Interview: ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ co-star J. August Richards talks Deathlok

04.29.14 5 years ago

In some ways, the journey of J. August Richards' Mike Peterson has been the journey of the first season of “Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

In the pilot, Peterson was introduced as an ordinary father who got superpowers through the use of the Centipede Device. He just wanted to be a hero to his son, but instead he became a victim of the technology and he had to be secured by S.H.I.E.L.D. A bit later, he was recaptured and his technology was overhauled to make him the villainous Deathlok.

With each passing appearance, we see less and less Mike Peterson and more and more Deathlok.

Late last week, I got on the phone with Richards to talk about his character's evolution and how much humanity still remains in Deathlok. We talked about the balancing act of keeping just a touch of heroism in a cybernetic bad guy and about the awesome new “Art of Level Seven” art featuring Deathlok looming over Skye and Ward. 

And, finally, the “Angel” veteran talked about that brief moment last summer when his casting was announced and everybody thought he was playing a different figure from Marvel lore.

Richards appears on Tuesday's (April 29) episode of “Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” 

Click through for the full Q&A…

HitFix: Did you see the new Stephanie Hans “Art of Level Seven” image featuring Deathlok?

J. August Richards: I just saw it! Saw it yesterday, actually.

HitFix: And what goes through your mind when you see yourself in a piece of art like that?

J. August Richards: I love it! Because obviously I've seen the episode and there are so many things, so many little things, in that drawing, that artwork, that are connected to what happens in the episode. I think it's quite brilliant, actually,  just from the size and position of each character, to each of our postures and our body language, it's really masterful. Once you see the episode, you might understand. You will definitely understand why I say that. It's like “The Da Vinci Code,” really! [He laughs.]

HitFix: I know that you and Gunn were featured in “Angel” comics as well. Do you still get a rush from seeing yourself in that medium, that format?

J. August Richards: You know, I have to be honest: I really do! I don't know why. It's really cool. It almost feels like being immortalized, in a way. I really love fan art, which I get sent a lot of. I really, really get a lot of. I get a kick out of it. It's awesome to see people's interpretation of the character, visually, so I love it.

HitFix: OK, tell me the wackiest piece of fan art you've ever gotten.

J. August Richards: [He chuckles.] The wackiest piece of fan art? You know, they're always really good. I think that, honestly, if someone takes the time to take that amount of time to draw you, I think that they usually have a talent. So I've never gotten anything crazy, like me doing anything crazy. They've always been really accurate and well done. 

HitFix: Let's get back to this week's episode. You said that we'll see that the art has given us hints. But for now, give me the tease for what you can say about what Deathlok is up to in this episode.

J. August Richards: Great! Well, as we know, Deathlok is being controlled by Garrett. At this point in the season, Deathlok is almost resigned to his fate. But the beauty of this character, which is the exact same as we saw him in the pilot, is that there's always that small part of him, no matter how dire the circumstances are, that believes he can be a hero. So as much as he's trying to convince himself that he *is* Deathlok, Mike Peterson is always underneath. For example, in the last episode that I was in, I had one line. I had one line in the whole episode and that line was, “Mike Peterson is dead.” And I knew instinctively that Mike Peterson has never been more alive than when he says, “Mike Peterson is dead.” This character is about a constant internal conflict. It's about who's gonna win, Mike Peterson or Deathlok. So that's kinda where we find him in this episode.

HitFix: Talk a bit about how much you can actually chart out how much Mike Peterson there is in Deathlok at any moment and how you play the quantity, I guess, of Mike Peterson in Deathlok.

J. August Richards: I have the hardest time figuring that out! It wasn't easy, honestly, because I come from a school of acting which says that you always play what you *want*. You always play the positive, what the character wants. But now I'm playing a character who everything he does is the exact opposite of what he wants. So it was really difficult to figure out how much energy, how much vigor to throw into all of these things that I have to do, which are the exact opposite of what I believe in morally. So it was really hard to figure out, but I think that we did. We worked a lot, Maurissa [Tancharoen], Jed [Whedon] and I and each director, we worked a lot on figuring that out, so it was really fun to go to work and find out how to play this person who is forced to do these things that he is so opposed to. So it was really a great, fun and creative process.

HitFix: Is that the kind of thing where you can finish a take and have the director say, “Too much human in that. I can see too much in your eyes”?

J. August Richards: Absolutely! Absolutely. We toyed with it. It was like making a dish of some kind and trying a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but I think once we found it, we all knew exactly what it was. I alway felt like there should be almost like this death in Mike's eyes at all times, because he is living a nightmare. This is his personal worst nightmare. I always felt that there should be no light in his eyes and so that's not something that you can kinda turn on right before the camera rolls, so sometimes I get really, really quiet before we're about to shoot and it's hard to be quiet, because it takes about five departments to make Deathlok and so there are people around me at all times touching me and adjusting things and doing my makeup or turning the lights on on the costume. And I use it, because I feel like when I'm at work sometimes, my body is not my own, like I belong to these other departments. But that's exactly how Mike feels! His life is not his own.

HitFix:  How long is the process these days to get into Deathlok gear?

J. August Richards: So it takes two hours to do the makeup and then it takes 15 or 20 minutes to get into the costume, although by the end of the season, we'd gotten down to about five minutes. Then at the end of the day, it takes about a half-an-hour. I get there before everyone and I leave after everyone else.

HitFix: What are the restrictions that the makeup and the costume put on you, physically?

J. August Richards: None, really. Or at least none that I can't use. The costume, it helps help me, because it actually does make me feel stronger and bigger and that I'm being contained. It is restrictive. I love the costume and it really helps me to play the character, because it makes me feel part-machine, part-human. It makes me feel like I'm in a different body than my own. So it's really, really helpful. I think Ann Foley knocked it out of the park and I love the costume.

HitFix: A lot has been written about the evolution of this show over the first season. You've been in a unique position to see the shift at different stages. How do you feel like the show is different from now as it's ending the first season from the show that you started with in the beginning?

J. August Richards: I honestly feel like it's been all one show and it's been slowly building up, dropping these pieces that you're gonna need in order to build to the finale. So I see it as this train that has left the station and is just gaining steam, gaining momentum and it just gets more and more explosive as it goes. So that's how I see it.

HitFix: Just as a last question: When you were initially cast, the Internet got all a-buzz about who your character was gonna turn out to be. Did you know? Did you know that Mike Peterson was gonna eventually become Deathlok? What were your hopes at that time? Etc.

J. August Richards: Man, let me tell you! There was so much buzz about my character being Luke Cage that I started to question whether or not I was Luke Cage. I read so much about it that I started thinking, “Well, maybe they just told me his name was Mike Peterson and maybe they're gonna dub it in and call me 'Luke' or something” because there was so much talk from my family, my friends, the Internet. I didn't know what was going on! So obviously I'm not. And, again, I didn't know that I was gonna be turned into Deathlok, so it was really a hilarious time in my life, actually.

“Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” airs Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. on ABC.

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