Their current “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” characters may be artificial intelligences, but the brains powering actresses Ming-Na Wen – now playing both Melinda May and her Life Model Decoy doppleganger – and Mallory Jansen – aka the alternately altruistic and personal agenda-following A.I. Aida – are very real indeed.
During CBR’s recent visit to the set of the Marvel series, both stars alternately revealed, teased and offered plausible deniability about their roles in the show’s new central storyline, “LMD,” which launches with “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s” midseason return on Jan. 10.
CBR: How did you find LMD May as a character, and how do you differentiate her?
Ming-Na Wen: Funny you should ask that question. I think that discovery will add a new level of interest in how this character is going to be part of the storylines and what purpose she serves. As far as how I’m playing it, Radcliffe downloaded information about May when she was dead, or dying, or dead — one or the other. So there’s a lot of May in the LMD — and that’s all I can say.
Can we assume LMD May is getting up to no good, considering your hand is covered in blood-like red right now?
Wen: But is this LMD May, or May-May? May-1, or May-2? See, that’s the trick question.
Is she aware of the fact that she has the real May around? Is that threatening to her?
Wen: Good question. If I answer that question, I give away certain things about the storylines, and it’s such an interesting twist and an interesting situation that this particular new May adds to the storyline, I don’t want to spoil it for our fans. But I can say it’ll be fun for the audience to try and figure out, “Wait, wait, wait – is this the real May, or is this the LMD May?”
I know we’ve sort of broached that storyline in Season 2 with the nano-mask, but what was interesting about playing that character differently was, it was actually another character trying to be May, without really knowing who May was. It was just somebody in disguise. But with the LMD May, it’s May. Confusing, isn’t it?
Why are people impersonating May so often? Do you wonder why they keep doing this to you?
Wen: I think they heard that Ming wanted to have clones of herself so that I could multitask more. [Laughs] I wish this was a situation for real, that we could clone ourselves.
Fans have been rooting for Philinda for a while…
Wen: [Asks Jansen} Do you know what Philinda is? It’s the ‘shipping name for Phil Coulson and Melinda May, so it sounds like a fish dish: Filet of Philinda.
How did you approach that and figure out how you wanted to play it?
Wen: I think it’s really lovely that the writers pay attention to what the fans are interested in. I remember in Season One when this whole ‘shipping name started, I’m like, “What are they talking about?” That was never something that I envisioned, and it’s really grown a lot.
I think what’s great is, it’s because they have such a close relationship with each other, such loyalty and devotion – and who knows? I think there has been moments where you’ve seen that they have affection for each other, but they don’t allow themselves to go there because they’re professionals. It will be interesting to explore that path.
Mallory, what’s it’s like to step out of the shadows? Aida’s quite likely the main threat of the show now.
Mallory Jansen: Well, who knows? I don’t know. It’s really cool — her character arc has been so interesting to me because she did start off bubbling in the background and nobody really knew what she was doing and what her role was.
Now, as she progresses, for me as an actor, it’s really fun to play someone who’s not human, learning human mannerisms and processing things and understanding what’s going on around her, and that evolution of her character is really fun to play. I’m having a great old time.
Wen: Actually it was fun because we’re like the ”Androids of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” and there was one moment when I had to ask Mallory, “So when you turn back on… how did you do it?” I wanted to mimic the similar moves that Radcliffe created, so that’s really fun – “How would you do an android waking up?”
How did you come at your android? What did you draw upon?
Jansen: I focused firstly on the movement, because everything is very fluid. There’s no itching or tossing hair or anything like that – which I usually do; I have very human responses to things. Learning to just be still and if she’s looking towards someone or moving it’s a very direct movement and she knows where she’s turning at certain times.
That’s where I started and — I don’t know. I guess trying to figure out what it would be like to do things for the first time again, as if you’re a child, almost. What’s it like to see that interaction for the first time, and learn this kind of etiquette for the first time and bring that into it a little bit, the naiveté.
How’s the emotional growth going to impact Aida and the people around her?
Jansen: That’s gonna be interesting – I’m not sure, to be honest. She does definitely have growth over the series, but I’m not sure where that ends up, so it’ll be interesting to see, emotionally perhaps, where that leads.
We saw Aida step in front of a bullet for Fitz – was that based on an emotional response to save him, or a logical one? Can these LMDs care about people?
Jansen: I do think they can care and I honestly think that Aida at the time knows the people closest to her and who she trusts, but I do think she was programmed to protect people – from the beginning she says, “I’m your shield, I’m here to protect you and take a bullet.” That’s what she does. She did that, it was a very heroic moment for me.
She also feels pain – which Fitz said is a hard thing for them to reconcile, that they’re responsible for giving her pain.
Jansen: Yeah, exactly. That was an interesting scene to play, actually, because it’s feeling pain for the first time, and her response to that. I think everyone’s kind of shocked at first, because it’s like “A robot feels pain?” It’s kind of awful, that they chose to do that.
Wen: I think it was Radcliffe’s goal to make her appear as human as possible. That was part of the programming.
Can you talk about her relationship with Radcliffe, her creator, and with Fitz, who’s probably the closest thing she has to a friend?
Jansen: Obviously Radcliffe is her creator and anything he says, she does – she’s his assistant, but really a product of what he’s created, so they’re definitely the closest. It’s been really fun to work with John very closely over the last couple of weeks, and explore that friendship, partnership kind of thing.
And with Fitz, he had a lot of impact in also creating me and bringing me up to speed. Definitely, they’re probably my two closest people around.
Do those relationships become less stable?
Jansen: I guess you’ll just have to see about that one. I don’t want to give away too much.
Can you talk about her motivations for this swap between Mays?
Jansen: I was made a specific way, and anything I do is really what I think is right, or what I’m programmed to do.
Wen: I think the big question is, what is Radcliffe’s motivation? Not so much what’s Aida’s motivation at this point, because he’s the taskmaster in this whole scheme of changing out May for the LMD May. What is his agenda? Is it for something good or something bad, or is he the mad scientist that’s hoping to advance science? That’s a big, naughty thing to do. He’s on Santa’s naughty list right now, to apprehend May and have already planned out and created the LMD May. I don’t think he went through all that trouble for shits and giggles.
Daisy has come back into the fold in S.H.I.E.L.D. Assuming she and the real May get back together, how is that relationship going to progress?
Wen: May can be very forgiving. As you’ve seen in a previous episode, she is still very maternal and wants to continue to guide Daisy. When they had that scene together and May was telling Daisy, “What you’re doing, I wrote the book on it – I know what you’re doing, shutting down your feelings, and wanting to be alone and be not part of the team isn’t the way to go.”
I think there’s still sort of the tough love that May always dishes out, and yet she’s very happy that Daisy is back in the fold, because she is really part of the family. And being her S.O. and knowing what she’s gone through and the losses that she’s suffered, May can empathize with all that. It’s always fun to be the two badass women out there fighting and she’s got the super powers and I just get hurt. I’m always like “I want some superpower.”
Returning Tuesday, January 10 at 10 pm ET/PT on ABC, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” stars Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, Chloe Bennet as Daisy “Quake” Johnson, Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May, Iain De Caestecker as Leo Fitz, Elizabeth Henstridge as Jemma Simmons, Henry Simmons as Alphonso “Mack” Mackenzie and more.