Now that the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier have rippled down to the ABC TV series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., things are moving forward at a breakneck pace. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is trying to rebuild S.H.I.E.L.D. while Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) keeps an eye on his sanity, and Skye (Chloe Bennet) is trying to come to terms with the fact that she opened her heart to Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) and he turned out to be HYDRA, while Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are trying to get back to being Fitz and Simmons.
As part of PaleyFest NY, which is considered the ultimate TV fan festival, co-stars Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennet, along with executive producer Jeph Loeb, talked about how this show evolved, their audition experiences, the incredible journey this show has taken the characters on, the extent of the collaboration to coordinate this show with The Winter Soldier, the actors’ reaction to finding out how everything would tie in, whether Ward might ever get back out into the field, which Marvel characters they’d like to see on the show, the process for deciding which characters they can actually bring on, whether Clark Gregg might ever direct an episode, shooting the May vs. May fight, the chances of Clark Gregg going up against James Spader in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and whether there might be any connection between the show and the next movie. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
CLARK GREGG: No. Last week, I really couldn’t have believed it. Every week, something happens that I couldn’t have believed, the week before. We work crazy hours. It’s really fun, but it’s crazy hours. To see these women get to play these incredible strong, smart heroines, as the father of a 13-year-old daughter, it just makes me kvell, seeing these tremendous female characters not just kicking ass, but kicking ass in science. Getting to see this incredible new Marvel TV jazz band is very rewarding to watch.
Ming, what was your reaction when you got approached about this role?
MING-NA WEN: I was so excited. This was right up my alley. I’ve been a geek and a nerd, all my life, and I love Joss Whedon. I was so nervous that I couldn’t memorize two pages of dialogue to save my life. I tried and I tried, and the words just would not stick. All I was worried about was how much I wanted this part, and I wasn’t focused on just the work. But Joss and Maurissa [Tancharoen] and Jeff Bell and Jed [Whedon] were so wonderful and warm in the audition room, and they made me feel so at ease. I was the first one cast after Clark. I walked away from that audition so jazzed and so excited. I got the call while I was in the bathroom, taking off my make-up, and I screamed like an idiot. My kids thought I had hurt myself really badly.
Was the physicality of the role intimidating for you, at all?
WEN: Oh, no, I love it. I love it so much.
Chloe, what was your audition experience?
CHLOE BENNET: They were a little scary. I went in six times for the role, over the span of two months.
Jeph, how did this show evolve?
JEPH LOEB: Well, we cheated. We had been thinking about a few things, one of which was Jessica Jones with Melissa Rosenberg. ABC had come to us and basically said, “We need something for 8 o’clock on Tuesday night.” The way we cheated was that I went to my old friend Joss Whedon, who had literally just finished The Avengers. When you think about it, it’s like when those football players come off of the field at the end of the Superbowl and you go, “Where are you going to go?,” and they say, “I’m going to Disneyland!” I grabbed Joss after The Avengers had done a billion dollars and I said, “Hey, how would you like to do a TV show?” And oddly enough, he said, “Yeah.” In all fairness, a lot of it had to do with [Clark Gregg]. Before we started talking about doing the show, we said, “You can’t do the show with Coulson.” We had a little problem there, so we talked about whether the show would take place five years ago. And then, as Joss does, he got this enigmatic smile and said, “I think I know.” We didn’t know what Clark was doing. For all we knew, Clark was on a show.
LOEB: I think he had a thing, and we were like, “Don’t do the thing.” So, we called ABC and said, “I think we have something for you.” That’s how it started.
How crazy was the collaboration to coordinate this show with Captain America: The Winter Soldier?
LOEB: People see Marvel and they think that because the movies are gigantic hits around the world, and now this show is such a gigantic hit around the world, that we’re this gigantic octopus that is out to engulf the entire universe. But in fact, what we are is a very small company. What that means is that Kevin Feige and Louis D’Esposito, who are co-presidents and run the studio and make those incredible motion pictures that we all love, are literally down the hall. And over in New York, people like Dan Buckley, Alan Fine and Joe Quesada are on top of the publishing side of things and the digital side, and there’s us. We have regular conversations that go on, not only daily, but when there’s a big picture item, like there was with The Winter Soldier, that was something that we had to talk about before we went anywhere. If you go back and look at the pilot, there’s a whole bunch of dialogue there where we’re telling you that Ward is Hydra. We were like, “Please fall in love with this guy because he’s going to break your heart,” and you can follow his story, all the way through. We laid it all out, and then never told any [of the cast]. It was important to us that they play everything real. We didn’t want anyone to play a scene with a double meaning to it. We try to give the actors enough information that they know exactly how to play the part, but at the same time, we want there to be a surprise with each script. It’s hilarious to watch them react, for the first time, at the read-through.
For the actors, what was your reaction to finally finding out all of this?
GREGG: We had a top-secret screening of The Winter Soldier, in the belly of the beautiful Disney beast. We thought, “This is cool to see this so early. That’s kind of them. It’s so nice.” And the, one by one, the popcorn was dropping out of people’s fingers as we realized, “What are you gonna call the show now?” It was pretty shocking, and we weren’t allowed to say anything.
BENNET: And then, they called us and said they were coming to location because they had something to tell us.
LOEB: We read the script and, in fairness, the only people in the room at the time who knew were Clark and Brett [Dalton]. The reason why we wanted Brett to know was because he was never going to have the experience of seeing everybody’s reaction. We had already done the read-through with a different ending, so we wanted him to have the opportunity to see how everyone would react. And they were very not happy.
BENNET: [Ming and] I started crying. We read it and I said, “What a [motherfucker]! I kissed him!”
WEN: And I said, “Well, I [fucked] him!”
LOEB: It got R-rated for a second.
GREGG: It was very upsetting. We’d been on this journey together, and we all loved Brett. He’s a great guy and a terrific actor, and he was part of the team. We knew this would change our relationship with him, in a way. But at the same time, it also got very exciting. It got very exciting for Brett because he got to do some really cool and interesting stuff that I suspect might continue.
LOEB: And Iain [De Caestecker] just crossed his arms and said, “It’s not true.” Iain and Brett have a bromance that’s a little embarrassing, so he absolutely would not buy it, at all.
GREGG: He was sure he was deep cover.
LOEB: But, he doesn’t think that anymore.
LOEB: He’s killed an awful lot of people. One of the great parts about the show is that we don’t do take-backs. The things that happen, happen. Whether or not Ward is redeemable, we’ll have to see. What I do know is that when you have a monster in your basement, it’s just not a good thing. So, if you have a monster in your basement, get out of the house.
You had Jaimie Alexander come and guest star as Lady Sif, last season. If you could bring in anyone else from the Marvel universe, who would you bring in?
BENNET: Chris Pratt.
GREGG: He’s even smaller, so he’s probably cheaper.
LOEB: When we started out, the only question we got was, “Is Iron Man going to be on the show? Is Hulk going to be on the show? Is Captain America going to be on the show?” That was very exciting, absolutely, given how close we are to the Marvel cinematic universe, and that’s the gift that gave us Clark.
GREGG: For better or worse.
LOEB: Even though we had a really specific ad campaign that said, “Not all heroes are super,” people still said, “Yeah, but when is Hulk going to be on the show?” What’s really been the success of the show and this tremendous cast and the writers is that the questions we get asked now are, “Who is Skye’s father? What’s the deal with the writing on the wall? Is Ward redeemable? Are we going to find out about the Cavalry and that backstory?” And seeing the way that everybody reacted to Fitz and Simmons finally seeing each other for the first time, it means that you’re invested in the show. That’s not to say that you don’t want more spectacular guest stars coming by, but when they happen and how they happen are always in terms of what’s best for the show.
GREGG: We have one vote for Groot.
WEN: I’ve been getting so many tweets about May and Black Widow, and the whole female empowerment thing. I think that would be really kick-ass.
BENNET: I would still just choose Chris Pratt.
How does it work when you want Lady Sif on the show, or when you want to add Bobbi Morse?
LOEB: It starts in the writers’ room. They come up with an idea. It depends on where the character is. Our biggest problem – and this is always the challenge – is that we’ll come up with somebody and they’ll go, “No, there are some plans for that.” And we’re like, “What, in Doctor Strange 3? Is it going to be anytime soon?” What’s fantastic is that the Marvel universe is a gigantic place, and the Guardians of the Galaxy have pushed it even further out there. What we always try to do is to find the right character and the best way to bring that character onto our show. What’s exciting to us is that a character like Carl Creel, or the Absorbing Man from the comics, is a feature villain, to me. That’s a major character that we needed to have gigantic special effects for, to make that work.
BENNET: Yeah, I think there might be. Let’s see how good Skye is at that. She’s been training with May, so she’s been in good hands. I actually put myself through my own S.H.I.E.L.D. boot camp before we started filming. I got to train with Navy SEALs, which was super intimidating, but fun. It was like training with May.
WEN: Only without a beard.
Clark, would you ever direct an episode of the show?
GREGG: It’s something I love to do, but the job of rebuilding S.H.I.E.L.D. is so intimidating. I guess I could do it, if there was ever an episode where I was frozen in carbonite like Han Solo and I could really focus on what the directors do. They do so much prep on this show, and work so fast to get the episodes done in post, I don’t know how they finish it in time. It’s so incredible, what they pull off, that I couldn’t imagine doing both.
BENNET: But, if there was someone who could do the acting and the directing, it would be [Clark].
Seeing it all put together, that May-May fight was just epic. What was that like to do?
LOEB: That was the first time Kevin Tancharoen, Maurissa’s brother, had directed an episode of television, and he just jumped in. He said, “This is what I want to do,” and we choreographed it all.
WEN: We have the most amazing stunt team. It was intimidating on paper, and exciting, at the same time. On top of that fight scene, Clark and I had to also learn how to ballroom dance. We were still shooting the episode before, and we were on a battleship. Clark drove down specifically that day, so that we could have a couple more hours, because we had two days to learn how to ballroom dance. And these are S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. They’re supposed to be really good at it. We did okay. It was a crazy schedule, but so much fun.
Chloe, Skye has come so far since the first episode. What have you most enjoyed about her development?
BENNET: The diversity of the part has been a lot of fun. From the pilot to Season 2, Episode 1, she’s just a completely different person. It’s really been fun to grow, on and off screen. We didn’t know each other, at the beginning of the show. Clark and I have grown, on and off screen, as this cool uncle figure. My family is all in Chicago, and it’s nice that we’ve really grown into a family. That’s been the best.
Clark, as much as we love you in the show, we miss you in the movies. You have to be in Avengers: Age of Ultron, going up against James Spader.
GREGG: Thank you for your sentiment. You’re clearly a very wise person.
Jeph, Captain America: The Winter Soldier had a job to do to get the narrative to a certain point, and then hand the baton off to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Without saying what it is, is there anything the TV show now needs to establish before the next Avengers movie comes out?
LOEB: I have one of two answers. One is, that’s a Level 7 question. And the other is, wouldn’t that be great? It’s all connected.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs on Tuesday nights on ABC.