When J. August Richards appeared in the pilot of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as Mike Peterson, a single dad harboring some pretty awesome powers, viewers hoped that his presence would translate to a lasting spot on the show’s guest star roster. And Richards himself hoped for the same.
“I didn’t even know if I was gonna come back at all,” the actor admits with a laugh. “Everything is top secret, as you know. I feel like sometimes I find things out at the same time the audience does. But I like it that way, because it forces me to be more honest.”
While we haven’t seen much of Mike lately, that will change during tonight’s episode. In “Nothing Personal,” Peterson — otherwise known as Deathlok — returns to set the stage for the end of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s first season. EW spoke with Richards to find out what we can expect — and what sets this version of Deathlok apart.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m really excited to see more of your character. I know Marvel can be a little tight lipped when it comes to these things, but can you preview what Deathlok’s role will be like in these final few episodes?
J. AUGUST RICHARDS: As we’ve learned, Deathlok is being controlled by Garrett, who was revealed to be The Clairvoyant. And at this stage, when you see the next episode, I feel like Mike is still kind of in a resigned position to his fate. But the beauty of playing that character…even when we first met him, his back was against the wall. He was in a bad situation, but there’s always this piece of him that believes he can be a hero. So that conflict will continue to get played out before the end of the season.
Executive producer Jeff Bell mentioned that there’s kind of a nice assortment of villains right now — Deathlok, Garrett, Quinn. How does Deathlok fit in? Because unlike the rest of the group, he doesn’t really want to be evil.
To steal a term from one of my Twitter followers, Deathlok is the “anti-villain.” He’s on the side of the bad guys, but he obviously doesn’t want to be there. And he’s forced to do all these heinous things, but that’s not who he is, and that’s a part of the tragedy of the character. So, yes — while he’s working for Hydra, obviously he doesn’t want to be. It’s a tight position to be in.
In this particular episode, it’s been hinted that he plays a major role in what Skye and Ward go through. Is there anything you can tease about that?
Well, you know…I have to do whatever Garrett tells me to do, or he’s gonna kill my son and kill me. So whatever Garrett tells me to do is exactly what I do, and that’s what it is. [Laughs]
On that note, do you think Deathlok is ever going to see his son again?
You know, for Mike, that is what he wants more than anything. And as the actor playing him, I hope that happens.
It’s certainly safe to say that’s the motivating factor in everything he does, good or bad.
It really is. Do you notice that for everything he says he’s wanted over the season, the exact opposite always happens? So this is like the worst nightmare for this character, and reuniting with his son would be the ultimate goal for him.
Deathlok is a pretty significant Marvel villain. How much did you know about the character before getting your hands dirty?
Not much. I’d seen the character before, because I was an avid comic book collector as a child. And then when I found out that Mike Peterson was being turned into Deathlok, I decided to go straight to my childhood comic book collection and start there. I thought there would be something really awesome about that — like, I’m playing a part that I have information on that I’ve collected since I was a kid. So I went right to the Guide to the Marvel Universe, which has every Marvel character from A-Z, and fortunately I had every issue. I found Deathlok, read about him there. Then Marvel was kind enough to provide me with access to some of the old comics, and I started to read those. And then at a certain point, I just stopped. Because I realized I just have to be true to the character that we’re creating. There have been a few incarnations of Deathlok over the years, and I recognized ours was going to be ours. And I had to be fateful and loyal to what we set up and what we were creating. At a certain point, I put the comic books down and just came at it like Mike Peterson’s Deathlok. But I wanted to know as much about the history of the character and the themes that run through each Deathlok before I played it.
As you said, there have been so many incarnations of the character. Did you have any input into this version?
I’ve totally relinquished control, because so much of this experience and this show is [that] the master plan has been set into motion, and there’s so much we as actors don’t know. I’ve completely given myself over to the process. And it’s worked for me, because not knowing what’s coming has made me more in the moment with my character in terms of believing this is all there is for him. During the first episode, I was okay with, “if this is the only episode I do, that’s fine, because it was so satisfying.” So I don’t really give my opinion because I trust the people who I work for.
I love that Deathlok is seen as a bad guy, but as we discussed earlier, he’s really the furthest thing from it. What’s been the best part of playing a character like that?
There are so many things. One is that every episode I do, I feel like I’m playing a brand new character, because there’s so much that occurred. Number two, I got to ride on top of a car while it’s speeding down the street. For some reason, that’s always been something I really wanted to do and I got to do it. [Laughs] The stunts are so much fun, they really satisfy my inner child. And what satisfies me as an adult is that I’m playing a character that is so complex. Here I am on a show about people with powers, and superheroes, and I get to be a character that is really emotionally demanding. And that’s really any actor’s dream, just the circumstances and the stakes of who this person is.
“Nothing Personal” airs tonight at 8pm ET on ABC.