Viewers of ABC’s MARVEL’S AGENTS OF SHIELD, in its first season Tuesdays at 8 PM, were dealt a huge shock with the episode “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Airing just after the theatrical release of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, it dealt (like SOLDIER) with the revelation that S.H.I.E.L.D. had from its inception been infiltrated by the proto-Nazi organization HYDRA, which has now revealed itself and is wreaking havoc.
This is terrible for the series regulars – team leader Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker), Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) and Skye (Chloe Bennet), who’ve also just learned that teammate Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) is actually working for HYDRA – but it’s a drop in the bucket of awfulness for Mike Peterson, played by J. August Richards.
In the SHIELD pilot, we met Mike, loving single father of young son Ace (Ajani Wrighster). Mike, suffering from an on-the-job injury and unable to get either employment or the worker’s compensation he’s due, submits to some unorthodox surgery that not only takes the pain away, but gives him superpowers. Unfortunately, it also starts to make him insane and liable to literally melt down. Shot in the head with an antidote, Mike briefly joins S.H.I.E.L.D. before being mutilated in an explosion, kidnapped by HYDRA and turned into the robotically-enhanced Deathlok, who was first introduced (though starting out as a character other than Mike Peterson) in Marvel’s ASTONISHING TALES # 25 . Due to both a bomb in his head and a threat to ace, Mike/Deathlok is forced to obey the orders of HYDRA honcho John Garrett (Bill Paxton) against his will.
In real life, actor Richards came aboard SHIELD with the great enthusiasm. The series, based on the Marvel Comics universe, is created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. Joss Whedon co-created ANGEL with David Greenwalt; Richards spent five years on that show as the monster-fighting Charles Gunn. The actor, a D.C. native who was raised in Maryland, got his big break on THE COSBY SHOW as a child; he’s also been a series regular on CONVICTION and RAISING THE BAR.
Even though Marvel could teach real-life government agencies a few things about secrecy, in a phone interview, Richards discloses all that he’s allowed about his work on SHIELD.
ASSIGNMENT X: One of the things that the comic books originally said about Deathlok is that he’s the most unconventional superhero –
J. AUGUST RICHARDS: Offbeat.
AX: Offbeat. But the primary thing in there is not so much “offbeat” as “superhero.” That sort of implies that Deathlok might yet become heroic. Are you deriving hope from that description of him?
RICHARDS: I am – not even for me, for the character, for Mike, because Mike is an original creation. He is an original creation, and being turned into Deathlok, and in the comic books, there were three different characters who became Deathlok, but Mike himself is an original character, and the circumstances of what he wants is to be a hero for his son, someone that his son can look up to, someone that he can provide for. So for Mike, I want him to eventually be called by the world “a superhero.”
AX: How is it playing a father opposite Ajani Wrighster, the young actor who plays Mike’s son Ace?
RICHARDS: Luckily, our chemistry was instantaneous. We were the first shot up for the pilot, the first shot ever of SHIELD, and we hit it off instantaneously. We were running all around the Universal lot, we made up our own little games, and we’ve had a lot of really great – I won’t say father/son moments, but I’ll say older actor/younger actor moments that really helped for us to form our bond on camera. He makes it really easy to love him.
AX: Do you think Mike has any concerns about his son Ace seeing him in his present physical condition?
RICHARDS: God, yes, because when he was training to become a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and Coulson asked him why he hadn’t been to see his son, his answer was, “Because the last time he saw me, I was a monster.” Now, [at that time, he meant] a monster in behavior, but now he’s a monster in physicality and knowing Mike – I know it sounds weird, talking about him like he’s a real person – but knowing Mike, there’s no way he would let his son see him like that. But more of an obstacle is the fact that he feels right now like a monster, the things that he has to do, that Bill Paxton’s character [Garrett] has made him do, are unforgivable to Mike.
AX: Not asking for a spoiler, just your understanding of Mike as a person – if Mike ever gets off the HYDRA leash, is Garrett likely the first person he’d kill?
RICHARDS: You would think, wouldn’t you? To me, the scene where I’m alone in a bad-looking apartment and there’s a knock at the door and there’s a box. I open the box and when I was working on the scene here at the house, I wrote on the top of the page, “A Christmas gift from the Devil.” [laughs] So he thinks that Garrett is the incarnation of the Devil, the worst human being walking the Earth, so he’s got a lot of hatred toward Garrett.
AX: Mike doesn’t seem to have a great deal of affection for Ward, either.
RICHARDS: You’re absolutely right. In the pilot, Ward shot me in the head. Granted, he did it to save my life, no pun intended, “granted” – you know, Brett Dalton does puns, so that was a shout-out to Brett. But he did shoot me in the head, so I think that got them off on the wrong foot. Then, the very next time I see him, I’m walking onto the plane and he’s talking straight trash about me, and I walk in the room while he’s talking trash about me, so it’s kind of all been downhill from there.
AX: In the episode “Nothing Personal,” Mike/Deathlok gives Ward a temporary heart attack to coerce Skye to do something. When Ward recovers and starts complaining, Mike pats him on the cheek while exiting the room. Was the pat on the cheek something that was directed, or did you decide to do that.
RICHARDS: I get asked so often about that. I didn’t plan it, I didn’t think about it, it wasn’t in the script. That was the very first time we did it on camera. I did it and I just felt it and I did it and that was it and the director [Bill Gierhart] told me, “I love the slap on the cheek, keep it.” It never quite worked as well as that first time when it was spontaneous, so I’m glad they used that take.
AX: As Deathlok, you’re wearing facial appliances as well as what looks like a very heavy costume. Is either the makeup or the costume more influential on your performance?
RICHARDS: I would definitely say they’re equally influential. The makeup, for example, I’m always aware of which side is Mike and which side is Deathlok, and when I can, I try to favor the side of the face that I feel like the character is more “in,” so when I feel like Mike is [more in control], I try to favor the side without makeup, and vice-versa. The costume is very helpful for many reasons. It puts me in the body of the character and my first few days as Deathlok, when I had on the makeup and the costume, it took me awhile to figure out how he should walk, how he moves. You wouldn’t really think it would be something that took so much thought, but it really did. The costume really influences the way that I stand and the way that I talk. That was something that I wasn’t prepared for, but it’s like a different voice that almost comes out when I’m in the entire get-up. So they are equal influences.
AX: That Deathlok costume looks heavy …
AX: Has there been anything particularly physically challenging you’ve had to do in the show, especially given that you’re having to run and jump and punch in that heavy gear?
RICHARDS: Every single episode, yes. Even going to work, which sometimes is at four-thirty in the morning, doing makeup for two hours, getting dressed, which takes a while, then shooting all day is a test of endurance, so it is a huge challenge, and to me it’s a very physical performance, even though it doesn’t always seem like it, but it definitely takes a lot of stamina and a lot of planning, in terms of things like going to the bathroom and taking naps [laughs].
AX: You’ve talked in the other interviews about learning to play what you don’t want in this role. Is what Mike wants not having to do anything that he’s currently being forced to do?
RICHARDS: Exactly. Because in acting school, the first lesson of acting is, you always play what the character wants, that you’re trying to get what the character is after. However, in this situation, everything that I have to do is not only not my choice, it’s not what I want and it’s the opposite of who I am as a human being. So it was really difficult to figure out how much gusto do I put into jumping on top of a police car and punching through to pull Skye out of it. It’s not what I want to be doing, but I have to do it. So when I realize that every move I make, my son’s life depends on it, then I realize I have to throw my entire self into it. So that was kind of tricky to figure out, because obviously Mike has great affection for Skye and everyone in S.H.I.E.L.D., but he has to do these things to keep his son alive. So it was tricky figuring that out.
AX: You talk about Mike like he’s a real, separate person. Do you always think of your characters as real people?
RICHARDS: Definitely, but I’m kind of crazy like that, and it’s okay. But absolutely. Like if Mike were in a room with me, I would know that he was Mike and I was J. We’re very different from each other. He suffers from a lot of guilt and a lot of self-condemnation, more so than I do. And I feel like, because he keeps trying to get over his mistakes from the past, he keeps winding up in a worse and worse situation.
AX: Mike originally accepted some physical enhancements from an organization that turned out to be Centipede because he couldn’t get worker’s comp and he couldn’t get a job with his injury. He had no idea where it would lead. In the last season of ANGEL, Gunn accepted a mental enhancement from Wolfram and Hart, the demonic law agency where the team was working, which he didn’t realize would indirectly lead to the death of his friend Fred. Do you see any similarity between these situations for Mike and Gunn?
RICHARDS: Hmm. Gunn said he didn’t fit in, and that was why he wanted the upgrade so bad, that he didn’t know where he fit. That’s a different reason, I think, for taking an upgrade than just trying to make a life for your child. So I think in that regard, they’re different, but isn’t it interesting that they both have huge consequences. So that’s the first time I’ve ever seen the similarity between those two characters, because Gunn is an entirely different person from me, too. I mean, it would be kind of cool for me to sit in a room with the both of them, because they are so different to me.
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