Though the main characters of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” look like a cohesive unit in the show’s promo materials, the first episode makes it clear that at least one agent, Grant Ward — played by Brett Dalton — isn’t comfortable operating within a team dynamic.
Used to doing things on his own, Ward is especially hesitant around newcomer Skye, played by Chloe Bennet. Under the supervision of Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg, reprising his role from multiple Marvel Studios’ productions), he’s left with little choice but learning how to be a team player as part of a S.H.I.E.L.D. squad taking a very close look at burgeoning superpowered activity.
The role means a lot of new experiences for Dalton as well, a relative newcomer to television with just a handful of previous credits, like guest spots on “Blue Bloods” and “Army Wives.” Dalton identifies as both a comic book and Joss Whedon fan (the “Avengers” screenwriter and director makes his return to TV with the show; directing the pilot, which he co-wrote with showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen), and his enthusiasm for becoming a part of the live-action Marvel world is clear, even though, as he admits, he’s not sure how his life may change when the highly anticipated show — set in the same continuity as Marvel’s mega-successful films — debuts on ABC next week.
CBR News spoke with Dalton about how Agent Ward differs from his past roles, how a master of fine arts from an Ivy League school prepares you for playing a super-spy in a comic book world, and — in a potentially controversial revelation — the DC Comics character who ranks among his favorites.
CBR News: At this point, we’re still a week away from the series premiere, but how far into shooting the season are you?
Brett Dalton: We’re entering episode seven, shooting six. It’s pretty awesome. With the production values, it feels more like a movie every week. It’s pretty crazy. We’ve got six gems lined up for you, as soon as we start. I think we’ve got something really good here. I’m excited for the world to see it next week.
This is the most high-profile role of your career at this point, by far. There are ads all over, it’s maybe the most-hyped new network show this fall season — right now, being so close to the debut, what’s your current status? Excitement, with maybe a little bit of nervousness in there, too?
This is all new to me. This is my first really big break; it just so happens to be that I sort of won the Lotto on this one. [Laughs]
I’m just happy to be working in general, but this happens to be, I think, the best new show out there. I’m not sure if I’m really nervous, exactly. I’m really excited for the world to see this. We’ve been working on this thing for so long, and we’re incredibly happy with the product. If Comic-Con was any indication, it seems fans love it just as much as we enjoy doing it.
I keep getting told, “You have no idea how this is going to change things.” And I don’t! [Laughs] What can possibly prepare you for this? What can prepare you for walking outside on Sunset [Boulevard], and seeing your face, building-high? Nothing can prepare you for that. It just happens to be this really cool thing that I’m a part of. I’m thankful to be here, to ride this wave as long as I possibly can.
What has the experience been like? There’s so much anticipation around the show, you’ve been doing a lot of press, you were on a panel at Comic-Con — plus the experience of working with Joss Whedon, showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen and Clark Gregg and the whole cast. How do you feel about the overall process so far?
Incredibly lucky, like somebody may tell me, “Hey, by the way, you’re dreaming.” Like this is a fantasy, almost. When you go to school, when you put all of that effort into being an actor, this is the thing that you dream about; being a part of something like this. The fact that it actually is happening is still amazing to me.
Shooting a pilot is one thing. Getting the part — there was a whole crazy process involved with that, where I came in four different times, and Joss, as he did with Chloe in her audition, had to write a scene specifically for us, so that we could show the producers this and that. To have Joss writing a scene for you even before you’re cast is really amazing.
When you shoot a pilot, you don’t have the “yes.” All signs point to yes, but you don’t have a yes. So there was this time in between — I think we just shot something incredible, what an experience, but I sort of had to wait to shout it on the rooftops until we actually found out that we got picked up. There was this whole waiting process involved. Now that it has [been picked up], I have never been happier. I’m happy when I’m busy, I’m happy when I’m working, and I get to put in 12-hour days, five days a week, at least. We get paid to do this. It’s incredible. Don’t tell anybody, or they’ll pull it away from me. It’d probably be more interesting if there were drama involved, but it’s really just been an exciting thing. I’m sort of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, from start to finish. It’s been one good thing piled on top of another good thing, and another good thing. I hope the bubble never bursts.
That’s certainly a positive approach.
I try not to think about things like, “Oh, your whole life is going to change.” I don’t have a frame of reference for that. I’m just happy to be working, and the billboards, all of the cool stuff that happens is great. But I get the most enjoyment out of going to work every day. I think the real joy for me is working with this cast, and being a part of this team, and getting to do this show every week.
Let’s talk a little bit more specifically about the show and your part in it — you’re kind of a foil to some of the characters, especially Chloe Bennet’s character, and you’re a little tough to deal with it, at least in the pilot. How has it been, taking on that kind of role?
It’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever really played anything like that, so I was really kind of delighted to get the part. I don’t usually play the person who has all the answers in the room, so for me to get this part was really cool. It was really an opportunity for me to express a different side and to grow into that.
This character is somebody who’s highly trained, who is used to solving all of these things by himself. He has enough training to do most tasks by himself. I did a lot of training. I was like 15, 20 pounds lighter when I got the role, and I hit the gym hard, we did combat training. I feel like I’m really now stepping into that role, and I’m not just faking it as I go along. This is also lining up with taking a bigger step and ownership in my own life and my career at the same time, so it’s sort of a life imitating art situation.
There’s a lot of emphasis on Agent Ward being a loner and not knowing how to function in a group — is that the character’s big challenge at the onset? Figuring out how to work in a team?
It’s true he’s not used to being a part of a team, so when Coulson asks me to be a part of it, I am almost certain he has the wrong guy. That is something that is still going to be a struggle, but I also think that being accepted into a family is something Ward has been longing for secretly, for a while. When people have a tough exterior, it’s not because they don’t feel very much, it’s because they feel so much that they sometimes have to have a cover. I think that whole loner thing is there, but at the same time, I think it’s not that I don’t want to be a part of [the team]. I just am not used to it, and I’m longing for a sense of belonging, to be honest.
Pretty much the only biographical detail I was able to find about you — and it’s right on your IMDb page — is that you received an MFA in acting from Yale — are you tired of getting asked by reporters about that yet?
No, but I haven’t found a way to speak of it without sounding incredibly pretentious. [Laughs] I should probably talk to my agents and managers and have them put some other bits of trivia on my IMDb page, other than I went to this school and received a MFA. Obviously, that happened, but a ton of other people have gone to that school and are working actors and don’t talk very much about it. [Laughs]
I’m very happy that I took that route, but I just always feel incredibly pretentious whenever I talk about it. “We were in Chekov class –” “You read that play by MoliÃ¨re, right?” There’s only so much theater talk you can get away with without isolating yourself and showing all of your cards as a giant theater geek.
On one hand, you’d think that being on a TV show based on an action movie franchise would be the last thing you’d wind up doing as a Yale acting student, but when you think about Joss Whedon and his history in TV, and his background, and what he’s interested in, it seems like there actually might be a lot of overlap there.
Oh, yeah. Actually, I was so happy when he was in the room, because he would catch all of my theater references, and I would catch all of his. That’s what was so great. It was almost like another whole language that we spoke. That was nice.
But yeah, I never expected that would happen. Obviously I went to theater school because I thought I would be working in theater. I was in New York for two whole years, and couldn’t get a single off-off-off-Broadway job. Here I am, on the other side of that spectrum, on one of the biggest, most-hyped TV shows.
We go where the work is. When I was in the audition room for this thing, I was like, “Oh, man — this is never going to happen, it’s Joss Whedon.” The tension there was just nuts. I was like, “This is never going to happen. I’m going to do my best, but come on, really?” And then, when I got the call, it was kind of Earth-shattering.
Were you much of a fan of Joss Whedon’s work before coming onto this project?
Yeah, absolutely. There’s nothing that he can do that I wouldn’t want to be a part of. I was very, very happy when I got a phone call that said, “Hey, Joss Whedon is interested in you.” That was an amazing feeling. We hit it off.
Joss’ fingerprints are all over this script, and as soon as I got it, I felt, because I was familiar with his work, able to find a way in pretty easily. We have a similar sense of humor.
In the interest of learning more about you other than where you went to school, how much exposure did you have to the world of Marvel — either the comics or the movies — before being cast on this show?
The movies, of course, but I was a fan long before the whole franchise was here. I was going to the comic book store pretty regularly when I was a kid. I stopped around high school-ish, and then picked it up again.
This was my world when I was a kid. I never would have thought that I would have been in this place. I used to collect comics — I still have my whole collection, actually, I haven’t sold anything. I have a ton of stuff in there. I used to collect action figures; I still have a whole bunch of them in their package. Whole sets. I went to school in undergrad and I studied art, I didn’t know that I was going to do theater. One of the big things that we used to draw were comic characters — we’d make up their powers, and all that stuff. This has been my childhood, and if you would have told me this would happen, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Let’s get into specifics, then — who are some of your favorites in comics?
Punisher was always super-cool, so was Deadpool. I know this is DC, so I shouldn’t say this, but he’s also Stan Lee’s favorite DC character, and I forgot about him until I was looking over my comics — Lobo. You probably shouldn’t print that. [Laughs]
I still have all of these comic books, and I do remember, at one point I actually displayed them prominently on my wall, and made it look somewhat like a comic book store. This is my world, and now I get to be a part of the physical comic book world. It’s pretty insane.
“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 24 on ABC.
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