It’s late afternoon in midtown Manhattan and Joey Richter is scaling a giant metallic rabbit. Our photographer shouts pose suggestions, but Joey doesn’t need much encouragement, leaning forward as if he’s quite at home commandeering a bunny brigade down Broadway. It’s definitely not the most ridiculous and possibly illegal thing Richter has done in his budding career.
You probably don’t know Richter’s name yet, but to a certain segment of youth culture he’s just as important as Justin Bieber, and maybe more so. A few weeks prior to his illegal rabbit riding adventure he shows up for our interview in a Silverlake coffee shop, the picture of the fresh-faced post-grad Hollywood hopeful back from three auditions that morning. However, unlike most trying to make their mark, Richter’s got a veritable army behind him in the form of fans of Team StarKid, the musical theater company full of fellow University of Michigan grads that took on a life of its own as a viral YouTube success in 2009.
‘A Very Potter Musical,’ the Harry Potter parody that was the group’s first upload, features Richter donning a red wig as Ron Weasley, a role he reprised for the group’s ‘A Very Potter Sequel’ the next year. He got his start with the company in their early days, where a 24-hour play festival at U of M cobbled the group together to write and stage ‘Me and My Dick,’ a coming of age tale about a “boy with a very special relationship with his very best friend…his dick.” Richter played the lead while Darren Criss, now of Glee fame, played his dick, and once he and Criss showed obvious chemistry as a buddy comedy duo, Starkid director Matt Lang kept them teamed together.
“I guess that was sort of my unintentional audition for this group,” Richter laughs. “Immediately after that it segued into this Harry Potter show in May. We did the show, and it was a mess until the last minute. My dad was in town the week before, and he saw a Tuesday dress rehearsal for the show opening Thursday. He goes, ‘You sure you want to open on Thursday?’” Richter recalls that their first run through of the show was the night of opening, they had no idea of the runtime of the production, and they had no expectation of any real audience. However, they doubled the capacity of their small theater, ended up adding additional shows throughout the weekend.
The school year ended, people graduated, and Richter figured that was it–but they’d filmed the performance to make DVDs for the cast, and when they got bored with the DVDs, they decided to put the show on YouTube. The rest is viral video history, millions of views racking up and Potter fans obsessing over the witty parody and catchy songs. Richter said he lived a double-life for a while, attending Harry Potter conventions where kids recognized him on elevators, then going back to a normal life at college.
Online, devotees run fan sites dedicated to him, girls and boys list him as their favorite celebrity on Tumblr, their dream encounter, or their inspiration in line with mainstream heartthrobs like Bieber or Zac Efron. The crowd he and StarKid speak to is a little outside the mainstream, though. The kids who are into collecting comic books or reading fantasy book series multiple times to digest all the nuances. The geek crowd who wants a celebrity that’s in on their joke.
“It’s all based on us being a fan of something,” Richter explains. “We have fans but we are fans. We geek out on many, many things.”
More than anything, Richter is a geek and a fanboy. He barrels through all sorts of fandoms over donuts, inhaling them with the kind of gusto only embodied by 20-something young men. From Sherlock (both the BBC series and the movies), Warped Tour and Blink 182 (Richter is sporting a Blink bracelet) NSYNC and Lost, the excitement in his voice building until it spills over into a story of “the coolest thing that’s ever happened to [him], and probably will be for a while.” He was attending the Entertainment Weekly party at Comic Con with Criss, who is also Richter’s roommate in LA, when he spotted Damon Lindelof. Richter is a self-professed “enormous Lost fan” and he “almost just died” when he saw the creator enter the room.
“I had to go say something to him,” Richter recalls “So we had this conversation about how much I appreciate his work. He asked what I was doing here, and I said I’m here tonight with my friend Darren. And Damon goes, ‘Oh Darren, he’s doing good for himself. First this Harry Potter musical, now Glee.’” Richter pauses for dramatic effect, eyebrows raised to his hairline and palms up in a gesture of disbelief before continuing with a kind of schoolboy giddiness. “And I freaked out, and go, ‘I was in that,’ and then there was this moment where Damon goes ‘Oh! You’re Ron!’ It was the most wonderful I’ve felt in my entire life.”
Post-grad, while StarKid moved from Ann Arbor to Chicago, Richter decided to head west instead, after a grueling several months commuting for the weekends to rehearse and put up “Starship,’ the group’s first post-college musical outside of Ann Arbor. In it Richter plays Bug, a space insect that finds a crashed human starship on and obsesses about becoming a Starship Ranger, then gets the chance when a group of humans arrive to colonize his planet. The demands of the leading role and his final semester of college were weighty, and although he’d originally planned to move to Chicago, opportunity awaited him elsewhere.
“As much as I love working with the company, my goal is to start a career in film and television,” Richter explained. “After ‘Starship,’ Melissa (Berger, his agent at CESD) approached me and said they’d love to represent me. At this point in my career, knowing I was going to be out of school in a few months, having that plan and that opportunity was a no brainer, I couldn’t pass it up. That kind of reworked my decision to move back to LA.”
Richter quickly booked a voice over part that earned him his SAG card, and has settled into the life of auditioning in LA while keeping up with StarKid commitments. The great thing about the Internet is how little place actually matters, and the company has adjusted, taking their show on the road, both to fan conventions and on their own tour that wound through the east coast this past Fall, bringing their performances off the computer screen and out of the midwest for their loyal fanbase.
“Our fanbase is such a specific group of people,” he said. “There’s times when they’re screaming, but what’s cool about us a group is we’re really an accessible group. We’re just a bunch of people. It’s part of the YouTube, viral thing in the first place. It’s just something you can watch for free, online. It’s been built from the ground up, and our fans, if anything, are so loyal. With that loyalty comes a certain level of respect. The tour got a little crazy, the tour sometimes felt like ‘A Hard Days Night.’”
They’ll continue this spring with a second run of the tour, a Mayan celebration of the end of the world called Apocalyptour, with a larger number of StarKids and all new songs and cities.
Richter sites the tour as a great marketing effort for a struggling actor in Hollywood, putting the group’s name out there, and each individual performer in turn. Every time the group does something new their cache gets bigger and bigger, from mentions in Entertainment Weekly (Richter remembers being in jury duty that day and thinking ‘this is terrible’ then getting to his lunch break to several missed calls from Criss alerting him to the news.) to various mentions on pop culture blogs like Perez Hilton. “It’s crazy to think who sees it,” he says. “That’s why people tour, and in my wildest dreams I never imagined that’s what I’d be doing in my life right now, but that’s why bands do it. They release an album and then they tour, and it gets bigger.”
Another reason StarKid’s spread-out nature is unavoidable as of late is Criss’s commitments to Glee, which films in Los Angeles. Criss was the group’s primary composer for all but their most recent musical, but with the restrictions of his rise to fame and various creative outlets — tv, movies, an upcoming album and a stint on Broadway — the ability for the group to all be in the same place at the same time is severely limited. Richter and Criss almost shared screen time again, and in a way that would have almost certainly set social media fandom aflame — last Fall Richter read for a Glee role, the new villain on the block Sebastian, who had his eyes romantically set on Criss’s Blaine character and has recently transformed into a menace for the whole of McKinley. It wasn’t meant to be, but the roommates had a laugh when Criss found Richter’s audition materials at home.
“For a day or two, I was like ‘I want this so bad,’” Richter laughed. “I wanted to be the bad guy. Darren saw the sides and he goes, ‘Dude, that would be so cool. And that would be so weird!’”
Criss has nothing but positive praise for his roommate. “It’s only a matter of time, put a flag in this moment because we’ll all know Joey soon,” he told NewNowNext. “He’s extremely talented, good looking guy with a lot of charm and a lot of heart. Great comedic timing, I think he’s going to do really well for himself and I can’t wait to see that happen.”
Although Richter’s singing voice is strong, he won’t have to rely on that for roles. He’s bankable in a way that most people who haven’t had a major role yet would kill to be, and when the news broke of him filming Jessie, a Disney show he is set to be a recurring character on come the second season, Twitter exploded with the excitement of fans ready to tune in to his big debut, even before the show’s premiere was scheduled. He’ll land on The Disney Channel’s Jessie tonight, a welcome addition to the larger than life story of an Au Pair and her gaggle of rambunctious kids living the posh life in New York City. Richter will play Officer Petey, a cop, a character the show likes so much he’ll be back for a later episode in the season with a larger storyline for his character.
“I had auditioned for the show originally back for the pilot,” Richter explained. “The reason I’d gotten the audition in the first place is one of the producers and writers, his daughter is a huge StarKid fan! I didn’t end up getting the part, but then this role came along I was the only kid my age there auditioning for this cop role that was supposed to be a grown man.”
Disney is likely the perfect fit for Richter to break out — he’s rubberfaced and engaging, a Saturday morning cartoon of a twentysomething. His comedic timing carries many of the StarKid musicals most memorable moments — from bursting through the door Kramer-style in the Potter Musicals to discussing his baser instincts with his own anatomy in Me and My Dick. However, he’s not solely focused on comedy, and cites Bryan Cranston as an career role model. “I used to watch Malcolm in the Middle when I was younger, and he was so funny on the show,” Richter says. “Then he dropped off for a while, and now he’s back in Breaking Bad and it’s one of the best dramatic characters ever. That’s such a cool career. He’s so well respected and he’s been around forever. He’s peaking now, and not like I”m saying I want my career to peak when I’m 50, but I’m perfectly content with the growth I could have personally as an actor and with a career. I have a very strong principle of being who I am, and I don’t want to lose that. I like who I am. I want to grow it for sure.”
Of course his “pre-career” as an Internet celebrity, as Richter calls it, isn’t half bad either.