WELLESLEY – Rick Springfield is aware that he was not the first choice to play Meryl Streep’s love interest in the new Jonathan Demme-directed, Diablo Cody-penned film, “Ricki and the Flash,” which opens Friday. “There are actually quite a few actors who play guitar, believe it or not,” says Springfield with a laugh.
Many of them don’t come with the baggage that the Australian-born singer-songwriter-actor is aware that he carries as a former teen heartthrob — see Top 10 hits like “Love Somebody,” “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” and especially “Jessie’s Girl” — and ’80s soap star — that’s Dr. Noah Drake, to you “General Hospital” fans (which Springfield reports included Brian Wilson and Sammy Davis, Jr.).
While his undersung musical output has undergone a deserved reappraisal over time, films like the 1984 vanity project “Hard to Hold,” episodic TV work over the years, and a recent return to “GH” did little to increase his thespian cred.
But lately something’s changed and it ain’t hard to define, people have started taking Rick Springfield seriously as an actor. And, in something of a surprise to the 65-year-old himself he has started taking acting more seriously. (He first picked it up as a way to make ends meet between gigs.) So Springfield was as shocked as probably everyone else will be that he landed, and absolutely nails, what will likely be a career-defining performance for him as an actor. Additionally, he is currently appearing on HBO’s “True Detective” as a creepy doctor.
Ironically, he credits his 2009 turn as an exaggeratedly awful version of himself on the David Duchovny series “Californication” as the start of the altering of the perception of his skills in Hollywood. “It was great because it was totally against type,” says Springfield of his “hedonistic [expletive]” character.
While many actors thank their publicists, Springfield really does credit his, Kim Jakwerth, for getting the role of Greg, Streep’s lead guitar player and boyfriend in the Flash, the cover band in the film.
“I had been on the road and we had done a lot of shows and I was tired and I got a call saying Jonathan Demme wanted to see me for a role in the new Meryl Streep film,” he said recently while enjoying the salmon at Alta Strada. Springfield was lunching at the Wellesley restaurant because he had a subsequent appointment nearby. He looked mellow and sunny, fresh off two solo performances at the Cape Cod Melody Tent and South Shore Music Circus.
“My first reaction was, ‘Come on, who is this, really?’” he says with a laugh.
Once it was clear that the call was authentic, Springfield was hesitant to take several cross-country flights for an audition — something he claims to be terrible at — that probably wouldn’t pan out. Jakwerth called and said “’Get your [expletive] ass on that plane’,” he recalls with a grin. “I love working with strong women. My mom was really strong.”
When it comes to acting, they don’t come much stronger than Streep. Springfield admits that he was intimidated by the idea of trying to hold his own with the multiple Oscar winner. “You’ve got to bring your A-game or you don’t get to play,” he says. “It was really amazing.” A two-week rehearsal period prior to shooting helped ease his nerves and those of the other band members, who included Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bernie Worrell (Parliament-Funkadelic) and the late Rick Rosas (Neil Young, Joe Walsh).
“She would come and sit with us at lunch to try and make it feel [comfortable],” says Springfield. “We had some camaraderie right away. It started to sound like a band pretty fast.”
And fast was the key, as Streep learned to play guitar for the role. “I know professional players who have a difficult time singing and playing [simultaneously]; it was pretty impressive,” says Springfield of his costar’s chops.
Speaking of guitars, a Gibson SG plays a pivotal role in the film and Springfield realized he had the style mentioned in the script. It was the guitar he used to write “Jessie’s Girl”; and Demme insisted they use it in the film. He laughs that this is why he was meant to get the role and whips out his phone, showing a photo of himself in 1970 with the guitar.
And though he may not have been the first choice, he was the right one, says Demme, who calls Springfield a “fantastic actor” and hopes to work with him in a non-musical role in the future.
“I saw his name on the casting sheet and I thought ‘Rick Springfield, huh?’ I really had no idea he had an acting career. I wasn’t terribly familiar with his music, and in walks this guy and I fell in love with him,” says the Oscar-winner.
“It’s like a weird dream I never had come true,” says Demme of a moving, late-in-the-film monologue Springfield delivers. “Honestly, I think Rick is going to get a lot of notoriety off this movie. And I will get some cred for having rediscovered him,” Demme says with a laugh.
Springfield is acutely aware that under different circumstances his life could’ve turned out like his character’s, but is pleased that Greg, while flawed, is one of the most contented people in the film. “He’s accepted that he’s not going to be in U2. He loves playing and he’s got the added bonus of being in love with the singer.”
Springfield is now in love with acting and hopes to do more, equally substantial roles in the future, in between touring, making new music, and writing a sequel to his 2014 novel, the bestseller “Magnificent Vibration.”
“It’s as exciting for me as songwriting now,” says Springfield of the prospect of disappearing into a role. “I get the same charge nailing a scene as finishing a song I like.”Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.