If you are not familiar with the name Richard Neil, I bet you’ve seen him or at least heard his voice before. A veteran actor with over 70 IMDb credits, Neil has also amassed a number of voice acting jobs for some of the biggest video game franchises around. Neil is fresh off playing psychologist James “Jimmy” Fonda in Prodigy, a low-budget sci-fi thriller that just debuted on Digital, VOD, iTunes, and Amazon. The film is written and directed by Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal and is terrific at building tension thanks to its minimalist approach and cast (read my review of the film here).
I spoke with Richard Neil about his role in Prodigy, working with a young co-star, and his current and future plans.
Geeks of Doom: I am a huge fan of contained thrillers, and for Prodigy you are basically in one room the majority of the film. What is that like as an actor dealing with the small space where it’s just you and one other actor, in this case a young child?
Richard Neil: As you say it was very contained and essentially we shot over two weeks. That first week it was basically just me and Savannah (Liles) who plays Ellie and we shot out in Riverside, California at this abandoned animal shelter that they converted to these two rooms, one being the interrogation room, the other being the control room where we’re supposedly observed by the military personnel. That first week was just me and Savannah essentially and we were knocking out all these scenes in chronological order thank god. But it was intense. She was only nine years old when we filmed almost two years ago now. She had a lot of work and preparation to do because she didn’t know all the words or what they meant. She was supposed to be playing this genius child whose IQ is off the charts and things just roll off her tongue as if she had memorized all the Shakespeare and every encyclopedia ever written. She’s supposed to be so highly intelligent, that’s what floors me immediately when I walk in the room, ya know, how can this brain be inside of a nine-year-old child. She worked really hard with her mom and also an acting coach, and the directors were very patient with her. When you’re working with a child there’s also child labor laws so she can only be on the set for a certain amount of time. So most of my close-ups were delivered to a stand-in. She had a double and also the camera assistant’s girlfriend and they would scootch down to be the right height. I did a lot of my scenes with her for my close-ups. That was a little bit of a struggle to imagine this 30-year person as a nine-year-old girl. But it went pretty smoothly considering we were working like 12-13 hours a day. There’s always the down time between shots where they’re changing the lights or changing the camera angles and all that, so there was enough down time to decompress and get out of your head and then to get back into character. But it was intense, everyday is basically just me and Savannah for that first week and I’d just be wasted by the end of the day, get back to the hotel take a hot shower and pass out.
Geeks of Doom: Have you ever done that in your career where you had to form a bond with child actor, because as you said she was only 9, and she was amazing in the film.
Richard Neil: She was, she really was. No, not to this degree by a long stretch. I’ve worked with kids for a day here or there on a TV show or a commercial, where it’s easy to play with somebody for just a day hanging out. But this was like a full-length play where you’re on stage with somebody and you maintain a certain concentration. This was a completely new experience for me working with someone that age and trying to keep that relationship going.
Geeks of Doom: It’s funny I was exchanging emails with one of the directors and after I saw the film, I told him it felt like I was watching a play and it could’ve been on stage because it was so contained.
Richard Neil: Absolutely, it reminds me of the (Peter) Shaffer play, Equus because it’s all basically a psychologist and this young boy. It’s very much like that play to me. That’s the one play that comes to mind, because it’s a lot of talking. There’s a talk-dynamic, and how do you make that visually interesting for the viewer. And I guess that’s the challenge, you know we’re in this contained room with Alex and Brian working with the cinematographers to create this momentum and build up the tension. So I guess that’s the challenge when you’re having a very talky film, how do you create that tension?
Geeks of Doom: I feel like Prodigy was a very “thinking man’s” movie because of that.
Richard Neil: Well thank you, I’m glad you liked it. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but a lot of people seem to enjoy it. You never know when you do a film like this, how it’s going to be received. But people have been very receptive to it which is very worthwhile and fulfilling to know that it worked.
Geeks of Doom: When you first read the script which scene or scenes did you really connect with? For me it was the “Watch Scene.”
Richard Neil: It’s interesting you mention that scene because that was the scene I did for my initial audition. Because it’s essentially a monologue. You’re given these signs as an actor and I had a few days to work on it and I really liked that piece a lot. You could really take your time with it and the words really speak for themselves. If you are really connected the emotions should be there if you’re really specific about what you’re saying. It’s just a story and you realize you’re telling it to a nine-year-old child and why are you saying this as a character? What kind of reaction are you going for? So I think about my character and who I am and I’m basically telling her that things that seem expensive or superficial may not really be the things that resonate with one’s heart. They might not hold the most value. And it’s discussing this watch that was owned by my father that is the most precious thing I actually own physically and ritualistically. I really love that speech too. It’s my big moment to shine I suppose, in revealing who I am.
Geeks of Doom: The whole introduction of you to Ellie reminded me a lot of when Matt Damon meets Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting.
Richard Neil: That was definitely a film that was referenced by Alex and Brian for my character as this empathetic person. It’s just there. Be that empathetic and be compassionate. My character is physically like that as well. The way he’s described as unkempt, his hair unruly, he wears a threadbare sweater vest, he doesn’t pay much attention to his physical appearance. He’s sort of this hangdog therapist who’s coming from a place from the heart. He’s been wounded in the past. So that is a really good reference point because that’s what Alex and Brian were going for. Of course also the Matt Damon character in that film was highly intelligent and comes from a very modest background just like the Ellie character.
Geeks of Doom: I noticed the film just came off a successful festival run. Did you take part in any of the festival tour?
Richard Neil: We all, I think almost the whole cast showed up at the Cinequest Festival in San Jose and that was pretty much the premiere of the film. It was great, we all showed up there since it’s accessible from LA, it’s only about a 5-6 hour drive so it was doable. Whereas Alex (Haughey) the director, went everywhere. He’s from Kansas City so he got it into the Kansas City Film Festival so he went there. And Savannah is from Sedona, Arizona and they have a film festival there so they got it in there and Alex and Savannah basically held court. Savannah was the star in the small town of Sedona. It played in a couple other festivals but Cinequest was the only one I attended and it was a blast. We stayed the weekend, they did about 3 or 4 screenings and we did Q&As and all that. And it was really well-received. People were very receptive and they wanted to ask us questions and talk about the film after in the lobby. It was really nice.
QUESTIONS AFTER THIS POINT CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR PRODIGY… SO PROCEED WITH CAUTION…
Geeks of Doom: Do you think if the film gains some traction, based on the ending we can see something in the way of a sequel?
Richard Neil: Hey you should talk to Alex about that. I’ve been joking with him about it. A few of us, myself, Alex, David Linski who plays one of the therapists, and Jolene Anderson who plays Olivia, my former girlfriend who works with the military, we went out last night and we joked about what could be in the sequel. We hook up and adopt Savannah, or she adopts Savannah and I come in for another mission on a different level. If you’re a writer and you want to pitch something to Alex I’m sure he’d listen.
Geeks of Doom: I liked how open-ended the film left things. They don’t dig too deep into things, even Ellie and her powers so there is definitely more to explore.
Richard Neil: Yeah, you wonder what her future will entail now that she’s on the side of good and the government decides to work with her. That final shot of us in the park playing chess and there are secret service agents in the distance keeping an eye on things. You know they’re testing her and trying to figure out the range of her gifts and the potential she has so you wonder what a sequel might entail. Maybe she gets kidnapped by evil forces and she’s suddenly in Russia… who knows?
Geeks of Doom: Well I am a huge fan of the film, and I’d love to see more down the line. On a personal level for you, what do you have coming up?
Richard Neil: I have a couple of films coming out. One is called Clyde Cooper which is a sci-fi noir film that you may be interested in. It’s supposed to be submitted to festivals in about a month. It’s directed by this fellow named Peter Daskaloff. And then I have a romantic comedy directed by a Russian woman Nataliya Padilla called This Much which is being submitted to festivals right now. And I do voice over work for video games. Last year I did Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds. A month ago I played the lead role in a graphic anthology series directed by Tim Miller who directed Deadpool. That’s being produced by David Fincher and is supposed to debut on Netflix later this year or early next year. I really enjoy working on the video games.
Geeks of Doom: You do have a perfect voice for it. You have the perfect therapist’s voice, and I think that’s why I connected so much to Prodigy.
Richard Neil: Well thank you. Sometimes I get complimented on it and sometimes people tell me I sound like Steven Wright. It’s so deadpan and so calm that sometimes you just want to go to sleep. I love Steven Wright’s comedy and its deadpan delivery so I take it as a compliment but sometimes I’m like, ‘So am I so monosyllabic that I’m putting people to sleep?’ But yeah I have gotten that, I have played some therapists before so maybe that’s my niche.
I had a great time interviewing Richard Neil. He was very conversational and no, his voice did not put me to sleep. He delivers a truly powerful performance in Prodigy. The film currently sits at 80% on Rotten Tomatoes and is available to rent or own on several platforms including iTunes and Amazon.