J. August Richards Talks Returning to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Marvel Universe and Comedy

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One of the most surprising highlight of this season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been the return of their very first super-powered character, Mike Peterson, AKA Deathlok. Played by the incredibly talented J. August Richards, Peterson’s tragic path has rallied fans around the cybernetically-enhanced estranged father. Now back with the good guys, the embittered cyber-soldier has returned to Director Coulson’s side in his war against Hydra, providing muscle, firepower and—dare we say—comic relief? Paste spoke with Richards about Deathlock’s past, present and future place in the Marvel Universe.

Paste Magazine: Mike Peterson has been a presence on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. since the very first episode.
Richards: Day one, shot one.

Paste: You’ve been away and back and away again, but it’s amazing how you’re probably one of the most popular characters that the show has ever had.
Richards: Thank you.

Paste: Why do you think that people really gravitate to Mike, and love seeing him come back?
Richards: Because his son is so cute! No, I’m just kidding. I think that the pilot just did a wonderful job of setting up the character. I think it’s really nothing more than that. The circumstances were circumstances that a lot of people could relate to, which was ironic because they were circumstances that I had been relating to before that. I knew that the performance would be special in some ways because it was the first time that I’ve ever done a project where my intention was not about me or my career.

Every job before this one, I thought “I really hope this takes my career to the next level, or that great things happen for me personally.” But this was the very first time that I felt like, “Okay, it’s really cool that I got this part, but I really hope that through this role I can speak to somebody who feels hopeless and give them a little bit of hope.” That was my intention in playing the part. Maybe that translated a little bit, too.

Paste: Since your character’s return it’s been revealed that, not only were you working with Director Coulson at that point, but that you had secretly been working behind the scenes with him for a while. But it seems like there’s a missing story there. Since the end of Season One, where do you think that Mike Peterson has been, and what has he been doing?
Richards: I am a very old-school actor, so I have a story for myself of everything that happened in between that time. Obviously not a minute-to-minute breakdown, but sort of bigger moments and the bigger arcs. I just think about the moment that I created in that space where Mike was standing on a rooftop and he was going to jump, because he felt like he could never face his son again. He felt tremendously guilty about all of the things that he’d done to his family and to himself and the things that he allowed to happen, and the things that he had to do. He was going to kill himself.

Then he decided in that moment something else: “You know what, I can live. The way that I can… The thing that gives me the hope to live is that maybe one day my son will find out that I did something heroic, and he could be proud of me again. I can never face him again, but maybe one day he’ll hear about something that I did, and he will be able to love me again.” That’s the thought that allows this character to exist.

Paste: That’s awesome.
Richards: And honestly, there were storylines in the comic book that I used as filler for that space I described. Even though it’s a different character, and a different name and a different person, I still used a lot of things that I read to fill in that space for myself.

Paste: Right, you pick and choose what works. Now, as dramatic as the backstory is for your character, your recent run hasn’t played into it that much. Instead, we’ve gotten to see a different side of Mike Peterson as he is today.
Richards: Right, because it’s never referenced. You’re right.

Paste: There’s been a lot of action. There have been a lot of oddball pair-ups between Deathlok and other members of Coulson’s team. You’ve been able to show a more comedic side of yourself. Has it been fun to tap into that aspect of the character?
Richards: I hope that that showed through, because I really wanted to work on that. I wanted that to be prevalent because, yes, the circumstances are so dark. They’re so, so, so dark. I feel like there’s a certain mold that my character can’t break out of because of what has physically happened to him. But I tried so hard to inject some humor and some lightness into certain moments. I want to be able to, as I’ve said before, kind of approach it as a comedy role.

So, yes, it was a lot of fun. As you saw, I opened my mouth for a few times here and there, but it’s always something that is a comment on the circumstances. It seemed to play well, because I got a lot of tweets quoting lines that I thought were kind of funny, so I think other people found it funny too.

Paste: Definitely. Looking back on your entire history on the show, it seems like every time you come back, you get to showcase a different side of your character. You just become more and more well-rounded.
Richards: It’s so true. I think about this quote. When I was very young, I read that Jack Nicholson said, “Acting is the only career where you never have a resume.” I think what he meant by that was every time you show up, you start all over again. That’s exactly how playing this character has felt.

Paste: As far as your character’s relationship with Phil Coulson, we know there’s a lot of loyalty there. He sacrificed a lot for you, as we saw going back to Season One. Do you think Mike Peterson is siding with Coulson at this point because he agrees with the values that he’s fighting for, or is it more of a blind loyalty that motivates him?
Richards: I would say it’s a blind loyalty. That’s the way I think about it when I’m playing it. He feels blindly loyal to Coulson because Coulson is someone that has never betrayed Mike’s trust. Coulson always speaks of Mike with such respect and speaks to Mike with such respect. So the loyalty is, in my opinion, very blind. It was like he owed Coulson something, and he’s not going to rest until he’s repaid him that debt.

Paste: For the majority of the last two seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the focus has largely been on man-made superpowers such as yours, but the introduction of the “Inhumans” has certainly changed that. Last week, we saw a turning point between you and Lincoln, where your your typically-unstoppable character met your match from a force that not everyone even really understands, only for the both of you to find yourselves in the same boat in this most recent episode. Did you feel like that was a big moment for the show?
Richards: I did. I really, really did, mostly because that moment was one that I recall being very excited about as a kid when I would read a comic book, where two characters that I really loved, meeting, fighting, or teaming up. Lincoln and Deathlok being in that together—I was really excited about it.

Paste: It seems pretty clear that these discoveries are leading to a growing debate, both on S.H.I.E.L.D. and in the Marvel films, about whether “gifted” people should be controlled or imprisoned. Back at the end of Season One, Mike Peterson elected to walk away from SHIELD and forge his own path. Does he still believe in supporting that freedom?
Richards: Good question. I don’t even think my character has formulated an opinion, because he has so much on his plate. He just has so much to prove to himself, to his son, to Coulson, to SHIELD, and to the whole world, quite frankly. I think my character is looking for redemption so much that he doesn’t really take a stance on the other issues that plague the universe.

Paste: I know people would love to see Mike Peterson on this show more in the future. At the same time, I know that you have such a love for the whole Marvel Universe, so I want to know, if Deathlok could appear in one Marvel movie or series beyond S.H.I.E.L.D. what would your top choice be?
Richards: I love being freelance because each show and each movie is its own world. I love trying to fit into that. I feel that this character is a Swiss Army knife. He’s got so many opportunities, and those opportunities could be exploited in a myriad of places. I would love to be a wandering superhero that pops into various worlds and has to be interpreted into that world.

Paste: You really do have that built-in freedom because Deathlok shows up and disappears, so he could conceivably pop up anywhere. But it would be a very different situation to see you show up in “Daredevil” than, say, in a “Thor” film.
Richards: Yes, because the world of “Daredevil” is so specific and so awesome. I just started the show this weekend. I love the tone of the series, so it would be awesome to try to figure out how this character fits into that one. I think there is a through-line in the movies and all of the TV shows where there’s a similarity, so it wouldn’t be that difficult. Don’t get me wrong—I would love to land somewhere, too, but being freelance is pretty awesome as well.

I also have to say that I love the fans because they are so wonderful about letting the powers-that-be know that they want to see the character. I love them for that.

Paste: Before you entered the Marvel Universe, you had a career, a history and a fan base. How has your life changed over the past two years, now that you’ve been embraced by this new generation of fans who love you from your work in this very specific world?
Richards: I think because we’ve been together so long that there’s a bond there. I’m lucky to be able to play such great characters in the same genre because it does create a bond. I’ve been meeting fans since I did Angel. I’m meeting the same people now, ten, fifteen years later.

I think we have a bond. I think I have a bond in that world of science-fiction genre fans. The most touching thing that happens to me these days professionally is when I am at a Comic-Con and a family comes to the table, and the parents say, “We know you from Angel, but the kids know you from S.H.I.E.L.D..” That makes me so happy, because longevity in this business is very hard to come by.