Throughout the first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (available on Blu-ray/DVD on September 9th), audiences were able to see the evolution of Mike Peterson (J. August Richards), an ordinary man who has been given superhuman strength and abilities, into the comic book character Deathlok. He became something scary and dangerous, but above it all, he’s still a man who only wants to do what’s best for his son.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor J. August Richards talked about how being a part of the Marvel universe is a childhood fantasy come to life, that he has over a thousand comic books in his own collection, reuniting with both Joss Whedon and Jeff Bell, what it’s like to be involved with the show’s fandom through social media, how he only originally signed on for the pilot episode with no idea of what was to come, his reaction when he found out that he’d be evolving into Deathlok, that he likes totally relinquishing control and putting yourself in the hands of the writers, where he’d like to see the character go next, who he’d like to see Deathlok go up against and who he’d like to see him team up with, and a stunt mishap that he thinks ended up on the gag reel. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
J. AUGUST RICHARDS: It’s beyond cool. It’s a childhood fantasy come to life, literally. I definitely was a big comic collector, as a kid. I have over a thousand comics, so I knew the universe well. When I saw The Avengers, I sent Joss [Whedon] an email, telling him that I feel like he truly nailed the spirit of a comic book on the screen. So, to be in that world, especially with him directing the pilot, is incredible.
Doing this show not only re-teamed you with Joss Whedon, but also with Jeff Bell. What’s it like to be able to collaborate with people you’ve worked with before, and who know your work ethic and what you’re capable of, at different stages of your life and career?
RICHARDS: When we wrapped Angel, I definitely had a moment where I thought, “Wow, that was the best job I’m ever gonna have.” Working with them is just easy. That’s the word that comes to mind whenever I think of working with them. It’s just easy. They are very clear with me about what they’re after, and obviously I already have an idea of what they’re after, so it just makes the whole experience easy. And we’re able to talk to each other in a way that you might not be able to with somebody that you’re just working with the first time. I feel like the luckiest guy alive, to be playing this part and to do it with the people I’m doing it with.
That’s really cool because there are so few film directors and TV creators that create an acting family that they continue to go back to.
RICHARDS: I don’t know how much of it is on purpose. I don’t know if Joss or Jeff set out to do that, but it just so happens that it works out. I definitely auditioned for my role. If I weren’t right for it, I wouldn’t have gotten it. It just all worked out.
Twitter wasn’t around when Angel was on the air. What’s it like to be a part of fandom now, when you can hear instant feedback about every little detail, and also communicate back yourself, if you so choose?
RICHARDS: It’s so cool. In the Angel days, all there was, was a community that was like a chat room. If you were looking for feedback, you had to look for it. Now, the feedback comes right to your phone, which is really interesting. I was live tweeting the pilot, and that’s when I realized the talent of the writers that I was working with. For the first 15 minutes, Twitter was saying, “Oh, my god, this is so cool! You’re a superhero! This is great!” The second 15 minutes was like, “Woah, what’s going on? You’re getting a little dark?” The next 15 minutes, people were like, “You didn’t tell us that you’re a bad guy. Oh, my god, you’re a villain?! This is awful!” And then, with the last 15 minutes, they were like, “Oh, you were just trying to do what was right for your son.” I got to watch the arc in real time. To watch the audience take that journey, which was intentional, with the character, I was like, “Wow, they really are great writers.”
When you signed on and did the first episode, even though you didn’t know where it could go from there, did they at least tell you that there was the possibility that it could turn into a bigger arc, or did you think you were only doing one episode?
RICHARDS: They hinted at the fact that there would be more, but there were soft hints. At the time, it was just a pilot, so there wasn’t even an assurance that it was going to go forward. So, while I was doing it, I just treated it as if it was the only episode I was ever gonna do. Then, they got picked up, but I didn’t hear anything for awhile. I was just in a place where I was like, “You know what? If that’s all I get to do, that’s fine because I had the time of my life.” I really did. It was such an honor to play the part. And then, when I finally did get called back, I was really ecstatic. And then, when I found out that I was being turned into Deathlok, that’s when I had to pull the car over on the side of the road to do a happy dance.
When you did come back and then blew up, and everyone thought you were dead, did you also think that you were dead, or did you know that they had a bigger plan and that Deathlok was down the line?
RICHARDS: I knew there was a bigger plan, at that point, because I was signed on to do two episodes, so I knew that I had to be in the next episode. I knew that I wasn’t going to be dead for long. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, we did the table read first, and I only got the call that I’d be coming back for the second episode, after the table read. So, when I read the episode, I was just happy that I was getting to do more, as a character. I thought I could be dead, but then I found out really quickly that I wasn’t, so I was only scared for a little while.
Being a comic book fan, was this a character that you knew anything about, or did you immediately go back to all of your comics and try to find him, so that you could read everything you had on him?
RICHARDS: I went straight to my old comic book collection. Fortunately, it was right around the Christmas holiday, so I was on my break, back home in D.C. My sister has been holding onto my comics for me, and the first place that I wanted to research the character was in my comic books. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but knowing the Virgo that I am, I had every issue of The Guide to the Marvel Universe, which is like an encyclopedia of all of the characters that have ever been in there. I found the character and started reading, which is how I began my research. Deathlok was in my childhood comic book collection.
How difficult is it to totally relinquish control and put yourself in the hands of the folks running the show? Does it help to know that Marvel has such a proven track record now, and at least you’re putting yourself in the hands of people who know what they’re doing?
RICHARDS: It’s not difficult at all, and I actually really like it. I have no idea what’s coming next, so I like the fact that I can’t try to project, into my performance, what’s coming. Even in the first episode when I say to someone, “No, this is an origin story,” I had no idea what I meant by that. I had no idea what that could mean. So, I love it. It only allows me to play what is in front of me, and I can’t wink at the audience, which I’m famous for. I’m glad that I can’t do that.
Obviously, Deathlok/Mike Peterson is not dead, so chances are that we’ll see you again, at some point. Because this character is someone who’s been exploited and forced to serve other people’s interests, where would you like to see him go next?
RICHARDS: Man, I have such strong feelings for my character. For me, the most important thing that I would like to see him find is redemption for himself, and be able to face his son again. In my mind, I won’t consider the character resolved until he holds that little boy in his arms again.
RICHARDS: When I was reading the scripts from last season, I kept saying to the script, “Mike, why do you feel so guilty? It wasn’t really your fault. Everybody is okay. You don’t really have anything to prove.” But, the character has this tremendous sense of guilt. I think he would have to save the entire planet, in order to feel human again. It would have to be something big, and hopefully his boy would get to see it and know it was him.
If you could see Deathlok either team up with or go up against any character from the Marvel universe, who would it be?
RICHARDS: I would go against Juggernaut because that character always appeared in a lot of the Marvel comics that I read, as a kid, and I always hated that guy because he was unbeatable. And I would love to team up with someone from Alpha Flight, but I don’t know who.
By the time you got to the end of the season, what most surprised you about this role and how it evolved?
RICHARDS: What surprised me the most was people putting him in the villain category. That really hurt my heart for the character because I know how desperately he wants to be a hero. Most people really get it and understand that most of the things that he had to do were against his will. But it surprised me, how many people didn’t understand the goodness of his core. But I think that’s what the writers intended, in the way that it was written, so when he does have his big moment at the end of the season, it does come as a surprise.
When you’re doing a show like this, with all of the effects, action and costumes, did anything really funny ever happen during a scene that shouldn’t have? Were there any really memorable flubs or mishaps?
RICHARDS: Oh, there were so many things. When you’re doing superhero stunts, the objective is to look as cool as humanly possible. I had to do this large jump from the top of a building to the bottom of the building. When they’re doing it with the digital effects, you only have to nail the landing. So, I jumped off of this thing, and the first time that I tried it in all of my Deathlok gear, I was trying to look as cool as humanly possible, and my gauntlet fell off. It was so funny because it was such a strong landing. For the prop just to fall off was pretty hilarious. I think it’s on the gag reel.
When you’re working on a show that’s part of the big Marvel machine, what’s the vibe like on set? Does it feel like it’s as big as it is, or is it more relaxed than all of that?
RICHARDS: It feels exactly like you would expect it to feel. It’s very top secret and very high-tech. There are lots of people whispering and lots of security. You feel like you’re actually working for S.H.I.E.L.D. on the set, but everyone is a lot of fun over there. We just have a lot of fun. Comic books are fun, so it’s a fun environment.
What was it like to work with someone like Bill Paxton?
RICHARDS: He was so great. He was absolutely fun. I’ve always loved his work, and to get to work with him, in that way, was really, really cool. He brought so much to the set and so much to the show, it was amazing.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 is available on Blu-ray/DVD on September 9th.