J. August Richards On His Surprise "SHIELD" Return: "Mike Is Now Owning Deathlok"

If you're going to keep an ace in the hole, you can't go wrong if it's a Deathlok.

The wisdom of that philosophy appears not to have been lost on S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who's been waiting for just the right moment to put fan favorite cyborg Mike Peterson -- as played by veteran Whedonverse actor J. August Richards -- into play.

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That moment came in "Afterlife," tonight's episode of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," during the ongoing battle between the dueling factions of the covert agency. CBR News was among the media outlets visiting the top-secret set of the ABC series when Richards made a surprise appearance -- in brand-new cybernetic gear, no less -- to answer questions from the assembled reporters about Deathlok's unexpected reemergence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Can you talk about the covert missions that you've been running for Coulson or what you've been doing since we saw you last?

J. August Richards: Yeah, Coulson has had Deathlok in his back pocket since we saw him last, so he pulls me out of hiding to help him out with this really huge mission that is vital to S.H.I.E.L.D. As you can see [showing off his new Deathlok gear], I got a lot of upgrades while I've been gone. My costume is very different. There are things that are still the same. The character has been evolving since we've seen him last. This is, like, Deathlok 2.0.

When we last saw him, he was someone searching for what's next. Has he found his purpose at this point?

When I'm playing him now, I like to think Mike is now owning Deathlok. Before, I think he was really reluctant. Even back when I was playing the character, honestly, I didn't know how to move, or act. I felt that was really Mike, with this body that got forced on him -- like, with this artificial leg that we jokingly say cost $10 million, or the rockets on his arm -- he didn't know how to incorporate that into his life, or his movement. 

Mike and Skye have had a relationship that stems way back to the very first episode --

Yeah, me and Chloe [Bennet] always say we started this whole thing. We shot our scene where she sees me jump out of the building together. I was the first shot of the pilot! 

Mike got his powers forced on him, whereas Skye got hers unknowingly. If and when the two meet, how does their dynamic work?

That's one of those things I can't answer! But I will say, yes, our powers are significantly different. For Mike, he's a regular guy who has to deal with the responsibility of having this much power is a little different than what she is going to go through.

Of the new upgrades, does that mean Deathlok will have new abilities?

I have so many cool abilities! I have three USB ports, a Firewire connection, you can get wi-fi off of me, this thing on my arm makes cappuccinos, and I have all of these cool little powers here and there. [Laughs]

Let's see -- I do have some new powers, though I think you'll see them unfold over time. I mean, at the core he still is who he is. He has a bunch of mechanical parts that do a bunch of interesting things. This armpiece shoots rockets, and he's still super-strong from the Centipede that he got in the first episode. Even in the comics, I feel like he's a character with a thousand powers that constantly unfold. It's a character with a lot of possibilities. And again, even with reading the comic, I feel like I can't put a finger on all of his powers and the things that come over time.

Do you have a favorite ability?

You know, I love stomping someone with my mechanical leg like I did in the last episode of the first season! There is just something about doing that that I really like. I love being able to jump really far, too. We did that a bunch of times in the pilot and subsequent episodes, but there is just so much about being able to be him that I really enjoy. 

Did you know you were getting a new costume when you came back? What was your reaction to it?

Man, it was like the first time: I was in fittings for the first costume even before I knew I was even going to be Deathlok. They keep me in the dark as much as you guys. But, I saw a drawing of it and I really liked it. I mean, it really came out perfect. Just looking at the back [he shows off the back of his costume], I think that's so cool, for some reason. I love all the little pieces that fit together nicely. It really puts me in the body of the character. Also, there are like a thousand people futzing with me all day long, making sure my lights are on, my gloves are on, and my makeup is right.

When did you find out you were going to be returning in such a major way?

I think I found out a few weeks before returning to work. I had been kind of tipped off that I'd probably be returning, so I had to keep that a secret for a while, too. I was really excited to come back. But every time I do come back, I feel like I'm playing a completely different character because there is so much that goes on off-camera. Like I said before, Mike Petersen is owning his role as Deathlok, and that's a whole different performance. 

What is the relationship like with Coulson at this point?

Fans will find out that Coulson and Mike have actually been secretly working together since we last saw Mike. I always think about this character's humanity, so I feel like Coulson is someone that Mike doesn't want to disappoint and someone that he really looks up to. I also feel from the very beginning he's been looking for redemption and seeing Coulson as a key to that. Coulson can help him be the hero he's always wanted to be for his child, and even that theme, I think, is playable if you're a superhero or a character in a drama -- like, just trying to be that person for your child. That's the only thing I think about with this character: him as a father, with a son. There are a lot of levels to that, you know? 

Can you tell us a bit about what you're shooting today?

Let's just say, There's a huge mission involved that will decide the fate of S.H.I.E.L.D., and I am helping solidify that. 

After the episode you're shooting, are you riding off into the sunset or staying around for a bit?

I think this is an ongoing storyline for what you're about to see. I can't really speak to the future of it, because I literally find out just a few weeks before things happen.

Will we get you interacting with a bit more of the team while you're back? You had a bit of back-and-forth with each member before, but will we see more?

I know that as it was left in Season One, there was a lot of unfinished business with the other team members. I think you'll get to see that played out a bit.

Will we get a sense of if he's had any interaction with his son? Or if he'll see his son this season?

I think we'll get into that. [Laughs] You know, as it was left, I felt like Mike really couldn't face his son until he became a hero.

Do you think we'll ever get to see him get to that point?

Dude. Dude. I think about that all the time. Seriously. It's so funny, because that's what makes him such an interesting character to me. Even if he saved the entire world, I don't know as if even then he could face his son. I think something really big would need to happen for him to get over everything he feels guilty about. I mean, Mike suffers from an immense sense of guilt. Even when I came back the first time, I felt like Mike shouldn't have felt as guilty because it was the Centipede making him crazy, but he takes so much personal responsibility from his sins that it would take a lot for him to feel better about himself. 

From an emotional and psychological standpoint, how much of Deathlok is Mike, and how much of him is pure machine? 

God, you guys are asking the questions I ask myself that I keep dancing around trying to figure out. I think when I said in one of the episodes that "Mike Petersen is dead," I thought the only way that line could have meaning if it were not true. I always think of Mike Petersen being at the core of this character, and whatever happens as a result of that, is all Mike Petersen. I think he's 100% there. 

Can you talk about how you're able to both balance your busy schedule, and keep it open for opportunities to return to "Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.?"

Dude, my schedule has been an absolute miracle. Every time I'm needed somewhere, I'm somehow magically available. I was shooting a show in Toronto, one in Vancouver and some guest appearances here and there, and for some reason I was always able to work them out. Then, miraculously, there was a hole in my schedule for me to get in and get out of "Grey's Anatomy." Usually, the opposite happens where I get two jobs at once, but I've been in the zone recently, where I'm able to do everything and that excites me. I'm super-happy about that. 

We've seen you go through some pretty drastic changes -- will we see even more? Maybe inch closer to the look in the comics?

You know, it's such a work in progress and I can see a scenario where that happens. I was really excited in one episode where Mike was under an x-ray and we got to see that underneath it all he does look a bit like the comic character. We'll see it's constantly evolving, as you can already see.

"Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." airs 9 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC.

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