Mike Peterson has had a tough time over the course of the inaugural season of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.LD.” He’s been estranged from his son, given corruptive superpowers, blown up, burned up, lost a leg and is now controlled under threat of death by insidious HYDRA forces as the cyborg Deathlok.
That may all be pretty bleak from Peterson’s point of view, but for the actor behind the character — “Angel” alum J. August Richards — it’s been “the most incredible experience.” The actor has been able to tap into his comic book fan roots to portray one of the more memorable creations of ’70s Marvel, albeit a version unique to the small-screen hub of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
With Deathlok returning on Tuesday’s new episode, “Nothing Personal,” and only three more episodes left in the season, CBR News spoke with Richards about playing “the world’s most offbeat superhero,” what he hopes to see in Mike Peterson’s future, and the acting challenge presented by the character’s rapid evolution on the ABC series.
CBR News: J, how much have you enjoyed being a recurring part of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” this season — and entering into the Marvel world, which seems like a very exciting place for an actor to be? How much has this role meant to you personally?
J. August Richards: It’s been the most incredible experience for thousands of reasons. It’s one thing to have the fun of playing a superhero, but it’s another thing to play “the world’s most offbeat superhero” — as Deathlok is described on his first appearance, in “Astonishing Tales” [#25]. I literally do think that Deathlok is the world’s most offbeat superhero. It’s awesome to play a superhero, but now I’m playing one that is super-rich and complex. It’s kind of an actor’s dream, because he’s so conflicted. It’s like the child in me is being super-satisfied, and the adult in me is being super-satisfied.
And then the people that I get to work with — as you know, I’ve worked with Joss [Whedon] before; working with Maurissa [Tancharoen] and Jed [Whedon], and Jeff Bell — they make everything so easy, because there’s a great line of communication, and the desire to make it the best possible product. It’s just the time of my life, quite honestly.
It sounds like you’ve definitely familiarized yourself with the character — how much Deathlok research have you done? Was it a character you had much awareness of before?
Honestly, not much [awareness]. I’d seen the character before, because I was an avid comic book reader as a kid. Once I found out that I was playing Deathlok, I thought that it would be really poetic for me to start my research in my childhood comic book collection. So I cracked it open, I went to the [“Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe,”] which I had every issue of, which I was really happy about, and started in issue “D” and found Deathlok, and read about him there. Then, Marvel was kind enough to grant me access to the older comics via the Internet, and I read those.
At a certain point, though, I had to stop — because I recognized that the context of our story is different than the context of the comic books. So I got a nice little flavoring of who the character was in the comic books, but realizing this is Mike Peterson, these are Mike Peterson’s circumstances, these are Mike Peterson’s conditions, and I have to really just honor those — and pay homage to the original at the same time.
The Deathlok of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is definitely different than comic incarnations.
There is a theme between our Deathlok and the previous Deathloks that is consistent, and I love that.
Talking about the acting challenge — there have basically been three different Mike Petersons this season; the original one that was trying to do good but was in a pretty desperate situation, the briefly more confident agent-in-training and the current role of Deathlok. What’s it been like, taking the character in so many different directions in such a short period of time?
Every time I show up on the show, there is a huge landscape shift for the character. I’ve never shown up as the same character twice on “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” and I love that. It really kept me very challenged, very engaged. There’s not a baseline performance I can rely on, because when I show up I’m either burned from head to toe, missing a leg, now I’m being controlled by the Clairvoyant, or, as you said, I show up as the guy trying to do good and be a hero for his son. It’s always so different. It hasn’t been easy. It’s been a challenge, but a challenge that I’ve really savored.
It’s been said by folks involved that it was the plan for Mike to end up as Deathlok from very early on — at what point did you know that was the path for the character?
Maybe two days before I started shooting — shooting the episode where it was becoming more apparent that I was turning into Deathlok. I found out after a costume fitting — notice I said “after a costume fitting” — for the Deathlok character. It was all very top-secret. They really didn’t want it to get out. And I actually am glad that it was a secret, because then I didn’t have an opportunity to project what was going to happen into the current situation that I was in. I appreciated it.
In the comics, the character of Deathlok is a heroic one — well, sometimes an antihero.
I like “antivillain.”
Without getting into spoiler territory, is that something you’d like to see from your character? Getting into a more in-control position, and more of a heroic path?
God, yes, because I know how badly he wants it, and I know that from the beginning — from the very moment we saw him — he just wanted to be a hero for his son. Just as a human being, not as the actor playing him, but just as a person, I just want nothing more than to see him be redeemed in his own eyes. I didn’t realize how guilty this character felt about everything — about the stuff that he did when he was under the influence of Centipede. If it were me, I’d be like, “That wasn’t me, that was the Centipede tearing up the train station.” But he feels so incredibly guilty about everything. So just as a human being, I want redemption for Mike, and I hope he gets it.
Mike is definitely one of the more sympathetic characters on TV — it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy, given everything that’s happened to him since the start.
You know, I’m so happy about that, because sometimes I worry that people will forget, or not see that I’m doing these things under duress — that I don’t want to be doing these things. It makes me happy when people say that, because that lets me know that they see what I’m trying to convey.
Is there anything coming up for the character that you can tease?
One thing that I found very interesting, and I hope you do — did you know Deathlok actually has two USB ports? I think that’s really cool, personally. [Laughs] I think that’s really exciting. I’ve never played a character with a USB port.
And Deathlok’s back in this week’s episode.
Yes, he is. As you know, he’s being controlled by Garrett. I get so nervous talking about these future episodes, because they give us actors the feeling that if we say the wrong thing, they’re going to explode a bomb in our head, just like Garrett is doing with Deathlok. All I can say is please watch it, it’s going to be awesome. You will not be disappointed.
I did. I really, really like it. I was telling someone earlier, that piece of art is like “The Da Vinci Code” in that there are a lot of hints at what happens in the episode. They’re in there in such a subtle and artistic way that I hope people look at it after they see the episode, and they’ll begin to decode some of the clues that are in there.
Seeing your character captured by a Marvel artist has to be an even more galvanizing moment of realization that you’re part of this world — you’ve been on a Marvel show all year, but seeing your character drawn in a comic book-y style has to be a further step.
You’re absolutely right. There’s something almost immortalizing about it, oddly enough — I know that’s a strange word to use, but it was really exciting when I saw it. It’s one thing to bring the comic to life, but it’s another thing to kind of go the other way. I was really excited when I saw it. It was really cool. I loved it.
You guys didn’t share any scenes together, but how fun was it to see your “Angel” co-star Amy Acker on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”?
Oh man, so much fun. I was really disappointed that we weren’t going to work together when I found out, but it was great to see her on the show. I love her so much. She’s a really great actress and a great person.
“Nothing Personal,” the latest episode of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” airs 8 p.m. Tuesday on ABC.