure they know there’s help and that their struggle is not ignored.
What you have learned from the show and its thought-provoking point of view on the right to die?
RICHARD: I learned about a lot of specific cases, particularly in the United States and Canada, during my research. I knew it was a grey area, politically speaking, but wasn’t aware of anyone in my own life that had felt the necessity to be allowed to die. Learning of such stories has been one of the most important and enlightening aspects of being a part of this show.
What has been the one thing you as an actor haven taken away from working on MARY KILLS PEOPLE?
RICHARD: As an actor, I’ve learned a different type of stamina on MARY KILLS PEOPLE. One day of jokes, the next full of heavy emotion. It’s also the first time I’ve been attached to a series for the duration of the shoot and I was used to unleashing all my professional energy over the course of an episode or two. This was more about keeping an eye on the bigger picture. To that end, the producers and writers were so open to Caroline, Jay (Ryan) and myself asking questions and making suggestions which made for such an open creative environment.
What do you hope viewers continue to take away from watching MARY KILLS PEOPLE?
RICHARD: I’d like them to at least appreciate in some way the need for personal choice in such weighty matters. The right to die. If they don’t agree with it for whatever reason, I just hope they’re entertained and that we haven’t wasted any of their valuable evenings watching us. It’s a privilege that people may choose to sit down with their dinner and glass of wine and watch us pretending to be these people. If you do plan to tune in…thank you.
What has been your favorite part about working on this project?
RICHARD: The people. Always the people. Whether that’s reading books and discovering personal stories of suffering that may have been appeased by assisted suicide or working with actors, writers and technicians from all over the world and becoming their friend. Although I also loved that I got to see Toronto Football Club play many times!
What has surprised you most about your career so far?
RICHARD: An interesting question, as I don’t think there is much surprise for me anymore. The phone rings…or it doesn’t. The scene works really well onscreen when you see it months later…or it’s almost unrecognizable from what you felt in the room. I know for a fact there is so much talent in this world. Not just in places like London, New York or Los Angeles but almost everywhere. Everyone has a story to tell and so many are able to tell it. It’s an unfortunate quirk of the industry that so few get the opportunity to do so.
At this stage of your career, what do you think you have learned from the amazing variety of roles and projects you have worked on?
RICHARD: The true gift in doing this for a living is that I get to walk in another man’s shoes for a time. That’s valuable because it affords a more balanced outlook on different sections of society. It’s possibly the reason so many actors are quite liberal minded. If you have the opportunity to live life from many different perspectives it affords a balance that others aren’t lucky enough to be able to learn from. I’ve tasted homelessness and riches beyond belief. I’ve been gay and straight. I’ve come from many different countries and stood for many political beliefs. I like to think that’s helped mold my opinion that we are all of us the same deep down inside.
Then what are the perks of where you are in your career right now?
RICHARD: The biggest advantage of being a part of an incredible and unique show like MARY KILLS PEOPLE is that I get to help develop the character and watch him grow. There are countless pages not yet written featuring Des and it’s fascinating to be a part of seeing where he could go. There’s also the more material perks of being on television such as tickets for soccer matches (which a twenty two year career has been worth it for alone!). I’m about to board a plane to Cannes with Caroline to promote our show internationally too, which isn’t the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do as ‘work’. A certain respect within the industry, while earned, feels nice too.
If there were one role you would like to revisit, which would it be and why?
RICHARD: I’d like to pop in and visit all of them to a certain degree. I wonder how Demetrius’ marriage has held up. The same could be said of a cheating philanderer I played on LAW & ORDER:SVU. Or the young Australian soldier ‘Harry’ in Mary Rose. Harlan Moore, the villain of 666 PARK AVENUE was delightful fun to play and is still out there somewhere.. I’m proud of THE EXHIBITIONISTS too and would like to see where that would go. But most of all I’d like to have continued with Billy McVicar on the HBO series VINYL. It’s one of the shows I’ve been on which I could remain a huge fan of watching at home. I was able to separate the friendships on set and being an impartial viewer. Billy was the lover of Devon Finestra (Olivia Wilde) and came into her life just as her marriage was disintegrating. It’s a show I’m very proud to have been a part of and it will stand the test of time as a quality 10 part series as it is.
You seem to take on roles that are very challenging. Do any of your characters and the situations they find themselves in ever leave a lasting impression on you?
RICHARD: You take with you a little piece of everyone you play. It’s difficult not to. Obviously if you’re portraying a bad person, you may take at least an understanding of their deficiencies. Not to excuse such behavior but to be true as to why they may have done so. I’d like to continue choosing roles that are challenging or else what’s the point? I don’t ever feel the need to be like, or even look like, Richard Short in my work. Quite the opposite in fact. The less you know of me the easier it is for you to see me as the character onscreen. Playing Des, I’ve grown to understand the need for freedom of choice. I also just wrapped on a horror film called “The Dare” in Bulgaria, in which I’m tortured physically and mentally throughout. When I returned home, I had violent reactions to very dark dreams for a few nights…the kind of lasting impression I didn’t really want!
Has there been any great advice you have gotten? What advice would you offer to other upcoming and aspiring actors?
RICHARD: I would say, and indeed have said, to never take “no” for answer. Especially as in some areas of our industry a certain class divide exists. Art is for everyone. Anyone at all is free to participate. No-one can tell you not to, that’s the beauty of it. Talent doesn’t discriminate. Just as the best soccer players often come from the most disaffected areas, I find that actors who’ve lived with struggle and hunger are infinitely more interesting than those raised on expensive acting classes that only the wealthy can enjoy. The truth is, you don’t need them. I never had them. You learn from adapting your intelligence to the problems in front of you. Are we scared when we walk onto a new set or a new stage? Absolutely terrified. It’s not just you. We all are. Breathe, have a think of what you’re doing and do it anyway. Ignore the detractors. Work hard and just get on with it.
Do you have any other upcoming projects that you can share that fans should keep an eye out for?
RICHARD: There’s a whole slew of feature films I’ve been busy on recently, all being readied for distribution in one way or another. “Not Welcome” is a feature in which I play a homeless artist who may or may not be a ghost in Chicago. “Cockroaches” is a heist thriller shot in Los Angeles by a Swedish crew. “Crazy Famous,” which is a hilarious farce shot in New York. And “The Dare,” a British horror film shot in Bulgaria in which I’m an American security guard. But you know what? The best work is still to come because I’m only just getting started…
To see how fine an ethical line Des and Mary walk and they trials they endure in the process of bringing peace to those that suffer, be sure to tune in for the premiere of MARY KILLS PEOPLE on Lifetime. Be prepared to laugh, to cry, and to have your heart won over by the unlikeliest of heroes.