Actor J. August Richards knew, after 91 episodes as the vampire hunter Charles Gunn on “Angel,” that he was in a pretty good place with the show’s then-executive producer, now-king-of-superhero cinema Joss Whedon, but he admits he had no clue just how juicy a role he was being offered when he got the call to join the pilot of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
As Mike Peterson, Richards had one of the most unexpected and intriguing arcs of the entire first season, debuting as a surprisingly sympathetic antagonist in the pilot, evolving into an ally and then a potential threat again as his character slowly transformed into a new, dangerous and deadly incarnation of Deathlok, the cyborg with a bad attitude.
In an one-on-one chat with Comic Book Resources, Richards looked back at how a seeming one-off opportunity to work with some old friends turned him into a bona fide star of the Marvel Universe.
CBR News: Tell me a little bit about how it all came together for you to become part of the show, and how much you knew about where your character was going, from the get go. Did you learn on the fly, or did they kind of give you some preparation?
J. August Richards: I learned everything on the fly, absolutely. The audition came to me one morning. I was sitting in my house, nothing to do, and my manager called me and said, “Listen, I know you’re not going to want to do this. You have an audition today at 3:00, but when you hear who it’s for, you’ll probably say yes,” because I don’t like to go in for roles the same day that I get the material, because it doesn’t give me enough preparation time. But then when I found out it was for “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” I said, “Absolutely.” So, I got my stuff together, I went over there and read for it, and it just ended up working out. They’d been looking for the part for a while, I think, and it just kind of magically came together.
What was the fun of playing him the way we meet him as Mike Peterson for you at the beginning of the season? What did you like about him from the get-go?
What I loved about it, and the reason why I think it was so special for me, was that I could really relate to the man himself. I know that feeling of having your back against the wall and your world seeming to crumble around you. I really got that. So much of what had gone on in my life, prior to playing the part, paralleled what was going on for him, and so I just really felt connected to that person. And the superhero stuff — the more superhero elements — were so grounded in reality for me, that I just knew it was going to be a special thing. And it really was for me. I mean, it was like, those three weeks that we shot the pilot, I just was in heaven!
When did it become clear to you that they had a master plan for Mike Peterson? When did you start to get the word about Deathlok, and how did you react to it?
I only put it together, probably, when we were shooting the last episode. I mean seriously. I didn’t realize that it would be my arc to take out the bad guy — spoiler alert! — or to have such a big moment at the end. I didn’t know that it was going there. I didn’t know that it was all leading up to that. It was so awesome for me to be able to turn that rocket on Bill Paxton and fire away. It felt so good. You know, to be able to kind of take my life back, in a certain way. But my character feels so much guilt that that isn’t enough redemption for him, and he needs more. You know, so it’s really interesting to watch the character unfold. I often joke that I feel like I get the stories at the same time as the audience does.
Before Marvel made the announcement about where your character was going, there was some Internet buzz from some sharp-eyed fans that had figured out that he might become Deathlok. Were you aware of any of that, when people started saying, “Hey, maybe this guy’s this guy!“?
Yes, I was very aware of it, and people were bringing it right to my doorstep, via Twitter! I actually thought there was a possibility that I could be Luke Cage. I was like, “Wow. Everybody’s saying it. Maybe they know something I don’t know.” I would say that there were only maybe two people, at least as far as I saw, who guessed correctly. And after the news came out, I Tweeted them directly and told them, “Good eye — you’re absolutely right. Well done.” Yeah, it was really interesting to watch everybody speculate. It was great.
How did you like playing the costumed elements, getting suited up toward the end of the season. How did that go for you?
I loved it, because it took so long. It took two hours to get into, and a half an hour to get out of — the costume, the makeup — all of it. So it really helped me to really feel like I was in the body of somebody whose parts were not their own. And when we’re shooting, it takes so many departments to directly interface with me, that I felt like my body was no longer my own, just like the way Mike Peterson must feel, so it was really, really helpful.
You’ve had some prior experience working with Whedons. What did you like about working with the creative team, as you got further and further into the series and they kept bringing you back?
I mean, imagine going to work every day with people that you really, really like and that are your friends. It’s like that: it’s just easy. That’s the only word that I can use to describe working in this environment: it’s just easy. And there’s no pretense. No sort of — you know how they feel about what you’re doing. You know what they expect, and it’s just very clear. So it’s really amazing working with them. And even when we wrapped “Angel,” I thought, you know, “Gosh, this could be the best job I’ve ever had in my life,” so I’m really just happy to be in the family again.
Now, have they given you any hints about future plans for your character? Or are you still thinking that one day a new script’s going to show up on your door and see if you’re available?
If I didn’t know that I was playing Deathlok in Season One — so much so that I even went in for a costume fitting, and still wasn’t told that I was being turned into Deathlok — then you can imagine what I know about Season Two, which is nothing.
Once the cat was out of the bag as to the character, did you do any background research from the comics, or did you just kind of go with the flow?
I did. Just for sentimental reasons, I wanted to start my research in my childhood comic book collection. My sister has been holding onto it for me for years, so I happened to go home for Christmas and I got my comic books back. And, you know, being a Virgo, I knew that if I had one issue of the guide to the Marvel Universe, that I had every issue. Fortunately, I had every single volume of the guide to the Marvel Universe, and I started right there. I went to the CD volume, looked up Deathlok and started my research right there. And Marvel was kind enough to provide me with some of the standalone issues, and I read those as well, but at a certain point, I decided to stop reading them, because I wanted to stay true to the Deathlok that we were creating — the Mike Peterson version. As long as I stayed connected to who Mike Peterson is as a father and as a man, I knew that everything else would fall into place. So I half-read the old comics, got enough of the context to realize, thematically, how similar our character is with the characters in the older comics.
Knowing that you wanted to do Mike Peterson the way that the show wanted to do him, what did you see in the comic book Deathlok that you hope you get to do as we see more and more of the character? Are there elements of him that you want to get a chance to dig into and play?
Well, there are certain lines of his that I would love to sneak in at some point, if I’m lucky enough to come back and play, but I — in one version, he’s always talking to a computer in his head, and he always refers to it as ‘puter and he’s always like, “Damned ‘puter” or “Come on, ‘puter!” I just would love to get that out there, once or twice.
Would you love to see the Deathlok character come into his own, as far as maybe even one day headlining his own series?
Oh, how cool would that be? I mean, I am very married and connected to this character, and there’s so much that I want to know about him. There’s so much I want to see him do. I mean, his powers are so endless. There’re so many opportunities for coolness with this character, so I would love to play this character for a really long time, in any medium. So, yeah, that would be a dream come true. It really would. Even beyond my love of superheroes, I just love the man so much.
It sounds like you had at least a period of your life where you were pretty serious about comic books.
Oh, I was more than serious! I mean, it was my whole life. Me and my friends, we were so hard up on Saturday mornings. If we couldn’t get one of our parents to drive us, we’d scrape together cab money to take a cab. You know, we were like 10, 11, 12, 13 years old taking cabs to the comic book store. So yeah, it was a big deal for us.
What were your favorites?
I loved “Secret Wars.” That was everything for us. When “Secret Wars” came out, we just couldn’t wait for the next issue to come out. Then Spider-Man had just gotten his new costume, which had just debuted prior to “Secret Wars” coming out, but “Secret Wars” was going to explain how he got his new costume. So we were just so excited to get our hands on “Secret Wars.” I also loved “Alpha Flight” a lot too — I don’t remember a lot about it as an adult, but “Alpha Flight” was another big one for us.
As an old school fanboy, tell me about the fun of just working with Marvel. I guess that probably even keeping some of these secrets is part of the good fun for you.
Yeah. You know, one of the beautiful things, I think, is that these days, because of what Marvel has done in the cinematic world, it’s so cool and okay to be a comic book geek. It wasn’t so much, back in my day, but I love that everyone has figured out what those of us back in the day knew: That comic books are just fascinating stories and they have so much to say about the world that we live in and about our lives. I’m really happy to see how mainstream it’s become.
And how about that social media connection that you can have with fans now? That’s a lot different from the “Angel” days.
Yeah, that’s very, very true. And I love that, too, that “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has sort of kept me alive in the fandom, because I really feel connected to that community, so that’s another blessing, from this whole experience.
Work-wise, what’s front and center right now? When “Agents” doesn’t have you on board? What do you have going on?
Well, I’m doing a recurring role on Marti Noxon’s new series, called “Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce.” Marti Noxon was one of the writers on “Angel” as well as “Buffy,” and she’s got this great new show, and it’s going to be Bravo’s first scripted series. It stars Lisa Edelstein from “House,” and it’s a really fun and exciting show about love, marriage, dating — it’s just really funny, and I’m really enjoying working on it.
I wrapped a series this summer called “The Lottery” for Lifetime, and that was a lot of fun as well. I’m also working on another job, but I don’t know if I have clearance to talk about it yet, but you’ll be hearing about that soon, I’m sure.
When it comes to the cast of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” is there somebody you haven’t gotten a chance to work with that you’re sort of dying to get to share a scene with, or somebody that you ended up finding a special rapport with that you can’t wait to pick up again?
God, I love everybody so much, and I feel like I’ve had moments with everyone on the show — You know, FitzSimmons and I had a great exchange, back before I lost my leg. Clark [Gregg] and I work very closely, you know, obviously, Skye. Brett [Dalton] and I had a little bad bromance, if you will, when we were teamed up by Garrett to get Skye. So I feel like I’ve gotten a great chance to work with everybody. You know, I knocked out Ming [Na-Wen] in the pilot, but it would be nice to do something more substantial with her.
Maybe they’ll let her knock you out.
Maybe, but you know, when I’m in character, nobody’s knocking me out.
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