On The CW drama series Frequency, Raimy Sullivan (Peyton List) is working with her father, Frank (Riley Smith), to rewrite the story of their lives, as they piece together clues in the past and present, in an attempt to keep their loved ones alive. The catch to that is that they can only communicate through a ham radio, while Frank is in 1996 and Raimy is in 2016, which provides its own set of impossible challenges.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Riley Smith talked about how he came to be a part of Frequency, why this series appealed to him, learning what comes next on a weekly basis, seeing this as a character-driven family story and not a time travel show, playing 1996 as a period piece, and how close they are to catching the Nightingale killer.
Collider: How did this show come about for you? Were you actively looking for a TV series, or could you just not say no to this script?
RILEY SMITH: Honestly, both. Every year, I usually do a TV pilot. Sometimes they turn into series, and sometimes they don’t. If they don’t, then I usually go get a nice recurring arc on a show. That’s pretty much the routine of an actor, but I’ve been fortunate that it usually works out for me, one way or another. But this year, I really wanted to find one that was going to be the one, and not just a possibility or check off certain boxes. My team had all decided that we wanted to find one that was going to check all the boxes and not only make the air, but hopefully do really well. I got very lucky because The CW sent me three scripts, right after the new year, which is very early for pilot season. So, I read three of their pilots and it was the second of the three that I read. I almost didn’t read the third one because I was like, “This is it. This is the one. This is the perfect character for me. This is an amazing show. The writing is so smart.” Everything was there.
It’s one thing to say that you want to find the one, but it’s another thing to find something you connect with. So, were you surprised that you actually found that?
SMITH: Yeah, I was really surprised. And more than that, I was like, “All right, what’s the loophole going to be?” With this business, you can’t ever get too excited because you have to stay grounded. So, I can’t waiting for what was going to go wrong, but nothing did. The process was just so smooth. I went in for a general meeting with the creator, Jeremy Carver, and the executive producer, Jen Gwartz, and I spilled out my love for the script to them, and luckily they reciprocated and I signed on. I had even suggested Peyton List for the role. We had been acting partners for ten years, and I thought this was the perfect role for her, and that even worked out. Everything fell into place. And then, we got up to Vancouver and started filming. We knew the ham radio scenes were going to be really important, and that they were going to make or break the show. Peyton and I have such great chemistry and we’ve worked together for so many years that it just worked. Jeremy has said that with the first scene that we did on the ham radio for the pilot, he looked at the crew and said, “This is it. This is going to work.” I didn’t know that, but I felt it, too. And things kept falling into place like that. When we got done with the pilot and were waiting to find out if we were going to get picked up, in the past, I’d stress so much and think about all the different possibilities, but for this, I never did. I had a calm presence about the whole thing because I just knew this was going to work out, and so far, it has.
At TCA, Jeremy Carver said he had a three-year plan that could lead to more seasons after that. At any point, were you let in on any of that three-year plan, or are you still wondering what that is?
SMITH: I’m still wondering what the next episode is. The writers keep everything pretty close to the vest, for the plan on where the story is going. I don’t really mind that because it makes it as exciting for me to read it every week, as it is for the audience to watch it. It doesn’t allow me to get ahead of myself and the character. With the flashing forward and flashing back, there have been a few times where I’ve had to call Jeremy personally and have him fill me in on backstory that I hadn’t been privy to. For the most part, I find out a week before we shoot it, and I don’t mind that. Obviously, we all want to know what’s going to happen, but knowing that we have that feeling tells me that the audience will have that feeling, so it’s good.
This is essentially a time travel show, which technically makes it sci-fi. Is that something you even really think about when you’re making this show, or do you just view it as a family drama?
SMITH: No, we don’t really call it a time travel show on our set. We have been compared a lot to some of the time travel shows, and I think it did help us that the time travel element has been so popular this season. When I read the script, I hadn’t read any of the other scripts, so I didn’t know there were a bunch of them out there, or that it was a hot topic. That’s just kismet. It was meant to be. We like to think of ourselves as a show that’s really rooted and grounded in the reality of the family and the heart of the characters. We’re a character-driven show that has a lot of fun elements that can bring in a lot of different audiences.
Who is Frank Sullivan to you? How do you view him, and how does that affect how you play him?
SMITH: I’ve always thought of him as a family man and someone who would die for his family. All he wants is his two girls back in his life. From the moment we meet him until now, he hasn’t had what he wants, which is just to have his wife and his daughter together and to live a simple Bayside, Queens life. I think he also is very morally grounded. He’s the kind of guy who would jump in front of a boss, if a woman was crossing the street and was going to get hit. I just try to play him as sincerely as possible. And the writing is there. It’s all set up to explain what kind of guy he is, I just have to be honest and sincere with it. I think after four episodes, you’re starting to see the true colors of Frank, and that what Raimy thought he was, he isn’t. I think even Raimy is coming around. Everyone has been in situations that we don’t want to be in or that we wonder how we ended up in, and that’s just life. It’s about how we deal with it. Right now, they’re just trying to deal with life.
Is it ever bizarre and surreal to be playing 1996 as a period piece?
SMITH: Yeah. That was my senior year of high school and I’d like to still think it wasn’t that far away. This has been bizarre for me because it’s the first time I’m playing a father, and I’m the father of an 11-year-old and a 28-year-old. And it’s the first time I’m playing a cop. It’s the first time I’ve done a lot of things. In the beginning, it was very scary for me, it was exciting and I knew it was going to be a challenge, but it’s something I’ve been waiting for, for so long. I was basically just waiting for my age to catch up with myself, so that I could play roles believably. This just came together at the right time for me because I am playing a cop, but he’s got all these other layers to him. And I am playing a dad, but it’s in this weird reality where I have a daughter who’s older than me. So, it works in the right ways for me, personally, but the fact that ‘96 is a relic is really weird. I go on set and look at the set directions and I’m like, “I had that poster on my wall. I owned that VHS. I had this CD.”
Since you’re separated by 20 years, you don’t really get to share scenes with Peyton List. Do you guys talk about the dynamic between your characters?
SMITH: Yeah, Peyton and I are really students of our craft. Before we got this, we studied together for every single audition and every single job. With this, it’s the same thing. We’re always working on our material together, talking about it and dissecting it. A lot of the time, we help each other understand or figure out what we think is going on, or what we think it means. It’s like a group collective study system for all of us. The thing about this cast that I love the most is that everybody is in it for the right reasons. They’re all students of the craft and they all take it really serious. We’re not social media whores. We’re just trying to do really great work, and I think that comes across and makes a difference.
Without giving anything away, what can you say to tease what’s to come, especially when it comes to trying to find the Nightingale killer?
SMITH: I want to catch the Nightingale, but I also want this series to continue. If we catch him, I don’t know where it goes. We’re about six episodes ahead from what you’ve seen, and what I can tease is that we’re constantly moving towards figuring it out, but the leads do tend to take us in different directions and, at times, change our opinions on what the next move is. We’re figuring out that the Nightingale is somehow one step ahead of us, at all times, so we’re trying to figure out what that step is. I can tell you that we’re getting very close.
You’re also going to be delving a bit more into Stan and what he’s been up to. How big of a challenge will that be?
SMITH: Stan and Satch have lived in both worlds. That’s where they gain an advantage against Raimy and Frank, who are each in their own reality. As they’re trying to piece things together, a lot of these characters that we’ll meet have actually lived in both worlds and they can get ahead of Raimy and Frank, in that aspect. But then, both worlds change, every time something changes. That’s the fun of it. The opportunities for the writers are endless. It’s a choose your own adventure. We’ve all tried to beg Jeremy and the writers to tell us more, but I love that they keep it close. This is just my personal opinion, but I think this show is going to go a lot of different places past the Nightingale. I don’t know what the Nightingale means to everything, or if it means something different. I really don’t know.
With Frank knowing Satch in 1996 and Raimy knowing him in 2016, how do you think he would react, in each time period, if he found out what was really going on between the two of them?
SMITH: We, as a cast, keep talking about whether he’s going to find out. He quite possibly could. I think as much as he might be taken aback and shocked by the idea that this could be possible, I don’t think it would surprise him, given the fact that he knows both of them so well. And I think there’s a lot of common threads between Raimy and Frank. They’re very much the same type of person, at the core of it, and Satch knows both of them so well. Satch was Frank’s best friend, and he’s also a father figure to Raimy. I don’t think he’d be surprised that they’re in cahoots with this. I think he’d be more shocked that this is even possible. That would change the dynamic of everything.
Frequency airs on Wednesday nights on The CW.