If you know Riley Smith from his days at Alburnett High School or his recent stint as Markus Keen on “Nashville,” don’t be alarmed when you see him for the first time on “Frequency.”
He’s looking a little gaunt and exhausted through most of the first episode, debuting at 8 p.m. Wednesday on The CW cable television network.
It’s all lighting and makeup tricks. Although a little sleep deprivation from 70-hour work weeks could play a role in his appearance as an undercover New York cop, who shortly before his death in 1996, connects with his estranged daughter in 2016, through a freak ham radio signal.
“I didn’t change weight,” Smith, 38, said by phone Tuesday from Vancouver, where the series is being filmed. “The food is good in Vancouver, so I’ve probably gained weight.”
He said the haggard look was “a specific choice.”
“When we shot the pilot, we really wanted to make it as authentic as possible. For lack of better words, we didn’t want to ‘TV fabricate it up’ so here’s this clean-cut, good-looking New York undercover cop. That wouldn’t be real,” said Smith, who started his career as a model before moving to television and cinema.
“Since getting picked up ... we’ve kind of cleaned Frank up a bit. When he’s undercover, his life is just in shambles, and he’s probably at his lowest point — then we open the show with him getting shot. We wanted that contrast to be there, and now moving forward, Frank gets cleaned up.”
The Midwesterner playing the cop from Queens also uses just a hint of a New York accent to add another layer of credibility, without being distracting for viewers.
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“It goes back to making this show authentic,” Smith said. “We wanted to make a TV show that looks like a movie and feels like a movie. If you’re going to do that, you’ve got to go all-out, as far as making all those strong choices.”
He laughed when recalling how, during their first dinner, the network executives thought he was from New York. They were shocked to find out he grew up on a horse ranch in Iowa, and said, “‘We thought you were so street.’”
“I guess there’s some part of a New Yorker inside of me somewhere,” he said, even though he’s been based in Los Angeles for 18 years.
One major change between the movie and the television show is having Frank’s TV child be a daughter, instead of a son. (Dennis Quaid played Frank in the movie, with Jim Caviezel as his son, John.)
Smith is happy with that change. He noted that Jeremy Carver, the show’s creator and writer, has a daughter. “He thought that relationship, to him was always more special and added a different element, and I couldn’t agree more.
“I was so happy (the character) was a daughter,” Smith said. “It’s so much sweeter, now that I’m working with little Ada (Breker) who plays young Raimy. I’m working with her right now. I just did a scene where I tuck her in. It’s always so sweet and sentimental, working with a little girl. The dynamic’s just different, and I for one, am loving it.”
He’s also loving the way his role is stretching him in his craft. And he loves playing Frank’s deep emotional struggles. “In a way, it’s a kind of (like) therapy for me,” he said.
“It’s the most I’ve ever been stretched. The guy has so many layers, between being an undercover cop in the situation that he’s in with this show, and with the whole element of possibly speaking to your daughter 20 years into the future. You’ve got all these things with this character. He’s going to be put into a lot of situations. There’s just so many layers to the guy,” Smith said.
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“It’s been a dream role, and it’s been actually a lot of work, but I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve grown a lot already as an actor, with the role.”