Thirty-four year old actor Riley Smith made his debut on The CW’s 90210 last Monday. But you probably remember him as the charmer who won over the Olsen twins ten years ago as Jim ‘the bike messenger’ in the tween classic New York Minute, or as Dean Talon in Disney Channel’s Motocrossed. In the meantime, Smith has managed to tap into the fountain of youth and solidify his place in the heartthrob hall of fame with over forty-nine roles in the past twelve years. On 90210, Smith plays Riley Wallace, a paraplegic who meets Dixon in recovery and later becomes Annie’s (Shenae Grimes) 50th boyfriend, literally. Riley helps Annie get over her priest ex-boyfriend and recover from her brief stint as a prostitute, but proves that he’s more than just a rebound by taking it slow. We caught up with the easygoing Smith to chat about the show, acting classes, Twitter, and of course, whether or not he’s dating anyone.
Your character on 90210 is a paraplegic who befriends Dixon and then falls for Annie. The show has a crazy plot line and Riley seems like a pretty complex character to play. What did you do to prepare for this role?
There was actually a lot of research that went into playing Riley. As you said he’s a paraplegic. After I agreed to do it, the producers asked if they could help link me up with the right people to give me a background on paraplegics. The first person that they put me in touch with was a girl named Tiffany Adams, who has a similar story to my character. She wasn’t handicapped until she was in a car accident when she was eighteen. She’s on the TV show Push Girls on Sundance, about a bunch of girls who are all really pretty and have normal lives except they’re paraplegics. I talked to her on the phone, recorded the conversation, and then listened to it over and over again. I listened to the things that she told me and the way that she said them. Everything she said had a different inflection because it was all coming from a different place in her heart. That was one of the most helpful things that I could have listened to. I talked to doctors and the show got me a wheelchair back in June. I got to roll around in that and take it places. You begin to notice how people look at you and how they treat you, and I had to really get comfortable with it.
What’s it like being on a primetime soap?
I’d never worked on a soap opera-like show before. Things move so fast. From an acting standpoint I had to get used to the fact that my character was going to be changing emotions a lot and quickly. That was kind of hard for me to grasp at first and I still feel like there are episodes where I’m a bit too dramatic. It’s like one minute you’re happy and the next minute you’re sad, one minute you’re okay and the next minute you’re about to die. It’s definitely highly dramatic. I just had to get used to that and then once you do you embrace it, enjoy it, and dive into it. You’re like, ‘look if were all going to be this dramatic and things are going to happen rapidly, then jump into it and commit to it 100%’.
Had you watched the show before you were cast?
No, I watched the original 90210 back in the day. I hadn’t seen the new episodes but I ended up Netflixing them once I got the show. It was pretty overwhelming all of the things that had happened.
Is the cast anything like their characters or is there someone where it’s like, wow, you’re basically playing a caricature of yourself?
No and I think that’s the difference, you can see hints of everybody’s character in them but as real people they’re all super chill. There’s no drama and everybody gets along really well. It was actually really intimidating for me to come in after they’ve spent four years together. They’re all so close, you don’t want to try to force any friendships and you don’t want to be the new guy who’s trying too hard. I just tried to make connections and my own personal relationships with each person as they came. Now we’re ten episodes into it and I feel right at home.
You mentioned that you’re ten episodes in now, so I guess that means you’re sticking around for a while? I was curious because Annie [Shenae Grimes] goes through guys really fast.
Yeah, Annie does do that. I definitely figured that out once I got on the show.
Did that make you feel cheap?
Yeah! At first I was really nervous because she goes through guys every season. A lot of guys. But in the first episode we start off on rocky ground, she’s pressuring Dixon, who I’ve become friends with on the show, and Annie and I really don’t like each other at all. But I think that there’s an attraction there that’s like a love/hate relationship. Somebody who you meet at first and you’re like, ‘I don’t like them but there’s something about them and I want to get to know more’. It goes from that to a flirtatious thing, but the good thing is that they let her and I evolve slowly. That allows me to stick around a lot longer than some of her other love interests.
Aside from 90210, tell me about what it’s like having a ton of recurring roles and playing a plethora of different characters? Does it get exhausting when you’re constantly changing roles?
No, I enjoy the fact that I’ve gotten to play a lot of different characters over the years, as opposed to being stuck with one for an extended amount of time. It keeps things fresh for me, it allows me to develop all sides of myself and all of the characters that I can play. Now they’ve all started to bleed together, and they’ve started to bleed into who I am as a person, too. I have a definitive idea now when I’m breaking down characters for work, who’s what and so on. It’s been a real blessing and something that’s made me a lot better.
Speaking of different characters, let’s chat about a little movie you did in 2004 with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen called New York Minute.
It’s so funny that you bring that up because I did an interview earlier today and they brought up another movie that I did for Disney called Motocrossed. It was around the same time as New York Minute, it was a teen movie as well. I was laughing so hard earlier today about how so many shows and years later, that this is the stuff that comes back up. It’s crazy! New York Minute was an amazing time in my life. That whole era for me was great. The girls were awesome and the movie was fun to work on.
Do you still keep in touch?
Yeah, we’re cool when we see each other. I don’t ever really see them a lot but Jared Padalecki, he was the other love interest in it, and he and I are still good friends. It was a fun opportunity and experience. It was a time when nothing was too difficult on that set, there wasn’t a lot that was asked of us aside from playing the cute love interests. It was a pretty easy job.
But I’m sure that a lot of roles felt easy to you because you’d taken acting classes, right? Do you feel like that gave you a bit of an advantage over other actors who were maybe just a pretty face?
I don’t think that there’s any way that I could have had the longevity that I’ve had without taking classes. I think that truly knowing how to act and being good at what you do is essential to continually working. That’s the problem with today’s acting world, a lot of younger, newer actors haven’t taken classes and I think that you can tell. You can definitely tell who has and who hasn’t. It’s one of those things that’s really sad and I think that a lot of it has to do with reality TV. People don’t really want to be actors, they just want to be famous. When I started off there wasn’t reality television and the internet wasn’t a huge deal yet. The only way that you could get seen was by getting on a show, and the only way that you could get on a show was by being good. It was always really important for me to continue studying so that I could get better. It still is. I feel like it’s going to be come obvious with this generation and the ones to come, who’s got the chops and who doesn’t. Talent always wins out. A lot of people might get breaks but fifteen minutes of fame is now down to five minutes of fame.
You play the ‘love interest’ quite often, are you dating anyone?
I do…see someone. It’s really funny, I’ve been in a couple of serious relationships in the last ten years and then I decided that I wanted to be single for a while. I didn’t know how long it was going to be, but I was single for a couple of years. But yes, now I’m seeing someone.
Well I hope she’s not threatened by your steamy new onscreen relationship with Annie.
No, so far she’s really understanding. Shenae’s got a really serious dude, so that always makes it easier.
You tweet a lot.
Do I? Good. I see some people who tweet way more than me, like several times an hour. Recently I’ve been told to tweet more so I’m trying to stay on it.
Did you follow the heated tweets from the Presidential Debate last week?
Yeah I was way into that. I thought it was a great debate and I had a blast watching it. I’m a debater, I did debate in high school. You could ask any of my previous girlfriends or any of my friends and they’d say that I love debating. I’m all about that.
Do you know who you’re voting for?
I don’t know, it’s a little early to talk about that.
It’s less than a month away!
I know but I don’t want to have any part in swaying what anyone thinks. There’s actually a country song thats like, “never talk about politics, religion, or her.” Her meaning whoever his ex was. I stick to that motto. But I do think that both candidates have done a good job of separating themselves and what their beliefs are. I think that should make it easier for the general public to figure out where they stand. I have an obvious side but I want to let everybody make their own decisions.
Are you working on anything besides acting?
Well, I play music, I play guitar, and I’m in a band called The Life of Riley. We’re working on a record right now, it’s going to be finished at the end of the month and then we’re going to the UK to play a couple of shows in London, Manchester and all over England. We’re opening up for a good buddy of mine, he’s one of my oldest friends, Christian Kane and he’s on the show Leverage on TNT. So we’re all going over there and we’re going to do a bunch of shows together. I’m looking forward to that, it should be fun. That’s about all that’s going on with me. My life has been nuts between finishing this record and working on the show. I haven’t had time to do anything else.