On the second day of the 2014 Emerald City Comicon, the convention organizers brought out their big guns to please attendees interested in seeing sci-fi stars. More specifically, they brought out a big Gunn in the form of actor J. August Richards, who played the streetwise vampire-hunting Gunn on “Angel” television series. Currently starring as Michael Peterson (a.k.a. Deathlok) on Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the actor was greeted with loud cheers as he entered a crowded panel room on a typically rainy Seattle day.
Richards (who goes by Jay) started things off by talking about his role on the show and what it’s meant to him. “It’s been a really awesome evolution because when I did the pilot, honestly, I thought that I was only going to be doing one episode.” He explained that he had assumed he was merely appearing as the “super-powered troublemaker” of the week. The fact that the character has grown into so much more caught him by surprise.
“When I was doing Angel, I was very clear with myself every day when I went to work that this could be the best job that I ever have as an actor. Because, every week, it was something completely different…I got to be romantic, or comedic, or heroic, or villainous. It was just something different every week.”
The fact that Richards is getting a second chance at a role with opportunities similar to that of Gunn pleases him tremendously. He then discussed with the audience how he got the role, and how badly he wanted to play the part.
“When I heard that Joss was going to be doing ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,’ I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to be on that show.’ But not because Joss shows favoritism, because he doesn’t.” The actor just felt as though there was something calling to him about this opportunity. He quickly called his agent and asked her to see if there was anything he could play on the show, even a small part. Unfortunately, his agent said there wasn’t.
“But six to nine months later, my agent called me and said, ‘Hey, you have an audition for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my god – I knew I was going to be on this show,” Richards said with a smile.
“I went in and had a great audition, and then I kind of forgot about it for a bit…Then my manager called me and said, ‘Sweetie, they said you’re up for the part. Do not cut your hair and don’t shave.’
“I quickly went and sat and wrote Joss an email — and I don’t normally do this ever — and I said, ‘Joss, I auditioned for your show, and if you saw anything in my performance that would be right for the character, I promise I will give you 110% of everything that I have to bring this character to life because I love it so much.’
“I sent the email, went to bed, and the next morning my phone is ringing off the hook. And my manager is like, ‘You’ve gotta go meet Joss. You got the part! Two o’clock!’ So I went over and I got there, I met Joss, big hugs — so excited that we’re going to be working together again. And I said, ‘Joss, I meant everything that I said in my email.’ And he goes, ‘What email?'”
The audience erupted in laughter at this revelation. But Richards still had another surprise coming his way with regards to the show. Right before the Christmas holiday, he discovered he was going to become Deathlok.
“How many roles in your life, as an actor, do you get to research in your own childhood comic book collection?”
In conducting his research, the actor said he came across three different versions of Deathlok. Fortunately, he was able to find the common thread that would hold his performance together. “The versions look different, their stories are different, their predicaments are different, but the one thing that is at the root of Deathlok is internal conflict. It’s this mash-up of what you want to do and what you are being forced to do. That conflict is so rich as an actor, and I feel so honored to be playing this part.”
But with this honor comes a small price. As those who have seen the show are probably aware, it takes quite a fair amount of makeup to turn Richards into Deathlok. He elaborated by saying, “It’s two hours, starting at 5:30 in the morning.” And for those anxious to seeing the actor in full costume, Richards recommended that they tune in to the April 1 episode.
A question was then posed about the scene in the show where his character wakes up to find himself burned and missing a leg. Richards explained that it was a tremendous challenge, as that moment was only half a page in the script with no dialogue. “That scene is one of the ones I’m most proud of because there are no lines, but there’s so much happening. And I just sat and wrote down everything he’s thinking. I got so deep with that scene — I started working on that scene like Rain Man.”
As an actor, Richards has been working on his craft for quite some time, but he’s wanted to be a performer even longer than that. He then revealed the story of how he got his first role. Richards explained that he loved “The Cosby Show” while he was in his teens, so at the end of one episode, he wrote down the name of the casting director.
After that, he called information (this was before the internet) in New York from his home in Maryland and asked for the director’s office phone number. Richards called and reached the casting director’s assistant. They wouldn’t put him on the phone, but the assistant said that he would be putting on an acting camp for kids in the Catskills. Richards’ mother gave him some money, and he headed out to camp. When the casting director first spoke to the kids there, he asked if anyone wanted to read for him.
“I threw my hand up, went up on stage, read in front of all the other kids, and he goes, ‘If you’re ever in New York, come and see me. I want to audition you for ‘The Cosby Show.’ And I told him, ‘I can be there Monday.'”
Richards did go to the Big Apple where he read for a part on his favorite show. Amazingly, he got the role of Vanessa’s boyfriend for one episode. His family hadn’t wanted him to be an actor before that, but once he got the part, they told him to go for it. After this, he attended USC where he received lots of classical training as an actor. Richards stated that it’s served him well, especially when working on sets with vampires, superheroes, and the other non-human characters that populate science fiction stories.
“I’ve loved this genre ever since I was a kid,” he said. “One of the things that made me want to be an actor was ‘Star Wars,’ because I loved that film. And me and all of my friends would always play ‘Star Wars.’ Of course, I would always have to play Lando. If they were feeling generous, I’d play Chewbacca.”
While Richards loves what he does, he did confess that acting is a “tumultuous” career choice. For example, he said he didn’t act for 18 months before he got his role on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” But, as mentioned, he feels fortunate to be part of the show now and he loves the people he works with. When asked what Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson) is really like, Richards merely smiled and replied, “He’s everything you want him to be, and he’s exactly what you think he is.”
The actor was also excited about the S.H.I.E.L.D. cast because a former friend of his will make an appearance soon: actress Amy Acker (Fred, from “Angel”). A fan asked Richards if there was any chance the two would appear onscreen together, and he jokingly responded, “Let’s just say I know how to play the cello.”
This was a reference to the fact that Acker is playing Coulson’s former girlfriend, who happens to be a cellist. When pressed for details, Richards gave another sly grin and said he couldn’t answer the question because it might give away upcoming details of the show. He did say that he loves working with Acker though. “She’s a real lady. She carries herself so beautifully, and she’s so talented and she’s just an amazing human being.”
Since he spoke so warmly about the actress, this led an audience member to ask whether Richards knew that his character’s actions in “Angel” would bring about Fred’s death. The actor said he had “no idea” and was as surprised as his fellow cast members when he saw the script.
While on the subject of “Angel,” another fan wanted to know Richards’ feelings regarding the series’ ending. The actor nodded and said, “I loved it. It’s been controversial, and I know a lot of people weren’t happy with it, and that’s fine. But I loved it because I think it was really just talking about how, even if you know you’re going to lose your battle, whatever you think is right — keep fighting. And I just love that message.”
He added that he doesn’t hold any ill will against people who didn’t care for the ending. Richards said he understands how people like resolution to their stories, and that he usually wants it as well. Fans will see how the actor handles things when story endings are determined by Richards, as he said he wants to write and direct one day too.
Whether or not he reaches this goal, there is no question that Richards has already left his mark in his chosen medium. As a matter of fact, in the days leading up to this year’s Academy Awards, the actor was chosen by Essence magazine to be part of a ceremony honoring the achievements of African-American men in Hollywood. It took place at Tyler Perry’s home, and Richards said he felt honored to attend. The very first person he came across at the event was Sidney Poitier, which left Richards a bit awestruck. “For any actor, he’s an icon and an idol. It was really amazing.”
An audience member then commended the actor on his accomplishments and said he should be proud of his own achievements. Richards jokingly said, “Sure, I feel like the Sidney Poitier of science fiction.” Then, with a chuckle and grin, the actor bid the crowd a fond farewell as the panel ended.