Riley Smith Interview

Source: YMS
Date: March 1, 1999

Among other things, Riley Smith has raised and shown horses, acted in theater, commercials, and movies, modeled, hosted American Teen Video Magazine, has his own web site, The Life of Riley — and rumor has it that a musical career is next. Riley called us late one night, after getting off the set of his new film, Wild Grizzly. After working all day, he was still a bundle of energy at midnight! Riley’s an impressive guy to talk to and not just because he’s one of the busiest guys in Hollywood. Riley is also one of the coolest guys you would ever want to meet. We predict great things for this rising star!

Riley: I hope I didn’t call too late — I just got off the set.

YMS: Long day today?

Riley: Oh, man! I was there I believe about 9 o’clock in the morning and I just got done at 10 o’clock. They have a set phone but I kept being paged by my managers all day and I kept using it and I did not wear out my welcome with the phone — its only the first week of shooting.

YMS: At some point you will have somebody carrying a phone for you….

Riley: I know!

YMS: OK — Tell me about your day — what are you shooting?

Riley: Right now I am shooting a new movie called Wld Grizzly….

YMS: With Daniel Baldwin….

Riley: Yes, with Daniel Baldwin, Fred Dryer….

YMS: He’s great!

Riley: He’s awesome! And Michelle Green, who used to be on the series “LA Law” for about seven years and a girl named Courtney Peldonn who used to be on “Home Improvement” for three years and “Little Giants”, so we have an awesome cast. Directed by Sean McNamara, who did all the Casper movies and Punks, which just came out — he’s a really great up-and-coming director and he is so amazing.

This movie is basically about a wild grizzly bear who escapes from his compound. He goes nuts. Two things caused the bear to go nuts and he starts breaking things and killing people.

YMS: What’s your role in the film?

Riley: My role in the movie is that I and Michelle Green, who plays my mother, are driving to Pine Valley — we’re moving because my dad, who was a cop, was shot and killed, so to get away from everything she moves out in the middle of nowhere and tries to start all over again. I’m a 15 year old kid who is bitter at the world and I miss my dad and I’m mad at my mom, and I end up seeing these bears and it is like an outlet for me.

I decide to help the big park ranger, who is played by Fred Dryer, with the bears in the compound and by accident one gets lose. So I decide to go chasing after it, out in the middle nowhere, but I’m from of LA and I don’t know anything about bears!

So Courtney Peldon who plays my little girl buddy, she catches on that I am going and she follows me, so there we are, Dumb and Dumber, out in the woods trying to survive on our own and catch this bear.

YMS: Is there is a lot of action?

Riley: It is more action packed than I thought it would be. I do the stunts and get cut up and hit by bears. I get to work with this bear — its a thousand pounds, eight feet tall….

YMS: You know, bears are truly psychotic….

Riley: Yeah, they have this big old cowboy who came in to train her and he was all like “yeah, I got her trained” and I am thinking, this thing could snap at any time, and nothing you could do would do any good.

YMS: Yeah – they are completely nuts — so be careful out there!

Riley: Right!

YMS: So where are you from?

Riley: Iowa…. The web site says Cedar Rapids, which is the big town that everybody knows, but my address is actually Marion. I lived on a horse ranch and went to the country school — only 42 kids in my class. I played a lot of sports, because that is really all there is to do out there!

I really wanted to act, but in Iowa, there is really no way to do that. I went into high school theater and did all the musicals. I did Grease, where I played Danny, and I did South Pacific where I played Lieutenant Cable, and Bye Bye Birdie, where I was Hugo. I love to sing and I love to act.

YMS: Where did you go from there?

Riley: All of the sudden this girl, a friend of mine, was modeling and my best friend was modeling and they would go to New York in the summer time. It seemed like a good way for me to get out of Iowa. So I made the move, I was a senior in high school, and I moved right when I graduated. I lived in a model’s apartment with eight guys from all over the world. It really makes me appreciate what I have now — I was sleeping on a futon on the floor.

All of those guys were into modeling, but I was in to acting so I was doing the acting lessons every day. I was going hard with the acting lessons and my coach started sending me out on auditions. The second audition I went on was a Wendy’s commercial, right before Christmas. I did it, then I flew home.

Right when I landed, my pager went off. They told me I got a callback. I said “but I’m already back in Iowa for Christmas” and they said “you can spend $400 on the plane ticket and fly back, or you can forget it. I prayed hard that night and I asked God what to do and I woke up the next morning and knew I had to go back. I did the callback and two weeks later I was in Miami Beach doing the commercial. And that started the acting career.

YMS: Did you have lines in the commercial?

Riley: Yeah — four of us guys were in a convertible and one of the guys said “if you had 99 cents, would you get a new air freshener, would you get more gas (it showed the gas tank was empty),” and then someone says “would you get Wendy’s 99 cent nuggets?” then it cuts to us pushing the out of gas car through the drive-through.

That’s really when I got the acting bug. I mean I was in Miami, it was so warm and it was January, I was so happy! I got to see myself on TV and so did everybody back in Iowa — they don’t get to see that every day. Everybody was just going nuts and I thought that was so cool!

YMS: You kept modeling, though….

Riley: It’s really a great way to get your face in the magazines and make some good money. But when I started getting into acting more, I told my agent to slow down and only go for the big things. I was doing Tommy Hilfiger runway shows, Armani suit shows, I did a Lenscrafters campaign with Collin Raye and Patty Loveless, the country singers, which was an amazing experience for me because I sing country music. I got to go to Nashville and meet with them and shoot — it was fun. I did a Salon Selectives campaign which ran all over here an in Japan.

YMS: But you wanted to act….

Riley: Acting is what got me to LA, though. I was only in New York for four months. I was in LA for just about a week and I booked a TV pilot called “Central High” that never got picked up, but it was a good pilot and a good experience. After that I came really close to a lot of things, but I was brand-new to LA. I screen tested a lot and it would come down to me and somebody other guy. My manager told me when it gets that close, it’s like the difference between vanilla and chocolate — always the other guy had dark hair.

I was here three months and I was doing commercials again. Then I booked a little foreign trailer — it was supposed to look like a movie trailer, but it ends up being an advertisement for Sector watches, which are really big over there. It was an amazing experience because I didn’t know what I was getting in to. I went into the audition practicing for another audition, not even worrying about this commercial audition. I end up booking the job and shooting at Universal Studios for six days. Ther director was Doug Limon who did Swingers, and the cinematographer Russell Carpenter who won an Oscar for Titanic a month later, the set designer was Ed Verreaux who did Contact and my co-star was Dominique Swain. It was a great learning experience.

A month later, Italy called and they wanted me over there — I did Italian talk shows and Italian magazines — things blew up in Italy, which was really really nice.

YMS: Since then?

Riley: Things keep getting better and better. Right after I got back from Italy, I booked the “American Teen Video Magazine”. A month after that, I went to the Emmys to film a segment. One thing led to another — right before Christmas, I booked the Black Stallion two movie deal with Mickey Rooney. That’s been postponed, though, because Mickey Rooney is sick — he is also doing The Wizard of Oz on Broadway. That was kind of a godsend, though, because it gave me a chance to do this film and then there is another one shooting in Seattle — a teenage horror flick that shoots in April, depending on the Black Stallion flick.

Things are going really really nice right now.

YMS: Let me drag you back to Iowa and ask you some questions. You grew up on a quarterhorse ranch with 75 horses, ten cats, three dogs, and a donkey. Did you think that was going to be your future?

Riley: Oh, yeah, definitely! I still have not counted it out at all. I have done a lot of interviews with the horse industry for different things — I was the president of the American Quarterhorse Youth Association — it is really an honor. I ran for vice president in 1996 and got that, then ran for president in 1997 and go that.

My dad is big in that world and I always worked for him and thought I would follow in his footsteps. When I was growing up, I always showed great horses — I had a world champion in 1997.

In high school, I missed about 50 days a year because I would be travelling on weekends to conventions and giving speeches promoting the quarterhorse, so I got to see a lot of the world. In fact, I went to LA once and was like so “oh, I want to be here!”

YMS: Did you do any racing?

Riley: No, we don’t do any racing — more of the Western/English jumping, roping, cutting — those kind of things.

YMS: Quarterhorses are bred for the most part for racing, aren’t they?

Riley: Yes, but they are such a versatile — don’t get me started or I could do a whole sales pitch on quarterhorses! They are built for racing, but they are sturdy and their temperament is the best of any kind of horse.

So, I grew up on that, working for my dad. It’s kinda funny — there’s a country song called “You’re Not In Kansas Any More” which is about this guy who grew up working on a farm, never liked overalls or haulin’ hay and he always dreamed about going to LA — that was kinda like me. I always loved the horses and the work but I always knew there was something else I wanted to do — something really creative. But it was something I was good at and it is something I could always go back to.

I hosted “American Horse”, which is an ESPN show — I did that once and I told ESPN “this is what I want to do some day.” Horses are something that once you get it in your blood, you never get it out. But getting out of high school, it was time to follow my dream — horses are something I can do any time.

YMS: Do you miss them?

Riley: Well, California has beautiful ranches…. Actually, my father sold my old horse to somebody who lives about 30 minutes away, so I can up on weekends and ride my old horse.

YMS: A useless bit of info — John Wayne’s real first name was Marion, like your home town, and he was born in Iowa. Also Bridges of Madison County and Field Of Dreams were both shot in Iowa….

Riley: Just 15 minutes from my house!

YMS: But that is the kind of image people have about Iowa. Now I spent a summer in Dubuque and I have a feeling that it is not the kind of upbringing that readies you for New York…. Was it a big shock?

Riley: Well, it was, but it wasn’t. I travelled so much with the quarterhorses — my dad took me all over the world — when I was 9 I went to Rio, when I was 11 I went to Italy.

YMS: So you were ready.

Riley: Yeah! I kinda knew what was out there. There was one time in my junior year I went for four weeks in a row — I went to Seattle, to Myrtle Beach, then to Texas, then Canada. It really matured me and it really gave me an idea of what is out there.

Acting is a business, just like horses. I think a lot of people when they get started get intimidated, like “I need to be doing this and everybody back in my small town are wondering why they haven’t seen me on TV yet.” I never put that on myself — nobody back home ever did. They are just so happy about what I am doing. But I have one cousin who is a doctor and one who is a pro baseball player, so they all have their own thing. I am just a small bit of the thing, so they all treat me really normally and they think nothing of it.

It is really cool I have that support and no pressure, so ever since I started, there was no pressure and I had nothing to lose, so I could think positive. It was always a matter of not “will it” but “when.” It has helped me stay focused and on the right path.

YMS: You’ve talked about having a large family — does that help keep you grounded?

Riley: Oh, totally! Iowa keeps you grounded in itself. If you have been in the Midwest, you know there is a mentality like nowhere else — everybody is so friendly, everybody is your friend. A handshake is all you need.

When I would play basketball in high school, I would hear all these cheers because half of the crowd was my family! I always got cheered, even when I was doing bad!

They always call me, they always e-mail me, they are always checking up on me. They never ask things like “are you sure you want to be out there?” The toughest thing was that out of all my family, my grandpa’s like my soulmate, my best friend. He’s getting old now — he’s 85 — and I used to spend every day with him. He loves to spend time with me and he loved to watch me play basketball — he never missed a game.

All of the sudden, I am caught having to decide to move to LA or New York to do the thing I love, or stay with him — it was a tough choice. I just decided I had to go for it — but I talk to him every single day over the phone.

YMS: OK — let’s recap. You move to New York, you are in a national ad within two months. You move to LA, you are in Spaceboy a couple of months later. Is this a special blessing? Is it luck? You seem to fall into things pretty easily….

Riley: Yeah. I have gotten so blessed. I am a really big Christian and I really try to stay in tune with that and that path. Everything happens for a reason. I have been patient and I have been walking my faith. In the beginning, when I did screen tests, it was really hard to hear that I did not get the job, but now, looking back on it, I can see that it happened for a reason and when one door was closed, another would open.

It’s hard to conceive — there was this Saturday morning series that I really wanted to do, it was a good job and the kind of thing I wanted for myself — but looking back on it now, I say “thank you Lord for saving me from that job” because it would have kept me from doing the things I am doing now.

YMS: I know you are big on Elvis, and that is something that he lost — he had a very strong spiritual belief that he just lost — and then it was really over for him.

Riley: I love Elvis!

YMS: Ok — what is your favorite Elvis song — and this is a test, so answer carefully!

Riley: That is a tough one — I like his ballads because he has such a soulful voice, and “Hound Dog” is awesome. I also like… you know what? It’s tough — I like so many of his songs.

YMS: Sorry — the correct answer was either “Little Sister” or “Marie’s the Name (Of His Latest Flame). You are also a huge Garth Brooks fan….

Riley: Huge! Huge! I am in to country singing and I am trying to go that route too. I was approached by a lot of people out here who kept saying “oh, you gotta become like a Backstreet Boy — we’ll get you a contract right now.” You can’t believe the number of options like that. But I want to stick to my roots, country’s where it’s at, and not sell out. Country music to me — the words are meaningful, there is meaning behind the songs, there is longevity, it is not an easy come, easy go, taste of the month.

YMS: Also, the fans are very faithful and vice versa.

Riley: Exactly — they don’t sell out on them. I am in this for the longevity — not just a quick buck and get out.

YMS: Elvis and Garth Brooks are two completely different kind of people.

Riley: In a lot of ways, they sing a lot alike. A lot of people don’t notice that. To me, they sing with more soul than anybody else. They both sing from their hearts.

YMS: OK — Elvis vs. Garth — who would win if they mud wrestled?

Riley: Hmmmmm….. Elvis vs. Garth — I think Garth, ’cause he’s from the country — but Elvis is from the South — I don’t know. If we are going the Vegas days of Elvis, though, he’s got the weight going for him.

YMS: Ok — you gave up the 75 horses, 10 cats, 3 dogs, and the donkey and now you have tropical fish.

Riley: I have no idea why I have them! I asked for them for Christmas. Mom and dad asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I said an aquarium and tropical fish.

YMS: What kind of fish?

Riley: Well, I have a shark and I have — honestly, I don’t know anything about them! I went in, went for the brightest colors, asked the guy if they would go in the aquarium I have and they said “yeah” so I put them in! And the worst thing is, they are dropping left and right because I am never home to feed them. I’m trying! I’m trying!

It gives people something to look at, it gives me something to try to take care of, and the sound is so soothing — sometimes I just lay on my couch and listen to it and relax.

YMS: Living in LA now?

Riley: Yes — Burbank. What I like about it is all the studios and it is on the other side of all the madness.

YMS: You have just finished a film called Voodoo?

Riley: Yes — I just finished it, two weeks ago. I only had nine days between that and this new one, so that worked out perfect. Voodoo is a cool movie — it is an independent film with a contract straight to Blockbuster. It is about five boys in a Bible college and I’m the new boy who just moved in. I come to find out that the teacher at the college is trying to mess with the kids’ minds. Getting in their heads and messing with them — she is luring them at night up to her room so she can, one by one, turn them into voodoo dolls.

YMS: Now there’s trouble!

Riley: Yeah — I kinda catch on that every day the guys are getting weirder and weirder. It try to tell them that something is up, but they are in a trance already and they don’t believe me. It is a fun fun movie with lots of special effects.

YMS: OK — we’ve pretty much covered the past — where do you see yourself in five years?

Riley: Wow. I don’t know. That is an interesting question. I love business and philosophy and things like that and my theory is that people tend to over-reach in one year — think they can do more than they really can in one year, but less than in five years. If you had asked me one year ago, where I would be now — well, I would hope I would have thought that I would be in the business somehow, but I don’t know if I would have thought I would be where I am now.

When you ask me about five years from now — that is a long time — I mean, this year has been long! But you know, with God anything is possible and I think that if I stay true and stay to the path — He already knows where I am supposed to go and I am not going to deny any of the choices open to me.

I have played the bad-boy roles, which I enjoyed playing, and the goody-goody roles, which were also fun. I want to choose roles wisely. I want to find scripts that stretch my characters, with a wide variety — I want to really work on the craft. Good parts in good movies — what is really important to me is to work with good people. I have always thought that if you surround yourself with wise men, you can become wiser.

I have shooting now for just one week and there are weeks to go, but it has been just awesome to work with these people — like being able to get into Daniel Baldwin’s face and be able to tell him off. I am learning so much and I want to continue with that.

What do I want to do in five years? I want to make some major motion pictures, have a ranch in Iowa or Texas, just kick back and rope some cattle and show some horses. Have a ranch for my family out here and just kind of settle.

YMS: How long has it been since you moved from Iowa?

Riley: Oh, just one….

YMS: One year??

Riley: Well, I moved to LA a year ago January and I lived in New York for four months before that.

YMS: So, basically, you just rattled off about an hour’s worth of resume that you accomplished in one year….

Riley: Yes, well after I get done with this film, it will be three movies, four national commercials, modeling….

YMS: I mean, there are people in LA who spend an entire year looking for a parking place near an agency!

Riley: Yes — I know. I am blessed — I have heard all those horror stories about these people trying to get agents, so I was really lucky to fall into that — into these people’s hands.

YMS: I have noticed throughout the conversation that whenever you mention anybody, you also pretty much know everything about them and everything they have done. I think that shows a certain regard for the craft and the people you work with….

Riley: I have a great amount of respect for everybody in this business — a lot of people don’t.

YMS: A lot of people think they are weasels….

Riley: A lot of people don’t give credit where credit is due. If you really want to be an actor and you are working with people who earn more than you or has been around more than you, you need to respect them and learn from them. It is training — a stepping stone to the next movie. Trust me — if you are doing a movie, no matter how good, you are going to want to make a better one next time.

Nothing is ever perfect and you can always try to do better. Acting is just perception. What is great in one person’s eyes is not great in another’s. I just try to learn as much as possible. I always pay attention. As soon as I find out who I am doing a movie with, I go and research all the people. On the set, I ask questions, I take notes, and try to stay focused, When I have off time, a lot of times I will go back to my dressing room and pop open the script, looking at what is the next shot, what my emotions need to be.

I’ll look at the script and think of where I have to be emotionally, then after I do the scene, I’ll go back and write in my script what I did, where I was, what I could do differently, so when it comes out, I can look at my script and say “this worked, this didn’t.” I pay attention every step of the way.

YMS: What kinds of movies do you see yourself making?

Riley: I have always said I want to stay away from the movies with high special effects — I don’t want to do that. This movie I am doing now has a few special effects and a lot of action — I like doing the stunts — they are a lot of fun. But, I really prefer the heart-felt moments. There are some moments in this that are going to be great. It is rare to find that, but that is what I am looking for.

YMS: Well, promise me that if you find yourself sitting there one day asking yourself why you are doing something — if the answer is “for the money,” walk away from it.

Riley: Never! A lot of people — the first thing they ask is “what am I getting paid.” I don’t care about that. My first question is “who is in it?” Give me a script — I want to read it.

YMS: OK — tell me about American Teen Video Magazine….

Riley: I am interested in seeing what people think of it. It is a different concept like Entertainment Weekly for kids.

YMS: It must have been fun to do….

Riley: Yeah — it was a blast! They sent me to New York, Universal Studios, I got to go on to the red carpet at the Emmys and interview people, which was really neat. It was a lot of fun — I enjoyed hosting it.

YMS: You seemed to enjoy it!

Riley: Yeah — I wanted to be a broadcaster or a host if I was not an actor, so I thought it was really cool. It was a chance to go out and have fun and show my character, instead of always being somebody else’s character.

The producers are really great — if I can make any predictions, I would say this thing is really going to be great. I am really excited about it — I know that there is nothing kids like more than to read about their favorite celebrities. And now we are bringing them into their homes.

YMS: It is really late now — I am amazed that after working all day and talking to us for so long, you still have this much energy.

Riley: Oh, man, but can you hear it in my voice? I have been drinking water all this time — all day I had to scream.

YMS: OK — I am going to let you go. You have exhausted me with your energy…. Can we talk to you again in a year and see how you are doing?

Riley: I’d love to!

YMS: Well, thank you very much for talking to us! I had a great time, you seem like a great guy, I sincerely wish you all the luck in the world!

Riley: Thanks — you guys too! I hope this interview helps your site out and I will definitely keep in touch!