Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has returned to ABC for a fourth season with a new kind of superhero, or anti-hero, in town. Although Hydra has been obliterated and S.H.I.E.L.D. has been legitimatized again, no longer needing to operate in the shadows, that doesn’t mean the team – with Coulson (Clark Gregg) back to being an agent, Daisy (Chloe Bennet) having gone rogue, and a new Director (Jason O’Mara) at the head of it all – knows how to deal with someone like Robbie Reyes (Gabriel Luna), aka Ghost Rider.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Gabriel Luna talked about how he ended up playing Ghost Rider, getting into the character, what makes him different from the other characters on the show, staying focused on his performance, who Robbie Reyes is, getting to explore the human side along with the flaming skull, how excited he is about the visual effects that are bringing Ghost Rider to life, and that 1969 Dodge Charger. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
Collider: How did this all come about for you? Did you know that you were going to play Ghost Rider, from the beginning, or did they fill you in on that later?
GABRIEL LUNA: I was in Marfa, Texas and I took a trip to Austin to visit family. I had a film, Transpecos, which came out on September 9th, and we were traveling with that film to various festivals. So, we were in Marfa and I got a call from all of my folks, saying that they had finally cracked the lid on who this character was. They had been approached about a character on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I had still being weighing what I was going to do next, and they’re good with keeping secrets. They kept that one for a couple of months, and then finally, they let us know and I was, of course, immediately thrilled. I’ve been a big fan, all my life, since I was a child, along with my brother. They asked to just Skype in, and there I was, sitting on a porch in Marfa, Texas, which is a one-road town, talking to Jeph Loeb, Jed Whedon and Mo [Tancharoen], and all the great people behind the show. A couple days later, we were in Los Angeles, all meeting together. And then, the following day, I got the call that we were going to work together. It all happened very quickly. The moment you hear the words “Ghost Rider,” the flights of fancy in your imagination starts to run amuck. It’s really great.
Did you know about this particular version of Ghost Rider, or did you have to educate yourself on him, specifically, once you signed on?
LUNA: The Marvel fans are really intuitive, and when the early promotions for the show came out with the flaming chain, I came across that somewhere on the internet, before I got the call that Ghost Rider was happening, which I got two or three days later. I was immediately prompted to go out and find out what he was and who he is. Even on the Skype call, they were still very tight-lipped about who this character was. We were talking about the same thing, but we weren’t talking about the same thing. I knew, but we just couldn’t actually say out loud what it was. So, I had a little bit of a clue what it was, before we spoke, but then I did my due diligence and research and found out about Robbie Reyes, which was really, really great. It’s the next addition to the lineage of Ghost Rider, and I’m thrilled to be playing it.
Was there a moment for you, when you felt like you really got who this character was and that he was someone you really could live with for a bit?
LUNA: When I read the books by Felipe [Smith] and Tradd [Moore], and all the people who contributed to doing those first 12 issues of the All-New Ghost Rider, the first thing that I identified with was the orphan nature of his upbringing and some of the hardships that he deals with, at a very, very young age. He’s raising his little brother, from the age of 13. There were some striking similarities to my background and my past, and some similar family dynamics. All of that was encouraging, just because I knew it could be one of those instances where you can go in, while you’re working, and think to yourself, “I’ve been here before. I’ve done this. I know what this feels like.” That makes the work really easy, going forward from there, having that reservoir of experience. It’s a cool story. Previous incarnations of the character are men who usually have a pretty decent life, to start out. Johnny Blaze is a famous Hollywood stuntman. Danny Ketch is not doing too bad to start with. And then, the Ghost Rider becomes this really heavy curse on them. Robbie is in an inverted position there. He had some hardships early in his life, and the Ghost Rider actually becomes an empowering thing. While it’s still difficult to deal with and very much a curse, he had some fucked up shit going on before Ghost Rider ever came about. His control over it is something that slightly differs from the previous characters and previous vessels of the Ghost Rider spirit.
He also seems very different from any of the characters we’ve seen on the show before.
LUNA: Yeah, he’s very powerful. That’s a huge wild card to throw into the mix. We’re starting to tow the line and inch towards some ground that hasn’t been covered, but that is a huge part of the books themselves and the entire Marvel universe and the canon of Marvel’s assortment of characters. What we haven’t touched on are things that can’t be explained perfectly by science. It’s a lot of really fun stuff that starts to lean into the world of Doctor Strange, Ghost Rider and Mephisto, and all of these other elements that also exist there, like ghouls and goblins and all sorts of cool things. We’re happy to be the ones to break the ice on that.
Obviously, it’s exciting to take on a role like this, but did you have a freak-out moment, at all, because of how daunting it is to do justice to the fan base for this character?
LUNA: I just take it one scene, one punch, one light-up at a time. It’s such a great character. It’s really a great opportunity. If I’m not really focused on making it real and making it right for all the people who are looking forward to seeing it, than I’m just going down a path of distraction. I’m really just focused on old flame-head. Whenever you start to think about anything beyond that, it’s always good to just go back to the scripts that the writers have put together. Jed and Mo and that entire room is putting together some really fun stuff. It’s stuff that I got to do with my little brother in the backyard, except now the cars are real and they’re not Matchbox cars. Although, we use Matchbox cars to plan out all of our really cool Ghost Rider stunts.
Ghost Rider is an interesting character because he could be viewed as a hero, an anti-hero, or a villain, depending on who you’re asking. How do you view him?
LUNA: He’s always been this really great vigilante, lone wolf anti-hero, and that’s with Robbie, as well. He keeps to himself, oftentimes, because of the potential danger to others. He’s executing people, but he always adheres to his code. That’s an interesting place to be. At any time you’re taking lives, you can’t take it lightly. There’s a beautiful history to the character, but the acknowledgment of the violence, and the respect for what it is, what it means, and why it’s being perpetrated and put into action, has to always be in the front of your mind. It’s an interesting thing to keep with you and carry with you, when you’re trying to do your best to make a superhero real. I can’t believe I can say that, but it’s true. The greatest thing has been the reaction from my little brother, who is 31 years old and not too little, and my sister, who just turned 21. My sister has been around for all of the movies in the MCU. It’s been a heavy part of her pop culture knowledge for her entire life. Of all the things I’ve ever done, it finally took this to really impress her. To see her excited and to see what it means to the fans, in general, it is overwhelming, at times, but I always just return to the scripts. I can go back to any random page of any script that we’ve gotten and read the cool things that are happening. That draws the focus back.
Is it nice to get to balance that Ghost Rider side of him with the relationship with his younger brother, which must keep him more connected to his human side?
LUNA: Absolutely! He has more control over these fits than other Ghost Riders have had. It’s basically just the goodness in him, and his duty to his brother and his family, that gives him the strength to be able to keep the cap on and to keep the monster at bay. Playing both of those sides has really helped create the meat of the matter that makes a really great three-dimensional character. However out of control he is, when he finally does transform, there’s a lot weighing on his mind. He’s trying to make a compromise with the other guy. If he can’t shake his shadow, he’s gotta compromise in this job he’s given himself. This code that he lives by now is that contract that he’s made with himself.
Have you gotten to see what the special effects for your character look like?
LUNA: I can’t wait for people to see it! Mark Kolpack, our VFX supervisor, is a genius, really. I always think of the movie The Royal Tenenbaums when I use that word. I don’t use that word lightly. The VFX are something else. Weeks ago, he showed me the first pass of it that was just a bare bones test, and I thought it was the finished product. Last season, Brett [Dalton] transformed into Hive and it was a really amazing effect that he did. I remember watching it on television and thinking how great it was. We’re using a lot of the same technology for my character. He took the Hive head off and put the Ghost Rider head on, and I thought, “Wow, that’s great! It looks finished.” But, it wasn’t. A couple days ago, he showed me the finished version, and it’s really exciting to see. It moves and it thinks. There’s a lot of characterization in the face. He took care to preserve my performance in a bare bones skull. I’m thankful for that and I’m absolutely over the moon for people to see it. I think they’re going to be happy.
Did you have any experience with muscle cars before this, or did you have to become acquainted for the role?
LUNA: Well, there’s so few of these 1969 cherry Dodge Chargers that I don’t know where I could have gotten the experience with this particular car. There are two or three of them in town, and I think we got ours from the Fast & Furious guys. To call it beautiful just doesn’t seem right ‘cause while it is, the lines on these old Chargers are just really great. One of the guys who sold us our stunt version found me on the internet and said, “Oh, man, it’s so cool to see it painted black. It used to be green and we used to call it the Green Dragon.” It’s so funny because the first time we fired up that engine on the stage, it shook the whole soundstage. I said to our sound guy, “That sounds like a dragon.” So, this guy from the internet who said he sold us one of the cars, and thank you very much for doing that, sir, said it used to be called the Green Dragon, but I’m calling her Lucy now, for Lucifer.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs on Tuesday nights on ABC.