LOS ANGELES—J. August Richards knows good roles in Hollywood can be hard to come by. He also knows good roles for young, black actors can be even more difficult to find.
"There are a lot of people here who just want to offer you the street-type role. You know, the hood role. I can do more than that, and I'm going to show them that," he said during a recent interview.
But it's his ability to balance comedy in the show's lighter moments with the dramatic central plot that makes him a perfect fit for "Angel," a spinoff of the cult hit "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
"Angel," which has succeeded as one of the network's decidedly darker, more adult shows, is set in the underbelly of Los Angeles. It follows Angel, a vampire with a soul, and his band of do-gooders who fight evil.
While the show revolves around Angel, played by David Boreanaz, the supporting cast of Richards, Charisma Carpenter and Alexis Denisof have been the comedic relief and the backbone of the dramatic story arcs.
Richards landed the role after a guest spot last year that earned him rave reviews from critics and cast alike.
"I knew it went well. I just didn't know how well," he said.
Born Jaime August Richard in Washington and reared in the Maryland suburb of Bladensburg, he had two unlikely career ambitions actor or inventor.
He chose acting after he was spotted by a casting director at summer camp and landed a guest role on "The Cosby Show."
Richards, who adopted the stage name J. August Richards because "nobody could pronounce Jaime," moved to California to attend college. Several years ago, he participated in an acting workshop run by Eriq La Salle (NBC's "ER") and Michael Beach (NBC's "Third Watch"), which he says helped boost his self-confidence and gained him a mentor in La Salle.
"People have paid their dues so I can be here," he said. "Now it's my turn to pay my dues for somebody else."
With a few guest spots on UPN's "Moesha," ABC's "The Practice" and CBS' "Nash Bridges," Richards landed a role in a stage production at the Mark Taper Auditorium.
While the play was forgettable, Richards' performance caught the attention of WB executives who were looking to add a more diverse cast to their flagship shows such as "Buffy," "Dawson's Creek" and "Angel."
(A bidding war for "Buffy," which debuted in 1997 and helped boost the fledgling WB, ended last week with UPN's announcement that it snared the drama. UPN ordered 44 episodes to begin airing this fall.)
Sitting on a darkened set at Paramount Pictures, Richards seemed removed from the Hollywoodesque atmosphere. At one point, he was asked to remove his belongings from his dressing room so another actor could use it. His response: No problem.
"I'm not Julia Roberts. I don't have a reason to have a big head," he said. "My reality is there are hundreds of people looking for jobs, and I'm one of them."
But not for long, if critics and co-stars have anything to say about it.
Carpenter, who plays Cordelia Chase on the show, has worked with dozens of young, up-and-coming actors in the business. Richards, she says, has "stayed a pretty even guy."
"He doesn't take himself so seriously. He's accessible. He appreciates what people have to say," she said. "J. has that same appeal, same courage that Denzel Washington has. I think if anybody has a chance of breaking out, it's J."
Richards is still adjusting to the pitfalls that come with newfound celebrity.
"I was in a store looking at pants and this clerk was following me around. I thought it was, well, you know because I'm black. That happens a lot," he said. "But she walked up and said, `Aren't you on "Angel"?' and I was shocked. It was pretty cool."