Interview: J. August Richards Talks AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. and Becoming Deathlok
By Amy Ratcliffe on April 4, 2014
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been keeping viewers on their toes. The most recent episode, “End of the Beginning,” introduced a harsh betrayal and turned the government organization on its head. We no longer know who we can trust. Amidst that reveal, we also saw the full-on Deathlok look for the man who used to be Mike Peterson. J. August Richards’ character initially appeared in the pilot episode as a a superhuman created by Project Centipede. Like all heroes, he wanted to use his powers for good.
But when is it ever that easy? Peterson got pulled in multiple directions. First, he was recruited into S.H.I.E.L.D., but now? He’s getting orders from the Clairvoyant, and he has was turned into a cyborg. Talk about a rough day at the office.
We spoke with J. August Richards about joining the series, transforming into Deathlok, his favorite Marvel movie, and more.
NERDIST: Tell me how you got involved with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
J. AUGUST RICHARDS: I got a call from my manager around 11 am one day, and she said, “I know that you don’t usually do this, but you have a same day appointment and they would love to see you for a TV show at 3.” I don’t like to go in for auditions on the same day because I really want to have the lines down. But, when she told me what it was for I decided I had to step out of my comfort zone. And actually, at the beginning of that year my New Year’s resolution was to throw my playbook out the window and try new things. As my followers on Twitter know, my motto is, “Do epic shit.”
I showed up, and I just kind of fearlessly threw myself into it and that is one of the scariest things for me. And the key was they were only giving you the material when you showed up. So, that only gave you about 30 minutes to look at it. I read the material, and there was one line in the audition scene that really spoke to me that I really felt like I understood. It’s when the character says. “I could, you know? Be a hero.”
And in the context of the story, his back is against the wall. It looks like he’s about to die, it looks like he’s about to lose it all, and I just really understood that line. It moved me so much that it eliminated all the fear, and I knew who this person was and it really didn’t matter whether I knew the lines or not. I knew the emotional place that the character was coming from so there was no fear involved, and it felt so easy.
So, that’s how I got involved. I auditioned like everybody else. Some people think that because I worked with Joss before that he just handed me the role, and that’s not true. I had to audition, and they saw something in my performance that they liked.
N: Mike Peterson’s come a long way since the pilot; he’s been through some serious crap. And now, he’s transformed into Deathlok. When did find out you’d get to come back to the series and be a superhero?
JAR: After I did the first episode I kind of just made up in my mind that it was going to be the only episode that I did, and I was content with that because it was such a beautiful, wonderful experience. Working with Joss [Whedon] as a director is so easy – meaning it’s just like when we used to do these Shakespeare readings at his house on the weekends when we were doing Angel. We got the parts right there on the spot, everyone was cold reading, and it was fun. It was easy, everyone just hanging out reading Shakespeare, and when you work with him it feels like that. It feels like the most awesome community theater ever. It was so much fun.
So I’d decided, “Hey, that’s all that it was going to be.” Then they went into production, and I got a call a couple of months later that I’d be coming back for an episode or two . And I did those episodes still not knowing what was happening. Then I got a call to go to a costume fitting in some very remote location in Los Angeles. I showed up there, and everyone’s being extremely cagey and they’re taking measurements of my body that I’ve never had measurements taken from before. I’m thinking to myself, “What is going on?”
As I was driving away from the fitting I got a call from Maurissa Tancharoen, the executive producer, and she said, “Listen, I’m sure you’re wondering what’s going on, but we’re turning you into Deathlok.” And I had to pull the car over and just kind of sit stunned that my childhood dream of playing a superhero was now coming true. It was a really big moment for me so, I kind of geeked out big time.
N: Your younger self would probably be flipping out if he knew what you were doing now.
JAR: Oh, wouldn’t he? Seriously. Because I was that kid who tied the towel around his back and flew all around the house. It’s a miracle I didn’t try to jump off anything because I really did believe I could fly.
N: I know you collected comic books as a kid. Did you know much about Deathlok previous to your role, or did you research the character?
JAR: I wasn’t immediately familiar with the character, but when I found out I was going to be playing him, I was going home for Christmas and my sister has been very kind to hold my comic books for me. So I collected them all, and I sent them UPS to my house here in L.A. and I started doing my research right there in my childhood comic book collection. I found Deathlok, and I read up on him. The issues that I didn’t have, Marvel provided to me. And you know the character that we’re doing is the not the exact same as any of the three Deathloks in the comic books, but it was helpful to understand thematically what the character was about. And for me, the character is really about internal conflict. Like the most extreme internal conflict a person can have. And that’s what I tried to apply to the character when I play him on television.
N: Underneath that conflict and behind the transformation, there was a man. Do you think the man that was once Mike Peterson is still there or is he lost forever?
JAR: What’s awesome is in the last episode, “End of the Beginning,” I had one line in the whole episode and the line was, “Mike Peterson is dead.” It’s really brilliant writing when one line can tell you everything you need to know about your character, and what that said to me was this person is wrestling with who he has to become. And once I realized that Mike Peterson is trying desperately to convince himself that he is Deathlok and that the person who he was is gone, I completely understood the character. So, when I had to say that one line – Mike Peterson couldn’t be more alive in that line, and that’s what I wanted to capture. He is so alive even with the computer leg, with the metal under his skin, with the robotic arm, with the burns – Mike Peterson is one hundred percent there to me. And that’s the tragedy of him.
N: Speaking off all Deathlok’s cyber modifications, is this the most amount of make-up you’ve had to have applied for a role?
JAR: The most ever. I have to show up three hours before rehearsals, so sometimes I wake up at four in the morning to get to work and to get the makeup on. It takes about 15 minutes to put the costume on and then it takes another 30 minutes to take the makeup off.
N: That’s quite a commitment. Does getting into Deathlok’s costume help you better portray the character?
JAR: It really does because it’s very cumbersome. There are a lot of pieces to it, and there are a lot of people controlling me throughout the day. It perfectly mirrors the predicament that Mike Peterson is in. When I’m at work, I feel like my body and my space are not my own because so many people are directing me all day long. I just kind of use it because he [Mike] is trapped and I feel a little trapped too, but it’s perfect.
N: Though you’ve had some pretty intense roles, playing Mike/Deathlok probably lets you go to new places. What have been some of the biggest challenge in portraying Mike and becoming Deathlok?
JAR: The biggest challenge was figuring out how to play someone whose actions are not their own. Not only are the actions not my own, they are things that I am diametrically opposed to. It was very tricky for me to figure out how to do all of these very extreme things that I have to do knowing that I don’t really want to be doing them. And I wrestled with figuring out how I can shoot these rockets and jump from these places and do all of these things and still communicate that these are not the choices that my character would be making if he had a choice.
That was a real breakthrough for me as an actor because I realized I just had to do them, be very simple and very plain about it and trust that the audience was following my journey. It was a real exercise in trust. Trust in myself, trust of the audience that what really needed to be communicated was being communicated. And I think it’s working.
It’s funny, I know how close I am to this character because when people refer to my character as a villain it really pains me. Mike only wants to be a hero. He wants to be a hero to his son, he wants to be someone who his boy can look up to, and if Mike heard someone call him a villain, it would crush him. And it crushes me, too.
N: This isn’t your first time appearing in a genre television show. Obviously, there was Angel. What appeals to you about working in this genre?
JAR: As an actor, I just really love working in this genre. For me, it really calls upon all the skills I learned in theater school about how to really give yourself to circumstances that are not your own and that are extremely elevated and extremely far out there. I feel like it calls on your chops as an actor. I try to find roles that are offbeat and the very first appearance of Deathlok on the cover of the comic book it says, “the steel smashing origin of the world’s most offbeat superhero.”
For me, this role is like a piece of delicious cake that I get to savor. I’m so happy to be doing this role and so excited about the show.
N: What are some of your favorite films in the Marvel universe?
JAR: Definitely The Avengers. I thought that Joss knocked it out of the park in terms of translating the feel of a comic book to the screen. That is the best example that I’ve ever seen. I just love the movie so much. I thought it was brilliant. Before that it was Iron Man [the first one] though; Robert Downey, Jr. nailed it.
N: If Deathlok could have a drink with anyone in the Marvel universe, who would it be?
JAR: That is a great question. Maybe… the Winter Soldier. I understand he has some cyborg parts as well, so I would have a drink with the Winter Soldier and talk about remedies for curing the itch that comes between your skin and the metal parts.
You can watch J. August Richards in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Tuesday nights at 8/7c on ABC.