J. August Richards Breathes Life Into Deathlok

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

J. August Richards can cross one more item off his bucketlist now thanks to “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

The actor first appeared as Mike Peterson in the series’ pilot, but Richards, who always wanted to be a super hero, will get to see his wish come true as his character fully transforms into Deathlok in tonight’s all-new episode of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” at 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC.

Ahead of Richards’ debut as Deathlok, we had the chance to speak with him about how everything came together, the very strange costume fitting that tipped him off, and much more.

So sit back, give your robotic leg a rest, and read on to see what Richards has in store for Deathlok’s live action premiere.

Marvel.com: First off, congrats on being the guy that gets to bring Deathlok to life for the very first time.

J. August Richards: Thanks so much. I think if you would have asked me when I was a kid, I would have definitely said I want to be a super hero when I grow up, so this is big.

Marvel.com: I know the producers are very tight-lipped even with their own cast on what’s coming up, so when did you first find out that you were going to become Deathlok eventually?

J. August Richards: Here’s how I found out: I was told I had a costume fitting, and it was not in the usual place where we get fit. It was really far outside of L.A. So I drove all the way over there, and the people who were measuring me were extremely nervous and tight-lipped and didn’t want to say anything. I was like, “God, this is so weird.” They were taking the weirdest measurements, things [where] you’re like, “Why are they taking the measurement from my hip to my middle thigh? What is happening?”

I was just so confused and they were being very cagey, they didn’t want to slip up. They were hiding pictures from me and stuff. So I got in my car and I left that fitting and then [“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Executive Producer] Maurissa Tancharoen called me and she said, “Listen, I’m sure you’re wondering what’s going on but I just wanted to let you know we are turning you into Deathlok.” And I pulled my car over, I had a nice little conversation with her, and then I just sat there like, “Oh my god, I’m about to be a super hero! Amazing!” [I] just [sat] on the side of the road really absorbing the moment because it really is, it’s such an overused phrase, but it really is a dream come true.

And then to make matters even better, as you know or maybe you don’t, [in] the [comic] debut of Deathlok it says on the cover, “The Steel-Smashing Origin of the World’s Most Off-Beat Super Hero!” And so it’s not like I’m just playing any super hero, I’m playing the world’s most off-beat super hero, and that is perfect for me because I’m very off-beat as well. [laughs]

Marvel.com: I actually didn’t remember that from that cover but I can picture it.

J. August Richards: Look at ASTONISHING TALES #25, I think it is.

Marvel.com: Yep, that’s it exactly. Obviously you were cast in the pilot some time ago, probably at least a year ago now, so when that happened did you at least have some idea that they’d be bringing you back at some point?

J. August Richards: Well, you know, because it was a pilot, and presumably with a pilot you don’t know if the show is going to be made or not, i didn’t allow myself to dream beyond [that]. I just wanted to come there and give this character my all. I really sort of convinced myself, so that I wouldn’t be disappointed, that it was just a one-time guest star. And in truth, that’s all it was in paper. So my answer is no, I really had no idea if I was going to be coming back or not, and when I finally did, I think at about episode 10, I was really excited to come back. And every episode I do, it’s almost like playing an entirely new character because so much has transpired for Mike every time we see him. It’s like I’m playing a new character almost every episode I do.

Marvel.com: That’s something else I wanted to ask about, as we’ve seen Mike sort of physically transform over the course of the last five, six episodes or so. At the same time, how are those physical transformations and everything that’s happening to him affecting his brain and his psyche?

J. August Richards: That’s such a good question. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what is going on in his mind. The word that I always come back to when playing Mike is shame. There’s so much shame involved in where he is, in this predicament that he’s in, because he wants so badly to be a hero, and a hero takes a lot of forms. Just showing up everyday for your kid is being a hero, providing for your family is being a hero, and he so badly wants to be a hero, [but] he’s fallen into the clutches of the villain. I feel that there’s just this overriding sense of shame and self-hatred in playing the character. It’s kind of a really dark place to be in, and I’ve found that it really comes out in the voice when I’m playing the character. Sometimes I go to do a take and I’m like, “Woah, where is that voice coming from?” But I realized if you were clouded in that level of shame and conflict, your voice might sound like that.

Marvel.com: I had a chance to see the full, final version of this upcoming episode at Paleyfest on Sunday and it turned out great.

J. August Richards: Did it really?

Marvel.com: Awesome. So far it’s my favorite episode of the season.

J. August Richards: Oh, dope!

Marvel.com: It really, really turned out great, and you really get to cut loose in this episode. What’d that feel like at that point to be able to go and do the full super hero thing?

J. August Richards: It was actually kind of difficult because there’s so much of a physicality involved in playing the character that is not mine. It was really hard to figure out, “Well, how would he move?” I spent a lot of time thinking about that but once it clicked, it clicked. Obviously all of these actions that he’s doing are not his own. He doesn’t want to be doing these things, he’s being forced to do these things. I spent a lot of time thinking about how that would come out in the physicality, but at the same time the inner child in me was just screaming for all the stunts that I get to do, all the cool jumps and cool fights, and dude, I’ve got rockets coming out of my arm. How cool is that? [laughs] My inner child is just so alive these days, you have no idea.

Marvel.com: It seems like from what you’re saying earlier, that when Maurissa called and let you know that you were playing Deathlok, you were already familiar already with the character. Was that the case?

J. August Richards: You know, I was vaguely familiar with the character, but the really cool thing–and how often do you get to do this?–[was] I got to research the character in my own comic book collection. How often [does that happen]? You don’t have to go to a library, you go right to your [collection]. Fortunately it was around Christmas time, and I went back home [where] my sister has been holding my comics for me all these years and I reclaimed them from her. I went through my Marvel Universe [Handbook], which I have every edition, I’m proud to say, and found Deathlok right there. I started the research process there, and then I went to Marvel.com and ComiXology and did some research because there are [multiple] Deathloks [in the comics]. So I did research on a lot of Michael Collins, I read a little bit on Luther Manning, [but it was] Michael Collins I found myself the most drawn to. However, at a certain point, I had to realize we were doing our own thing here. My history, Mike Peterson’s history, is the history that I have to stay invested in. But it was really helpful to read about the other Deathloks and the history of the program and the character.

Marvel.com: I can see the similiarity with Michael Collins. Even though Mike Peterson and Michael Collins are two completely different characters, there’s still that element to them of both are placed into Deathlok and forced to do things against their will, or against their own moral code.

J. August Richards: Yeah. For me, the theme of Deathlok is about deep, internal conflict, and that’s what we’re bringing with this [version]. I’m actually working something out in my own mind right now, [and it’s that Deathlok is] about a deep internal conflict that is also mirrored externally. Meaning that you are being controlled by an outside force against your will, and you’re also battling with your own yin and yang, if you will. I guess it’s just about conflict, it’s about moral conflict. I think that that’s the theme [that unites] all the Deathloks.

Marvel.com: That actually answered part of my next question, which is you were talking about the internal conflict, but how do you find ways to externalize that and show outside of your own brain what’s going on in there?

J. August Richards: Such a great question, because honestly, that is the biggest lesson that I take away as an actor from playing this character. Everything I’ve ever learned about acting, and I went to theater school, was about playing what the character wants and throwing yourself fully into going after what the character wants. But because I’m playing a character who is doing things against his will, I didn’t quite know where to put my mental focus as an actor. And then, after a lot of back and forth, I realized that I just have to do these actions and not have a lot of gusto behind them. I just have to be very simple and do what I’m asked and nothing more. That was very liberating for me because I’m a person who puts a lot of energy and thought into the things that my character has to do, but this was just about execution and following orders without an opinion. It was actually really enlightening. This character is very enlightening for me as an actor about sort of, less is more.

Marvel.com: What’s it like then for Mike to come into contact with characters like Skye, with whom he’d previously developed relationships?

J. August Richards: It’s a great question because Skye is like his first friend from this whole world, and he comes into contact with Skye a whole lot as Deathlok. And again, the word that comes up is shame because she knows him for who he is, Mike Peterson. And from the moment that I put on the Deathlok costume, I believe that Mike is trying to convince himself internally that he is Deathlok to sort of disassociate himself from the awful things that he has to do that Mike Peterson could never do. So in some ways, he’s trying to forget that he’s Mike Peterson, but Skye is the constant reminder that he is this decent person.

Marvel.com: I’m curious, how is it putting on the costume itself? Is it encumbering at all or is it very easy to work in?

J. August Richards: The costume is everything for me. I really love the costume and it helps me so much. It’s so complicated and involved that it’s almost like having a mechanical leg or artificial part, because it’s not a comfortable jeans and t-shirt. It really makes me feel like I’m in something else so it’s very, very helpful. There are so many parts to it and there are so many buttons. The lights are dimmable and I have so many people futzing with me all day long that it’s very helpful because I feel like my body is not my own, the same way that Mike Peterson does. People are always coming up to me, touching me and adjusting [my suit]. And it’s the same way, it’s almost like J. is not there. It’s just this costume, this entity that is not me. You know, it takes four departments to put that character together. Props, costumes, make-up, and visual effects. I just feel like I belong to everyone.

Marvel.com: How long does that take to get into your full Deathok look?

J. August Richards: Two hours for make-up and to get in it, and thirty minutes to get out at the end of the day. Then getting dressed used to take about twenty minutes, now we’ve gotten it down to about five minutes. Then between every take there’s always adjustments being made, I’m either being seen by make-up or wardrobe or visual effects or props to turn on and off parts of the costume. It’s a very involved process, but I feel like I’m the perfect person for it because it doesn’t phase me at all. I know a lot of actors who would go crazy in my circumstances but it doesn’t even phase me slightly, I don’t even think about it, the length of time, especially in the make-up chair. But it doesn’t hurt that I have great company. There are four make-up artists there that are lovely and delightful people and I enjoy spending two hours with them so it’s not a hassle.

Watch all-new episodes of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC!