At the time J. August Richards covertly lensed his guest-starring role in the Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot, he had no idea that more than a year later Mike Peterson would not only still be around, but also assumed the alter ego of cyborg assassin Deathlok.
“I was told that I would start on Monday, and finish three Mondays after that. That was all,” the actor tells TVLine with a laugh. “We had the script for the pilot, and that’s all that I thought the character was and would be.
Richards recalls the pilot shoot as being “a really special experience,” and not only because it reunited him with Angel creator-turned-S.H.I.E.L.D. EP Joss Whedon. “It was kind of the first time as an actor that I said to myself, ‘I’m not really thinking about me so much; I’m thinking about the people who are going to watch this show and might feel like their back is against the wall as well,'” he shares. And to this day, “I hope that I can somehow give those people just a spark of hope in the same way that Mike has not given up on himself.”
Not that anyone could fault onetime factory worker Mike Peterson for waving the white flag and allowing himself to be fully absorbed by his deadly Deathlok persona. Ever since resurfacing in Episode 10, and as a S.H.I.E.L.D. asset no less, the Project Centipede experiment has lost more and more of his identity, as a human and as a father, especially after being outfitted with a bionic leg and eye by The Clairvoyant.
Reflecting on his post-pilot arc, Richards says, “I didn’t expect it at all. I mean, I’ve never played a character with such an epic journey before. Someone put together for me online a snapshot from each episode that I’ve done, and the journey that this character has taken is just beautiful to see in pictures. It’s been pretty great.”
With an eye (heh) on this Tuesday’s episode (ABC, 8/7c) — which also marks the return of Cobie Smulders as ex-agent Maria Hill — Richards previews, “When we last saw Mike, he was in deep conflict trying to convince himself that he is this Deathlok person and there is no more Mike Peterson left. And in this episode, he’s more resigned to that fate. Mike will never lose complete hope, but this is kind of the fullest Deathlok that we’ve seen up until this point.”
That his portrayer still refers to the character as “Mike” is a bit charming, yet also telling. Does he believe there’s still a small shred of that mild-mannered dad residing beneath all the scar tissue and tech? “I think there’s a lot more than a shred,” Richards counters. “In my last episode, my one line was, ‘Mike Peterson is dead.’ And at the risk of sounding pretentious, Meryl Streep once said on Inside the Actors Studio, ‘Always examine the opposite of what your character is saying,’ so I really thought about that. I was like, ‘Mike Peterson is so alive.'”
What will it take, then, to ever salvage the man within the murderous machine and free him from Hydra’s hold? “One thing, and one thing only: They have to stop him from being controlled by Bill Paxton’s character,” Richards answers. “The only reason I’m doing the things I do is because Garrett is threatening to kill my son, and me too.”
Though Richards returns to the storyline this week, it did not go unnoticed that he was MIA from the April 22 episode which guest-starred Amy Acker, who on Angel played Fred Burkle to his Charles Gunn. Richards, like Whedonverse fans, regrets that they didn’t work together on S.H.I.E.L.D., though he holds out hope that, with Audrey still alive, the window remains open for an eventual reunion. “We’ve come a long way from Angel — now she’s doing great things, and I’m doing this show that I love,” he notes. “It would be really great for me as a person to get to act with her again.”
But short of Acker resurfacing as Coulson’s ex, might any other Angel alum fill the Whedonverse reunion bill? “I’d have to go with my boy, Alexis Denisof (aka Wesley),” Richards effuses. “I worked with him for so long that I’ve stolen so many things from his as an actor. So, I would definitely say him.”